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Before we undertake fracking, we should learn to listen to citizens, to make decisions about development based on the voices that live on the land and will be affected by those decisions.

Before we undertake fracking, we should learn to listen to citizens, to make decisions about development based on the voices that live on the land and will be affected by those decisions.

Fracking, a technique for shale gas and oil extraction that began with great fanfare in countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, is quickly moving towards countries in the Global South (see figure 1). Countries such as Argentina, Mexico, South Africa, and recently Colombia have authorized this technique. Given the extensive environmental and social risks that this technique carries, what can countries in the Global South do with respect to fracking? What can they learn from countries in the North that already have several years experience with fracking? And what can countries in the South learn from one another?

First, we need to understand why countries in the South should be concerned. And, in particular, why anyone who cares about human rights should care about fracking.

Fracking is a process of horizontal drilling in which drillers inject vast quantities of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, into shale rock. This high-pressure injection fractures the rock and releases the natural gas and oil trapped inside.

Fracking poses severe environmental, health, and social risks, which often have negative impacts on the enjoyment of human rights. Fracking can contaminate surface and groundwater. Additionally, fracking can dry out local aquifers, as it uses between 2 and 4 million gallons of water per frack. Fracking also causes air and soil pollution and contributes to climate change through fugitive methane emissions. Fracking, like other extractive industry megaprojects, also has a negative impact on host communities, who see a surge in income disparity, increased cost of living, and sexual violence against women.

What can countries in the Global South do about these human rights threats when their governments seem intent on pursuing fracking as an energy strategy? Part of this enthusiasm is due to the US claim that fracking leads to energy independence. But if we are going to copy Northern techniques for exploiting shale gas, we should also copy how they decide whether to permit fracking. As fracking has increased in the these countries, so have popular referendums, which permit citizens to decide through voting whether they want fracking in their communities.

For example, the cities of Niles and Youngston, Ohio have called for a referendum that will be on the November 2014 ballot to ban fracking, based on “the people’s fundamental and unalienable right to govern themselves.” They also call for a constitutional amendment to “recognize and enforce the right to local community self-government” and “elevate the rights of the community above the legal privileges and protections afforded to corporations.” The town of Denton, located in the oil-friendly state of Texas, will vote on fracking ban.

Local governments across the world, including in Spain, Argentina, Italy and Australia have also banned fracking. Many of these, including Ireland and Romania, have been the result of popular referendums. If countries are going to adopt this model of development, they should do so together with their citizens who endure the consequences and allowing them to decide what type of development they want and risks they are willing to assume.

Between countries in the Global South, we can learn from countries that are proposing moratoriums, and marching against fracking. They can also look for inspiration in the jurisprudence of Southern countries, in particular with respect to the application of the precautionary principle in other extractive industry projects that threatened the environment. For example, in Colombia, the right to a clean environment is binding, and the Constitutional Court based its moratorium on mining licenses in the Amazon on the precautionary principle. Similarly, in Costa Rica, the Constitutional Court and lawmakers decided that protecting its biodiversity and environment for future generations was more important than income from open pit gold mining, banning the practice in 2010.

A less explored area of collaboration is for Southern countries to share technical knowledge. No two fracking wells work the same, and risks vary depending on geography. Therefore, while a study regarding the risk for earthquakes undertaken in the plains of Texas is of little use lawmakers considering fracking in the Andean mountains of Colombia, studies on this practice from Peru, Argentina, or Ecuador would be useful to Colombia. The environmental and social impact of fracking is a result of the regulatory and enforcement powers of the government in addition geographical factors. Thus, information exchanges between countries with similar institutional challenges and weaknesses are of greater use than comparisons with countries that have wholly different legal and political regimes regarding the environment.

In sum, before we undertake fracking, we should learn to listen to citizens, to make decisions about development based on the voices that live on the land and will be affected by those decisions. Additionally, we can share jurisprudence and knowledge production from geographically and institutionally relevant countries.

Of interest: fracking

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