Water: The Real Fashion Victim

The fashion industry’s water usage has a significant impact on environmental justice which will be explored in terms of cotton growing and the discharge of water waste from dyeing. Dr Pamela Ravasio (2012), a consultant specialising in sustainable fashion business, noted that of all Earth’s water, 2.5% is freshwater of which only 3% is readily accessible to human which is equivalent to 0.01% of all water on Earth. 22% of this 0.01% is used by industry with the remaining 70% for irrigation and 8% for domestic use (Ravasio, 2012).

A cotton field

Cotton is used to produce 40% of all clothing globally but this natural fibre demands huge quantities of water. The Environmental Justice Foundation (2011) found that it takes over 2000 litres of water to produce just one cotton t-shirt. Cotton growing negatively impacts freshwater ecosystems and biodiversity due to excessive water withdrawal for irrigation, pesticide application and dam construction (Environmental Justice Foundation, 2011). The resulting salinisation, pollution and loss of soil and biodiversity are depleting the livelihoods of those who rely on the rivers.

More land is used in the US, China and India to grow cotton than for food crops and fuel (Ravasio, 2012). In a world of huge food insecurity, are our priorities misplaced? Ultimately, there are alternatives to cotton but no alternatives to food. As the world’s population continues to grow and climatic conditions become more extreme, the ease of accessing water will become more complicated and the fashion industry’s reliance on cotton will be forced to change (Ravasio, 2012).

The case of the Aral Sea serves as a reminder of the damage caused by excessive cotton production. Once a huge lake located in the desert of Central Asia with a drainage basin covering 7 nations, very little of it remains. In 1960, the Aral Sea was the world’s fourth largest inland water body according to area (Micklin, 2007). However, the Soviet Union diverted the Syr Dar-ya and Amu Dar-ya, which flowed in to the Aral Sea, to the desert in order to irrigate cotton fields (Welsh, 2000). The scale of this diversion was tragic:

  • It is just 15% of its former volume and salinity has risen by almost 600% killing all the water’s native fish leaving thousands of fisherman jobless (Micklin, 2000)
  • The exposed former sea bed, an area the size of six million football pitches, is a crusty white layer of salt preventing growth (Environmental Justice Foundation).
  • Before the diversion, there were 70 mammal species and 319 bird species living in the deltas but today only 32 species of the former and 160 of the latter remain (Micklin, 2000)
  • The local population suffer acute health problems due to the inhalation of salt, poorer diets due to the loss of fish and contaminated drinking water (Welsh, 2000)

The video below demonstrates the huge decline of the Aral Sea:

Cotton needs to be treated and dyed, another environmentally harmful stage of the production process. Jane Spencer (2007), highlighted the impact of a booming textile industry on China’s environment. In one case, villagers living nearby the Fuan Textiles Mill in Southern China noticed their river water had turned red. A visit by Government authorities discovered a pipe underneath the factory which was dumping 20 000 tons of contaminated water from dyeing operations into the river every day (Spencer, 2007).

'Made in China' The familiar words found on labels

It is easy to criticise China but we need to recognise the role that multinational companies play in China’s environmental problems through demanding lower priced products, which in turn is fuelled by consumer demand. We need to ask ourselves why prices are so low and go beyond the sweatshop answer. Costs are so low because China dumps its waste water directly into nearby rivers, avoiding the expensive process of treating contaminated water and therefore when you purchase these products you’re not paying for the costs of pollution (Spencer, 2007).

A heavily polluted river in China

The majority of players in the fashion industry don’t respect the rights of citizens to access safe water. In China, 300 million people lack access to clean drinking water due to toxic runoff from the textile industry, which turns rivers into sludge resembling open sewers (Spencer, 2007). The rivers emit pungent stenches and are littered with plastic bags, shoes, electrical wires and carcasses of dead animals (Spencer, 2007). The once clear waters, which villagers fished from and swam in, are a distant memory. It shouldn’t be the case that Chinese residents can tell what colours are in fashion by looking at the rivers.

It is our responsibility to pressurise retailers to re-evaluate their production processes. We need to use our understanding of environmental justice to show others how our consumption is impacting the lives of others somewhere else on Earth. We are guilty of passively buying what is supplied to us with little regard to the wider implications of our consumerism. Retailers and designers dictate fashion but as geographers we need to be more responsible and realise that nothing is more fashionable than being environmentally friendly…


Environmental Justice Foundation. (2011). Water and Cotton. Available: http://www.ejfoundation.org/page334.html. Last accessed 9th March 2012.

Micklin, P. (2007). The Aral Sea Disaster. Earth and Planetary Sciences. 35, 47-72.

Ravasio, P. (2012). Does fashion fuel food shortages?. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/sustainable-business/blog/cotton-farming-fashion-fuel-food-shortages. Last accessed 9th March 2012.

Ravasio, P. (2012). How can we stop water from becoming a fashion victim?. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/sustainable-business/water-scarcity-fashion-industry. Last accessed 9th March 2012.

Spencer, J. (2007). China Pays Steep Price As Textile Exports Boom.Available: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB118580938555882301.html. Last accessed 9th March 2012.

Welsh, P. (2000). The Aral Sea Tragedy. Available: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/678898.stm. Last accessed 9th March 2012.


One: http://calliecollins.blogspot.com/

Two: http://artistsarahshaw.blogspot.com/

Three: http://forums.vr-zone.com/newsroom/201933-news-pollution-turns-china-river-dark-red.html

Four: http://mrahayes.blogspot.com/2011/01/pick-your-cotton-carefully.html


Unknown. (2010). Shrinking of the Aral Sea. Available: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U-1R634vpRQ&feature=related Last accessed 10th March 2012.


Invasion of the Pylons

There are currently around 88,000 electricity pylons in the UK. However, these pylons are about to be joined by thousands more as our current national grid system is updated. As our old power network approaches obsolescence, the proposed spread of pylons across Britain’s iconic rural landscapes has met with much resistance.

Westmill windfarm is situated several miles away from the nearest major towns and villages

So, why are these further intrusions on our crowded landscape necessary? To meet EU Sustainability targets, one quarter of our existing power stations must be closed down and replaced with greener renewable solutions. One of the most favoured yet most contested alternatives is wind energy. Clean, cheap and renewable, wind energy is often heralded as the renewable saviour of time yet it requires a specific set of preconditions which are often disputed. Unlike non-renewable energy sources, wind farms and other environmentally friendly alternatives are located in remote areas to maximise energy efficiency and production. Unfortunately, these remote rural locations are often extremely far away from residential and business districts. An increase in renewable energy plants has therefore amplified the necessity for additional electricity pylons to connect the remote renewable energy supply to demand.

Since the National Grid’s propositions began in 2010, numerous pressure groups from Mid-Wales to Suffolk have begun to campaign against the proposed “invasion” (Heap, 2011) of pylons in their rural communities. Following the innovative new design of Icelandic pylons, the National Grid launched a 2011 national competition to redesign the structures in the hope of making them more palatable to the eye.

Innovative Islandic Pylon Design - a unique feature or a dominating eyesore?

We must consider however if such eye catching structures are the right approach to take? It could be argued that these impressive pieces of engineering are more suited to the National Gallery than rural Suffolk. Many suggest therefore that this proposed structural incursion will not only become a visual eyesore for local residents but also have the potential to disrupt local businesses which rely on the ‘natural’ state of the landscape to attract tourism to the area. On BBC Radio 4’s Costing the Earth, Tom Heap interviewed a local resident who claimed that although National Grid has held two public consultations, the anxieties expressed by local communities are “still largely being ignored” (Heap, 2011). The resistance to pylons has occurred since the birth of the national electricity supply in 1927 whereby a group of local residents from Somerset articulately compared them to “nude giant girls that have no secrets” (CPRW, 2012) in a letter to the Times. Here local residents appear to be experiencing an injustice as their views and opinions are side-lined in favour of meeting EU targets.

Electricity Pylons in the Scottish Highlands to become a much more regular sight

Some may claim however that such opposition and intense feeling of injustice stems from the “not in my back yard” theory whereby if the issue was transferred elsewhere, it would no longer cause a dispute. However, if we analyse this situation through a geographical lens, the scheme becomes much more than a simple disruption of local scenery. As geographers it is imperative to recognise that not only does the intrusion of a pylon disrupt the visual aesthetics of an area, it also has the potential to modify our entire social construction of the rural idyll and rural landscape. British identity is synonymous with the rolling hills, green pastures and quaint open spaces yet the proposed inclusion of huge concrete structures upon this idyllic scenery has the potential to destroy the entire notion of the British rural idyll. From this approach then, we could see the proposed scheme as not only an injustice for local residents but also for British citizens.

This policy has the potential to completely reshape the aesthetics and symbolism of our rural countryside and the face of Britain for generations to come. Heap therefore calls for this scheme to become part of a “national debate”(2011)  which we must, as both geographers and UK citizens, continue to take a vested interest in.

BBC Look East report on Suffolk protests against pylons (begins 2 minutes into clip)


Anon (2011) Mid and west Wales power protesters at Senedd, BBC News, Avaliable: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-13498707 Last Accessed 07/03/2012

Benson, M. (2010), Landscape, imagination and experience: processes of emplacement among the British in rural France. The Sociological Review, 58: 61–77

Bunkse, E. (2007) ‘Feeling is believing, or landscape as a way of being in the world’, Geografiska Annaler, Vol. 89, pp.219-231


Geere, D. (2010) Human pylons carry electricity across Iceland, Avaliable: http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2010-08/16/human-pylons, Last Accessed 07/03/2012

Heep, T. (2011) March of the Pylons, ‘Costing the Earth’, BBC Radio 4, Last Broadcast 20/10/2011

Holland, D. (2012) Stour Valley Underground, Avaliable: http://www.stourvalleyunderground.org.uk/, Last Accessed  07/03/2012

National Grid. (2012) Major Infrastructure Projects, Avaliable: http://www.nationalgrid.com/uk/Electricity/MajorProjects/ Last Accessed 07/03/2012

Wylie, J. (2005) A Single Day’s Walking: Narrating itself and lanscape on the Southwest Coast Path, Transactions of the Instititue British Geographers, 30 (2), pp.234-247

Photograph Sources:

  1.  Anon. (2012) Wind Farm, Suffolk. Avaliabe:http://www.windjobsuk.com/wind-farm-jobs.cms.asp Last Accessed: 07/03/2012
  2. Anon (2012) Iclandic Wind Farms, Avaliabel: http://www.crikey.com.au/2010/09/29/when-pressed-abbott-discovers-he-has-a-pair/ Last Accessed: 07/03/2012
  3. Anon (2012) Wind Farms Scottish Highlands, Avaliable: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/jan/31/burying-electric-pylons-cheaper-government Last Accessed 07/03/2012

Judicial Systems and Environmental Justice

You might be on one side of the world, but what you do is affecting somebody else in another continent very far away. But you would rather protect your profits than nature. There might be, there will be, millions of people who are affected, and may even die because of those actions. Is this not genocide?”

– Pablo Solon, Bolivia’s UN Ambassador, 2010

The location of the Andes Mountain range and Mount Illimani

The snow capped mountains of the Andes are vital to the livelihoods of many communities. However, due to rising temperatures, the snow is retreating and locals are struggling to cope without the water supply. It is important to be aware of the situation in the Andes but it is even more important to recognise what actions can be taken.

Andres Schipani writing for the BBC noted the profound sense of anxiety amongst locals in the small village of Khapi, situated below Mount Illimani in Bolivia. In recent years, half of the community has left due to the severe lack of water which keeps their animals alive and crops flourishing (Schipani, 2010). Over the past 10 years, changing weather patterns have made the area three times hotter which rapidly melted the snow and the streams became torrents. Now, the streams are nothing more than a trickle, the crops are dry and the animals are dead.

The villagers argue that those who caused the snow to retreat should be brought before an international court (Schipani, 2010). An International Court for Environmental Justice would provide an authority that will have flexibility and impartiality, that rarely a state possesses, to oversee environmental activities (Raghavan, 1997).

The snow capped Mount Illimani is a vital source of water for locals in Bolivia.

In Bolivia, it would allow the Khapi community to seek compensation from the global community for environmental damage impacting their community thousands of kilometres away (Schipani, 2010).

Leading the campaign is Alvio Aruquipa, one of the community leaders who argued that any compensation received would be used to build dykes to store the water and improve their supply. Strongly supporting the campaign for an environmental judiciary system is the Bolivian Government who perceive the COP15 climate change talks in Copenhagen in 2009 to be a failure and called for an alternative civil-society conference (Schipani, 2010).

The Bolivian city of Cochabamba hosted this conference in April 2010 which brought together indigenous groups, NGOs, scientists, activists and government delegations to talk about how justice can be achieved through an international court (Schipani, 2010).

Bolivia’s Conference on Climate Change focused on the plight of the world’s poorest people

Bolivia’s ambassador to the UN, Pablo Solon, stated

“What we want is justice. We are speaking about how to sanction actions that seriously affect the environment and have consequences for populations and nations that may even disappear. The environmental situation we are facing deserves a new judicial system”

Creating a judicial body for the environment would likely be opposed by nations who resent parting with their sovereignty, but the need for such a judicial organ is ‘imperative, especially if any meaningful progress is to be made in the field of international environmental law’ and justice (Raghavan, 1997)

Indigenous people attending the conference hoped that an International Court of Environmental Justice would be introduced.

The people of Khapi would not be the only people to lodge a case if an international court was established, as there are hundreds of other communities across the globe suffering from the environmentally damaging actions of others. Most environmental disputes have consequences that will affect the planet for centuries to come, and therefore an international court would have the ability to rule that the interests of future generations are paramount.

As Raghavan (1997) states

“No single generation can guide the destiny of our universe, and the international environmental court will be the current generation’s contribution in making the lives of those yet to inhabit planet earth a little more secure”

Ultimately, as geographers, we need to continuously explore new ways in which we can deal with environmental injustice, whether this is through a legal route or not. Being aware of global injustice stories is crucial, but not enough, we always need to take it further and think of solutions if we are serious about justice.


Raghavan, V. (1997). Is it time for an International Court of Environmental Justice?. Available: http://www.nls.ac.in/students/SBR/issues/vol9/901.pdf.Last accessed 3rd March 2012.

Schipani, A. (2010). Bolivian villagers want compensation as glaciers melt. Available: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/8629379.stm. Last accessed 3rd March 2012

Image Sources

One: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/8629379.stm

Two: http://www.nickbuxton.info/photos/mountains/nick_118.html

Three: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_pictures/8634293.stm

Four: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_pictures/8634293.stm

China’s Industrial pollution: Is it just to label them environmental deviants?

Chinese industrial pollution

China’s industrialisation has been exceptionally fast, exceptionally productive (for the country’s financial centres), and exceptionally damaging in its contribution to global environmental issue. In this blog I’ll attempt to gauge whether China’s massive pollution is doing an injustice to all … Continue reading

Eco Buddhism: Mindfulness and Environmental Justice

Environmental philosophies are capable of generating major shifts in the relationship we have with the environment (De Silva, 1998). Philosophies are very much part of the interdependent matrix of nature, society and humanity and are vital to our understandings of environmental justice.  Too often we rely on science, technology and the economy to gain an insight while overlooking philosophy. As De Silva (1998) notes, constantly seeing the environment how an economist or scientist does means we’re using a ‘lopsided framework to understand the world’.

Writing for the Guardian Professional Network this week, Jo Confino highlighted Buddhism’s role in environmental justice. Confino (2012) explored the work of Thich Nhat Hanh (known as Thay), a Zen master who has been practicing meditation and mindfulness for 70 years. Thay believes that spirituality can heighten environmental justice and a spiritual revolution is required to confront challenges we face.

Monk on a mission: Thich Nhat Hanh

We need to move beyond constantly talking about ‘the environment’ as it results in people seeing themselves and Earth as separate entities (Confino, 2012). Most of us are guilty of viewing Earth in terms of what it provides us, which doesn’t facilitate change. The catalyst for a new environmental direction is an ‘insight of inter-being… having a real communication with the Earth’ (Thay, 2008). This non-dualistic approach allows us to view our consciousness as also the consciousness of the planet (Confino, 2012). The current ‘vogue in economics’ to protect our planet by putting a price on it is covering the problem, not resolving it (Confino, 2012). Thay argues that we don’t need economic valuations, we need enlightenment.

A fundamental spiritual belief is that change will only occur by falling back in love with the planet, because if we do ‘anything for the benefit of the earth; the earth will do anything for our well being’ (Thay, 2008). We need a collective awakening to the fact that the earth and living species are in danger and with this awakening comes collective action and responsibility.

“Sometimes something wrong is going on in the world and we think it is the other people who are doing it and we are not doing it. But you are part of the wrongdoing by the way you live your life” – Thay, 2008

We all take sides in environmental conflicts, appointing victims and their oppressors, we remove ourselves from situations but essentially our demand is the cause of that conflict.

“When the need to survive is replaced with greed and pride, there is violence, which always brings out unnecessary devastation. When we perpetrate violence towards our own and other species, we are violent towards ourselves” – Thay, 2008

Core Zen beliefs

By protecting each other and all species, we are protecting ourselves. Selfishness has no place in an environmentally just future. As Confino (2012) notes, we are living under a system which we constructed, but no longer control, whereby we are so focused on our immediate problems we lose sight of everyone and everything else we share this planet with. We shouldn’t tackle this system which facilitates injustice with anger or frustration, instead we should adopt mindfulness.

One could argue that Buddhism is naïve but will anything on Earth change  if we don’t transform ourselves from within? Is human consciousness our only hope at increasing justice? Environmental justice is the product of compassion and understanding which is currently bypassed due to our self-centredness. Before action, we need understanding. Spirituality, philosophy and ethics are by no means the sole solution but through education they can be incorporated into a holistic approach.

“In my mind I see a group of chickens in a cage disputing over a few seeds of grain, unaware that in a few hours they will all be killed” – Thay, 2008

This implies that people are arguing over resources- what we can gain from Earth- unaware that this approach results in environmental destruction and eventually the end of civilisation. In becoming a collective we will have environmental justice but are we willing to unite?


Confino, J. (2012). Beyond environment: falling back in love with Mother Earth. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/sustainable-business/zen-thich-naht-hanh-buddhidm-business-values. Last accessed 26th Feb 2012. (Note: all quotes by Thay sourced from this article)

De Silva, P . (1998). Environmental Philosophy of Buddhism. In:Environmental Philosophy and Ethics in Buddhism. London: Macmillan Press. 29-35.

Images (in order of appearance):



Canadian Tar Sands – are we heading for an environmental disaster?

It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment. – Ansel Adams, American photographer and environmentalist

In the Canadian region of Alberta lies the ‘single largest industrial project in human history’ (Tan, 2008). The Canadian Oil Sands or ‘Tar Sands’ as they are sometimes known, hold a potential two trillion barrels of oil, cover a land area the size of Florida and are the number one oil supply to the United States; they are vital to the energy security and independence of the US and are therefore closely presided over by the Canadian government. In addition to this the sands provide employment to many local people and are predicted to generate an economic value of US$1trillion over the next ten years (International Resource Journal, 2010). The Canadian government’s official website about the Oil Sands provides much information about the local region (including infrastructure, education, recreation and more) as well as detailed information about issues ranging from air quality to aboriginal peoples to new research. It also provides the picture above, showing Alberta’s vast forest, with the tar sands looking fairly small in the background. However this picture is in stark contrast to many other photographs of the region.

Pictures such as this one give a much more realistic and much more startling view of what the tar sands are actually like. The previously forested lands have vanished, transformed into an unrecognisable industrial complex.

Oil interest in Alberta became prominent in the last quarter of the 19th century, when several reports emerged detailing the potential amount of oil in the area (Huseman & Short, 2012). Combined with recent transport development, the oil sands suddenly looked like an excellent opportunity.  These reports elicited a government decision to sign Treaty 8, which in essence was designed to give aboriginal people more rights; conversely the new government message was clear – the oil was worth more than the people. Today Canada uses what Huseman & Short call a ‘colonial trick’; the Canadians argue that the treaty was signed under the British Crown and therefore they bear no responsibility. In short, the Canadian government have absolved themselves of any responsibility to aboriginal groups.

But the government should be concerned. The tar sands have had many detrimental impacts upon the environment and human health. Oil extraction here uses much more water than conventional oil extraction, causing an excessive amount of toxic waste water. 480,000 gallons a day are dumped into tailing ponds which cover an area of 12,000 acres and can be seen from space. It is estimated that production releases between 8-37% more greenhouse gases than normal oil extraction due to the energy required. The area has the second highest rate of deforestation in the world, second only to the Amazon rainforest and there are many toxic impacts upon the remaining boreal ecosystems. There has been chronic pollution of the lower Athabasca River and Lake Athabasca which has caused changes in water quality, meat quality and the availability of fish and game for hunting. In addition to this, rivers, wetlands and lakes are being drained to supply the huge amount of water needed for production. There are also impacts upon the local wildlife; there have been many reports of ducks and other birds being killed by the toxins in the water (on which they land) (Desmogblog, 2010).

In terms of human health it appears that more people in the area are falling ill with serious illnesses and deformities. John O’Connor, a local doctor, carried out research in 2006 which discovered abnormally high levels of leukaemia, lymphoma, lupus, colon cancer and Graves disease. He also found that a rare cancer of the bile duct was present in 5 people out of a population of 1,200; usually it only affects 1 in 100,000 people. He concluded that this was a direct result of an increase in carcinogens. The government disputed these claims, and the Alberta Oil Sands website claims only two cases of the bile duct cancer were found.

In terms of aboriginal groups there has been an unprecedented impact on their way of life, as well as their cultural and physical condition. They don’t have a say in oil mining and the tar sands directly threaten the livelihoods of First Nation peoples in the area.

The concern for the future is that the oil sands show no sign of slowing. In a recession climate where building the economy is vital, and where the ‘war on terror’ has become a ‘war for oil’, those who hold the oil hold the power. The Canadians seem to be disregarding the environment because the oil sands are paving their way to a more powerful position on the world stage. But from a governmental perspective, why wouldn’t they? In terms of who holds the most oil, they are second only to Saudi Arabia. By 2020 production could reach 4 million barrels per day, and as mentioned before, the next decade is predicted to bring $1trillion in oil sand profits.

In terms of environment, this is hugely worrying. By 2015 the sands are expected to emit more greenhouse gases than the whole of Denmark alone (Desmogblog, 2010). The Canadian government seem to be more behind the oil sands than ever and as I write, Canada is threatening a trade war with the EU, who plan to label the oil produced in the oil sands as ‘polluting’ (Carrington, 2012). Following on from their unilateral withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol (where their aim of a 6% decrease turned into a 30% increase), Canada looks more than ever like a huge environmental problem for the future.


Carrington, D. (2012) Canada threatens trade war with EU over tar sands. Available:             http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/feb/20/canada-eu-tar-sands. Last accessed 20th Feb 2012

Desmogblog (2010) Top 10 Facts About the Alberta Oil Sands. Available:   http://desmogblog.com/top-10-facts-canada-alberta-oil-sands-information. Last accessed 20th Feb 2012.

Huseman, J. & Short, D. (2012) A slow industrial genocide: tar sands and the indigenous peoples of northern Alberta. The International Journal of Human Rights. 16(2), 216-237.

The International Resource Journal (2010) Canada’s Oil Sands. Available:             http://www.internationalresourcejournal.com/oil_gas/oil_gas_may_10/canada_oil_       sands.html. Last accessed 20th Feb 2012

Tan, A (2008) Tar Sands – The Worlds’ Most Desctructive Project. Available:             http://www.earthfirstjournal.org/article.php?id=476. Last accessed 20th Feb 2012

Picture Sources

  1. View of the oil sands – http://www.oilsands.alberta.ca/resource.html
  2. Canadian Oil Sands by Peter Essick – http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/03/canadian-oil-sands/kunzig-text
  3. Industrial Wasteland – http://jordallan.wordpress.com/
  4. Flocks of ducks killed on tailing ponds – http://rdnaidoo.com/2011/01/27/daily-dose-1-1-tipping-point-the-age-of-the-oil-sands/

The Impact of Mineral Resource Extraction on the Self-determination of Indigenous People

A disproportionate volume of injustice is faced by indigenous communities in regards to extractive industrial operations. Edward Helmore (2012), writing for The Guardian, notes how Panama is at the forefront of clashes between indigenous people and the demand for minerals. The territory of the Ngäbe-Buglé people is situated above one of the richest mineral deposits in Central America. The Canadian mining company Inmet has signed a deal with Panama’s President Ricardo Martinelli to extract 270 000 tons of copper a year.

The Ngäbe-Buglé People of Panama protesting against Government mining proposals.

Silvia Carrera, the leader of the Ngäbe-Buglé is aware of the detrimental environmental impacts the proposals entail. She simply says ‘The land is our mother’ while acknowledging the defencelessness of her people stating ‘we don’t have anything; we have only words… everything they do to us, to our land, to our companions, hurts us’ she notes that ‘this is the struggle of the indigenous people, we call for justice’.

Just Relations and Company-Community Conflict in Mining (Kemp et al, 2011) explores how mining companies knowingly or inadvertently cause conflict or exacerbate grievances within indigenous communities. These concerns are related to livelihood security, land or water access and ownership, and the sense of injustice. Kemp et al (2011) recognise that the search for resources is increasingly reaching environmentally and socially sensitive areas inhabited by indigenous people. Mining companies seek out areas where political and legal institutions are weak or corrupt. Panama has a history of shady banking practices and Martinelli appears determined to find a clause in legislation that protects indigenous environmental resources from exploitation (Helmore, 2012).

When one speaks of justice for indigenous people, there needs to be recognition of the different forms. Distributive justice is a focus on the fairness of the ends achieved which in mining would relate to the fairness of land access and the distribution and intensity of environmental impacts. The Ngäbe-Buglé have been offered no grievances.

Procedural justice refers to the formal processes through which decisions are made which in the extractive industries involves procedures which engage the local community (Kemp et al, 2011). Without strong internal systems capable of identifying and responding to community concerns, situations can escalate as is the case in Panama. In the past week, the Ngäbe-Buglé have protested outside Martinelli’s residence. The National Police Force responded by using teargas, making arrests and fatally shooting three protesters.  Panama’s Foreign Minister Roberto Henriquez admitted that this tough response by his government was only producing ‘deeper wounds’.

Interactional justice involves the vital informal interactions between company and community. Martinelli’s lack of commitment to earning the trust of the indigenous community is damaging his proposals. There is little evidence of consideration, honesty or respect from the government just attempts to force the Ngäbe-Buglé to give up their land. Kemp et al (2011) note the importance of an increase in dialogue as building a mutual understanding and awarding everyone a voice is more important than meeting extractive project objectives through consultation only. Without dialogue, justice is less likely to be achieved. The Ngäbe-Buglé feel disengaged and powerless which negatively affects procedural justice as they do not feel they have the ‘institutional space to voice their opinion in a meaningful way within the decision-making process’ (Kemp et al, 2011).

Ultimately, indigenous people in Panama and around the world increasingly need to be awarded the right to self determine. It is their environment and any depletion is detrimental to their quality of life. Yes we need more resources, but there other ways to achieve this. Taking over indigenous land is not the way forward. Surely it is finally time to leave them and their environment alone?

Kemp, D. Owen, J. Gotzmann, N. Bond, C. (2011). Just Relations and Company-Community Conflict in Mining. Journal of Business Ethics. Available: http://www.springerlink.com/content/d89j8kr67g782246/ Last accessed 19th Feb 2012

Helmore, E. (2012). Panama’s village leader Silvia Carrera defies a president. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/feb/19/panama-protest-silvia-carrera?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487 Last accessed 20th Feb 2012

Image: International Rivers http://www.internationalrivers.org/blog/monti-aguirre/2012-2-7/stop-violence-against-ngobe-indigenous-peoples