Alex Blair is the press officer for Oxfam America’s Extractive Industries team.
Activists from Latin America are calling on host countries to protect the rights of citizens where their companies operate abroad.
Since the 1990s, the region’s natural resources sector has been growing. With that has come an increase in conflict and human rights violations by foreign mining companies.
To address this growing issue, Oxfam America and the Due Process of Law Foundation (DPLF) hosted a Congressional briefing on human rights with representatives of civil society organizations visiting Washington, D.C., who testified at a hearing (see video here) of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). This is the first time the IACHR has addressed home states’ responsibilities for the actions of their mining companies operating in the Americas, according to the DPLF. Until now, DPLF says, these conversations have focused on the responsibilities of host states–the countries where the companies are operating. However, institutions in host states are often unable to protect citizens against mining companies.
“There are no adequate mechanisms in Latin America for citizens to exercise their rights and oppose these industries or protest when their rights are violated,” said Pedro Landa, from the Centro de Promoción y Desarrollo de Honduras. “It’s precisely because of this lack of effective mechanisms for citizens to exercise their rights that we have decided to try to open up some spaces internationally to work at changes… Because our conclusion is that in our own states, it’s not likely that we’re going to find assistance.”
A gap in power
According to the participants, mining companies wield significant power in the countries where they operate, which often have weak institutions already.
“In general, judiciaries in Latin America are very bad… They have a lot of problems,” said Katya Salazar, of the DPLF. “All these obstacles and problems are stronger in these types of cases [involving mining companies]… if you have a claim against a mining company or group in a home country, there is such a difference in powers. Can you imagine an indigenous group submitting a claim against a huge mining company? The company will hire the best law firms in the country, and the community will go ask NGOs… There is a huge gap in power and possibility between the different actors in these kinds of cases.”
This is why civil society organizations have brought their case to the IACHR, where they have had more success.
“In Latin American countries, when we’re not able to get justice for what’s happening we have been able to come to the Inter-American Commission and in many cases we have been able to get justice there,” said Nilton Velazco, from the Pastoral Social de Dignidad Humana in Huancayo, Peru.
Home states responsibilities
The hearing on the impact of mining on human rights focused special attention on the responsibilities of home states. The organizers chose to focus on Canada, because Canadian mining companies account for 60% of mining in Latin America.
“There is a huge gap between what Canada gives its mining companies abroad–support–without anything in exchange. This should be a lesson learned for the U.S.,” Salazar said.
“I think that the political power and control that can be exercised by the U.S. government in terms of supporting or not supporting mining companies in these activities is extremely important,” said Dora Lucy Arias, from the Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo in Colombia.
Oxfam America works with local partners in Latin America to protect their rights in relation to the mining and oil industries. The organization is also calling on companies to respect the rights of communities to their land and resources, and to decide how these are used. This includes supporting local communities engaging with multinational companies, especially those based in the U.S.
“The actions of these companies reflect on the U.S. and Canada as a whole,” said Keith Slack, the Global Program Manager of Oxfam America’s Extractive Industries program. “It’s important for Congress to continue its support for affected communities and human rights activists, and we applaud their work so far–but it must continue as long as activists are in danger, threatened or murdered and companies continue to abuse the system.”
The ability to exist
By holding companies responsible for their actions abroad, home states can help put an end to the human rights abuses in Latin America that are threatening the local people’s livelihood and way of life.
Arias described a request from an elderly indigenous woman in Colombia: “They have been dealing with the impact of mining in that area for 30 years, and what she asked me to transmit to the world is that not everyone wants to just have more and more things in their house… Many people have a different view of what a good life is, and what they would like to be able to do is continue to be able to live their life on their land and continue to produce food.”
“She asked me to talk about the war against the ability of small farmers to exist.”