Skip to Main content

Ecological Distribution Conflicts

The term Ecological Distribution Conflicts (EDCs) was coined by Martinez Alier and Martin O’Connor (1996) to describe social conflicts born from the unfair access to natural resources and the unjust burdens of pollution. Environmental benefits and costs are distributed in a way that causes conflicts. The terms socio-environmental conflict, environmental conflict or EDC are interchangeable.

These two authors, trained as economists, were inspired by the term ‘economic distribution conflicts’ in political economy that describes conflicts between capital and labour (profits vs. salaries), or conflicts on prices between sellers and buyers of commodities, or conflicts on the interest rate to be paid by debtors to creditors (Martinez Alier, 2003). The term EDC stresses the idea that the unequal or unfair distribution of environmental goods and bads is not always coterminous with ‘economic distribution’ as, for instance, rents paid for by tenant farmers to landlords, or the international terms of trade of the Brazilian economy, or claims for higher wages from mining unions opposing company owners.

‘Ecological distribution conflicts’ is then a term for collective claims against environmental injustices. For instance, a factory may be polluting the river (which belongs to nobody or belongs to a community that manages the river – as studied by Ostrom (1990) and her school on management of the commons). The same happens with climate change, causing perhaps sea level rise in some Pacific islands or in the Kuna islands in Panama. Yet this damage is not valued in the market and those impacted are not compensated for. Unfair ecological distribution is inherent to capitalism, defined by K. W. Kapp (1950) as a system of cost-shifting. In environmental neoclassical economics, the preferred terms are “market failure” and “externalities”, a terminology that implies that such externalities could be valued in monetary terms and internalized into the price system. If we accept economic commensuration and reject incommensurability of values (Martinez-Alier, Munda, and O’Neill 1998), ‘equivalent’ eco-compensation mechanisms could be introduced. Instead ecological economics and political ecology advocate the acceptance of different valuation languages to understand such conflicts and the need to take them into account through genuine participatory processes in natural resource management and environmental problem solving (Agarwal, 2001; Zografos and Howarth, 2010).

There are local as well as global distribution conflicts; whilst many of them occur between the global South and the global North (a Canadian or Chinese mining company operating in Peru), many are local conflicts within a short commodity chain (e.g. on local sand and gravel extraction for a nearby cement factory) (Martinez Alier, 2003).

From a social metabolic perspective we can classify EDCs through the stages of a commodity chain; conflicts can take place during the extraction of energy carriers or other materials, transportation and production of goods, or in the final disposal of waste.

Research on EDC links up with several concepts in ecological economics, political ecology and related disciplines; for instance, the ecological debt and ecologically unequal exchange between the North and the South, the acknowledgment of environmental liabilities; also social ecofeminism that highlights gender in the study of environmental impacts and activism (Agarwal, 1992), the notion of environmental justice term originating in the US and linked to the struggle against ‘environmental racism’ (Bullard, 1993), and the environmentalism of the poor and the indigenous (Guha & Martinez Alier, 1997).


Agarwal, B., 2001. Participatory exclusions, community forestry, and gender: An analysis for South Asia and a conceptual framework. World development. 29, 1623-1648.

Agarwal, B. 1992. The gender and environment debate: lessons from India. Feminist studies, 119-158.

Bullard, R. D. 1993. Confronting environmental racism: Voices from the grassroots. South End Press.

Guha, R., Martinez Alier, J., 1997. Varieties of environmentalism: Essays north and south. Routledge.

Kapp, K. W., 1950. Social Costs of Private Enterprise.

Martinez-Alier, J., Munda, G., & O’Neill, J. (1998). Weak comparability of values as a foundation for ecological economics. Ecological economics, 26(3), 277-286.

Martinez-Alier, J., O’Connor, M., 1996. Ecological and economic distribution conflicts. In: R. Costanza, J. Martinez-Alier and O. Segura (Eds.), Getting down to Earth: Practical Applications of Ecological Economics. Island Press/ISEE, Washington, DC

Martinez-Alier, J., 2003.The environmentalism of the poor: a study of ecological conflicts and valuation. Edward Elgar Publishing.

Ostrom, E. 1990, Governing the Commons. The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Cambridge U.P., Cambridge.

Zografos, C., & Howarth, R. B. (2010). Deliberative ecological economics.

Written by Marta Conde and Joan Martinez Alier.

Comments are closed.