The expansion of extractive industries is a key pillar of the macroeconomic strategy of states throughout Latin America, with a number of these states seeing extractives as a vehicle for social investment and poverty reduction. However, there is no overall consensus about the benefits of the extractive model and increasingly resistance to it has been met with harsh rhetoric, violent repression and the criminalisation of opponents. In mid 2008 in the Peruvian Amazon, for example, 33 people were killed when the police violently repressed a protest march against a series of decrees intended to unblock stalled mining projects approved under Peru’s Free Trade Agreement with the USA.
Communities can be opposed to extraction for a range of reasons: on the whole, extractive companies have a poor record in respecting the rights of the communities their operations affect. Common complaints include severe damage to the environment and water resources, due to the release of toxic substances through mining processes or accidental spills; negative health impacts on surrounding communities, especially skin and respiratory problems; forced displacement of communities and the destruction of ancestral land which has spiritual and hereditary significance for indigenous people. Lack of prior consultation with communities and the violation of hard-won constitutional and legal rights related to water, land, the environment and collective rights are additional problems.
In Latin America traditional channels for the expression of opinion and opposition are highly circumscribed. In this context, social protest and mobilisation are a way in which people can publically exercise their freedom of expression and association. Common tactics such as road blockages and demonstrations are often the culmination of many months or years of attempts to be heard through dialogue. Democratic states have a duty to allow protests to happen, and indeed to provide protection when they do. But in Latin America, protest – and particularly that related to large investment projects - is routinely met by direct repression and with the abuse of judicial procedures to convert legitimate protest into criminal acts. The aim of criminalisation is to create fear, tarnish reputations, weaken resistance, force opponents to expend time and resources defending themselves and to justify the use of force against them. Ultimately states and companies want to weaken and neutralise resistance so that large scale extractive projects can proceed. In this document we explore the role that states and companies play in perpetrating and benefiting from criminalisation, explain why this trend is of concern and make recommendations to international institutions concerned with protecting the basic rights of ordinary citizens. This includes the right to protect the environment and contest macroeconomic policies which they do not believe will be to their long-term benefit.
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“Criminalizing legitimate social mobilization and social protest, whether through direct repression of the demonstrators or through an investigation and criminal prosecution, is incompatible with a democratic society in which persons have the right to express their opinion”
“[S]tates have the obligation to ensure that no human rights defender is prevented from meeting or publicly expressing him or herself, which means that the state authorities must abstain from preventing the exercise of this right and must also take measures to ensure that others do not prevent it. States also must take the administrative and law enforcement steps necessary to enable defenders to carry out their activities, which includes positive steps such as detouring traffic and providing police protection for demonstrations and rallies, where necessary”
The Inter American Human Rights Commission on Criminalisation , OEA/Ser.:/VII.124 Doc rev.1 7 March 2006