Latin America: A New Cycle of Social Struggles

July 12, 2012


The first three months of 2012 registered an astounding acceleration of the Latin American movements defending water and life against the mining industry, large hydroelectric dams, and monocultures. There have been three powerful popular-movement actions: Peru’s national March for the Right to Water, from the northern region of Cajamarca to the capital city of Lima in February; the mass uprising in Aysén, Chile, the same month; and the indigenous Ecuadoran People’s March for Water, Land, and Dignity, which began on March 8. To these we can add Bolivia’s 2011 march in defense of the Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS). All the recent uprisings have followed more or less similar itineraries.1 In the beginning, they were local resistance movements against private businesses. Over time, they multiplied, forming a broad tapestry of local rebellion that began to overflow onto regional and national scales.

In the last two years, we have witnessed the formation of true macro-regional and transnational movements defending the common good. They are potent actions that on various occasions feed torrents that have carved powerful trenches capable of crushing governments. In some cases, such as the 2009 incidents in Bagua, Peru, they tend to become wars for life.


1123Peruvian march outside of Cajamarca on February 2 (Julio Quispe Medrano/CONACAMI PERÚ)

The Peruvian march came as a response to the Ollanta Humala government’s repression in Cajamarca, where communities were attacked by government forces in late November for opposing the Conga Mining Project of the multinational Yanacocha, the largest producer of gold on the continent.

On February 19, the International Observation Delegation of the March for the Right to Water issued a report that points out that in the Cajamarca province of Hualgayoc alone “there are 1,262 registered environmental liabilities, abandoned by former mining companies, which contaminate the water used for drinking, irrigating, and stockbreeding.” Yanacocha has already polluted 800 springs. Mining industry and urban industrial spills have contaminated 16 of Peru’s 53 rivers that flow into the Pacific Ocean.2

The report states that for more than 10 years, the company has had a private police force in charge of “the repression of protests, wire tapping, information espionage, and the tracking of leaders.” Mining companies have also attempted to create divisions in the Cajarmaca movement by buying off leaders. But the strength of the communities, which have won two referendums against mining in Tambogrande (June 2002) and Majaz (September 2007) has allowed them to overcome the attacks, intensify their demonstrations, and even gain the support of the Cajamarca regional government.


During the conflict in November, the Peruvian government responded by declaring a state of emergency that brought in the Armed Forces, which severely injured several anti-mining protesters. The Peruvian economist Óscar Ugarteche—an author in this issue and who supported Humala’s candidacy—pointed out in a December article that “the mining industry generates foreign exchange and leaves environmental liabilities that have become a major problem in the Cajamarca area.” He continued: “In the month of September there were 90 latent socio-environmental conflicts related to the mining industry which began to explode in the month of November when the population began to feel that nothing was happening with their demands before the change of government.”3 The government should have stopped the Conga activity to contain the social crisis.

The march was met in Lima by thousands of people in solidarity with the peasant communities. It was the fourth mining project blocked by social pressure.4 In the Cajamarca demonstration and in the march to Lima, there was a convergence of various political groups, including the Defense Fronts (community organizations born in the 1970s in Cajamarca and Piura to combat cattle rustling that later confronted both the Shining Path guerrilla insurgency and paramilitary groups), self-defense community organizations known as rondas campesinas (peasant patrols), sectors of the church, urban associations, unions, local authorities, and national congressional representatives. According to veteran peasant leader Hugo Blanco, it was “the most important popular demonstration since the period of [former president Alberto] Fujimori.”5


1124Demonstrators behind a Chilean flag in the Aysén in February (Carolina Cerda Inostroza)

In mid-February, the Aysén region, in southern Chile, rose up with a list of 11 demands. Among the most prominent were the following: a reduction in the cost of fuel, quality health care, income equalization with the rest of the country, an end to the Hydro-Aysén dam project, transportation subsidies, and a housing program. The cost of living in the Aysén region is higher than the rest of the country, while standards of living, health, and education are lower. This is largely due to its isolated location, which makes the Patagonians feel forgotten.

In May 2011, the Chilean government approved the Hydro-Aysén project, which includes the construction of five hydroelectric plants, two in the Baker River and three in the Pascua River, which will have an installed capacity of 2,750 megawatts with an investment of $3.2 billion. HydroAysén could produce 20% of Chile’s energy, making it the most important energy project in the country. Nevertheless, the dams leave nothing to the Aysén residents. As soon as the project was approved, large demonstrations were held throughout the country. Thirty thousand people protested in the Chilean capital, Santiago. According to a survey in Santiago’s daily newspaper La Tercera, 74% of the population opposed the project.6

The protests unleashed in February were convened by the Social Movement for the Aysén Region, a giant umbrella group that incorporates all the social organizations of the south, from environmentalists and unions to even conservative groups, left- and right-wing parties, and unaffiliated people. The protests worked to shut down the region by carrying out demonstrations, blockading bridges and highways, and taking docks, ports, airfields, and airports to paralyze commerce and daily life. The main local municipal governments support the population.

The response from the national government was brutal. More than 400 Special Police Force troops, or Carabineros, were transported to the region. The Observatory of Human Rights of Aysén, a group composed of various Chilean human rights organizations, documented hundreds of injuries due to the repression. Troops fired tear gas inside homes, shot steel pellets at point-blank range, prevented medical attention from reaching the injured, arrested those who went to hospitals to document injuries, hit people with police cars, and announced death threats through loudspeakers.7

The Observatory found that 200 people were treated at the hospital in Aysén, a city of only 26,000 inhabitants. It also reported that many people preferred not to go to the hospital to avoid arrest and that residents launched a donation campaign of intravenous serum, gauze, and bandages since the hospital had run out of them. In the beginning of March, when the repression had failed to subdue the population, the government of Sebastián Piñera opened a dialogue.


In Ecuador, the People’s March for Water, Life, and Dignity began on March 8, covering the country from three points: through the mountains from Zamora Chinchipe, an Amazonian province in the south, along the southern coast, and from the north, starting from Tulcán, on the border with Colombia. The three columns met in Quito on March 22. The march was organized by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) in defense of Ecuador’s 2008 constitution, which proclaims that nature has rights; for the approval of a water law; and against what they called the “violations and overbearing attitudes” of President Rafael Correa’s government.8

On March 8, the same day the march began, the government convoked a mass rally where Correa called on his supporters to defend democracy, arguing that the indigenous people were trying to destabilize the country. He called the indigenous marchers “conspirators,” “haters,” and “retarded,” and he promised that his supporters would mobilize to prevent the march from reaching Quito.9 Later on his television program Citizen Link, he launched a dangerous challenge: “On the 22nd we’ll see hundreds of thousands in Quito. If they are 500 strong, we’ll be 5,000. We won’t allow the childish left wing, with their feathers and ponchos, to destabilize this process of change.”10

Correa’s real fear is that the indigenous movement, which brought him to power, is the same social and political force that overthrew two presidents before him (Abdalá Bucaram in 1997 and Jamil Mahuad in 2000). Since he came to power in 2006, Correa has sought every means to weaken the movement through a combination of repression and social politics. At the moment, there are 197 leaders and indigenous activists accused of terrorism and sabotage by Correa’s government.11 The main point of friction is the mining industry: Just days before the march started, the government signed the first contract with the Chinese mining corporation Ecuacorriente to exploit copper in Zamora Chinchipe, the province where the march began.

One of the peculiarities of Correa’s government is that it has made protest a crime. The Ethical Court of the Continental Meeting for Water and Pachamama, held in Cuenca in June 2011, reviewed 13 cases of people accused of terrorism and sabotage, and listened to Ecuador’s ombudsman, Fernando Gutiérrez Vera, who condemned the government for “utilizing the rotten system of justice to criminalize the movements.” He asked if there was a systematic state policy designed to prosecute social protest.

The court’s final report, written in consultation with experts, affirms that Ecuador’s Penal Code, as reformed in 2006, violates the Constitution, particularly in regard to the right to protest. “With the military corps trained to intimidate, protected by force, the government tries to silence or stop protest, intimidate social leaders, and tear apart the social fabric that allows protest and on which social movements are based,” reads the report.12 Other governments in the region, such as Bolivia and Paraguay, as well as right-wing governments, are also attempting to criminalize social protest.13


A new social conflict is emerging in Latin America. As the International Observer Delegation for the March for the Right to Water in Peru wrote in February, “Environmental conflicts with a heavy social responsibility are spreading and intensifying through all of Latin America, as the life, health, and survival of indigenous and rural communities are affected, as agricultural activities and the urban populations downstream from the river basins are increasingly affected.”14

In the various demonstrations carried out recently, such as the TIPNIS march in Bolivia, the March for Water in Ecuador, the struggle of the Aysén inhabitants in Chile, the resistance to the Belo Monte dam in Brazil, and the demonstration of the Union of Citizens Assemblies in Argentina, we see the same repetitive pattern of social action: the convergence of multiple conflicts around open-pit mining, oil exploitation, the construction of dams that displace millions of families, and the privatization of urban services such as water and sanitation, among others.

In every country, a social awareness is growing about the problems generated by neo-developmentalism. People are beginning to question the current model of unlimited growth based on the exploitation of the common good. But there are numerous difficulties in engaging more sectors of the population. On the one hand, there is no alternative model to allow the state to obtain substantial revenue. In Peru, 60% of exports come from the mining industry, and in Colombia, 80% of foreign investment is directed toward mining and hydrocarbons, according to a February article in Lima’s daily newspaper La República by Peruvian congressman Javier Díez Canseco.15 How can governments continue to spend on social policies—as a substitute for the lack of formal jobs—in countries where the majority of the population continues to work in the informal sector?

The second challenge is related to the brutal concentration of power. In his article, Díez Canseco offers some more statistics to understand how the mining industry has become an incessantly growing cancer. In 2011, 75% of the mining exports in Peru were concentrated in gold and copper. Fifty-two percent of the country’s gold exports were made by only two companies, and 48% of the copper exports were made by three companies. The mining sector has an average net profit margin of over 40%. Minas Buenaventura, a partner of Yanacocha, averages a net profit margin of 84%. In other words, writes Díez Canseco, large mining companies in Peru “earn the equivalent of all their assets in four years while some companies can make it in two.”

“Who wouldn’t want to invest?” he asks.

Together with large agribusiness companies, like Monsanto and the Brazilian construction companies Camargo Corrêa, OAS, and Odebrecht, the mining sector is part of the 1% that accumulate money and have the capacity to dictate their interests to governments, even if they call themselves “revolutionaries.” The entire mining industry in Peru leaves the country only $4.5 billion in taxes, barely 17% of what it exports. That’s very little. But it is almost as much as the Peruvian government’s annual budget on education ($5.6 billion) and well above the health budget ($3.2 billions), according to Díez Canseco. That is why governments yield to the big companies.

What began as an isolated environmental protest is now a continental movement for life. Much has been achieved in 10 years. But a step even more important than fighting to change governments needs to be taken: to create a different model of life that respects nature and people and that captures the will of the people with such powerful force, that it shakes people from their consumerist dreams. It is necessary to “occupy” the progressive governments of Latin America so that they don’t deviate from the objectives for which they were elected. But above all, it is urgent that we begin to occupy the hearts and minds of the population.




Raúl Zibechi is a Uruguayan professor, activist, and journalist. His most recent books translated into English are Dispersing Power (2010) and Territories in Resistance (2012), both by AK Press. This article was translated for NACLA by Jesenia Dolmus.




1. Raúl Zibechi, “Un nuevo triunfo de la gente común,” Americas Program, October 23, 2011, available at

2. Pedro Arrojo y la Misión de Observación Internacional en la Marcha por el Derecho al Agua, “Informe sobre la Gran Marcha Nacional por el Derecho al Agua en Perú,” Observacion en Peru, February 19, 2012, available at

3. Óscar Ugarteche, “Ser elegido con la izquierda para gobernar con la derecha,” ALAI, December 20, 2011, available at

4. Semana (Bogotá), “La guerra verde,” December 10, 2011, available at

5. Lucha Indígena (Cusco), “Marcha del Agua,” editorial, February 2012, no. 66, 2.

6. La Tercera (Santiago, Chile), “74% rechaza HidroAysén,” May 15, 2011, available at

7. Red Observatorio Derechos Humanos, “Declaración pública observatorio de derechos humanos Aysén,” Radio Popular Enrique Torres, February 29, 2012, available at; Observatory on Human Rights, “Declaración pública: Gobierno incrementa la violencia en Aysén,” March 2, 2012, available at

8. Ecuarunari, “Conaie y sectores sociales convocaron a la gran marcha nacional,” February 24, 2012, available at

9. Agencia EFE (Quito), “Correa advierte ‘derrota’ de oposición en homenaje multitudinario a mujeres,” March 9, 2012, available at

10. Rafael Correa, “Enlace Ciudadano,” ECTV, March 10, 2012, available at

11. Agencia Ane, “Llegaremos a quito emponchonados y emplumados,” Ecuarunari, March 14, 2012,

12. Raúl Zibechi, “Conference for Water and Pachamama,” Americas Program, July 28, 2011, available at

13. “Veredicto del Tribunal Ético ante la Criminalización de los Defensores y Defensoras de los Derechos Humanos y la Naturaleza,” Acción Ecologica, June 22, 2011, available at

14. Arrojo et al., “Informe sobre la Gran Marcha Nacional por el Derecho al Agua en Perú.”

15. Javier Díez Canseco, “La oligarquía minera,” La República (Lima), February 27, 2012.


Read the rest of NACLA’s Summer 2012 issue: “Latin America and the Global Economy.”



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