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Western consumption: a source of environmental conflicts

By Alma de Walsche, MO* magazine (translated by Nick Meynen).

Mining projects, oil and gas extraction, energy crop plantations and tourist resorts are increasingly encroaching on pristine areas. Here they come more and more into conflict with local communities, who fight back to stand up for their rights. Worldwide, these projects in the service of progress lead to conflicts and human rights violations. However, this “collateral damage” remains largely below the radar and ignored. The recently launched Atlas of Environmental Conflicts from EJOLT wants to put these conflicts on the map.

The map highlights how these conflicts are not incidental events but a common feature of the current economic model. What instruments local communities use to defend themselves? How companies can be held accountable? Or even better, how can the pressure on those commodities be slowed down?

MO* had a conversation with Leah Temper, coordinator for the Atlas made by EJOLT (which stands for Environmental Justice Organisations, Liabilities and Trade).

Environmental Conflicts are not new. What is the most worrying trend today?

Leah Temper: There are always new drivers. Land grabbing, for example, is not a new phenomenon. But the current purchase of land for speculation creates a new problem.

Environmental conflicts today are not occasional disasters or incidents. It is about the way our economy operates. Because of the pressure on scarce resources, the exploitation boundaries shift to previously untouched areas.

And there the projects collide with the residents.

Leah Temper: It is often suggested that these are “empty areas”, but that’s not true. For many people, such “empty areas” are in fact a source for their survival. The extraction methods and the way companies operate also have a very negative impact on the environment and the rights of the people who live there.

The benefits of mining are also unevenly distributed. The fruits are picked at one end of the chain and the cost is paid on the other side, by indigenous people, women and children who have no power, whose voice doesn’t count.

What usually happens is that those people will resist, they clash with the company, with the local rulers and with the government providing the necessary licenses to those companies. Then, their protest is criminalized. But those people that are protesting are not environmentalists, they protest because their lifestyle and their survival is at stake.

In the name of development and progress.

Leah Temper: Take the battle over the Belo Monte dam in Brazil. The people who suffer the impacts from building the dam will not share in the benefits of electricity. That’s for the people in the urban regions.

Robert Bullard, who has written extensively on this subject, uses the concept of sacrifice zones. You also hear that often in court: “In order that the country might develop, there are groups that have to sacrifice.” The atlas aims to visualize who must sacrifice: poor and indigenous people without political power. No one defends their interests because they are not part of the growth economy.

And possibly they do not want to be part of that. They do not want to “develop”. They want to preserve their way of life. So they mobilize to defend themselves and go into battle.

Where are the hotspots of environmental conflicts located today?

Leah Temper: The atlas is not yet complete and some regions are completely undocumented. For example, in Central Asia , there is a lot of mining going on and in China there are countless conflicts that have to do with pollution, but we do not have any or insufficiently documented cases of these areas.µ

Yet some clear trends have emerged, notably the expansion of mining in Latin America. In recent years, this has exploded.

The past twenty years there has also been a lot of export of biomass for food, biofuels or fibers. In Southeast Asia and Indonesia, we saw a lot of deforestation for the export of biomass. Africa is currently a hotspot for land grabbing, but without massive export of biomass. Land grabbing in Africa is a relatively new concern and it will bring new conflicts.

Given the differences in power, you might think that this is a lost battle?

Leah Temper: To date we have almost a thousand conflicts documented in the Atlas and in 17 percent of cases, the outcome of their struggle is defined as “positive” for environmental justice.

That does not necessarily mean that they could stop the project. However, perhaps they made some arrangements with the company or the government, or the organization of the movement was strengthened, coalitions or alliances were built.

What instruments can indigenous communities use to confront a multinational?

Leah Temper: Essentially, there are two formal tools. There is the Convention 169 of the International Labour Organisation. It states that indigenous communities have the right to prior and informed consent. There is also the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Has such a convention real effects?

Leah Temper: In countries that have signed the convention, it sometimes really does work. In some cases of land grabbing that I researched, the indigenous peoples have used the instrument to stop certain projects.

But for example in the Sarayacu community in the Ecuadorian Amazon in a conflict over oil exploration, the government gave the community the right to preliminary information: to consultation, but not to consent. But in various conflicts where natives are concerned, we see these specific legal instruments contributing to success.

Conversely, there is sometimes a negative impact when conservation groups are involved in conflicts in regions that are very valuable for nature conservation. Sometimes communities collide with conservation groups, who prefer a “depopulated” sanctuary, as we have seen in Africa. Yet when there is an alliance between conservation organizations and environmental justice organizations, there is a stronger chance of success.

What is needed to strengthen the vulnerability of the local groups?

Leah Temper: Access to justice is very important, and of course civil liability where companies can be held accountable. But in our vision, violations should also be thought of as “criminal activities”. In some countries it is possible to sue the CEO of a company, but it is very difficult to prove that he had “criminal intentions”.

In addition, companies often work with subcontractors and often this involves a non-transparent chain of command. It is thus very difficult to pinpoint who is responsible. They create a veil so that it is very difficult to determine precisely what company is responsible – with the aim of maximizing profits and minimizing the corresponding responsibilities.

Another point on which we work is to ensure that businesses should be held accountable in their home countries for their activities abroad.

And for example: Canadian companies in Latin America must adhere to the same criteria as in Canada itself?

Leah Temper: That would be ideal, but that’s not going to happen soon. When a Canadian company hires a security guard who then kills an activist in Peru, it is very difficult for those involved to bring the case to a Canadian court. Sometimes it works: Shell has come before a court in the Netherlands for its crimes in Nigeria. But even there, the court has not admitted that Shell Nigeria and Shell Netherlands was the same company.

We would like to see a concept such as ecocide introduced in the law. Why would that not be possible? We see today that in the free trade agreements, companies can appeal for “loss of earnings”, for example when a project was canceled by protests, or when the environmental legislation was tightened. Companies can hold governments to account, but governments cannot hold companies accountable? That’s the world upside down.

How to reverse this?

Leah Temper: The problem is that governments are more interested in protecting their investments and commercial activities than in protecting these vulnerable groups. There is a lack of political will to do this because governments benefit from the current world economic system. But more and more grassroots movements in the North and South are questioning this system. The business model is no longer working.

And you can have an impact. Maybe you cannot change a company, but you can have an impact on its investors, as we see happening with oil and gas companies, due to their role in climate change. Some large investment funds and pension funds are beginning to question whether it is a good idea to put their money there.

And green solutions also lead to environmental conflicts?

Leah Temper: Indeed, the so-called solutions for “renewable” energy are often problematic: from dams to wind farms. Across Europe, fracking for shale gas is a pressing issue. Every form of energy has an environmental cost and the so-called “greening” of our economy also has an impact.

What is true sustainability, seen from an ecological and justice perspective?

Leah Temper: Ultimately, it is about the question of how much place on this finite planet we have for consumption – and to be precise: about the distribution of that consumption.

It is about the transformation of production models. It should no longer be possible to buy a laptop that is no longer functioning two years later. For every gram of precious metals in it, there are tonnes of earth and debris ransacked. It should be possible to have a laptop that you bring to the shop every two years, to get a chip that upgrades your laptop. And over time, as the laptop is really worn out, the company should be required to take it back and take responsibility for recycling it.

It is often said that consumers should change their behavior. But that is not enough. We need to change companies, with stricter regulations.


  1. On martin del valle said:

    It is very comforting to see that according to the environmental justice mat on the home page of the website, China and Russia remain the only two global regions where the air is pristine, the waters are crystal clear and no mineral or fossil conflicts exists… Let’s all dream of living in Beijing!

    • On Nick said:

      That is a funny but unfortunately wrong interpretation of the temporary results that we presented. This Atlas is a work in progress and a team is now working on more cases from China and Central Asia. This atlas has blanc spots that need to be filled in the coming year – but we have launched it already in the hope of convincing more partners to submit cases – with success. Many more are in the making. We are pretty confident to go from 1000 to 2000 in a year and even that will be only a percentage of all conflicts.