NGO Mining Working Group Raises the Issue of Land- and Water-Grabbing

As always, there were a number of stellar side-events sponsored by the NGO community at this year’s Commission on Social Development (CSocD). As a member of the NGO Mining Working Group, UNANIMA was connected to one such side-event, which framed protection of land and water as a strategy for poverty eradication. Much of the discussion focused on the negative impact of mining and other profit-driven land-grabbing on indigenous communities, the same topic of the written intervention UNANIMA submitted to this CSocD.

The first speaker, Father Nicolas Barla (right), spoke of his experiences in ministry as a community activist and organizer in rural areas of India that are mined for bauxite and other minerals. According to Fr. Barla, these populations are often displaced en masse by mining activities that destroy their property. The majority of persons affected are not provided with any aid or recompense from the corporations performing the mining or from the government who provided the corporations with a permit to mine. They are thus left with little or no monetary or natural resources with which to support themselves. In addition, they lose their dignity, language, and identity when they are forced to move to a new region. In this way, the  “indigenous people are victims of ‘development.’” In a meeting with Religious representatives at the UN the following week, Fr. Barla offered an additional insight gained from his experience of organizing in indigenous communities. It is critical, he said, for Religious to not only follow and sympathize with the plight of the people they serve, but to join their movements.

The event also provided attendees with an opportunity to understand why devastating industrial activities like those Fr. Barla described are allowed to continue, and why they so often do the most harm in the world’s poorest regions. Expert panelist Christina Hioureas (left), who serves as legal counsel for UN Member States, private entities, individuals in international disputes, explained that investment treaties between nations often inhibit national governments from protecting natural resources because the treaties bar governments from regulating corporations in the interest of the common good. Most of the international investment treaties active today were developed in the 1990s. They were typically drafted by wealthy nations and signed by low-income nations who were seeking to promote economic development and job creation in their country. These leaders of low-income nations did not comprehend or anticipate the language of these treaties would be expanded and manipulated to drawn them into costly legal battles with multinational corporations who would sue them for millions or billions of dollars. Ms. Hioureas explained that there are several claims corporations can make against a government that attempts to prioritize its own resources or people over the financial interests of the corporation. Corporations can sue a government that decides to impose new industry regulations or refuses to renew a corporation’s permit to operate after becoming aware of damaging effects that corporation’s project is having on an ecosystem or community. They can also sue a government for failure to diffuse any public demonstration that inhibits their operations. In this manner, foreign investment has often perpetuated or deepened poverty in low-income nations rather than alleviating it. Fortunately, Ms. Hioureas also offered a few solutions to this international predicament. States are able to conduct a legal review of any treaty to which they are a party and can seek to terminate it or renegotiate it. They can also rework their national laws and future contracts with investors in a manner that lessens their vulnerability to investor lawsuits. She also encouraged citizens to get involved in the process by encouraging their own governments to sign on to the Mauritius Treaty (explained here in any of 6 UN languages), which allows for greater transparency in investor-State dispute settlements by allowing them to be recorded and publicized. Anyone interested in following pending disputes, or possibly getting involved by submitting an “amicus brief,” can learn about open cases by searching the World Bank’s Investor-State Dispute Settlement Database (available in English, Spanish, and French).

A video recording of the full event is available here: