Latin America chooses mining investment over environment: report

Latin American governments are allowing destruction of forests, rivers and local communities in exchange for money from companies with ties to environmentally destructive industries, claims a regional study published by Washington-based advocacy group Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI).

According to the document, governments are racing to attract foreign investors eager to cash in on natural resources, which has led Latin American countries to return to a "colonial mentality."

"We seem to have returned to an almost colonial mentality," said Margarita Florez, Executive Director at Asociación Ambiente y Sociedad, whose study reviewed the recent activities impacts of extractive activities on lands owned by indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants and other forest communities in Colombia, Panama, Guatemala and Peru.

"Our governments are being short-sighted. They are undervaluing renewable resources such as forests and water, and are putting the rights of foreign investors before those who have lived and worked the land for generations."

In her opinion there is a growing trend in Latin America of increased dependence on the export of non-renewable resources, including gold, silver, oil and natural gas.

Foreign direct investment (FDI) in Colombia, for example, increased more than 500% between 2000 and 2010, and most of the funds are going into mining and related activities. In Peru, mining now ranks fourth in importance among industries that contribute to the gross domestic product.

While all the countries covered in the study have environmental licensing regulations on paper that require environmental impact studies (EIS), Florez said that relevant laws are now weaker than ever and that there is little technical expertise and too few human resources to properly control the rapidly expanding extractive industries in the region.

For RRI’s representative Andy White, however, the investment “boom” in Latin America can be seen as an opportunity to overcome failed models of the past, rather than a threat to the livelihoods of those who have depended on the land for generations.

“We just need to figure out how to shape and guide this investment to promote new kinds of business and development models that respect human rights and local land rights, and also produce sound social and economic development,” he concluded.