Climate Change and Mining Industry: What Can We Learn from Latin American Resistance to Mining?

By Lucas Christel

The mining industry strongly contributes to global warming and climate change. On the one hand, mining is one of the major emitters of greenhouse gases globally and consumes enormous amounts of energy and water (Climate Democracy 2016). On the other hand, this industry is a central component of a model of excessive consumption of resources and financial speculation linked to the use of minerals.

In the last decades attempts to stop mining activities have increased all around the world. Day by day more people understand that stopping the advance of mining industry will be crucial to combat climate change and move towards a more sustainable future. Of course, the question that emerges from this complex scenario is: What elements can favor the restraint of mining industries?

Of course, answers cannot be unique or generic, instead must respect local particularities and previous struggles traditions. However, from the multiple experiences of resistance to open-pit mining in Latin America, this brief document identifies three components that should be useful to constrain the voracity of mining industry: collective action; the use of institutional modes of participation; and the commitment of local economic and political actors.

First, collective action is an effective strategy to stop mining activities. Social protest has been deployed in different territories of Latin America as a way to reject the mining advance. The organization of demonstrations, blockades, and rallies has emerged as the most recurrent strategy for people without regular access to institutions (Tarrow 2011). Collective action has been at the heart of people’s opposition to mining ventures. This type of contentious action has proven to be particularly effective when it is preventive, that is, where companies were in preliminary stages and have not yet started commercial operations. This mode of action, although it has a low cost in structures and resources – easily a large group can organize a protest – also exposes the contenders to retaliation, state repression, and even death, especially to environmental leaders.

Second, the appeal to formal or institutional instruments has also shown be effective to restrain open-pit mining. However, these forms of participation were never easily available to the contenders, who had to make claims for their application (Falleti and Riofrancos 2018). This institutional action strategy shows two main areas, the prior consultation or referendum, and the appeal to environmental rights.

The experiences of semi-direct democracy show that the local populations reject the mining activity. On the few occasions where the central powers enabled local consultation spaces, the results against mining remained above 80%. Replicating the experiences of Tambogrande (Alvarado Merino 2011), Esquel (Torunczyk Schein 2016) or Colombia (Dietz 2018) can help slow down mining progress in Latin America. The great challenge is to make governments give responses to citizen demands, one citizenship increasingly eager to decide on the fate of their communities and more committed to environmental issues.

Effective fulfillment of the environmental laws would imply a limitation of mining development. In other words, there cannot be an open-pit mining activity without contradicting the right to a healthy environment.

The problem is not the absence of environmental laws and regulations. In effect, environmental institutions in Latin America have been growing since the 1990s (Gudynas 2003). Again, the challenge is to achieve full compliance with the existing regulations. The potential effectiveness of these elements can be seen in two experiences.

On the one hand, different experiences show that certain laws have limited the mining advance. In Argentina, eight provinces – out of 24 – have laws that ban open-pit mining; there is a national law of glaciers (Christel and Torunczyk 2017) that prevent industrial activities in glacial and periglacial areas and the country has also advanced in the regulation of extractive activities such as fracking (Christel and Novas 2018). In Costa Rica and El Salvador, moratoriums and national law imposed a setback to corporative greed. Of course, this was possible because of struggle and social resistance, as the institutional way is a hard strategy. But, if contenders succeed, the effort to sustain those environmental laws is usually lower than the political cost of tearing them down.

On the other hand, the incorporation that social actors have made of legal language is a novel feature of the rejection of extractive activities. The latter was driven by the convergence of different actors in environmental conflicts and by not conceiving legal strategy as antagonistic to protest or social mobilization (Gutiérrez 2015). Currently, before the arrival of a new mining project, one of the first actions promoted by activists is an environmental lawsuit. Of course, this legal action by itself will not expel a multinational company from a small Latin American Andean town, but it can buy valuable time, delineate firmer strategies and mobilize adherents.

Third, the stories of rejection of mining in Latin America show that powerful allies are important. Although this is not new for collective action and social movements scholars, it is still necessary to understand how to get these key supporters. We can learn from experiences like Tambogrande in Peru, Mendoza in Argentina or Intag in Ecuador. These cases have shown that when relevant local actors see their productive activities as incompatible with large-scale mining, they tend to get involved in conflicts. This not only increases the possibilities to expel mining companies but also opens space for discussion on development models, allowing for progress towards more sustainable and friendly practices with the planet – as in the case of agroecological producers of Intag (Bebbington 2007).

State decisions – laws, decrees, licenses revocations – are still necessary to force companies to drop their mining investments. Understanding the loopholes of the state, the multiple and even antagonistic interests that may exist within the different bureaucratic bodies (Gutiérrez 2018) and being aware of political opportunities, are important elements to stop mining. Not every political actor has the same view regarding extractive activities. The votes needed for a new environmental law or the funds for the effective implementation of an environmental policy would emerge from these political actors. Thus, identifying and reinforcing state-society synergy should also be an important task for anti-mining contenders.

The efforts of those of us who believe that open-pit mining is harmful to the future of the planet should be driven by multiple actors. If one of the maxims of political participation is that people only participate among equals (Pizzorno 1984), spaces of equality must be born out of the urgency to achieve more sustainable development. The future of the planet and the threat of climate change need it.


Filed under Global Climate Movement

3 responses to “Climate Change and Mining Industry: What Can We Learn from Latin American Resistance to Mining?

  1. Pingback: Artículos y libros | Grupo Ambiente y Política - GAP

  2. Very insightful piece! I found the point on enrolling the people affected by mining particularly interesting -that is, people that may not be ideologically in sync with other protesters but nonetheless may join the struggle for survival needs. I also wonder how much of these dynamics of resistance and the forging of alliances vary by Latin American countries. That is: Can we expect one type of dynamics in countries with a longer history of mining (say, Peru) and where small, local mining operations are important, and different processes in countries were mining is done by large corporations alone? (I saw that you did this kind of comparison at the subnational level)
    Keep up with the good work!


  3. “These cases have shown that when relevant local actors see their productive activities as incompatible with large-scale mining, they tend to get involved in conflicts.” It reminded me of this, for the case of agriculture (instead of mining, but both speak to debates on extractivism):


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