The Heart of Our Earth: Community Resistance to Mining in Latin America (Review)

In the face of the massive intensification of extractive industries, Tom Gatehouse’s forthcoming book presents a sweeping study of key mining resistance movements across Latin America.

February 10, 2023

The Heart of our Earth, Practical Action Publishing, March 2023

Mining has long shaped Latin American history; this mega industry holds a tight economic and political grip on the region. Over the past two decades, mining in Latin America has seen massive expansion and intensification to an unprecedented degree. This expansion has brought discussions surrounding mining further into public view, and engendered mass resistance from the communities it most affects.

Tom Gatehouse’s The Heart of Our Earth provides a well-researched and clear-sighted view of many of these key resistance movements. Written in accessible and non-academic language, the book explores the impact of mining operations, how local communities are rising up against mining corporations and complicit governments, and the violent repression they often face. It also shows how they are succeeding: from direct action, to legal consultations, to peaceful protest and even art and street theater, The Heart of Our Earth cites a vibrant and diverse range of resistance strategies.

The book draws together wide-ranging materials from journalistic, academic, and governmental sources as well as featuring extensive interviews with NGOs, scholars, activists, and local residents. Partly written during the pandemic, Gatehouse was somewhat limited in his ability to travel in Latin America, so the book features fewer than anticipated on-the-ground scenes and voices. However, Gatehouse makes up for this in his thorough examination of the social, political, and economic background of each mining conflict. Where it can, The Heart of Our Earth gives particular space to those often most marginalized by mining activities, including women and Indigenous groups.

Deftly interweaving testimony, action, and original research, The Heart of Our Earth is a comprehensive and engaging overview of different movements that have taken on extractive and toxic mining corporations over the past twenty years. Moving across the whole region, from Honduras to Chile, The Heart of Our Earth covers some of the most well-known cases of resistance to mining, such as the Yanacocha gold and copper mine in Peru and the 2015 tailings dam disaster in Brazil, while also highlighting movements that have received less coverage in the anglophone press. Chapter two, for example, features underrepresented actions against Canadian mining companies, such as Maya Q’eqchi plaintiffs from El Estor, Guatemala and enduring resistance to copper extraction in Ecuador’s Intag Valley. Chapter three discusses the dispute in San Juan, Argentina, where residents set up the Asamblea Jáchal No Se Toca and marched to shut down the Veladero gold mine after a toxic spill of mercury and other heavy metals. Despite being one of the worst mining spills in Argentina’s history, the case has received little attention in the English-language press.

As each chapter narrows in on one or two specific movements, the sheer breadth of the research undertaken for the book illustrates not only how each of these examples of resistance differ in size, scale, and tactics, but also how they inspire and inform each other, creating a network of solidarity across different regions and struggles. With the rise of the internet, local groups have been able to increase their knowledge about projects across the region, gain visibility, connect with each other, and strategize about how to best organize. Gatehouse provides a well-balanced account of this organizing, that does not attempt to idealize or glorify the resistance movements. Rather, he points out that these groups have their own faults and challenges as any resistance groups do. He shows that the level of damage caused by extractive mining operations on a social, psychological, and physical level is such that they are often forced into action.

Time and time again, The Heart of Our Earth demonstrates that resistance to mining is not only a struggle against environmental damage but an issue of social justice. Many communities are fighting against the damages inflicted on their environments while also combatting land dispossession and a lack of representation and participation in decisions involving the development of mining operations in their territories. Gatehouse’s analysis shows how the mining industry in Latin America has deep roots in neoliberal policies, which prioritize profits over people.

Corporate Tactics and Busting the Myth of Sustainable Mining

In addition to spotlighting resistance to mining, the book also unravels strategies employed by governments and mining corporations in order to protect and promote mining. Chapter six covers Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) tactics, which the United Nations describes as "a management concept whereby companies integrate social and environmental concerns in their business operations and interactions with their stakeholders." In other words, CSR refers to maneuvers by mining companies to set up social and economic mobility initiatives such as education programs, jobs, etc. to mitigate the damaging effects of the mining activity in the area.

In locations where grassroots action is very strong, such as in the case of the Ixtacamaxtitlán municipality in Puebla, Mexico, companies often use CSR tactics to neutralize opposition, create divides in the community, and foster a favorable environment for extractive industries. Unfortunately, while these tactics may create new social and economic opportunities for some local residents, they largely serve to give mining operations a veil of social legitimacy, both within the community and beyond.

The Heart of Our Earth brings to the fore another strategy mining companies increasingly utilize in order to whiten or greenwash their public image: the question of “sustainable mining.” It is estimated that roughly two thirds of the world’s lithium stores are found in Latin America. Lithium, along with copper, will be crucial to the energy transition as we attempt to decarbonize our economies and move away from fossil fuels. Yet, as evidenced in The Heart of Our Earth, copper and lithium-mining operations are already having a dramatic impact on the ecosystems and communities of Cordillera del Cóndor in Ecuador and Salar de Atacama in Chile. With demand for lithium and copper expected to increase precipitously over the next decade, can mining truly be reconcilable with the interests of local communities?

In short, the answer is no, at least certainly not in its current state. While large mining conglomerates such as Anglo American have long attempted to greenwash their policies, suggesting that “mining and the environment can coexist harmoniously” and that they hold the solutions to climate change, in practice they have been and continue to be at the core of the problem. Indeed, many communities in Latin America see industrial mining in its current form as wholly incompatible with their ways of life.

Towards a Just and Sustainable Future

The book is arguably most effective in its vision for a just and sustainable future. While Gatehouse does not idealize a future completely free of mining—and is realistic in his understanding of our reliance on metals and minerals produced through extractivism—he is firm in his positioning that to be sustainable, the industry requires a radical restructuring. Gatehouse warns against a green-capitalist future. Instead, he argues that at the forefront, the mining industry must put people over profit.

The only possibility for any form of “sustainable mining” must be inherently community-led and requires a significant scaling down of the industry. As well as referencing recent steps forward in the Rights of Nature movement, The Heart of Our Earth cites what Uruguayan researcher Eduardo Gudynas calls “indispensable extractivism” in this vision for a sustainable future. Indispensable extractivism entails a massive scaling down of all extractive industries, including mining, so that “the only ones left are those that are genuinely necessary, meet social and environmental conditions, and are directly linked to national and regional economic chains.”

Gatehouse points to Chile’s Atacama Desert, where a group of Indigenous Atacameños have drawn up a development plan that both centers their Andean Indigenous worldview and also shows how they can improve the production line to become self-sufficient and less destructive in the future. As Gatehouse notes, “it is an expression of their dual identity: both as Indigenous people, and as businesspeople.” Communities and activists all over Latin America are not demanding better conditions for an industry that has all but destroyed their homes and livelihoods. Rather, they are demanding a radical change that confronts the current climate injustice at play, where no community will be sacrificed in the name of profit.

In Gatehouse’s own words: “We must find ways to make do with less. This isn’t a call for a return to some pre-industrial age; on the contrary, this is our chance to rise to the challenges of the 21st century, and to free ourselves from a wasteful, inefficient, and unjust model of consumption which is rapidly destroying the conditions necessary for human life on this planet. A sustainable future will be fairer and more rational, or it will not be sustainable at all.”

The Heart of Our Earth is an urgent, timely and hopeful look at people’s power against mining in Latin America. It is a vital read for anyone interested in resistance to mining movements, not only in Latin America but around the world.

Jasmine Haniff has an MA in Postcolonial Culture & Global Policy from Goldsmith University, London. Her research interests lie in the relationship between art and activism in Latin America, with a particular focus on resistance to extractive industries. 

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.