Sustainable connections for sustainable development in Latin America

Youth advocates. Policy-making should include the voice of marginalized groups to find sustainable solutions in managing natural resources. Photo by: Partners for Democratic Change

As the U.N. Climate Conference entered its final phase last week, thousands of people marched in downtown Lima, Peru, to call for action on global warming.

With the cross-border impact of industrial growth and international public consumption fueling climate change, indigenous and rural communities from across Latin America are among of the most impacted. Many activists are at the forefront of fighting for the preservation of their land, culture and natural resources. These perseverant individuals also appeal for an adherence to democratic governance that gives an equal weight to their concerns and rights.

Policymaking to manage our natural resources is complex and involves international standards, macroeconomic considerations, and national goals to achieve strong local development. There are many competing interests to be negotiated within these policies, necessitating governments with strong democratic institutions capable of incorporating citizens’ input, as well as the ability to translate social conflicts into disputes that can be resolved within the rule of law.

In Latin America — as in other resource-rich regions — conflict has erupted in rural areas, as marginalized voices are often not incorporated into government decisions around the oil, gas and mining sectors in particular. From Apurímac, Peru to Chriquí, Panama, to Totonicapán, Guatemala, local indigenous communities challenge the disruptive effects of large-scale extractive projects, due to the lack of consultation and belief that they will not benefit directly from these projects.

To help find sustainable solutions that will balance the concerns of these affected communities, and to adhere to international standards and democratic values, Partners for Democratic Change is committed to working with communities to find more peaceful, democratic platforms to discuss these complex policies. The Sustainable Connections for Sustainable Development initiative exemplifies our approach to managing competing interests in the civic sphere through dialogue and inclusive decision-making. Through the SCSD platform, our network has joined with many other local organizations — such as Socios Perú — Center of Civic Collaboration, Institute of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environment or IARNA at the Rafael Landívar University in Guatemala, and Center of Democratic Initiatives in Panama — to create connections between the private sector, government and civil society. We believe that by creating the conditions for meaningful engagement within affected communities, beyond only using the posture of protest and social upheaval, we can jointly create a more stable environment for both economic growth, prosperity and the protection of human rights.

After many years of facilitating dialogue and conflict transformation processes on natural resource issues in Latin America, our network has acquired some key lessons regarding our work with these communities:

1. Offering support for broad networks and local coalitions is necessary to promote nonviolent solutions to natural resource conflict. Working together with various grass-roots organizations that represent the interests and needs of citizens at the local level is key to supporting constructive and inclusive dialogue. Citizen groups are often fragmented or lack information and need to clarify their own interests and rights before any multistakeholder dialogue can take place. A key example illustrates this principle in action: After receiving training from IARNA as part of the SCSD initiative, a group of youth from the Visionary Youth Movement in the rural highlands of Guatemala’s Totonicapán region launched an information campaign that reached 600 additional stakeholders. In other words, by working through a network of grass-roots activists in Guatemala, we more than doubled the number of citizens in the process.

2. Decision-making cannot truly be “democratic” if marginalized groups are not included.

Although she is widely known throughout the SCSD network for her beautiful traditional indigenous dress and singing ability, Rosario Medrano also represents this key principle. In order to ensure truly democratic decision-making, voices from all walks of society must be included in the dialogue process. As a representative of FEMURA, a women’s business association in the conflictive Apurímac region of Peru, Medrano adamantly believes that just as stable economic growth and development are key to health and livelihoods of women and children, the management of natural resources is equally a women’s issue. A former protest leader, Medrano now promotes women’s inclusion in negotiation tables throughout the region and is a steadfast champion of dialogue among the women of Apurímac.

3. The power of storytelling. Felipe Itzep is the leader of an indigenous organization in the Totonicapán and El Quiché provinces of Guatemala. A fierce storyteller, Itzep advocates for peaceful dialogue through sharing his own transformation. Although he once believed, as many of the members of his community still do, that extremist responses were the only way to push back against years of exclusion, through the SCSD initiative and others like it, he has since come to believe in the power of dialogue. “There is another side; there are people who are ready to talk,” he shares. When local advocates like him tell their stories, they help to convince others that peaceful grass-roots organization and negotiations with government and businesses can be an effective model to promote their priorities.

4. We have to meet communities where they are. Although there is a figurative component to this saying — in this case, we mean it quite literally. It is easy to forget about isolated and remote communities who may be most affected by extractive projects, and often excluded from the positive economic benefits of these developments. The SCSD initiative addressed this concern by sending trainers to a remote region of the Chiriquí province in Panama to work directly with members of the Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous community. Community members received the support favorably, and we know there is a need for further such attempts to reach far-flung communities.

5. Sustaining efforts for sustainable connections. We have made a lasting commitment to maintain our engagement with communities and local organizations in Latin America, and around the world. However, policy decisions and civic relations around natural resource issues are complex and will take years to transform conflict in some contexts. Two examples of this continued engagement include Socios Peru’s spearheading the country’s Voluntary Principles working group, and the official membership of the our network within the nongovernmental organization pillar of VP’s. We have to ensure that our connections to these people and these issues are just as sustainable as those we have helped to catalyze.

#DemocracyMatters is a three-week series exploring the intersection of democracy, development and natural resources management in partnership with International IDEA, the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

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About the author

  • Julia roig profile

    Julia Roig

    Julia Roig is the president of Partners for Democratic Change, an international organization committed to building sustainable capacity to advance civil society, democratic institutions and a culture of change and conflict management worldwide.