The real power of environmental justice movements

Indigenous land rights conflicts are widespread today, often as the result of certain global power structures. Western favoured capitalistic and economic views of the environment are coming increasingly into conflict with the cultural and highly spiritual beliefs of various indigenous populations. But what happens after the land rights conflicts are established? The conflicts don’t merely simmer out; one of the two competing groups is almost always eventually displaced.  It is frequently the case that economic values of the environment prevail, and the groups which are in favour of it are able to come up with a list of reasons which make displacing the indigenous groups justifiable. Indigenous groups are increasingly viewed has having little power compared to official bodies in their country – and other countries – which means that their arguments are rarely backed up by enough reasons or people, creating a situation where they yet again suffer injustice.

So, what happens in the opposite situation, where indigenous groups do stand up for themselves and do not back down? The Dongria Kondh people are a highly spiritual indigenous group in the Niyamgiri hills, East India, who have had to fight for their land, their culture and their lives. The British mining group Vedanta had claims to set up an open-pit mine on the Dongria Kondh’s most sacred mountain in order to extract Bauxite. Survival International successfully led the campaign to support the land rights of the Dongria Kondh in which there were 10,000 letters sent to the Indian Government, 1000’s of demonstrations all over the world and eventually over £42 million disinvested by Vedanta shareholders. This victory has been described as “stunning”, “historic” and one which “nobody would have believed possible”. Most people would have deemed Vedanta, the $8 billion company to have the most power and to come out on top in a conflict between them and the almost entirely illiterate Eastern Indian tribe, which makes their victory even more unbelievable.

This land rights battle was never easy for the groups on either half, but especially not for the Dongira Kondh people.  They were up against a huge multinational company, who had the power to claim that their environmental policies were among the best and that the marginalised tribe was always considered with best

'The real Avatar Tribe'

interests. When people within the tribe first started to protest, some were physically abused and almost all were illegally pushed out of their homes which were often bulldozed down. Yet, the Dongira Kondh people stood together and refused profoundly to let Vedanta win the conflict, and with the help of Survival International, groups and individuals all over the world, won the right to live and worship on their sacred land and mountain. It is with the help of people, especially human geographers – who can apply their knowledge of the environment, culture and the reasons behind exploitation of  natural resources – that both sides of issues like this can be spread publicly, allowing the general public to voice their opinions. This is ultimately what a social movement is; a large group of people who all believe the same thing protesting in a variety of ways. It may be that after hearing both sides of such a conflict, the largest percentage of people still favour the interests of the multinational company, such as Vedanta in this instance. This would be fine, because at least that decision would be informed. The real problem here is that marginalised indigenous groups such as the Dongria Kondh often struggle to get their voices heard, meaning that no one can ever even begin to consider their side of the story. It is therefore incredibly important that human geographers, groups like Survival International or anyone else who has the ability to, spread the word of both sides of any conflict, give a voice to the marginalised groups and give people’s beliefs the justice they deserve.

This triumph can be used as an example of the power of social movements and to help people see that all people’s opinions and values need to be considered equally in order for the decision-making people to make a fully informed decision.  Despite this, the success  of the tribe is threatened as India’s Supreme Court is currently reviewing the case, suggesting that the world still has a long way to go before the values and beliefs of all different groups from all parts of the world are considered to be equal.

Anon., (2010) India rejects Vedanta plans to mine tribal land. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-11067678. Last Accessed 10th March 2012.

Brett, C., (2002). The indigenous environmental movement in the United States. Organization & Environment. 15 (4) 410-442.

Grammaticas, D., (2008) Tribe takes on global mining firm. Available:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/7486252.stm. Last Accessed 10th March 2012.

Survival International, (2010) David v. Goliath: Indian tribe in ‘stunning’ victory over mining giant. Available: http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/6385. Last accessed 10th March 2012.

Survival International, The Dongria Kondh. Available: http://www.survivalinternational.org/tribes/dongria. Last accessed 10th March 2012.

Survival International, Mine: Story of a Sacred Mountain. Available: http://www.survivalinternational.org/films/mine. Last accessed 10th March 2012.

Advertisements

Mining Injustice in Panama

Ngobe People Protesting- Cortesia de Patria Grande

Half the gold mined in the world from 1995-2015 is likely to come from indigenous lands (Ukiri, 2011). Each time this occurs the potential is generated for an often violent clash between local indigenous groups and government officials. This week, the Latin American country of Panama epitomised such a confrontation whereby 3 people were killed as the Nagabe-Bugle tribe formed a human blockade across the Pan-America highway to protest against proposed mining developments on their land.

The Nagabe-Bugle tribe, one of the largest in Panama, sits on top of the Cerro Colorado copper deposit.  As one of the richest mineral deposits in Latin America, the Cerro Colorado has the potential to provide 270,000 tonnes of copper for extraction over a 30 year period. Although there was once a law within Panama which protected indigenous land rights and sovereignty within the country, last week this law was abandoned by the Panama government in order to allow foreign mining companies to enter the area without breaching legislation. The site has already been opened for tender. However, the recently elected female spokesperson for the Nagabe-Bugle tribe, Silvia Carrera, argues that mining will not only obliterate pristine rainforest (second largest only to the Amazon) but also the livelihoods of thousands of indigenous tribes people.

Carrera professes that the invasion of foreign mining companies generates great injustice for the Nagbe-Bugle people who appear to be “ignored” and at times “used to entertain the government”. Carrera suggests that the indigenous people have much more than a sustenance connection to their land. The tribes people profess a spiritual connection to the earth whereby it is seen not only as a physical territory on which they live, but as a “mother” figure from which they are given life. Such a deep-rooted duty to care and protect the environment in its own right seems to fall deaf on the seemingly ignorant ears of the Panama government. Such a lack of recognition of the voices and opinions of the indigenous people sparked yesterday’s road blockade along Panama’s busiest highway.

Carrera maintains that the indigenous protest is wholly peaceful and continues to be the only medium they have to defend themselves and their lands, stating “we don’t have anything, we only have words”.  But what use are these words when they are not listened to? Indigenous reports state that their peaceful protest was met with a riot response from the police and government, utilising tear gas and rubber bullets on all protestors including women and children which resulted in three indigenous deaths. Even if the indigenous protest was not ultimately as peaceful as spokesmen imply, this reaction simply cannot be considered to  be “just” response by the police or the government to the desperate plea from the people for a recognition of their rights over the land.

Unfortunately, this unjust scenario is not specific to Panama.  An interesting recent journal by Urkidi reiterates an equivalent process occurring in Guatemala. Here “95% of mining licences granted in 2004 were in indigenous provinces” (Urkidi, 2004), this demonstrates great injustice for indigenous people who have their homeland forcibly removed from them and their spiritual connection undermined. We can conclude therefore that the development of these communitarian struggles are not simply motivated by environmental injustice, but more prominently factors of social justice, land rights, ethnicity and human rights of the indigenous people. Indigenous communities world wide must be acknowledged to posses agency- the agency to make their own decisions and have their views not only heard, but taken into consideration and positively acted upon.

Sources:

Black, R.  (2012), Panama clashes: Indigenous groups angry over mining law. Available:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-12513084 Last accessed 21.2.2012

Cook, C. (2012), Indigenous Mining Protestors Killed in Panama. Available: http://www.pacificfreepress.com/news/1/10893-indigenous-mining-protesters-killed-in-panama.html Last accessed 21.2.2012

URKIDI, L. (2011), The Defence of Community in the Anti-Mining Movement of Guatemala. Journal of Agrarian Change, 11: 556–580.

Image Source:

Ngobe People Protesting- Cortesia de Patria Grande http://www.internationalrivers.org/blog/monti-aguirre/2012-2-7/stop-violence-against-ngobe-indigenous-peoples Last accessed 21.2.2012

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