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Mining For Dollars: Foreign Companies Extract Latin American Minerals, But Not Without Controversy

Companies reap huge profits, but often at the cost of the environment and community upheaval.

Since colonial times, Latin America has attracted foreign investors searching for minerals, a process that involves large sums of money and a significant burden for the local communities.

Mineral exploitation in Latin America and the Caribbean has been an essential income source for the subcontinent since the 16th century. Now, the region is the leading exporter of gold, silver, lead and copper. Brazil exports iron as well.

The most sought-after minerals are lithium and niobium, fundamental to the tech industry.

Unfortunately, mining has had an adverse impact on Latin America’s natural resources local communities.

“The mining problem is serious in Mexico and other Latin American countries,” said Alejandra Casso, a Mexican environmentalist, emphasizing the population suffers social, health and economic consequences.

Sludge rivers leave a costly mark on the land, much of which is inhabited by Indigenous groups. *** Los ríos de lodo industrial dejan una marcan costosa en la tierra, mucha de la cual es habitada por grupos indígenas. (Ivan Bandura/Unsplash)

Companies that do not observe acceptable environmental practices might dump industrial waste in rivers or lakes and affect water quality or impact the mine area’s biodiversity.

Often located on indigenous lands, metal mining zones also face conflicts between locals, government officials and mining companies that sometimes receive immediate but short-term solutions. Long-term problems usually do not get resolved.

Political demonstrations demanding workers’ rights, better working conditions, adequate gear and supplies, and better care of the environment have been the norm in Mexico for decades. Activists mediate among the affected populations, the government and international agencies.

“The mining industry steals our wealth, leaving behind great losses. They damage agricultural lands, pollute rivers and affect the whole environment,” said Casso.

Mining activity in Peru has devasted the landscape. *** La actividad minera en Perú ha devastado el paisaje. (Fabio Hanashiro/Unsplash)

While activists believe that mining corporations profit greatly with minimum investment and damage the land, others argue they invest and create jobs.

Often, governments aid companies by lessening legal and regulatory constraints.

“The problem is that mining companies offer development and employment, but they never warn of the great consequences that mining brings,” said Casso.

 

Latin American governments usually grant companies the concessions they need in exchange for their economic investment.

That happened in the Huichol nation’s sacred lands in northern Mexico. The government gave the Canadian First Majestic Silver Company more than 70 mining concessions, despite the opposition of the Huichol people and the Wirikuta Defense Front. At least 60,000 people joined the Wirikuta Fest — a concert supporting the Huichol nation — in 2012. The mining company then announced it returned some of its concessions to the Native community — which turned out to be false.

Critics worry that many countries don’t strike a balance between the purported economic and fiscal benefits and the costs to the environment, community displacement and social conflict, according to American University.

Asian countries have recently joined extractive ventures in Latin America.

(Translated and edited by Gabriela Olmos. Edited by Fern Siegel)