Against All Odds – the Perils of Fighting for Natural Resource Justice

(A Review of the CIVICUS/PYWP report by Alicia Aleman Arrastio)

According to a recent report by the World Alliance for Citizen Participation (CIVICUS) and the global coalition Publish What You Pay (PWYP), the fight for justice in mining is becoming increasingly perilous as democracy is weakening worldwide. International solidarity is more necessary than ever: we live in a riskier world where authoritarian values are rising. Life itself is being menaced just for expressing a voice of discontent. Sadly, the world of natural resource activism is witnessing a fast deterioration of the most basic pillars of democracy.

Justice in mining: increasingly perilous

The blunt fact is that 185 nature resource activists were killed in 2015, the highest number since 2010, when 88 killings were recorded. About 40% of the victims were indigenous and 42% of them were involved in mining issues, followed by 20% in agribusiness. The countries with the worst records are:  Brazil (22), Philippines (33), Colombia (26), Peru (12), Nicaragua (12), Democratic Republic of Congo (11), Guatemala (10) and Honduras (8).  Most of those killings occurred under severely obscure circumstances and a complete sense of defenseless for the victims. Impunity is rampant, criminal investigation is slow and culprits are rarely apprehended.

Weakening democracy

Democracy is weakening as civic space for voice dwindles. In the last decade, 109 governments have imposed serious limitations on the freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly. Governments are passing legislation that obstructs the registration, funding and activities of civil society organizations and NGOs. It is occurring in places such as Ecuador, India, Azerbaijan, Guinea, Congo, Australia and Canada. Legal amendments are being approved to allow for more authoritarian policing of protest and legitimate activism is being criminalized through the judicial system.

Activists are vilified as anti-development, eco-terrorists or agents of American or any other form of foreign imperialism. They are put under unwarranted surveillance by the security and intelligence forces of the countries. Public opinion is being manipulated to think that those opposing the projects are a minority opposing the greatest good of the nation. However, what lies behind is a more complex story.

Behind the curtains

In spite of the significant technological advances that have occurred in the last 25 years, the world is still hungry for natural resources. Dams, pipelines, plantations, mines and oil drillings are part of the economy and society that unites us all. Behind the curtains of our sophisticated knowledge economy lies a material world of ugly conflicts and asymmetrical relationships of power in muddy political contexts.

On the one side, there are basically two motivations for natural resource activism: i) total opposition to any project that risks altering the livelihoods and ways of life, ii) opposition to the high costs associated with the exploitation, which normally comes with a demand for a fairer deal, good governance and effective public scrutiny. On the other side, the motivations for repression are grounded in the fact that mining and extractive activities in general are lucrative and risky business activities where economic and political interests of the ruling elites mingle. Asymmetries of power reign in the world of mining, and this makes democracy very fragile.

Where to stand?

According to CIVICUS and PWYP, international solidarity will be more necessary than ever to protect the voice and the lives of those who claim for a voice in mining. Civil society needs to develop coping mechanisms of mutual protection as natural resource exploitation intensifies and authoritarian values are on the rise. Governments and corporations should abide by domestic and international legislation, and respect human rights and environmental standards and best practices.

All three need to stand on the side of democracy.

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