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How the environmental justice movement transforms our world

It had cost them 22 years of resistance, 100 days of street mobilisation and 13 deaths from police fire. But on 28 May, a very controversial copper plant in India was closed – instead of expanded.

This struggle – worthy of an Avatar sequal – is just the most recent illustration that the environmental movement is to our age what the workers’ movement was for the industrial age: one of the most influential social movements.

Yet while strike statistics are collected systematically, environmental protests lack monitoring. Over the past years, we filled that gap with The Global Atlas of Environmental Justice (EJAtlas), a growing inventory with more than 2,500 cases of social conflicts around environmental issues.

As ecological economists and political ecologists, we argue that damaging economic activities – from mining to waste dumping – have triggered the creation of a global movement for environmental justice that is reshaping how humanity lives on this planet.

Land-grabbing – 600+ conflicts.

Booming palm oil production is behind a land-grabbing surge for plantations, which threatens communities. Palm oil is now in half of all packaged products sold in the supermarket.

Plantations replace food crops, deprive farmers from their land, increase slave labour and cause environmental destruction like deforestationwater pollution, infertile soil and fires.

Grassroots activist networks achieved temporary suspensions of further expansion of what they call “green deserts” in HondurasColombiaMéxicoIndonesia and Myanmar.

Conflicted renewable energies – 31 wind; 326 water infrastructure conflicts

Renewables are necessary in a post-carbon world, but mega dams (like Narmada) and mega wind projects (Mexico, KenyaIndia) are triggering conflicts. 

Methane emissions and cost overruns, are hidden behind a twisted sustainability discourse to justify a new wave of dams, especially in the HimalayasAmazon basinBalkans and Africa.

Rural communities often create cooperative wind energy models as alternatives to the corporate schemes, thus reshaping global production and consumption patterns. Communities expose the violence and reclaim the right to decide what energy transformation and sovereignty they want.

Mega-mining – 270 conflicts

New technologies, highly polluting chemicals and massive amounts of water accompany mega-mining expansion in Latin America and Western Africa (bauxite or iron in Guinea, gold in Burkina FasoSenegal or Ghana). 

Resistance in Latin-America and Africa is strong and often enjoys the high participation and leadership of women. This often leads affected communities to develop new local initiatives that are more sustainable.

Unburnable fuels – 178 conflicts

Faced with declining stocks, the fossil fuel industry depends on unconventional means and locations of extraction: from oil sand and fracking to Arctic and deep water petroleum sources.

The resulting contamination of fresh water supplies, devastation of marine systemsseismic activity and global warming gave rise to a Blockadia movement of direct action – forging a connection between unique struggles due to the combination of global and local threats that oil, coal and gas pose.

Massive oppositions have resulted in moratoria on off-shore drilling, litigation over continued oil exploration, bans on fracking, the removal of gas pipelines, and the halting of oil and gas operations.

Trash economy – 126 conflicts

Facing a multi-billion dollar waste industry are alliances of grassroots organisations protecting health and livelihoods. GAIA unites communities resisting incinerators. BAN tries to halt the flow of hazardous waste such as e-waste and ships from the North to the South.

The Global Alliance of Waste Pickers defends the informal recycling sector. In Delhi (India), middle class residents and informal recyclers allied to oppose the privatization of waste management and the resulting introduction of incineration.

Sand mafias – 82 conflicts

Illegal sand mining has ten times more value than all wildlife crime. Causes of the surge in demand for sand range from the booming building industry to land expansion to mining of ilmenite or zircon at beaches.

India is a particular hotbed of sand mining conflicts, from beach sand mining in the South to riverbed sand mining in the HimalayasHundreds have been killed by various sand mafia branches, from activists to investigative journalists. Despite all the violence, the latter do occasionally succeed in getting sand mine moratoria enforced through the courts.

Fighting for fish – 77 conflicts

The industrialisation of fishing since the 1950s caused stock collapses and extinctions. Small-scale fishing communities are reclaiming their rights for access to and control over aquatic commons.

The World Forum of Fisher People and World Forum of Fish Harvesters and Fish Workers aim to stop fisheries injustices such as the ones caused by intensive fish farms in Turkey or in Chile, big port projects in India and polluting industries in Ecuador.

PX-explosions in China – 76 conflicts

China is swept by large scale protests against the highly flammable petrochemical Paraxylene (PX), used to make plastic and polyester.

Protests in Xiamen (2007) stopped the construction of a PX plant. Protests spread to DalianChengduShanghai and elsewhere.

Together with protests against incinerators, wastewater issues, coal-fired power plants, etc. a new type of a-political mass mobilization emerged: to go for a “collective stroll” (sànbù).

Nuclear nightmares – 57 conflicts

Nuclear power is criticised due to risks illustrated by accidents in Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011).

Particularly controversial were the more risky “fast breeder reactors” in Creys-Malville (France, where an activist lost his life), Kalkar (Germany) and Monju (Japan).

While these were stopped, struggles at other places, such as Kalpakkam (India) are ongoing. Accidents and grassroots movements slowed down the nuclear industry, leading to phase outs in many countries.

Pesticide popularity23 conflicts

Despite pesticides impact on the environment and human health (like cancers or bird deaths), their use in farming is increasing – especially in developing countries.

Sadly, it is usually only when the impact of these toxins have become irreversible that people demand justice for the damage they do to health.

In Argentina the use of glyphosate in soybean cultivation has been challenged. The use of a nematicide to kill worms which destroy banana plantations has been fought in AsiaLatin America and Africa.

World economy

The world economy has continued to consume more energy and materials. Basic physics tell us that the economy is not circular but entropic. While key resources are running out, humanity trespasses planetary boundaries at the output side. 

Economies based on economic growth are ecologically unsustainable and socially conflictive. The socio-environmental conflicts on resource extraction, transport, processing and dumping beg a question: who gains and who loses in any economic activity?

The EJAtlas shows that people all over the world, organized in groups and networks, struggle for the kind of world they want to create. In doing so, they are promoting sustainability.

Environmental conflicts are not disruptions to smooth governance, fixable with market solutions and technology. People are expressing grievances, aspirations and political demands. They should not be repressed, they should lead us to a better world for all.

These Authors

The EnvJustice research project studies and contributes to the global environmental justice movement. The EnvJustice team includes Sofia Avila, Daniela del Bene, Federico Demaria, Irmak Ertör, Juan Liu, Joan Martinez-Alier, Sara Mingorria, Grettel Navas, Camila Rolando Mazzuca, Brototi Roy, Arnim Scheidel, Julie Snorek (Institute of Environmental Science and Technology, Autonomous University of Barcelona) and Nick Meynen (European Environmental Bureau).

This article is a modified version – with approval of all authors – of an article that will appear simultaneously in various countries accross the world. See Mediapart (FR) and The Conversation (EN) for other versions.

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