The cost of mining in Latin America

According to the UN, we have 12 years to make good on our climate goals. But three gigantic mining corporations continue to extract fossil fuels across across Latin America, Marienna Pope-Weidemann and Sebastian Ordoñez Muñoz report.

A family sits at a shelter for displaced people of the Bento Rodrigues district of Mariana, Brazil, covered with mud after a dam owned by Vale SA and BHP Billiton Ltd burst. Credit: Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

The sobering but unsurprising report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change this month says we have just over a decade to curb global warming beneath 1.5°C and protect millions from drought, heat waves, storms and floods – particularly in the global South.

But extractive industries like mining – at the heart of fossil fuel extraction – are continuing to expand, ignoring this call to arms.

A new report from War on Want examines the activities of three of the most powerful UK-listed mining companies operating in Latin America – Anglo American, BHP Billiton and Glencore – and details 17 of their most destructive and contested mega-mining projects.

The Latin American enterprises of all three firms have consequences for resisting the effects of climate change globally. Organizers on the frontline of opposition to these mega-projects flew out to challenge BHP at their annual general meeting in London last week.

The Wayuu Women’s Force – an indigenous group defending their land from Cerrejón, Colombia’s largest open-cast coal mine currently operating on their ancestral territory came to highlight the human rights and environmental abuses their communities have suffered as a result. Back in Colombia, the Wayuu have been subject to a slew of death threats from far-right paramilitary group Águilas Negras. Leaflets were scattered along the railroad by which coal is transported from Cerrejón.

The mine, located in La Guajira, is owned in equal share by Anglo-American, Glencore and BHP Billiton and exports coal to Europe and the UK. The leaflets promise to ‘clean’ the region of the indigenous Wayuu and calls for ‘death to all these scum’.

But Wayuu women aren’t cowed by these threats.

‘We have long worked under threat of violence in our communities to defend our water, our territory and the rights of indigenous and Afro-descendent people from the multinational corporations that steal and pollute our land. We cannot surrender. This is already a fight for our lives.’

For others taking up the activist mantle against mining projects, there is definitely a pattern where the threat of violence is concerned. Mining is the second deadliest industry for environmental human rights defenders. Harassment, intimidation by police and human rights violations are frequently associated with protesting against mining projects.

Common to all extractive industries is a strategy of land grabs that leads to the displacement of indigenous communities.

Leticia Oliveira is a campaigner for the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB), one of Brazil’s most powerful social movements that mobilized after a catastrophic collapse of a toxic waste dam killed 19, destroyed a whole river basin, and affected almost one million people.

She says people have been torn away from their jobs, their neighbours, and often family as a result.

‘They [residents] have no way to plant, to fish, to live as they always have. Their lives are completely disrupted and many health problems follow as a result, including depression and suicide, all because of this enormous, traumatic change.’ The Samarco crime, as it’s come to be known, was part-owned by BHP.

It’s important to remember extractive industries like mining are written into the DNA of neoliberal globalization. The exploitation of labour and unfettered extraction of raw materials from the Global South to profit corporate interests in the Global North is a dynamic that was first entrenched into the world economy during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

Since then, the era of European colonization has come and gone; with the rise of digital technology, cotton and tea has been usurped by copper and zinc; but for all that has changed, certain rules remain the same.

Former-colonies are as dependent today on the export of raw materials for their economic growth; subject to the decisions of the institutions, parliaments and board rooms of the Global North; and unable to develop their industry, advance technologically or invest in their democracies.

Today, extractivism is a highly destructive model of economic development based on the exploitation of nature: metals, minerals, fossil fuels, land, water and people. It functions by externalizing impacts, and allows corporations to exercise unrestricted power over the desires of local governments, communities and their territories.

Yet, while it has become a mechanism for plunder contributing to climate change, inequality and human rights violations, extractivism is presented by international institutions, economists and governments as the only road to ‘economic development’ in the Global South. This is why it is so difficult – and indeed dangerous – to oppose. Opposing extractivism becomes synonymous to opposing development.

The heart of the global mining industry beats in the City of London, where most of the world’s biggest mining companies are incorporated. Though licensed in the UK, they are not held accountable by the UK government and instead enjoy political and financial support. The unaccountable power of corporations and the lack of access to justice for affected peoples means companies continue to operate with almost complete impunity.

The consequence is the unchecked growth of an industry that is devastating to the environment, deadly for communities and posing a clear and present danger to democracy and self-determination.

That is why we urgently need binding legislation that can guarantee the rights of communities, workers and the environment, and hold corporate power to account.

At the BHP annual shareholder meeting, it was therefore no surprise that when questioned about the closure plan for their Cerrejón coal mine – whose lease runs out in 2034 – the response spoke only of the 100-year economic longevity of the project.

Or equally devastating, when pressed for definitive timelines for reparations for the communities affected by the Samarco crime in Brazil, the company outlined its ‘philosophy’ to re-start the operation based on its economic viability.

Rosa Maria Mateus, a Colombian lawyer, spoke frankly to the BHP directors, saying: ‘The coal from which you make your profit is coal smeared with blood, with the tears of women who mourn their territory, with children sick from coal dust; with communities that have lost so much: their rivers, their culture, their ancestral spirituality, and their language.’

Preparing for the wholesale regulation of the mining industry will be key to reversing the climate meltdown caused and exacerbated by said projects. The disparity between communities bearing the brunt of this crisis and the companies responsible show that the solutions, will not come from the corporations that have created the crises in the first place.


The Beyond BHP week of action was organized by War on Want, London Mining Network, The Gaia Foundation, Colombia Solidarity Campaign and others.