Environmental tribunal questions China-backed projects in Latin America

US and Chinese mining and energy companies' 'crimes against nature' examined at forum in Paris

Environmental conflicts relating to China-backed infrastructure projects in Latin America were scrutinised in Paris last week at the International Rights of Nature Tribunal, a citizen’s initiative that hears public testimonies about damage to Mother Earth. The tribunal took place alongside the COP21 climate negotiations.

The Paris meeting is the tribunal’s third since its creation in 2014, and is aimed at promoting greater awareness over the need to extend and enforce national and international laws in order to protect the planet. Ecosystems have the right to exist but this needs to be reflected in the law, the tribunal heard.

Internationally renowned environmental lawyers and leaders of social and environmental movements formed a panel that heard testimonies decrying practices such as ‘fracking’, open-cast mining, deforestation, dams and genetically-modified farming. Many such practices have had substantial investment from China and have led to social conflicts and environmental degradation in many countries in Latin America.

“It’s not an abstract idea, it has concrete obligations,” environmental lawyer Cormac Cullinan told Diálogo Chino. “We believe in the need for an institution that is not just based on international law but on the laws of nature, which has a right to exist,” he said.

“Many of the cases we deal with are from Latin America, the region is marred by environmental conflicts,” added Cullinan, who is president of the tribunal and has secured changes in the law in Ecuador and Bolivia to include the recognition of the rights of nature. These have also been added to decrees in US districts Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh.

Brazil’s giant hydroelectric projects were among those most closely scrutinised by the tribunal. Belo Monte, a complex currently under construction on the Xingu river, was broadly dismissed, as was the case of Tapajós, a complex of dams to be built on the Amazon.

The expert panel of the International Rights of Nature Tribunal (image: Fermín Koop)
The expert panel of the International Rights of Nature Tribunal (image: Fermín Koop)

China’s power distribution giant State Grid heads a consortium that sealed the deal to construct a 2000-kilometre transmission line from Belo Monte. The project was recently granted an environmental permit. China Three Gorges Corporation (CTG), the largest hydropower engineering company in the world, is reported to be interested in securing the Tapajós contract.

“The cases of Tapajos and Belo Monte are two of the clearest examples of crimes against nature and humanity that can be seen,” said Christian Poirier, Europe and Brazil director of Amazon Watch. “They are going to bring about the destruction of the Amazon and are already putting millions of hectares and thousands of species at risk,” he added.

Similar concerns were raised over oil exploitation in the Yasuní national park in Ecuador, with the practice described as ‘ecocide’. Rafael Correa’s government authorised drilling activities in the area after the collapse of the Yasuní ITT initiative, which sought contributions from the international community to keep the oil in the ground. PetroOriental, which is owned by China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and China Petrochemical Corporation (Sinopec) controls block 14, one of six which overlaps with a protected area within Yasuní.

“The national park is one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet, which is why oil drilling activities must be avoided. It will have very dangerous impacts,” said Carlos Larrea, a researcher at the Yasuní ITT initiative. “The risk of ecocide is very high. Aboriginal communities who live in the zone will be seriously affected, as will the flora and fauna,” he added.

Argentina was also in the panel’s firing line owing to its plans for the wide-scale introduction of fracking – the process of extracting unconventional oil and gas reserves. Fracking is considered environmentally risky because of the number of chemicals used, which can lead to water pollution and increase the risk of earthquakes.

The government of outgoing president Cristina Kirchner was also questioned over its deal with American oil giant Chevron. The company’s office in Buenos Aires had its accounts frozen following a ruling in favour of the citizens of Ecuador who brought the company’s poor environmental practice to global attention. However, the embargo was immediately lifted after Chevron and Argentina signed the agreement.

“Argentina joined the hydrocarbons boom in a blind and disorderly fashion,” said Enrique Viale, president of the Association of Argentine Environmnetal Lawyers. “It got involved with Chevron, which managed to flee justice in Ecuador. The Argentine state is complicit in the fracking venture. It adopted a legal framework to authorise the activity,” he added.


Prompted by Diálogo Chino, the panel examined the growing role of China in Latin America and the environmental hazards it brings. The lack of sufficient natural resources within its own borders obliges China to seek them out all over the world, with Latin America serving as one destination, the panel argued.

“Latin America is in the grip of Chinese imperialism,” said Alberto Acosta, ex-president of Ecuador’s National Constituent Assembly. “Being the great power that it is, China uses its financial resources to buy assets such as land and minerals, and undertakes huge public works. But at the same time it asks for preferential treatment in climate negotiations, acting as if it were a poor country,” he said.

At the same time Cullinan compared what is happening in Latin America with the case of Africa; “there are a large number of Chinese companies coming here. China thinks long-term and has realised that it doesn’t possess enough natural resources. So finding them in Latin America looks like an attractive option,” Cullinan said.

“It goes in two directions at the same time with respect to the environment, it’s as if it were schizophrenic,” he added.