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Latin America's Resource Battle

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May 30, 2014

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The International Labour Organization Convention 169 (ILO 169) recognizes Indigenous and ethnic communities' right to be consulted about laws, administrative measures and investment projects that could affect them. In Politico, AQ Editor-in-Chief Christopher Sabatini analyzes how ILO 169 has influenced social conflict throughout the region, and how the conflict between globalization and local rights can be addressed.

Latin America's Resource Battle

By: Christopher Sabatini

In Latin America, as in much of the developing world, voracious global demand for commodities such as oil, copper, gold and iron has collided with age-old grievances over land, marginalization and exploitation. As extraction companies have pushed into Amazonian rainforests, Andean highlands and once-protected national expanses, they have confronted indigenous and community resistance, often with violent means, as occurred in 2009 in Bagua, Peru, where 24 police officers and 10 indigenous leaders died in armed conflict.

The origin, or the solution to, this spike in local conflicts, depending on whom you talk to, is a little known and little understood international convention by the International Labour Organization, known as ILO 169, guaranteeing indigenous and ethnic communities the right to be consulted whenever a policy or project may affect their cultural heritage. Fifteen governments in Latin America and the Caribbean have signed the vaguely worded ILO 169, though often with little awareness of the consequences. Now, indigenous and, in the case of Colombia, Afro-descendant communities are demanding that their rights to consultation — consulta previa, in Spanish — be honored. In Guatemala, some even contend that they have a right to veto investment projects on their land. Many investors and companies have come to see ILO 169 as a threat to their interests and their ability to support local development, and provide jobs and resources to wanting populations in places like Chile, Colombia, Peru and Guatemala.

The truth is somewhere in between.

Unarguably, social conflicts derived from resource extraction have increased. In 2011, there were 118 ongoing local conflicts in Peru and 74 in Chile accompanied by local eruptions of protest and violence over extractive projects. In Guatemala, Cementos Progeso, a producer of construction materials, remains at loggerheads with several local Mayan groups despite claiming to have met all the national requirements for local consultation.

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