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“If this continues without any control, we will all pay the price for the destruction.”

– Luisa Laita of the Aishara Toon Village, quoted in the South Rupununi District Council’s 2018 report on Wapichan environmental monitoring. 

THE REPORT highlights how extractive industries violate rights to life, health and a healthy environment, food and water, cultural identity, freedom from forced displacement, equality and non-discrimination, and community consent, information and redress.

What are extractive industries? Goldmines in Guyana, oil and gas extraction in TT, bauxite mining in Jamaica and planned copper and mineral mining in Haiti are but some examples.

These industries are worsening the global climate crisis and threaten natural resources for food, water, fishing, farming, and both traditional and climate-resilient livelihoods.

As the Wapishan point out, such violation of human rights and the right of nature also causes community-level distress, trauma and spiritual pain. Indeed, courts are increasingly recognising the rights of rivers and forests as living ecosystems.

The Caribbean’s voice on these issues was heard for the first time at yesterday’s historic Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) hearing on the Impact of Extractive Industries on Human Rights and Climate Change in the Caribbean.

The hearing was proposed by Jamaican activist and women’s- and human-rights lawyer Malene Alleyne and environmental filmmaker Esther Figueroa, to resist rising fossil-fuel extraction and mining activities across the Caribbean. Such human-rights strategies are gaining momentum globally and regionally.

Two constitutional cases were filed against mining projects in Jamaica. There’s a landmark case challenging fossil fuel plans in Guyana. In The Bahamas, environmental organisations have challenged approval for oil drilling.

There are also wide challenges to the Environmental Impact Assessment process, such as in Trinidad and Tobago, for lack of public participation in decision-making, lack of access to information and failure to take social and environmental costs into account.

People once thought environmental degradation and climate change were not bread-and-butter issues. Now we know they are connected to food prices, drought, hurricanes and flooding, and forced displacement. Usually the poorest are the ones hardest hit. These actions are therefore in defence of an equal right to life and a future for us all.

Alleyne and Figueroa’s request to the IACHR describes “the destruction of biological diversity; pollution and the contamination of crucial ecosystems; the erosion of food and water security; and the devastation of rural livelihoods and traditional ways of being.

“The impact on Indigenous, Afro-descendent and rural communities is near apocalyptic given their dependency on the natural environment for physical and cultural survival. In Guyana, for example, gold mining operations are destroying forest cover and causing extreme mercury pollution in rivers traditionally used by Indigenous Peoples for food and drinking water.”

For Guyana’s Indigenous Peoples, there is also state failure to recognise customary lands and their boundaries.

“In Jamaica, the near 70-year-old bauxite-alumina industry has wiped out entire rural communities; destroyed prime agricultural lands; and contaminated rivers, causing fish kills that dislocate the livelihood of fisher folk.”

A 2019 World Bank study on Marine Pollution in the Caribbean concluded that in the Eastern Caribbean, TT contributes the largest industrial-pollutants load to the marine environment.

The annual cancer risk from consuming fish from the Gulf of Paria is almost six times higher than international standards. According to Fishermen and Friends of the Sea, to date, those responsible for the 377 recorded oil spills between 2016 and 2019 have never been held liable.

In Haiti, Kolektif Jistis Min and the Global Justice Clinic published a 2014 report documenting issues of forced displacement in predominantly subsistence-farming communities in northern Haiti where mining companies hold permits.

The hearing’s objectives were to show the impact of extraction on economic, social, cultural and environmental rights and its threat to Caribbean ecosystems, emphasise the dangers of non-participatory decision-making by Caribbean states, and advance a necessary vision for “a new earth-centred, rights-based approach to development in the Caribbean in Harmony with Nature.”

As well, the hearing intended to highlight outdated laws, weaknesses in monitoring and enforcement, corporate flouting of regulations, obstacles to information and failures to provide sufficient redress to affected people, who lose their livelihoods, homes, health, crops and access to drinkable water.

As one Jamaican in Figueroa’s film about Cockpit Country put it, “I see it as not only an ethical but a theological responsibility to preserve and protect the environment.” To return to Luisa and yesterday’s hearing, if we don’t support all available strategies to resist extraction, we can all expect to pay the price.