domingo, 28 de septiembre de 2008

EMPOWERMENT STRATEGIES FOR LOCAL COMMUNITIES INVOLVED IN ENVIRONMENTAL CONFLICTS IN MOUNTAIN AREAS

According to the International Mountain Forum (2004), created for the World Year for Mountains celebration, mountains are crucial to life. Mountain areas cover one quarter of land surface over sea level. They are fragile reservoirs of natural resources such as glaciers, copper, wood and gas. But mountain areas are not only important sources of freshwater and global hotspots of biodiversity. They are home for millions of people worldwide, expression of a rich cultural diversity.

However, mountains are location for complex conflicts and development challenges. Mountain people are amongst the poorest and hungriest. Climate change and global warming affect mountains specifically. A majority of the people in the mountain areas live in poverty conditions. Development has not been able to reach many remote and inaccessible areas of the mountains and the people there continue to depend on natural and land resources for subsistence. The present rate of intensification of human use puts this unique natural and cultural heritage at risk of extinction and can reduce the provision of food and medicinal plants, generating a non-reversible damage mountain watersheds and freshwater supply and worsening the life and livelihoods of mountain people. Most populated cities around the world are located in valleys in the low part of hydrographical basins. This means that their inhabitants depend on mountain resources to live. Agenda 21 of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development stated that the fate of the mountains may affect more than half of the world’s population. (ICIMOD, 2005)

On the one hand, local communities who live in mountain areas are used to face common challenges: geographical isolation, hard weather conditions, geophysical risks, water management difficulties, weak waste and sewage management systems, rural education, local cattle’s impact on conservation parks, lack of accessibility and connectivity with narrow and dangerous roads. Many of local communities in mountain areas are indigenous cultures or livelihoods under risk of extinction.

On the other hand, many powerful multinational companies invest in natural resources exploitation in mountain areas. Canadian capital-owned mining companies extract cupper in Northern Chile, Argentina, Perú and Australia. Spanish and Norwegian energy enterprises are developing hydro-electric centrals in the Patagonia. Chilean companies implement sustainable forestry programs in ancient indigenous territories. Natural resources based companies try to develop Corporate Social Responsibility strategies in order to obtain the social license to operate. Some of them fund environmental education programmes for poor children. Some of them support Entrepreneurship programmes. Some of them are developing inclusive business strategies for the base of the pyramid. However, although their social investment programs are well intentioned, they are misunderstood or misinterpreted as image green washing by the local community. Sometimes, local communities who are used to a dependence generating style, learn to benefit from the aid, depowering their own initiative and entrepreneurial skills.

In Chile- where the 80% of national territory is formed by mountains- economic pressure over natural resources is increasingly higher. However, civil society’s awareness about environmental justice and conservation issues are growing too. Civil society uses new information technologies and social networks to defend and promote their causes against mining or forestry companies. According to the information available in the Environmental Impact Evaluation System, more than USD 15.000 million investments are facing strong opposition by local stakeholders. Local communities demand more information and participation from local governments. Unfortunately some radical groups are using violence. Extreme radical etno-political groups fight against forestry industry. Ecologist NGOs protest against hydroelectric power centrals in Patagonia. Mountain hikers and boy scouts against Alto Maipo project. Dwellers and small agricultural entrepreneurs against gold mining in Huasco Valley. Local arrieros against real estate interests and ski resorts in natural sanctuaries. People from local communities in mountain areas are somewhat isolated in their rural environments, they often lack of tools to appropriately defend their interests, their culture and their identity when they interact with multinational corporations or public institutions.

Municipalities, trying to act as local governments, do not know –or they do not use- truly participative methodologies to guarantee an effective participation and advocate for the weakest people’s welfare. Local institutions’ employees do not know simple facilitation techniques. Legal framework only requires formal citizenship participation session, but there is no formal requirement about how it should be implemented. They are losing the opportunity to improve people’s quality of life. They could be denying them the opportunity to defend their legitimate interests and expectations.

New Zealand has developed successful policies to integrate Maori communities in the natural resources management, through partnerships with energy companies, empowering local communities, letting them participate in the ownership and decision management in the firms. New Zealand development efforts and sustainability policies are internationally recognized.

Many questions could be posed: How are other emerging “like minded” countries managing this kind of environmental conflicts in America, Asia-Pacific and Africa? Which tools, facilitation participatory methodologies should be known by local government employees? Which incentives could be developed by regional institutions? Which strategies could be developed by multinational companies for a more effective approach towards local communities? How to prevent that kind of conflicts? How to manage relationships in sustainable manner? Which strategies are being developed by local communities and civil societies to defend their interests against big factual powers? Which are the best practices around the world? What may Chile learn from New Zealand and other cases studies worldwide?
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