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Development with identity

14 March 2012

Beth Walker, MRG’s Commissioning Editor, looks at the increasing impact of natural resource exploitation on minority and indigenous peoples, and champions their resistance to, and right to benefit from, development projects on their lands

Over the past weeks, Tibetan villagers stopped a Chinese company from mining a holy mountain on the Tibetan Plateau, pushing $300,000 worth of equipment into the Nu River after negotiations with the local government collapsed; in the Philippines, an alliance of indigenous groups took to the streets to protest the recent rush of gold mining, after the government handed 60 per cent of Cordilleras province over to companies as mining concessions; and in Namibia, Himba and Zwemba indigenous groups are demanding their government ends forced land grabs to make way for the construction of the Orokawe Dam, and respects their rights under international law.

These incidents are indicative of large-scale resistance against governments and companies who are increasingly ignoring community rights in the rush to secure natural resources on their lands. These communities are not necessarily “against development”, but they demand the right to benefit from development projects, and also to determine their path. As indigenous protestors in the Philippines are chanting, they are ‘not anti-mining’ but want ‘mining for the people.’

Testimony from MRG’s partners, and reports trickling through from community organisations, show that far too often, minority and indigenous groups reap few of the benefits and suffer more of the negative impacts of such projects. Last week, I attended the launch of a new report produced by the Gaia Foundation at the UK Houses of Parliament that reinforced this. The report warns* that the rapid growth of mining, oil and gas activities is leading to large scale “land grabbing”, threatening communities and destroying local food and water systems.

Speaking at the event, Teresa Anderson from the Gaia Foundation said, “The catalogue of devastation is growing. We are no longer talking about isolated pockets of destruction and pollution. In just 10 years, iron ore production has more than doubled, coal has risen 45% and metals like lithium by 125%. Across Africa, Latin America and Asia, more and more lands, rivers and aquifers are being devoured by mining activities.”

The surge in mining worldwide is fuelled by the rising price of metals and oil, and by foreign investment and commodity speculation. This has acted as an incentive to exploit new areas and less pure deposits, says the report. Companies are now moving into remote areas of the Amazon rainforests for oil and gold, into South Africa for coal, and combing India’s forested tribal belt for bauxite. More aggressive technologies are now being used to extract materials from areas which were previously inaccessible, as seen with the Alberta tar sands in Canada.

“Land grabs for mining, tourism, biofuels, dam construction, infrastructure projects, timber and now carbon trading are all part of the same process, turning farmers into refugees on their own land,” said Henk Hobbelink, co-founder of GRAIN International, an organisation that supports community farmers and social movements.

While there was agreement among the MPs, activists, economists and lawyers gathered at Westminster that communities should have the rights to control decisions about development projects on their land, there was less consensus on how this should be achieved. How can communities hold international companies and the governments they collaborate with to account?

Improving the transparency standards of companies that extract natural resources can reduce corporate corruption and conflict, argued a representative from Global Witness, pointing to the example of initiatives such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Index. But for many, voluntary initiatives are not enough.

“Experience has shown that light touch regulation of companies results in large-scale human rights abuses,” argued Richard Solly, coordinator of London Mining Network. “There needs to be stricter government oversight over the activities of such companies operating abroad.” “We need a tribunal to hold companies to account, an equivalent of the International Criminal Court for companies,” said Deborah Doane, director of the World Development Movement.

These are big questions that need more discussion and debate. The impact of natural resource development on minority and indigenous groups will be the topic of MRG’s 2012 annual report – State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. This publication, due in July, will tell the stories of minorities who are being adversely affected by developments on their lands, and the strategies they are using to secure their right to development.

One concrete example that emerged from the discussions in Parliament was given by Hobbelink from GRAIN international. He has set up a website to document cases of land grabbing by foreign investors for food production; the site now documents more than 400 large land deals totalling nearly 35 million hectares, roughly the size of the Netherlands. This kind of information is a powerful tool that can be used to help communities resist destructive projects and control development on their own land.

*As of November 2020, the report seems to have been permanently taken offline.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.