As extractive industrial activity grows in Latin America, we have seen an increased use of popular consultations on issues of extraction. What are popular consultations? Why are they important? Popular consultations are a mechanism or form of direct democracy in which citizens vote on issues that are likely to affect their community, including, whether (or not) extractive activities can be carried out in their territory.
Starting with Tambogrande, Peru in 2002, Esquel, Argentina in 2003, and then Sipacapa, Guatemala in 2005, the use of popular consultations to decide issues of mining and petroleum activities has gained strength across Latin American and within countries. Just in Guatemala between 2005 and 2009 there have been 35 neighborhood consultations with about 500 to 700 thousand participants. Even in countries like México, which did not previously have this mechanism, they passed the Popular Consultation Law at the end of February.
In almost all the consultations, citizens have overwhelmingly voted against extractive activity. In Colombia, for example, in July of 2013 in the rice-growing municipality of Piedras, 99 percent of its citizens arrived at the polls to vote against allowing mining activities in their territory. Similarly, in November 2012 in the Guatemalan municipality of La Villa de Mataquescuintla more than ten thousand people opposed a new mining project, while only 100 voted in favor of it.
As the use of consultations has grown alongside strong citizen rejection of extractivism, there has also been an increase of government and business efforts to stop them. In Colombia, for example, where the outcomes of popular consultations are legally binding,
President Juan Manuel Santos gave an interview to a major newspaper where he said: “these [popular] consultations are illegally and have no legal effect. The subsoil belongs to all Colombians. There is no room for discussion here.”
But this phenomenon is not exclusive to Latin America. In the United States, the fracking boom has spurred these types of consultations in rural communities, as well as company efforts to stop them.
It is important to defend the use of popular consultations for three reasons. First because they are form of materializing the legal right of participation on environmental issues, derived from internationals instrument signed by many countries in the region, such as the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (Principle 10), el Convention on Biological Diversity and recent agreements and action plans adopted alter Rio + 20.
Second because it is a mechanism that promotes democracy. After the popular consultation held in December 2013 in the Colombian municipality of Tauramena, in which 96 percent of voters rejected petroleum exploration activities, the Mayor told a national newspaper that it was an “event of great importance, because even though they were special elections, more people voted than in the mayoral election.”
Finally, since socio-enviromental conflict has grown dramatically in the Global South (as the Global Atlas of Environmental Justice reported last week), popular consultations may help prevent conflict and achieve forms of development that are more balanced and that can count on the participation and the approval of citizens directly affected by the projects.
*Diana Rodríguez Franco is a PhD student at Northwestern University and an Affiliated Researcher at the Center for Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).
Featured photo: Alejandro Ojeda