Banged to rights

Latin American struggles against ecological damage figure prominently in the global debate about environmental rights

Life and Death Matters: Human Rights, Environment, and Social Justice
Edited by Barbara Rose Johnston
2011, Left Coast Press
487 pages, 2nd edition

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

CULTURE is the unique, and innovative, strategy adopted by human beings to adapt to their environment and in most cases dominate it within a few generations.

The environmental constraints imposed by changing conditions and resource depletion were historically defined by nature itself – the availability of water, soil fertility, altitude and temperature.

Today, however, as Barbara Rose Johnson points out in her introduction to Life and Death Matters, human survival is increasingly constrained by the insurmountable consequences of ecological damage that we ourselves have caused.

Threat to rights
This represents a threat to what have become known as environmental rights – individual and collective rights that pertain to the minimum biological requirements necessary for survival, as well as rights that sustain life in the long term, that is, those that allow the reproduction of human society.

Increasingly these come into conflict with systemic efforts to manage and use resources generating conflicts that produce human environmental rights abuses. Johnson writes: “…powerless groups (race, ethnicity, class, gender) and their rights to land, resources, health, and environmental protection are socially and legally sanctioned casualties of broader state and multinational agendas to protect national security and develop national resources (agricultural land, minerals, timber, water, energy).” [pp. 11-12]

This is often reduced to a dispute over progress, but other factors such as racism and ethnocentrism are also commonly at play.

But as in all cases of social confrontation, there is resistance to abuses of environmental rights, with people seeking to fight back through local, national and international tiers of governance. The aim of such “social justice environmentalism” is twofold: empowerment through the transformation of decision-making systems to give them more control over crises; and accountability, whereby institutions and organisations that created the problem are forced to acknowledge their culpability. This resistance is making human environmental rights struggles some of the most prominent in formal political arenas throughout the world – and provides new opportunities to reorder relations of power.

This collection of essays about these pivotal struggles takes as its cue both the new era of environmental justice advocacy inaugurated by the initiatives that flowed from the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, but also the promise of 1990s era rights-based governance. This second edition is built around the repressive challenges to rights of the new security climate that emerged across the liberal world following 9/11.

While the book takes a global perspective, the seven contributions relating to Latin America in this wide-ranging survey of the relationship between the rights of individuals and communities and ecological destruction provide a powerful insight into the scale of the environmental struggle in the region and how this has become a platform for broader systemic challenges.

Leslie Sponsel examines gold-mining in the Amazon and the ecological damage caused by the continuing use of mercury for extraction. Bleakly, the contributor points out, this has worsened since the 1990s – with a damaging impact on lowland indigenous communities – as the price of gold as a commodity has risen to record highs.

James Phillips explores the difficulties of ensuring basic rights in rural communities in Honduras, where powerful landowners who resort to violence to seize peasant land have traditionally enjoyed impunity, yet there is increasing co-operation among various sectors of society to defend their rights. Since the 1990s the extension of globalisation and free trade along with a transformation in discourses on rights that now stress entitlement has, however, done little to resolve conflicts over land. Moreover, the country has seen recent growth in gold-mining and deforestation that are fuelling these conflicts. Yet the trend seems hopeful:

“In fundamental ideological and practical ways, peasant localism, indigenous territory and culture, and the ethnic identity of autochthonous minorities represent significant challenges to the logic of economic globalization by presenting local identity, security and self-determination as fundamental values.” [p. 228]

Oriol Pi-Sunyer and Brooke Thomas look at the pervasive impact of mass tourism on the Mexican Caribbean and demonstrate that local activism can win the day. They identify a new language among opponents of development that shares the view that nature is somehow out of balance, revealing the role played by growing consciousness in the development of an environmental opposition.

David Stea, Camilo Perez Bustillo, Betse Davies and Silvia Elguea brings the Zapatista rebellion with its struggle to recover lands for indigenous peoples in Chiapas up to date with a thoughtful look at how the rebellion has spread the spirit of revolutionary change across southern Mexico.

Tom Leatherman considers the role of violence and its aftermath in the areas affected by the armed conflict between Sendero Luminoso guerrillas and the armed forces in the Andes. Terence Turner assesses how continuing disputes over dams on Brazil’s Xingu River have major implications for the country’s political ability to reconcile the demands of its capital-intensive policy of economic growth with the principles of constitutional legality and democracy supported by its rapidly growing middle class in an alliance with indigenous and settler groups in the Amazon interior.

Also examining dams, Barbara Rose Johnston concludes the collection by considering the difficulties faced by the communities affected by the Chixoy dam in Guatemala in trying to secure reparation for a series of serious injustices caused by the project in a country whose rule of law is so fragile. She notes that the very act of documenting the dam’s troubled history and the efforts of displaced communities to secure justice is part of the healing process.

Life and Death Matters is a significant contribution to the growing field of environmental governance in Latin America and beyond.

If this revised edition is premised on a somewhat optimistic vision of “security through peace” in the Obama era, that has to be refreshing following the dark days that went before. While there is clear evidence that the administration is at least more cautious about military responses to every issue with the challenges to rights that this entails, it is an interesting point of departure to implicitly link soft-power with a milder, if technocentric ecological position.

But Johnson points out candidly that it remains to be seen whether the new policy will offer an effective contribution to solving the complex and profound human environmental crises of our times without undermining the sense of hope that exists.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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