Conference: Exploiting Latin America

3 June 2014

Human rights abuses and the destruction of the planet dominated discussions at a conference on Europe's role in the extraction of resources in Latin America on Sunday.

The event organised by Friends of the Earth Spain/Amigos de la Tierra España in Madrid brought together European and South American experts and activists.

In a day of powerful personal testimonies, emotive examples, and inspiration and ideas for campaigns, the international audience heard about a range of cases in multiple countries. Underlying all the problems is the power of corporations, so called 'free' trade, and the pursuit of profit.

In the last 30 years there has been an 80% increase in the extraction of raw materials in Latin America. French energy multinational Chevron is now opening up Argentina for the extraction of shale gas. Diego di Riso from Observatorio Petrolero Sur in Argentina explained that complex, secret contracts are drawn up by Chevron for the drilling. Conditions in these contracts force the Argentinian government to change legislation in favour of corporations and to weaken legal protection for local people and the environment.

"There will be scarce profits for Argentina and no real sustainable jobs," he explained.

Spanish water company, Hidralia, and its operations in Guatemala was another example cited. In 2012 a delegation from Friends of the Earth International went on a solidarity mission to visit 11 members of a local community who were imprisoned for 7 months for protesting against the company.

"We cannot allow European companies to operate in a way that violates human rights in other countries, especially when at home they are claiming social responsibility," said Jagoda Munic, chairperson of Friends of the Earth International who was part of the mission.

The conference heard how 'free trade agreements' between countries drive human rights abuses and environmental destruction. Such agreements reinforce the current unsustainable model of resource exploitation and restrict governments' abilities to create public policy.

"Free trade agreements are there to help multinationals. They write into stone a development model which simply does not favour people," Danilo Urrea Camargo of Friends of the Earth Columbia told the conference.

A new agreement between the EU and US is currently under negotiation and, if agreed, will be the biggest trade agreement of all time. An important lesson that can be learned from Latin America for the campaign against the agreement is that information is key. The corporations which stand to profit from the deal and the weaker environmental, employment and social regulations it will bring want to keep the content secret. Friends of the Earth is raising awareness of the deal and campaigning for citizens to have access to the negotiation texts to be able to know what is at stake.

The conference was held directly before Friends of the Earth Europe's Annual General Meeting which brought together representatives of 25 European member groups of the network. They made plans for the network's work on trade and resource extraction, as well as other critical issues, for the next 12 months.