Trends and Best Practices in Environmental Dispute Resolution in Latin America | Wilson Center

Trends and Best Practices in Environmental Dispute Resolution in Latin America

Public policies governing natural-resource extraction in Latin America "are often seen as arbitrary" and illegitimate by communities, said Mara Hernández, director of the Centro de Colaboración Cívica, A.C. – México, at the Wilson Center on June 3, 2009. Pablo Lumerman, director of Argentina's Fundación Cambio Democrático, and Carlos Salazar, director of Socios Perú: Centro de Colaboración Cívica, joined Hernández to share methods of resolving environmental disputes. The event was co-sponsored by the Wilson Center's Environmental Change and Security Program and Latin American Program and held in conjunction with Partners for Democratic Change.

The Balance of Power

Fashioning effective and equitable natural-resource policies requires the participation of all the relevant stakeholders, especially community members who are directly affected, Hernández contended. Consensus building must supplant unilateral decision-making by individual authorities, such as local or national governments.

For example, Fundación Cambio Democrático has successfully constructed a "Platform of Dialogue for Responsible Mining Development," with the Argentinian government as an early and essential partner. The effort is an outgrowth of the organization's Extractive Industries Program, which examines conflict over mining in Argentina.

Similarly, Salazar and Socios Perú have tried to ensure that the Peruvian government and companies operating in Peru build relationships with local communities from the moment they are interested in communities' land, not just once a concession is secured.

However, Hernández believes that excluding government from the initial stages of consensus building can sometimes be advantageous. "Non-governmental organizations…are desperate for long-term solutions to their issues," she said, while politicians "tend to have more short-term views and prefer quick fixes."

When a conflict broke out in the Upper Sea of Cortez in 2005 between fishers and environmentalists over protection of the vaquita marina, a rare porpoise, Centro de Colaboración Cívica convened representatives from the community, NGOs, and corporations. The diverse stakeholders formed an organization called Alto Golfo Sustentable ("Sustainable Upper Gulf"), which successfully lobbied the Mexican government for better protection of the vaquita, improved monitoring of illegal fishing, and sounder management of marine resources.

Transparency and Communication

"Lack of clear and on-time information to the communities" has been a primary driver of conflict around extractive industries, said Salazar. Stakeholders will often disseminate their own information, Lumerman cautioned, with each accusing the other of bias.

A neutral, third-party information provider can mitigate disagreement. For example, in order "to develop a system of information of public access…for all the stakeholders," Fundación Cambio Democrático is creating a mining conflict map of Argentina, said Lumerman.

Cultural Sensitivity and Sustainable Development

Members of local communities often have different worldviews than government elites or corporate representatives. "The land, the water, the air, the trees are more than only resources. They're part of their lives," said Salazar. "So, when a company comes to exploit these resources…the communities are really, really confused."

Natural-resource extraction should be closely linked to the sustainable development of communities. Salazar emphasized that projects with a clear plan for "development, fighting against poverty, improving their way of life" are more likely to be met with approval. Lumerman cited the Cerro Vanguardia mining project as an example of a successful partnership that included local development into its long-term plan.

Drafted by Brian I. Klein and edited by Rachel Weisshaar and Meaghan Parker.