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The Scientific-Human Rights Nexus in Latin America: Cross-discipline Action to Improve the Legacy of Mining and Oil & Gas Projects


Keri E. Iyall Smith, representative to the Coalition Council for Sociologists without Borders



  • Speakers
    • Andrés Ángel, Science Fellow, Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA)
    • María Guadalupe de Heredia, Journalist and Ecuador Coordinator, E-Tech International
    • Ann Maest (Moderator), Chief Scientist, E-Tech International
    • Marcella Ribeiro d’Avila Lins Torres, Human Rights and Environment Fellow, Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense
    • Mercedes Lu, Staff Scientist, Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide
  • Andrés Ángel’s Presentation and Questions
    • Andrés Ángel spoke about the application of science to public policy, particularly regarding geo-governance, to address concerns about mining contamination in Latin America.  This paper sought to present four key points:  make science available to communities, build a network of experts, ensure that this information is available in multiple languages (translation, as well as plainspoken language, rather than jargon), and the importance of spreading the word.  These dialogs and information sharing processes will be among scientists, engineers, concerned citizens, community leaders, and local experts.  Ángel noted that there are cases throughout Latin America. 
    • Questions
      • A first question focused on the level of involvement of the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense.  Grad students are working on theses and projects in Latin America. Work is being done to build a network, along with work to support communication between Global North and Global South experts. 
        • Ángel spoke about the role that AIDA played in establishing the ban on fracking in Colombia.  In particular, he spoke to the perpetual impacts: fracking was suspended largely due to precaution surrounding the perpetual impacts. Ángel said they could not prove that fracking would not cause perpetual impact.  Current policy indicates that there may be a pilot case or two, but the concerns will remain the same. 
        • Ángel was skeptical that the experiments are actually going to test for failure of equipment and technology, and thus they are not really tests of safety.  In particular there are concerns that monitoring perpetual impacts is outside the bounds of the capacity of current institutions.  Perpetual impacts can last for centuries, millennia, and much is unknown about the actual factors that will unfold.  A simple example is the need to perpetually filter water that moves through contaminated sites.  There is great concern with ensuring justice around perpetual impacts, and attempts to prohibit perpetual impacts.
      • A second question asked about the challenges of transdisciplinary work. 
        • Ángel spoke to the challenges across cultures, both across disciplines but also needing to incorporate local or regional knowledge and actors.  This can be impactful when thinking about cost/benefit analysis, and how those impacts are viewed. 
  • Marcella Ribeiro d’Avila Lins Torres’ Presentation and Questions
    • Torres spoke about the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam case, an accident which killed 19 people and displaced roughly 362 families, destroyed aquatic life downstream, destroyed hydrological character, and more. She reviewed other dam collapses as well, including Mato Grosso, and points to a lack of monitoring, as well as a lack of experts working with the communities to make risk assessments.  The environmental impacts are experienced by communities, and policy rollbacks under [Brazilian President Jair] Bolsonaro may prevent good science. 
    • In particular there is concern that Bolsonaro’s policies will:
      • Suppress and control scientific information.
      • Invalidate data from natural scientific agencies.
      • Cut scientific funding.
      • Cut funds of IBAMA and ICMBIO (two environmental agencies, with cuts at 29% and 25%).
      • Regulatory rollbacks are simplifying the licensing process (for managing mine waste and dams), auto-licensing if the impacts of the dam are deemed to be “not significant,” and applications now to be handled by the Ministry of Development rather than the Ministry of Environment. Finally, the rollbacks will expand mining inside Indigenous lands.
    • There will be impacts to the rivers, forests, and oceans.  A lack of technical capacity to diagnose and perform remediation will contribute to the impacts.  Most recently, waves of oil have been washing ashore and the government has taken no action to attempt to clean up the oil.  People have been trying to remove the oil by hand, as they do not know of other means to do the clean-up.  Torres underscored that a scientific approach to cleanup will be very important. 
    • Questions for Torres
      • Torres answered questions about the Bolsonaro presidency, the risks of bringing in outside help, and auto-licensing.
  • María Guadalupe de Heredia’s Presentation and Questions
    • De Heredia has focused on work in the Amazon and the Andes with Indigenous communities.  Petroleum pollution came to the Amazon basin in the 1960s with oil development in Ecuador and Peru.  Rivers turned black with oil, and fish were suffocating.  Indigenous peoples did not know what was going on.  Waste pits were built for the waste from oil exploration and the pits were full of toxic substances.  The substances leached into the water and salt, and Indigenous women exposed to the substances got thin, were sick, had miscarriages, and experienced bad problems with their health.  Spills were not remediated, and contaminants will persist in the environment for centuries.
    •  De Heredia pointed to the need for citizen science as well as the importance of traditional ecological knowledge to do the decontamination work and help people be safer.  At first, people thought they were being bewitched, as they did not have scientific data to explain what was happening.  There is a problem of asymmetric knowledge, as the companies have teams of scientists and research on the impacts is less systematic. There was a project undertaken by Doctors without Borders, called “Las Palabras de la Selva” (The Words of the Jungle), which gathered data on the health impacts of the spills and contaminants.  Spills continue to happen. Pipelines are old and corroded and almost every week there is a spill. 
    • Community based scientists are able to use necropsy kits to study the fish that die and determine if the fish are contaminated.  Other equipment allows communities to study the water quality.
    • Questions for De Heredia
      • De Heredia answered questions about citizen science, knowledge of politics, what happens when government ignores the science, the role of Chinese actors, and collaboration with universities. 
  • Mercedes Lu’s Presentation and Questions
    • A last speaker not listed in the program, Mercedes Lu, working in Environmental Health, Toxicology, and Extractive Industries, spoke about work in the Peruvian Amazon.  Lu is involved in the True Costs Initiative which is looking at the impacts of oil contamination in northwest Peru. 
    • Lu presented maps showing the geography of extractive industries, protected areas, and Indigenous areas.  There have been about 200 conflicts around mining and oil projects, with protesters against the extractive industries sometimes being murdered.  Early operations occurred without environmental protections.  Spills of aging infrastructure impacts Indigenous communities, and other times materials are discharged without treatment.  ELAW got started in work to address pollution in the 1990s.  They gather information and interpret government reports.  The polluted areas are so remote that it is challenging to gather data.  Local communities must demonstrate contamination to get results, and this requires communication. 
    • Lu encouraged the improvement of communication with Indigenous communities and authorities.  Lu underscores the importance of data gathering, as it makes it difficult for the government to deny that pollution is a problem.  When you have data, the government gets nervous and wants to work with you.
    • Questions for Lu
      • Lu was asked questions about scientists who are “heroes” and those hired by the extractive industries.  Lu said it is not so black and white, and sometimes these scientists can collaborate with good results.  She said the need is enormous for scientists, technology, engineers working at different levels, and collaborative work with the communities and at high levels in government or international organizations. 


Key Points/Takeaways:

  • Scientists can serve important role in data gathering, but must be thoughtful and engage in bidirectional communication with indigenous communities and governments.
  • Maintain awareness of lived impacts for indigenous communities of these environmental conditions.
  • There are opportunities for collaboration between scientists and communities, use of new technologies, networking with local and international groups, and north-south collaboration. 
  • Limitations include a lack of: technical information, funding, communication skills, gaps in environmental law, and guidelines that impact the use of scientific information.



  • Environment
  • Law
  • Technology
  • Latin America
  • Public Policy


Additional Resources: