From Extractivism Towards Buen Vivir

El Salvador Takes the Lead in Banning Metals Mining, and a Number of Other Poorer Countries are Implementing Mining Policies that Show that the Environment Matters to Them

Robin Broad

How many of you knew that more than half a dozen poorer governments have, in the last decade, stood up to global mining firms and asserted environmental goals over short-term financial gains? It is a stunning story.

And it opens up the bigger question that PhD student Julia Fischer-Mackey and I tackle in a recently published Third World Quarterly article*: Can Third World governments steer away from plunder “extractivism” towards a new model of development that prioritizes the environment? Our article begins to answer this question by zeroing in on mining policy change as an indicator that an increasing number of governments historically engaged in “extractivism”-based development are changing course and prioritizing environmental concerns. That is, there are poorer countries initiating policies to incorporate environmental externalities, policies that suggest a changing development paradigm in the direction of environmental—and concomitant social and economic—“well-being.”

This shift is evidenced notably in the appearance of mining bans being put in place primarily for environmental reasons.  However, this shifting minerals policy is happening largely off the radar screen of development and environment scholars.

Our inquiry arises from field work that John Cavanagh and I conducted in El Salvador and Costa Rica starting in 2007. As I have written elsewhere, the government of El Salvador has had a de facto moratorium on industrial metals mining since 2006-2007. As a result, for some years, there has been no industrial gold mining in El Salvador. This policy was codified into law in March 2017 when El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly unanimously passed a law banning all metals mining. El Salvador’s mining policy is remarkable, given the country’s widespread poverty and the relatively high price of gold. And when I first learned of it, the Salvadoran mining ban appeared to be an aberration deviating from the extractivism norm.

However, also largely off the development and environment radar screen, the government of Costa Rica first initiated an executive ban limiting mining in 2002—fifteen years ago. The policy specifically bans new open-pit mining and use of cyanide—the combination of which essentially bans any new mining operations. This policy change began as executive branch decisions, then was passed into law by Costa Rica’s Congress in 2010, and subsequently was upheld by the Costa Rican Supreme Court.

Discovering that a second country had a mining ban led to the inquiry detailed in Julia Fischer-Mackey’s and my Third World Quarterly article: Rather than being deviations from a trend, could these two small countries represent the beginning of a trend with broader significance? Are they, in fact, trendsetters? Are there other countries pushing back against extractives?

In our article, we begin with El Salvador and Costa Rica to acquaint readers with those cases. To repeat: Both have major mining bans in place. Both have said “no” in a period of sustained high minerals prices, thus giving up substantial export earnings. And, both have sustained—indeed, strengthened—their mining bans despite costly lawsuits by mining firms in the key investor-state-dispute-settlement (ISDS) venue, the World Bank Group’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID). (For more about ISDS and ICSID, see my past blog posts in Triple Crisis, as well as my law journal article and John Cavanagh’s and my The Nation and other pieces.)

The Third World Quarterly article then moves on from these two countries to ask the question: Are there signs of similar mining policy initiatives in other countries?

We ended up with a set of six countries—a fascinating range—which we present as individual case-studies. Among them are four countries—Panama, Colombia, Argentina, and New Zealand—whose governments have changed mining policies to incorporate environmental concerns.  And another country, Chile, is in the midst of high level debates over doing so, as has been the Philippines more recently.

My goal with this blog post is not to cover the full article or the details of each case study, but in brief, we look at:

  • Panama: where laws prohibit mining on Indigenous lands that cover one-tenth of the country;
  • Colombia: with laws protecting the uplands (páramos) from mining;
  • Argentina: where we see both provincial-level mining bans and national-level policy through the Glacier Protection Act;
  • New Zealand: where there are initiatives to limit sea-bed mining—which is actually very significant as sea-bed, or deep-sea, mining may well become the new extractive frontier;
  • Chile: with initiatives to ban mining in glacier areas, currently before their Congress; and
  • A sixth country, Honduras which was initiating significant mining restrictions under President Zelaya, before he was overthrown in a 2009 coup.

We look at each of these countries individually and then reflect on them as a collectivity to suggest lessons to be learned from this leading set of countries who have started to move along the road from extractivism (and neo-extractivism of countries such as Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua) towards a broader environmental and concomitant social and economic “well-being.”

* Note that right now there are two links with free full downloads of this article, here and here. Once these are used up, then the article is no longer open-access, but can be accessed here.

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One Response to “From Extractivism Towards Buen Vivir”

  1. Gerrit Stegehuis says:

    I would hope these countries will start canceling their trade treaties that contain ISDS-clauses, like Ecuador did recently after an extensive review of benefits and risks, and other countries have done before that (e.g. Indonesia, South Africa, India). I know that investments will still be ‘protected’ for many years, but a large scale withdrawal from these treaties is the clearest sign that we must get rid of ISDS or the new ICS the EU is working on. There is no proof these treaties attract investments, and the risks are just too big that the countries have to pay large amounts or are unable to protect their people or their environment.