Climate Justice: Uniting Struggles Across Latin America

The demand for climate justice has created a broad umbrella, a true movement of movements, in which those on the front-lines of the climate crisis are connecting their struggles, sharing strategies,  naming their common enemies, and building solutions from the bottom-up.


With the conclusion of the United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP20) in Peru, it appears that the world’s political leaders continue to drag their feet in the face of a growing climate crisis.  This was no surprise to the nearly 20,000 people who filled Lima’s streets on Wednesday, December 10th to join in the people’s climate justice march.  No one that I spoke to seemed to have much faith that the official UN process would adequately respond to the chorus of demands coming from grassroots communities throughout the Americas and beyond. Yet something else seemed to be brewing in the streets.

The demand for climate justice has created a broad umbrella, a true movement of movements, in which those on the front-lines of the climate crisis are connecting their struggles, sharing strategies,  naming their common enemies, and building solutions from the bottom-up.  In the face of so much devastation of the planet and its inhabitants, and with the clock running out of time on the window to make huge policy changes that could keep the planet habitable for future generations, it is easy to spiral into depression and feel hopeless.  While the urgency for action is clear, the demand for climate justice is creating a powerful opportunity to unite social movements, front-line communities, indigenous peoples and grassroots campaigns.  As the climate justice movement unites and builds new sources of power, one if its greatest potential lies in creating a politically-viable framework for demanding reparations for over 500 years of extraction, contamination and abuse in Latin America and the developing world.

The core issues tied to climate change in Latin America today, such as mining, petroleum exploitation, deforestation, agriculture, Indigenous rights, land rights, gender equity, and self-determination have their roots in the process of European conquest and colonization of the Americas.  The demand for climate justice weaves these struggles together by demanding fundamental system-change and providing a glance towards the past as a means of charting out a new future.  The movement for climate justice is unifying struggles across Latin America and seriously advancing the call for reparations to indigenous communities, even if it is not directly using that language.

Even within the UNFCCC framework, the theme of “historical responsibility” has opened up a space to discuss the repercussions of centuries of resource extraction, uneven development and the consequences of industrialization fueled by colonization.  As these themes are seriously explored by political leaders and delegates from around the world, front-line indigenous communities are telling their stories and using the current debate to demand reparations for over five centuries of genocide, resource-extraction, contamination and mistreatment. This article explores some of the on-going struggles in Latin America and how the movement for climate justice has the potential to unite these struggles, fortify the demand for reparations, and propose broader system change.

Mining: Gold, No! Water, Yes!

Just over a year before Lima hosted the UN Climate Change Conference, Peru’s capital city hosted the Latin American Mining Summit.  The website for the Summit announced “Latin America is Now the Primary Destination for Mining Exploration Investment in the World!” and then asked, “Are You Ready to Capitalize on the Boom?”  Similar enticements were used to recruit during the conquest of Peru (the world’s 6th largest gold producer today) and Mexico (the world’s 8th largest gold producer today).  The conquest of Latin America is inextricably linked to the search for gold: over 500 years later the hunger for gold continues to ignite human rights violations across the region.

Canadian mining companies are responsible for 50-70% of Gold Mining in Latin America, according to a May 2014 report called The Impact of Canadian Mining in Latin America and Canada’s responsibility.  The report highlights how an open-pit mine in Guatemala, owned by subsidiary of the Canadian company Goldcorp Inc. contaminated the water supply and resulted in structural damage to people’s home from the use of explosives. Since the indigenous communities did not give free and prior consent to the mine before it began its operations, they began to protest the mine after they were faced with devastating impacts.  Popular protests have been met with violent repression.


In Peru, the conflict around the proposed Conga mines continues to grow in the northern Andean region around Cajamarca.  Local community members are fighting the proposed project which would contaminate the water of a largely agricultural region of Peru but the US-based Newmont Mining Corporation is pushing forward along with its partners Peruvian-based Buenaventura, and the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank.  There has also been an increased criminalization of dissent, as leaders in the fight against the Conga Mine have been arrested and charged with trumped up crimes.


During the People’s climate march, delegations from Cajamarca wore “No Conga” hats and people chanted, “Gold, No! Water, Yes!” demonstrating that the two stand in conflict with one another; that it is impossible to extract gold without contaminating the water supply. The fight for clean water is a serious public health concern that comes up whenever mining projects are proposed.  Transnational corporations have not only been contaminating water supplies through mining.  In some cases large corporations have purchased the entire water supplies of cities as a part of move towards privatization of public services.


The 2001 Cochabamba water wars culminated in the popular rejection of the privatization of the water supply of Bolivia’s 5th largest city as the people demanded “the water is ours, damn it!” The water activists challenged the very idea that water could be owned by transnational corporations like Bechtel. Alejandro Ribas traveled from Bolivia to attend the People’s climate march and he said, “Water is important because it’s what makes life, plants, all of us alive.” In the background, marchers chanted “We will not sell our water, we will defend our water.”

Petroleum Exploitation

The countries with the highest level of oil production in Latin America are Venezuela, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Ecuador and Peru, respectively.  The case against Chevron illustrates some of the most devastating impacts of contamination due to oil exploitation.  In the northern region of Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest, Texaco (now Chevron) began exploring for oil in 1964.  This pristine rainforest is home to indigenous peoples of the Cofán, Siona, Secoya, Kichwa and Huaorani nations, and they were not consulted before the drilling began.

According to Amazon watch, “Texaco dumped 18 billion gallons of toxic waste water directly into the region’s rivers and streams depended upon for drinking, cooking, bathing and fishing.” The contamination of the rivers killed the fish, which ended people’s ability to make a livelihood and created hunger in communities that relied on the river and other wildlife for sustenance.  The oil contamination led to heightened levels of cancer in contaminated areas as well as increased levels of birth abnormalities and miscarriages.  In addition to these severe health problems, many people in surrounding areas also suffer from skin rashes and diarrhea.  The oil company also buried toxic waste in unlined pits and deforested pristine amazon rainforest to pipe the oil out.  After 22 years in court, Chevron refuses to pay for clean-up, and damages of the Oriente in the Amazon. Over 30,000 impacted people in Ecuador’s amazon continue to fight to hold Chevron accountable.

A recent report by the Carbon Tracker Initiative stated that in order to keep the global temperature rise below the average 2 degree Celsius rise in temperature, – beyond that is widely considered a “danger point” – 80 percent of known fossil fuels must stay in the ground.  Indigenous communities that are fighting against oil and coal extraction are the front-line defenders who are assuming the risks and responsibilities of meeting that goal for the entire planet.  Indigenous communities continue to resist oil and coal exploitation in and around Big Mountain in Arizona, US; in the Sierra de Períja in Venezuela, near the Colombian border; the Mapuche Confederation of Neuquén continues to fight oil extraction and fracking in Argentina and the list goes on.  These are the communities that are putting their bodies on the line, not only to protect their immediate environments but also the health of the planet.

In a creative attempt to keep the oil in the soil, President Rafael Correa asked the international community to donate $3.6 billion to not drill for oil in Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park (half of the projected value of the oil in the park).  The resources would go to funding social programs through a United Nation’s fund.  When the attempt to collect these funds failed – only a small fraction of that amount had been donated –the government announced that it would proceed with drilling.


“Our forests include the most important biotic reservation in the world as well as the biggest amount of living material per superficial unit in the planet, producing approximately 75% of the world’s oxygen,” declared a statement released by the Coordinator of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), which is comprised of indigenous organizations from nine South American countries.  Despite the detrimental impact of deforestation of the Amazon, deforestation is continuing at an alarming rate.  A 2013 study released by the Brazilian government, showed that a total of 5,843 square kilometers are estimated lost between August 2012 and July 2013, an increase in deforestation of 28 percent compared to the previous year.

Hilda Macifue traveled for six days from Ucayali, Pucallpa, Peru to attend the people’s climate march. “We as indigenous people are most impacted because the illegal deforestation that companies are doing is taking all of our wood, so it is important for us to defend our land,” she said as we ran to catch up with the marchers ahead.  Just days before he was scheduled to speak at the People’s Summit on Climate Change, José Isidro Tendetza Antún, an Ecuador indigenous activist against illegal logging was found dead.  Despite superficial legal protections for much of the rainforest, logging continues and indigenous communities in the Amazon are the ones fighting to preserve the largest oxygen supply in the world.

One controversial proposed solution is called reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, or REDD.  While there are still many questions about how this would be implemented, the basic idea is that forests would be seen as “carbon stocks,” and could therefore be recognized as a means of reducing emissions, or could be traded on the carbon market.  Some argue that this would offer protection from degradation and deforestation but many activists have concerns that a conservationist approach will not protect the rights of indigenous peoples and only sees the forests as a resources to be traded instead of as an ecosystem with inhabitants.  An NGO called REDD Monitor notes concerns about how creating a fund will only compound existing problems in the region, arguing that “REDD could prove to be another ‘resource curse.’”

Peasant Agriculture & Food Sovereignty vs. “Climate Smart” Agriculture

Farmers are bearing the brunt of the changing climate. Rains and weather in general are arriving at unpredictable times which impact the schedules for planting and harvesting. Farmers are searching for new varieties of crops that are suited for their changing environments, and in general, the changing climate has brought numerous unpredictable challenges into growing and distributing food.  Despite farmers being some of the hardest hit by climate change, the UNFCCC has largely approached climate change by looking towards reducing greenhouse emissions.  Peasant organizations, small-scale farmers and indigenous peoples are fighting to put a spotlight on agriculture, and specifically the issue of adaptation to a changing climate for farmers.

In Latin America, small scale farmers are also up against huge industrial mono-crop agriculture and the Agro-chemical companies that produce genetically modified seeds and harmful pesticides and herbicides.  In Latin America, 87% of the seeds on the market are patented with 77% of those being owned by 10 companies, and half being owned by Monsanto, Dupont y Syngenta.  Despite their track-record of ecological disaster and human rights violations (ie. GMO Soy in Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil) these agro-chemical giants are branding further genetic modifications, industrializations, and new agro-toxins as the new “climate smart” agriculture.

“Climate-smart agriculture is a trap! It is a vague concept which could easily be used by agricultural corporations to rebrand their transgenic seeds and pesticides as climate-smart alternatives,” said Jean-Baptiste Chavannes, member of the Haitian movement Mouvman Paysan Papaye and Via Campesina.  “Real smart agriculture is peasant and indigenous agriculture! We grow 70% of the world’s food with only 20% of the arable land while the agribusiness only grows 30% using 80% of the land.”  The demand for climate justice is also a demand for food sovereignty and security, and farmers are the ones pushing for financing of strategies to adapt to climate change as one of the most important policy outcomes of the climate talks.

Indigenous Rights, Land Rights & Cultural Rights

The struggles against mining, petroleum extraction, deforestation and industrial agriculture disproportionately impact indigenous peoples and conversely, as indigenous people organize to protect their territories, they also do so “for the service of humanity,” as the COICA statement says.  The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN DRIP) lays out a framework that is rooted in self-determination, the right of communities to determine their own future.  If respected, this document lays out a useful framework for placing indigenous rights as central in climate policy.  The UN DRIP also describes the right to “free, prior and informed consent,” that communities be given adequate information and advanced consultation of policies and projects that will impact them. This right was violated in all of the examples above.

There is disagreement among indigenous communities, organizations and individuals about the best mechanism for maintaining collective stewardship and the right to territories.  Some people argue that fighting for legal titles to the land is the best approach whereas others do not recognize the granting state as a legitimate authority over land.  Either way, the right to land and territories are inseparable parts of the rights of indigenous peoples and are fundamental in the struggle for climate justice.

Indigenous rights also implies a different relationship with “Pachamama,” (mother earth in the indigenous Quechua language.) Carlos Martín Sáez Asto, from an Andean musical group that participated in the People’s climate march, said that he “understands Pachamama as our mother, not as a resource.” This different relationship means different policies, economies, and ways of being and knowing.  “There is no word for Revolution in our language,” Sáez Asto said. “We only have a word for restoring harmony, and that is what we need to do.”

In addition to free and informed consent, land and territory rights, the cultural rights of indigenous peoples also must be included in a comprehensive approach to climate justice.  In a report titled “Economic, Social & Cultural Rights on Climate Change: A Legal Reference Guide,” the authors argue that in the face of adaptation policies cultural rights of indigenous people must be prioritized.  This means accessible and culturally appropriate strategies and technologies that are sustainable, community-controlled and fit within the principles of self-determination.

Gender Equity

“Climate change is a feminist issue,” Alina Saba of the Mugal Indigenous Women Uplift Institute (MUWUI) stated resolutely, as she stood with her delegation of indigenous women.  Her argument is that while women have the smallest carbon footprint and have contributed least to the problem of climate change, they are the ones who bear the brunt of the problem and they are the ones that are developing the grassroots strategies to address and adapt to climate change.

When water is contaminated, or scarce, it is often women who must find solutions. It is often women who are responsible for the cooking and cleaning and the management of the household. Since much of this work is not economically or socially-valued by the current system, women are asserting that housework and caring work is the grassroots venue where culturally-relevant climate change adaption strategies are being built, and that this work must be acknowledged, valued, and compensated.

In many rural communities, women are the subsistence farmers and are therefore the ones confronting the agriculture changes mentioned above.  As extractive industries move into isolated rural areas, there are social repercussions to the creation of hubs of temporary precarious work that is often done by men from outside of the community. Women from such communities talked about the increase in alcoholism, domestic violence and sexual assault and the dangerous situations for girls, women and whole communities as a result of this type of employment.  Conversely, as rural communities face challenges in making a livelihood through traditional means such as agriculture and fishing due to contamination and displacement, many men and women are forced to leave in search for (precarious) work. This cuts at the fabric of the community, and it is often women who bear the brunt of caring for children in addition to making a wage to support their families.

At an open panel featuring the voices of women in the climate crisis, a number of women referred to the capitalist system, based on resources extraction, as the literal rape of Pachamama. And, the contamination that results impacts the bodies of women through higher rates of cancer and miscarriages.  Additionally, women are often charged with caring for their sick family members and the creation of precarious work in extractive industries can be linked to increased levels of sexual violence.

Freedom from Corporate Control, Free Trade Agreements & Worker’s Rights

Impacted communities have a clear common enemy.  Multinational Corporations, which have been given unprecedented access to their countries through Free Trade Agreements are largely the obvious culprits behind the contamination and extraction.  In many countries, leaders and communities in resistance also face direct threats of violence from local and national police who are working at the service of multinational corporations.  In some cases paramilitary organizations, or privatized thugs are working to defend corporate interests by repressing social protests and attempting to intimidate communities into silence.

For the last two decades plus, protections for the environment, workers and national sovereignty have been stripped away through neoliberal reforms aimed at encouraging foreign investment.  National laws that created an “unfriendly environment for investment” were seen as barriers to free trade.  Through bilateral trade agreements, NAFTA and CAFTA-DR, the rights of corporations have been expanded while the rights of the people and protections for the environments have been eroded.

The Multinational corporations have promised jobs in Latin America but of the jobs that have been created, most are precarious with high risks for health problems.  Labor Unions in Peru and internationally have come on board to join in the struggle for climate justice by demanding better jobs as the economy transitions away from fossil fuels. This means that workers who are employed in sectors traditionally thought of as “polluters” are looking to redefine their work as the economy transitions towards alternative forms of energy.

Redefining Development, Rejecting Neoliberalism & Necolonialism

The climate justice movement has become an overarching struggle that challenges the very concept of development and redefines the priorities of living well (together).  The Quechua concept, which also exists in many indigenous languages, of Sumaq Kawsay, or Buen vivir, living well, has become the alternative framework that stands in opposition to neoliberal capitalist developmentalism.  The concept of buen vivir, inspired the declaration of the rights of Mother Earth were hatched in Bolivia in a 2010 law establishing mother earth as having rights beyond the use of her resources.

While governments in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela have adopted – and some might argue co-opted – this concept of buen vivir, it still has a deep resonance at the grassroots.  It means living well, so that others may live well; it implies thinking of future generations; it insists on a balance between the individual and the collective; and it means “restoring harmony.” Buen vivir offers a counter to the neoliberal model of development, in which the individual reigns and the tyranny of the market and multinational corporations takes precedence over all.

New technologies mean that today’s form of extractivism causes widespread contamination of the environment and water supplies through new methods of extraction and agro-toxins but the fight against the large-scale export-oriented agriculture and mining date back to the colonial era in Latin America.  Today’s struggles are directly shaped by how Latin American colonies and indigenous and African peoples were incorporated into the global economies as enslaved and cheap labor for the production of goods and resources that were destined for export.  And today, as front-line communities define the historical responsibility of the developing countries which profited off of these relationships, the climate change talks have become one of the most promising venues for making a legitimate case for reparations.

Conclusion: Climate Change Policy as a Case for Reparations

The UNFCCC framework on “Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capacities” is a tool in what the Zapatistas call “the war against forgetting.”  Especially because developed countries’ disproportionate contributions to greenhouse emissions are inextricably linked to their disproportionate capacity to address the climate crisis today.  It was the wealth, labor and resources of the developing world (and largely Latin America) that fueled the industrialization of Europe and North America.  The framework of “differentiated responsibility” which is rooted in historical analysis is exactly the lens that can shine light on the process of underdevelopment in Latin America, and use this as a tool for demanding reparations in the form of financing alternative energy sources and technology, education and healthcare as a means of adapting to climate change, and financial compensation to communities who are on the front line of the climate crisis and have defended their mother earth, for the benefit of us all.

Julián Velaz Alvarez, a Mexican student, stated that “in terms of equity, justice, capability and historical resposibility….The developed countries have to reduce emissions to 80%, and the rest needs to be done through facilitating the change in the developing world with no conditionalities placed on the finance, as an issue of justice, not as an issue of dependency.”

While the word “reparations” may not be the focus of the climate debate, a climate justice policy built on “differentiated historical responsibility” is a viable and promising opportunity to enact policies of mitigation, adaptation and financing that embody reparations for centuries of exploitation.  It is essential that the financing of adaptation, alternative energies, education, training, technology and healthcare respects the sovereignty of indigenous peoples and developing countries and builds relationships that do not recreate dependencies. Building climate justice can only restore harmony in our relationships with the earth and with each other when justice is delivered.  The case for reparations to indigenous and afro-descendant people is evident in any exploration of the history of colonization, slavery and their oppressive offspring. Action on climate change holds the potential to create mechanisms for reparations to impacted communities for those historical and ongoing injustices.

Cory Fischer-Hoffman is a media-maker and doctoral candidate in Latin American, Caribbean and US Latino Studies at the University of Albany, SUNY.  She is currently doing dissertation research on the Venezuelan prison system and working as a journalist in South America.