I recently attended the 2012 Congress of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), which was held May 23 to 26 in San Francisco, California. From the perspective of a first-time attendee, the conference included a dizzying array of panels spanning disciplines from geography to literature, as well as a film festival focusing on Colombia, Uruguay and Latin American wars of independence and memory of exile.

While I learned way more than I could possibly include in a single blog post, here is a recap of some of highlights of my experience at the Congress.

I presented on the first day of the conference, in the first time slot, on a panel dealing with “Mining Conflicts and Cultural Politics in Central America.” Presentations by the three other panelists–Michael L. Dougherty of Illinois State University, Joris J. Van de Sandt of the University of Amsterdam and Jennifer N. Constanza of Brown University–focused on case studies from Guatemala. All three dealt with resistance to mining and various aspects of the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169 which guarantees indigenous populations the right of “free, prior and informed consent” to development projects that affect their community, as well as rights to participation in governance. Dougherty proposed a analytical framework of the “global indigenous rights regime,” while Van de Sandt proposed “legal empowerment” and a focus on illegal land transfers as an alternative to community consultations as a strategy to challenge transnational corporations  and Constanza focused on questions of decentralization and non-participants in opposition movements.

In contrast, my presentation focused on the transnational aspects of anti-mining activism in El Salvador and the role of transnational advocacy networks in supporting local Salvadoran opposition to a proposed gold and silver mine in north of the country (see below).

Understanding resistance to extractive industries and sustainable development were a theme running through several of the panels I attended in addition to my own. For example, Matthew Himley, a geographer from Illinois State University explored notions of risk and definitions of what is “science” in local systems for monitoring water quality in the area surrounding the Pierina gold mine in Peru. He pointed out that access to scientific information and the tools to conduct environmental monitoring are uneven, with the cost being too high for local communities to do alternative analysis to the work of the mining company sponsored Jangas Environmental Management Committee. According to Himley, in contents over standards used to judge validity of environmental claims, non-scientific arguments are at a disadvantage. He argued that calls for more science can be used as a way to discredit and marginalize alternative ways of knowing.

On another panel, Lyuba Zarsky of the Monterey Institute of International Studies and  Leonardo Stanley of the Centro de Estudios de Estado y Sociedad in Argentina, used the San Marlin gold mine in Guatemala in a cost-benefit analysis of mining. They propose a more complex analytical concept of a “weak sustainability principle” to look for net benefits to development projects. They argue mining could contribute to sustainable development if it generates long-term benefits (environmental, social, economic) that equal or exceed the pre-exploitation values of development.

They analyzed the following dimensions:

1. Evidence of local community acceptance (free, prior and informed consent for a project)
-Local people have assessed and will get benefits

2. Assessment of royalties and taxes (both total and as a share of mine revenues and earnings)

3. Assess the total economic benefits (wages, procurement, indirect jobs, induced spending)

4. Overall investment in sustainable productive capacities (sustainable development)
-Asking if a project is building a base for future development?

5. environmental risk (during operation and post-closure of a mine)
-Assessing the governmental capacity to midigate and manage risk?

Zarsky pointed out that over time risk is low in the early stages of a mining project and rises over time. In the case of the San Marlin mine in Guatemala, they conclude that the environmental risk significantly outweighs the economic benefits over the long-term and argue that “net benefits” to mining would require: net benefits: good governance, environmental regulations, negotiation capacity on the part of local communities, development planning, fiscal transparency and accountability and the protection of human rights. The full text of the report is available online here.

I attended a whole host of other interesting panels and films, on topics ranging from water rights to citizens’ media in Venezuela that will hopefully inform my future research.