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How to create spaces for the transformation of extractive sectors in Latin America?

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Extractive sectors like mining and agriculture are of high importance for Latin American countries as a source of foreign currency and revenues. In 2018 mining represented 56% of Chile’s total exports and agriculture 47% of Argentina’s exports. However, in the last few decades, they have been facing several challenges related to their own techno-productive dynamics (less productivity, higher costs, difficulties in finding sources of minerals, etc.) and to socio-economic conflicts related to them (pollution, ousting of local communities, low equity, etc.). These challenges have created a need for a transformation towards more sustainable forms of mining and agriculture.

But which changes might be considered transformative, which transformations are desirable, how they can or should be realized, and by whom they should be driven, are all contested questions. In recent days, such dilemmas have become very visible in Argentina, which is seeing the consequences of taking unilateral decisions in the field of natural resources.

In December 2019 Mendoza (Argentina) saw the biggest demonstration in its history, in defence of water. The government had approved a law which allowed the use of toxic substances (cyanide, mercury and others) in mining. However, as a result of popular resistance, the government had to step back and restore the previous law (7722), which banned the use of those chemicals in the mining process.

As seen in this example, to produce new and shared understandings, practices, technologies and institutions that are capable of mobilizing people around the goal of social-ecological sustainability, it is critical that sectors of society learn how to work together. Experimental spaces for supporting collective processes of deliberation and learning about sustainability challenges, and testing possible solutions, are therefore of increasing interest.

An example of these is a T-Lab (‘Transformation Laboratory’): a highly facilitated, multi-stakeholder space of interaction and dialogue which seeks to co-create new visions, and practices for social-ecological sustainability. T-Labs can be organized in a variety of ways and they have great potential for exploring the role of extractive sectors in enabling and advancing transformations to sustainability in Latin America.

In this blog we reflect on the TransAction Workshop, carried out during the Transformations 2019 conference, as an example of a T-lab. Four projects from the Transformations to Sustainability programme – T-Learning, Pathways, ACKnowl-EJ and Gold Matters – which have all experimented with T-Labs, joined a diverse group of stakeholders to experience the T-Labs approach and assess its potential to support social-ecological transformation.

Twenty people, including academics, policy makers and representatives of mining organizations, worked through some of the methods used during T-Labs and got involved in discussions around the problems and possible solutions related to the mining sector. Despite their diverse – and in some cases contrasting – backgrounds, a deep ecology exercise, where participants were invited to connect with their insides, sharing stories of their childhood, led to a respectful and collaborative atmosphere.

What does the future of mining look like?

We used the Three Horizons framework to reflect on the future of extractive industries. First, the groups discussed the current state of the extractive industries and the challenges they represent for sustainability. Most of the challenges were related directly or indirectly to a lack of regulations, public policies and long-term planning.

According to the participants, the mining sector is concentrated in high capital companies, (medium-sized companies are closing and small-scale mining is illegal) described as having a short-term profit-oriented vision. Closely linked to that, innovation and technology levels are very low. The consequences of that go from high production costs to wide environmental impacts, such as changes in the soil, water and landscape. The result is a highly conflicted sector and very contested visions about the possible pathways for solutions.

So how should the mining sectors change to be more sustainable?

The exercise led us to think about a future where wealth is cultural and human, not corporate; more sustainable, equitable and redistributed in cultural and human terms. Sovereignty, citizen participation, strong public regulation and planning, and more innovation seemed to be key elements of that change. Participants called for public policies that consider gender equality; collective decisions about where, who, and how to exploit mineral resources and appropriate their benefits; environmental impact regulations and integration of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with local policies. Thinking about the private sector, participants reflected on the need to foster local development projects that respect local knowledge and history.

How could this future be achieved?

The workshop proposed a combination of three techniques to address this question. First, participants thought about possible pathways to achieve a more sustainable future. Secondly, they reflected on their own capabilities through drawing and assigning powers to avatars, and, finally, they developed SMART (specific, measurable or memorable, achievable, realistic and timely) actions. With these tools we were able to determine goals, first steps and tasks.

The proposed actions mainly have to do with influencing public policies, research and knowledge, governance and capacity building. Some examples are empowering social movements and local indigenous communities that are already looking for more sustainable mining practices, strengthening participatory democracy, creating debate and reflection spaces and reframing the mining concept, especially among civil society.

The Three Horizons exercise allowed us to see the current sector and the challenges that it is facing, a desired future and also possible actions, projectcs, resources and even barriers to achieve it.

Example of an avatar. Participants reflected on and recognized their own agency in the transformation process by creating avatars.
Network of avatars and their powers. The collection of avatars (represented in blue circles) allowed us to see the capacities or powers of the group. We found that among the group there were very valuable capacities with which to start a transformation process, such as motivating, innovating, connecting people, problem-solving, communicating ideas and knowledge, coordinating (represented in purple in the center of the network).

The workshop ended with a synthesis exercise based on sociocracy approach. The participants came up with two collective messages that resulted from the workshop:

Regarding transformations towards sustainability, they arise from:

Regarding the case study we worked on, linked to extractive sectors in general, and
mining and agriculture in particular:

The T-lab workshop was a very enriching experience. As facilitators, it was a challenge to run such an exercise a sector that is not our speciality, since most of us work on agriculture and urban systems. However, the participants put all their knowledge and capacities into play and made very interesting reflections and proposals.

Mining, as other extractive sectors, will keep playing a key role in Latin American countries. Despite the contested visions and interests and the apparent lock-in of the sector, the workshop showed that possible pathways exist to build a more sustainable and equitable sector. The key, it seems, is real dialogue, between the artisanal mining projects, local communities, traditional knowledge and civil society visions.

Spaces such as T-Labs have demonstrated their potential in building that dialogue, as they allow very diverse people to work together, sharing their ideas and creating innovative solutions to old problems. It is worth saying that harmony and power balance are not a given – the facilitation and design must take power tensions into account, and take advantage of techniques that help people share their voices in a respectful atmosphere.

We feel very thankful to the ISC, the Transformations 2019 conference and each of the participants for allowing us to develop such a thoughtful experience of deep learning about T-Labs, extractive sectors and ourselves.

Additional resources:

The workshop facilators were: Almendra Cremaschi, Anabel Marin, Lakshmi Charli-Joseph, Martha Chaves and Mirna Inturias.


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