Commissioners: Tracy Robinson, Presidente; Dinah Shelton; Rose-Marie Antoine

Thematic Hearing

Topic: Human Rights Situation of Persons Affected by the Extractive Industries in the Americas.

On March 28, 2012, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (Commission) held a thematic hearing on the extractive industry’s impact on human rights in the Americas. The Petitioners presented the Commission with examples from Colombia and Argentina. A representative from the Centro de Estudios para la Justicia Social “Tierra Digna” opened the hearing by explaining that, in both Argentina and Colombia, extractive industries are a priority for the governments because they occupy large territories and create large capital. Currently, there are between 35-50 mining operations in the two countries, and they create dramatic impacts on the surrounding communities. Petitioners stated that mining practices often entail systematic violations of the American Convention on Human Rights (Convention), and  that states adopt measures that reduce Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights protected under the UN Covenant. The violations stem from systemic inequalities in labor, environmental and ecological violations, tax breaks for the large mining companies that force governments to cut services, and the direct impacts of mining, including deforestation, decreased access to water resources, epidemics, and poisoning. In both Argentina and Colombia, indigenous and rural communities suffer forced displacement, involuntary resettlement, and increased militarization of areas surrounding mining sites.

Linda Cabrera, from the Asociación Colectivo Mujeres al Derecho, spoke about how mining industries create war-like conditions in rural and indigenous areas with a disproportionate impact on women. The mining industries give way to five types of violence against women: symbolic violence (women are relegated to domestic tasks because of an unequal distribution of work); exacerbation of domestic violence with a negative impact on women’s health (when women are relegated exclusively to the private sphere, they are more vulnerable to domestic violence and those who work in or near the mines suffer health impacts; Colombia has unprecedented cases of cervix and uterine cancer); sexual violence (an increase in mining personnel, primarily male, and an increase in military and police forces leads to an increase in sexual violence against women; this also translates into increased forced prostitution); patrimonial violence (women lose the ability to gain resources autonomously); and socio-political violence (women are excluded from political participation because the corporations control decision-making).

Angelica Ortiz, a member of the Wayuu Tribe in the Guajira, spoke about the impact of coal mining in her community. The Cerrejon mine is one of the largest open pit mines in the world. Ms. Ortiz said her community is suffering from a loss of autonomy, culture, and crops. In the Guajira, there is an increase in contamination, leading to the extinction of native species. The community has seen a negative impact on health, including an increase in the incidence of breast cancer, skin disease, and intestinal disease. Ms. Ortiz also cited the impact on spirituality in her community because the balance of nature and Mother Earth is affected. The Wayuu have lost their rights to territory and, because workers come into the area only for the duration of their contracts, there is a dramatic increase in the number of single mothers among the indigenous population. Ms. Ortiz spoke about a recent problem: the mining companies are now trying to deviate a river, which is currently the Guajira’s only source of water. She said, “Territory, for indigenous peoples, is life,” and “mining is equal to misery.”

Leonardo Crippa, an attorney from Argentina, who works with the Indian Law Resource Center, presented the organizations’ requests for the Commission. He cited violations of the ACHR, the ILO Convention 169, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Article 29), and a number of domestic federal laws on hazardous waste and public health. He asked the Commission to issue a special report to address human rights violations and the environmental impact and to demonstrate the link between exploiting territories and impunity. Mr. Crippa specifically asked the Commission to suggest precautionary measures and point out good practices. He also suggested that the Commission make a local visit to gather information.

At the end of the Petitioners’ presentations, Commissioner Dinah Shelton, the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, asked what the organizations meant specifically by “freedom from mining.” She was interested to know whether the organizations believe there is no way mining can take place consistently with human rights or, if it can, what measures could be taken to make extractive industries consistent with human rights. In response, the representative from “Tierra Digna” said that the indigenous communities were more concerned about their unprotected rights than the practice of mining. She recognized that there are different extraction techniques that can be more sustainable, but she argued that large-scale mining is dangerous. Traditionally, in Colombia in particular, local extraction has been sustainable and consistent with human rights. She recommended that more state oversight would lead to equal and sustainable mining.

Commissioner Rose-Marie Antoine asked the Petitioners whether the reduction in taxes from mining companies actually resulted in a reduced state budget and did not generate local jobs. Ms. Ortiz responded by saying that 70% of individuals hired to work in the mines were not from the local communities.

Finally, the President of the Commission, Tracy Robinson, asked what the international community can do about the violence against women within these rural populations. Ms. Ortiz emphasized the warlike feeling of the communities surrounding the mining sites as a result of militarization. Mr. Crippa suggested that, within the private sector, companies have an obligation to make reparations for human rights violations and the state is responsible for protecting vulnerable populations.