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Mining New Ways to Protect the Environment

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Despite the recent decline in the price of precious metals, conflicts continue to bubble up throughout Latin America as communities, activists, governments, and the mining industry work to protect the environment and still extract vital resources from the earth. 


Published April 2016




The insatiable global appetite for precious metals reaches deep into the Amazon and all across Latin America. The Inter-American Mining Society expects mining investments in Latin America to reach US $300 billion by 2020. With the price of gold increasing to four figures and silver more than doubling over the past decade, the rush to mine precious metals from Latin America has brought all the economic booms a gold rush causes as well as all the environmental damage left in the rush’s wake.

The Database of Mining Conflicts in Latin America has identified 208 mining conflicts in Latin American countries out of 337 mining projects in the region. That number affects 312 communities, with Mexico, Peru, and Chile having more than 30 conflicts each. Too often, governments lack clear processes, adequate resources, and the political ability to respond to these conflicts. The solution requires proactive and continuous communication between governments, corporations, and local communities in order to balance regulating industry with distributing economic benefits, which in the end will help to prevent and manage conflicts.

To reduce conflicts over natural resource projects, governments in Latin America and elsewhere will have to address many dif ficult questions, including how to balance local demands with national interests, weigh industr y regulation and investment promotion, and maximize local economic development.

By improving dialogue and bringing local communities into deeper involvement with the consultation process from the start of each project, government can better explain the benefits and drawbacks of natural resource projects.

Gold, silver, copper, iron, zinc. All that and more, waiting to be mined, usually requiring the clear cutting of forests, the draining of lakes and waterways, and even the relocation of entire villages. Environmental impact assessments and studies keep citizens informed as global mining corporations attempt to ease environmental concerns and create jobs in order to convince local and federal authorities to approve the projects. From one end of Latin America to the other, numerous projects have been put on hold or even canceled due to the strong, organized opposition from environmental groups.

Latin America’s economies rely heavily on the export of commodities, including oil and minerals. These primary goods made up 40 percent of Central and South American exports in 2013, nearly double the worldwide average of 22 percent.

Concerned over the millions of gallons of water diverted for mining as well as the toxic cyanide required to separate gold from rock, which works its way into the water, activists struggle to keep the new gold rush as environmentally friendly as possible while maintaining the support of communities desperate for the economic impact of mining. “It is true that there is a new environmental consciousness among the people,” says Juan Carlos Belausteguigoitia, a World Bank environmental economist for Latin America and the Caribbean. “But people also are realizing the unusual profits that mining brings them and they want part of them to stay in their region.”


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