Environmental conflict


Environmental conflicts are social conflicts over environmental degradation and management of environmental resources.[1][2][3] Usually several parties are involved, including environmental defenders who want to protect the environment, and those who want to or are using the environment for something else, typically extractive industry.[1] The manager of the environmental resources may be causing overuse or extraction of a renewable resource (such as overfishing or deforestation), causing overstrain on the ability of the environment to respond to pollution and other inputs, or degrading the living space for humans and nature.[4]

Hambach Forest protest against coal mine expansion

Frequently these conflicts focus on environmental justice issues related to the rights of indigenous people, the rights of peasants or threats to other livelihoods, such as those of fisherfolk or communities dependent on the natural resources of the ocean.[1] Environmental conflict, especially in contexts where communities have been displaced to create environmental migrants or geopolitical disputes, can amplify the complexity of other conflicts, violence or response to natural disaster.[5][3][4]

Ecological distribution conflicts (EDCs) are caused by the unfair distribution of environmental costs and benefits. These conflicts arise from social inequality, contested claims over territory, the proliferation of extractive industries, and the impacts of the industrialization of the economy over the past centuries. Oil, coal, mining, and agriculture industries are focal points of environmental conflicts, which involve actors such as locally affected communities, states, companies and investors, and social or environmental movements.[6][7]

The terms socio-environmental conflict, environmental conflict, or EDCs are sometimes used interchangeably. The study of EDCs is related to the fields of Ecological Economics, Political Ecology, and environmental justice.

Types of conflictsEdit

Environmental defenders use a wide range of tactics
Most environmental conflicts are in the mining, energy, and waste disposal sectors.

A 2020 paper mapped the arguments and concerns of environmental defenders in over 2743 conflicts found in the Environmental Justice Atlas (EJAtlas).[1] The analysis found that the industrial sectors most frequently challenged by environmental conflicts were mining (21%), fossil energy (17%), biomass and land uses (15%), and water management (14%).[1] Killings of environmental defenders happened in 13% of the reported cases.[1]

There was also a distinct difference in the types of conflict found in high and low income countries, There were more conflicts around conservation, water management, and biomass and land use in low income countries; while in high income countries almost half of conflicts focused on waste management, tourism, nuclear power, industrial zones, and other infrastructure projects.[1] The study also found that most conflicts start with self-organized local groups defending against infringement, with a focus on non-violent tactics.[1]

Water protectors and land defenders who defend indigenous rights are criminalized at a much higher rate than in other conflicts.[1]

Environmental conflicts can be classified based on the different stages of the commodity chain: during the extraction of energy sources or materials, in the transportation and production of goods, or at the final disposal of waste.

The origin of environmental conflicts can be directly linked to the historical development of the industrial economy. As less than 10% of materials and energy are recycled, the industrial economy is constantly widening and deepening the limits of energy and material extraction by expanding ‘commodity frontiers’[8] through two main processes:

  1. Spatial expansion of natural resource appropriation through territorial claims to the control and use of natural resources and associated acts of expropriation
  2. Intensification of exploitation at existing sites through socio-technical innovations and new investments at the same site (e.g. open-pit mining of metal ores or coal, gas or oil fracking, or energy-intensive fishing or plantations).[9]

Categories from the Global Environmental Justice Atlas (EJAtlas)Edit

The EJAtlas was founded and is co-directed by Leah Temper and Joan Martinez-Alier, and it is coordinated by Daniela Del Bene. Its aim is “to document, understand and analyse the political outcomes that emerge or that may emerge” from ecological distribution conflicts.[10] It is housed at the ICTA of the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona. Since 2012, academics and activists have collaborated to write the entries, reaching 3,500 by July 2021.

The EJ Atlas identifies ten categories of ecological distribution conflicts:[11]

  1. Biodiversity conservation conflicts:
  2. Biomass and land conflicts (Forests, Agriculture, Fisheries and Livestock Management)
  3. Fossil Fuels and Climate Justice/Energy
  4. Industrial and Utilities Conflicts
  5. Infrastructure and Built Environment
  6. Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction
  7. Nuclear
  8. Tourism Recreation
  9. Waste Management
  10. Water Management

Ecological distribution conflictsEdit

Ecological Distribution Conflicts (EDCs) is a term introduced in 1995 by Joan Martínez-Alier and Martin O'Connor. EDCs arise from the unfair access to natural resources, unequally distributed burdens of environmental pollution, and relate to the exercise of power by different social actors when they enter into disputes over access to or impacts on natural resources. For example, a factory may pollute a river thus affecting the community whose livelihood depends on the water of the river. The same can apply to the climate crisis, which may cause sea level rise on some Pacific islands. This type of damage is often not valued in the market, preventing those affected from being compensated.

Ecological conflicts occur at both local and global scales. Although many of these conflicts take place between the global South and the global North (e.g. an Australian mining company operating in Indonesia), many are also local conflicts within a short commodity chain (e.g. local extraction of sand and gravel for a nearby cement factory).

A technical instrument known as Environmental Liabilities may ve used to claim payment of damages to affected communities.

Intellectual historyEdit

Since its conception, the term Ecological Distribution Conflict has been linked to research from the fields of political ecology, ecological economics, and ecofeminism. It has also been adopted into a non-academic setting through the environmental justice movement, where it branches academia and activism to assist social movements in legal struggles.

In his 1874 lecture ‘Wage Labour and Capital’, Karl Marx introduced the idea that economic relations under capitalism are inherently exploitative, meaning economic inequality is an inevitability of the system. He theorised that this is because capitalism expands through capital accumulation, an ever-increasing process which requires the economic subjugation of parts of the population in order to function.[12]

Building on this theory, academics in the field of political economy created the term ‘economic distribution conflicts’ to describe the conflicts that occur from this inherent economic inequality.[12][13] This type of conflict typically occurs between parties with an economic relationship but unequal power dynamic, such as buyers and sellers, or debtors and creditors.

However, Martinez Allier and Martin O’Connor noticed that this term focuses solely on the economy, omitting the conflicts that do not occur from economic inequality but from the unequal distribution of environmental resources.[14] In response, in 1995, they coined the term ‘ecological distribution conflict’. This type of conflict occurs at commodity frontiers, which are constantly being moved and reframed due to society's unsustainable social metabolism. These conflicts might occur between extractive industries and Indigenous populations, or between polluting actors and those living on marginalised land. Its roots can still be seen in Marxian theory, as it is based on the idea that capitalism's need for expansion drives inequality and conflict.

Unfair ecological distribution can be attributed to capitalism as a system of cost-shifting.[15] Neoclassical economics usually consider these impacts as “market failures” or “externalities” that can be valued in monetary terms and internalized into the price system. Ecological economics and political ecology scholars oppose the idea of economic commensuration that could form the basis of eco-compensation mechanisms for impacted communities.[16] Instead, they advocate for different valuation languages such as sacredness, livelihood, rights of nature, Indigenous territorial rights, archaeological values, and ecological or aesthetic value.[13]

Use in legal casesEdit

The concept of ecological distribution conflicts (EDCs) was introduced to facilitate a systematic documentation and analysis of environmental conflicts and to produce a more coherent body of academic, activist, and legal work around them.[10] In some cases that have been taken to the litigation stage, at times with the help of grassroots environmental justice movements, the claims of locally affected communities have been recognized and reparations have been made.

Environmental justice comprises multiple dimensions; that can be described as recognition, distributive, or procedural (or participation) justice.[17]

The recognition paradigm relates to the recognition of the personal dignity of all individuals involved. It entails the expression and acknowledgement of all the experiences of environmental change, as well as of different valuations of the natural environment (which can be related to spirituality, health, leisure, or economic well-being, among others).

The distributive paradigm tends to focus the social justice analysis on the allocation of material goods, such as resources, income and wealth, or on the distribution of social standing. Distributive justice hence relates to the benefits and burdens felt by the various actors involved, and usually is concerned with seeking restoration, reparation, or compensation for the burdens.

Procedural (or participation) justice relates to the fairness of the process of environmental policy- and decision-making. As Bell explains, “one of the reasons for the unfair distribution of environmental benefits and burdens is that the decisions that transform the environment are usually made by people who enjoy the benefits rather than the burdens”.[18] Inequalities of political authority, power and influence shape environmental decision-making. Principles of procedural environmental justice include ensuring equality, proportionality, and plurality in these processes. Ensuring procedural justice is a means to facilitate fair distribution and recognition of environmental impacts.

Litigation cases mostly seek a fair distributional outcome, although they sometimes mobilize more than one dimension of environmental justice.

Social movementsEdit

Ecological distribution conflicts have given rise to many environmental justice movements around the globe. Environmental justice scholars conclude that these conflicts are a force for sustainability.[12][10] These scholars study the dynamics that drive these conflicts towards an environmental justice success or a failure.

Globally, around 17% of all environmental conflicts registered in the EJAtlas report environmental justices 'successes', such as stopping an unsustainable project or redistributing resources in a more egalitarian way.[citation needed]

Movements usually shape their repertoires of contention as protest forms and direct actions, which are influenced by national and local backgrounds.[19] In environmental justice struggles, the biophysical characteristics of the conflict can further shape the forms of mobilization and direct action. Resistance strategies can take advantage of ‘biophysical opportunity structures’, where they attempt to identify, change or disrupt the damaging ecological processes they are confronting.

Finally, the ‘collective action frames’ of movements emerging in response to environmental conflicts becomes very powerful when they challenge the mainstream relationship of human societies with the environment.[20] These frames are often expressed through pithy protest slogans, that scholars refer to as the ‘vocabulary of environmental justice’ and which includes concepts and phrases such as ‘environmental racism’, ‘tree plantations are not forests’, ‘keep the oil in the soil’, ‘keep the coal in the hole’ and the like, resonating and empathizing with those communities affected by EDC.[10]

Environmentalism of the poorEdit

Some scholars make a distinction between environmentalist conflicts that have an objective of sustainability or resource conservation and environmental conflicts more broadly (which are any conflict over a natural resource). The former type of conflict gives rise to environmentalism of the poor, in which environmental defenders protect their land from degradation by industrial economic forces. Environmentalist conflicts tend to be intermodal conflicts in which peasant or agricultural land uses are in conflict with industrial uses (such as mining). Intradmodal conflicts, in which peasants dispute amongst themselves about land use may not be environmentalist.[21][22]

In this division movement such as La Via Campesina (LVC), or the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (IPC) can be considered in the halfway between these two approaches. In their defense of peasant agriculture and against large-scale capitalist industrial agriculture, both LVC and the IPC have fundamentally contributed to promoting agroecology as a sustainable agriculture model across the globe, adopting an intermodal approach against industrial agriculture and providing new sources of education to poor communities that could incentive an aware integration in the redistribution of resources.[23] A similar attitude has shaped the action of the Brazilian Landless Farmworkers movement (MST) in the way it has struggled with the idea of productivity and the use of chemical products by several agribusiness realities that destroy resources rich in fertility and biodiversity.[24][dead link]

Such movements often question the dominant form of valuation of resource uses (i.e. monetary values and cost-benefit analyses) and renegotiate the values deemed relevant for sustainability.[13] Sometimes, particularly when the resistance weakens, demands for monetary compensation are made (in a framework of ‘weak sustainability’).[16]The same groups, at other times or when feeling stronger, might argue in terms of values which are not commensurate with money, such as indigenous territorial rights, irreversible ecological values, human right to health or the sacredness of redefining the very economic, ecological and social principles behind particular uses of the Mother Earth, implicitly defending a conception of ‘strong sustainability’. In contesting and environment, such intermodal conflicts are those that are most clearly forced towards broader sustainability transitions.

Conflict resolutionEdit

A distinct field of conflict resolution called Environmental Conflict Resolution, focuses on developing collaborative methods for deescalating and resolving environmental conflicts.[25] As a field of practice, people working on conflict resolution focus on the collaboration, and consensus building among stakeholders.[25] An analysis of such resolution processes found that the best predictor of successful resolution was sufficient consultation with all parties involved.[26]


Some scholars critique the focus on natural resources used in descriptions of environmental conflict.[27] Often these approaches focus on the commercialization of the natural environment that doesn't acknowledge the underlying value of a healthy environment.[27]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Scheidel, Arnim; Del Bene, Daniela; Liu, Juan; Navas, Grettel; Mingorría, Sara; Demaria, Federico; Avila, Sofía; Roy, Brototi; Ertör, Irmak; Temper, Leah; Martínez-Alier, Joan (2020-07-01). "Environmental conflicts and defenders: A global overview". Global Environmental Change. 63: 102104. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2020.102104. ISSN 0959-3780. PMC 7418451. PMID 32801483.
  2. ^ Lee, James R. (2019-06-12), "What is a field and why does it grow? Is there a field of environmental conflict?", Environmental Conflict and Cooperation, Routledge, pp. 69–75, doi:10.4324/9781351139243-9, ISBN 978-1-351-13924-3, S2CID 198051009, retrieved 2022-02-18
  3. ^ a b Libiszewski, Stephan. "What is an Environmental Conflict?." Journal of Peace Research 28.4 (1991): 407-422.
  4. ^ a b Mason, Simon; Spillman, Kurt R (2009-11-17). "Environmental Conflicts and Regional Conflict Management". WELFARE ECONOMICS AND SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT – Volume II. EOLSS Publications. ISBN 978-1-84826-010-8.
  5. ^ "Environment, Conflict and Peacebuilding". International Institute for Sustainable Development. Retrieved 2022-02-18.
  6. ^ Cardoso, Andrea (December 2015). "Behind the life cycle of coal: Socio-environmental liabilities of coal mining in Cesar, Colombia". Ecological Economics. 120: 71–82. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2015.10.004.
  7. ^ Orta-Martínez, Martí; Finer, Matt (December 2010). "Oil frontiers and indigenous resistance in the Peruvian Amazon". Ecological Economics. 70 (2): 207–218. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2010.04.022.
  8. ^ Joseph, Sabrina, ed. (2019). "Commodity Frontiers and Global Capitalist Expansion". doi:10.1007/978-3-030-15322-9. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  9. ^ Banoub, Daniel; Bridge, Gavin; Bustos, Beatriz; Ertör, Irmak; González-Hidalgo, Marien; de los Reyes, Julie Ann (2020-10-21). "Industrial dynamics on the commodity frontier: Managing time, space and form in mining, tree plantations and intensive aquaculture". Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space. 4 (4): 1533–1559. doi:10.1177/2514848620963362. ISSN 2514-8486.
  10. ^ a b c d Temper, Leah; Demaria, Federico; Scheidel, Arnim; Del Bene, Daniela; Martinez-Alier, Joan (2018-05-01). "The Global Environmental Justice Atlas (EJAtlas): ecological distribution conflicts as forces for sustainability". Sustainability Science. 13 (3): 573–584. doi:10.1007/s11625-018-0563-4. ISSN 1862-4057.
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  12. ^ a b c Martinez-Alier, Joan (2002). Environmentalism of the Poor. Edward Elgar Publishing. ISBN 9781283198912.
  13. ^ a b c Pasquier, J (July 2003). "The Environmentalism of the Poor: A Study of Ecological Conflicts and Valuation Joan Martinez-Alier Edward Elgar, 2002, 312p". Nature Sciences Sociétés. 11 (3): 337–339. doi:10.1016/s1240-1307(03)00102-x. ISSN 1240-1307.
  14. ^ "Ecological Distribution Conflicts". Retrieved 2022-04-14.
  15. ^ James, Emile; Kapp, K. William (March 1952). "The Social Costs of Private Enterprise". Revue économique. 3 (2): 293. doi:10.2307/3497218. ISSN 0035-2764.
  16. ^ a b Martinez-Alier, Joan; Munda, Giuseppe; O'Neill, John (September 1998). "Weak comparability of values as a foundation for ecological economics". Ecological Economics. 26 (3): 277–286. doi:10.1016/s0921-8009(97)00120-1. ISSN 0921-8009.
  17. ^ Urkidi, Leire; Walter, Mariana (November 2011). "Dimensions of environmental justice in anti-gold mining movements in Latin America". Geoforum. 42 (6): 683–695. doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2011.06.003.
  18. ^ Holifield, Ryan; Chakraborty, Jayajit; Walker, Gordon (2017-09-14). "The Routledge Handbook of Environmental Justice". doi:10.4324/9781315678986. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  19. ^ Tilly, Charles (2002). Stories, identities. and political change. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 0-7425-1882-5. OCLC 464122744.
  20. ^ "Social movement theory and the political context of collective action", The Political Context of Collective Action, Routledge, pp. 76–90, 2003-12-16, ISBN 978-0-203-44967-7, retrieved 2022-04-14
  21. ^ Karan, P. P.; Gadgil, Madhav; Guha, Ramachandra (July 1997). "Ecology and Equity: The Use and Abuse of Nature in Contemporary India". Geographical Review. 87 (3): 418. doi:10.2307/216043. ISSN 0016-7428.
  22. ^ González de Molina, Manuel; Herrera, Antonio; Ortega Santos, Antonio (2009-01-01). "Peasant Protest as Environmental Protest. Some cases from the 18th to the 20th century". Global Environment. 2 (4): 48–77. doi:10.3197/ge.2009.020403. ISSN 1973-3739.
  23. ^ Edelman, Marc; Borras, Saturnino M. (January 2016). "Backmatter - Political Dynamics of Transnational Agrarian Movements". Political Dynamics of Transnational Agrarian Movements: 157–169. doi:10.3362/9781780449142.009.
  24. ^ Ferrante, César A. O.; Andrade, Sebastião A. L. de; Lima, Luciano R. O. de; Vellasco, Pedro C. G. da S. (2018-12-05). "BEHAVIOUR OF COMPOSITE BEAMS WITH EMBEDDED COMPRESSION FLANGE". {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  25. ^ a b Dukes, E. Franklin (2004). "What we know about environmental conflict resolution: An analysis based on research". Conflict Resolution Quarterly. 22 (1–2): 191–220. doi:10.1002/crq.98. ISSN 1541-1508.
  26. ^ Emerson, Kirk; Orr, Patricia J.; Keyes, Dale L.; Mcknight, Katherine M. (2009). "Environmental conflict resolution: Evaluating performance outcomes and contributing factors". Conflict Resolution Quarterly. 27 (1): 27–64. doi:10.1002/crq.247. ISSN 1541-1508.
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