Water Or Gold? Locals Across South America Protest Multinational Mining Projects

Multinationals like Canada’s Barrick Gold are making money hand over fist in mineral-rich South America. Proponents say the mines provide jobs and tax revenue. Many local communities, however, oppose the mega-projects on environmental grounds.

A Bolivian miner (Viaje al corazón de Bolivia)
A Bolivian miner (Viaje al corazón de Bolivia)
Chrystelle Barbier and Christine Legrand

LIMA/BUENOS AIRES -- In Catamarca, one of Argentina's poorest provinces, residents are on the war path. For several weeks now, hundreds of protestors have barricaded routes near the town of Belén to oppose efforts by the multinationals Xtrata and Barrick Gold to expand production of a nearby open-pit mine called La Alumbrera.

In the neighboring province of La Rioja, residents are targeting another project, the Famatina mine, owned by the Canadian firm Osisko Mining Corporation.

"Water is more precious than gold," is the battle cry being raised throughout Latin America by anti-mining groups that include rural peasants, ecologists and scientists. Together they complain of the negative environmental and social impacts caused by open-pit mines, which make heavy use of explosives, cyanide and fresh water. La Alumbrera consumes between 60 and 100 million liters of water per day.

In Peru, thousands of people descended upon Lima in early February for a "national march" to protest the expansion of mining concessions throughout the country. Participants say the mines threaten their local water supplies. The biggest single source of controversy is a $4.8-billion mine project called Conga, which risks emptying several lakes in the northern department of Cajamarca.

In recent years, rising prices for gold, copper and other metals have accelerated the global rush for South America's considerable mineral resources. Between 2003 and 2006, gold production soared 6,000% in Argentina. And in Peru, the world's leading silver producer, mining exports established a new all-time record in 2011, pulling in $27.46 billion – equivalent to 59% of the country's total export earnings.

An unmatched source of revenue, the mining sector is held in great esteem by the region's governments, which view it is an economic windfall. Many experts, however, say that mines like La Alumbrera are only modestly beneficial for their host countries. The lion's share of the wealth, they say, goes into the pockets of multinationals. Such projects do create employment opportunities, but mostly during their initial construction phase. Once the mines are up and running, the number of jobs they provide is relatively small.

Choosing between work and health

What are now dubbed "social-environmental" conflicts are a widespread occurrence in Peru. A case in point is occurring in the city of Oroya, tucked away in the Peruvian Andes roughly 180 kilometers northeast of Lima. There, some 33,000 residents are opposing plans by a firm called Doe Run Peru to resume mining activities that were halted in 2009 for economic reasons.

"The people want to work," says Emma Gomez of the NGO called Cooperacción. In this case, however, people are being forced to choose "between the right to work and the right to good health," she complains. According to Cooperacción, many of the region's residents suffer respiratory problems. Studies have also turned up higher than normal lead levels in blood samples taken from area children.

Another major source of controversy is Pascua Lama, a massive gold mine that hugs the border between Chile and Argentina. Environmentalists complain that the mine will severely damage glaciers on both sides of Andes mountain range. Residents in the valleys below, according to Argentine biologist Raul Montenegro, "depend on the fresh water provided by these glaciers for the farming activities, for their very lives."

Nevertheless, the $1.5 billion project – owned by Canada's Barrick Gold – enjoys implicit support from the Argentine government. It received a big boost in 2008 when President Cristina Kirchner vetoed a proposed glacier protection law that would have limited mining and oil production in protected zones.

Kirchner and other South American leaders tend to favor major foreign investment opportunities over local environmental concerns. Critics note that the environmental impact reports required for many of these large products are often carried out by the multinational companies themselves.

The mining companies also enjoy legal "immunity," says Antonio Gomez, a federal prosecutor for the Argentina mining provinces of Catamarca, Santiago del Estero and Tucuman. "Their pollution offenses are ignored."

Peruvian President Ollanta Humala promotes "responsible mining," insisting that farming and mining projects can coexist. His ideas, however, don't tend to resonate with local communities, which accuse multinationals of trampling on their rights and polluting their resources.

In Peru, a "prior consultation law" was established last September, but has yet to go into effect. Similar laws exist – but aren't applied – in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - Viaje al corazón de Bolivia

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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