Redefining Environmental Conflicts in Latin America


There does not seem to be an official definition for the term environmental conflict in ecological and environmental literature. What is an environmental conflict (EC from now on)? Under what circumstances does it occur? Who does it actually involve? The vagueness of the term allows for its constant redefinition. Certain ecologists assert that ECs constitute a deliberate assault on mother nature, indigenous groups state that they entail a destruction of their ancestral livelihood, and politicians view them as an unfortunate consequence of economic structural adjustment.

Perhaps the most authoritative definition of an EC is given by the United Nations Environmental Program. According to the UNEP’s 2009 publication “From Conflict to Peacebuilding: the role of natural resources and the environment” ECs occur because of the contention of natural resources between interest groups. Thus unequal redistribution of wealth from high value extractive resources coupled with contention over the direct use of scarce natural resources are the primary causes of international and intra-national ECs. In this way, ECs are simply economically determined. The UNEP’s solution to ECs is thus to promote a sustainable form of development which addresses equal wealth redistribution and fair and correct natural resource management.

“Sustainable Development”

Throughout the 1990s the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund implemented neoliberal economic policies in many countries of Latina America. This entailed the complete liberalization of the market, deregulation and privatization among other things. Economic growth was thus seen as the basis for social development.

Not only would economic growth promote social development, but it would lead to environmental improvement as well. The 1992 World Bank Development Report popularized the theory of the Environmental Kuznets Curve. The theory states that “in the early stages of economic growth, degradation and pollution increase, but beyond some level of income per capita…the trend reverses, so that at high income levels economic growth leads to environmental improvement.” Basically, the richer a country gets, the better it improves its environment.

These strategies implied that the structural adjustments as proposed by the WB would bring economic growth, social development, and environmental improvement at the same time. In other words neoliberal economics would promote sustainable development.

It is not the aim of this paper to discuss the disastrous results of neoliberal sustainable development in Latin America. Nor to debate the fallacy of the Environmental Kuznets curve theory. Needless to say, environmental and social conflicts increased exponentially in the past two decades, often pitting campesiño and indigenous communities against giant trans-national corporations. For example, in Peru, 68% of socio-environmental conflicts are caused by mining operations entirely owned by trans-national corporations. The Chevron-Texaco oil spill in the Oriente department of Ecuador dubbed the “Amazonian Chernobyl” and the displacement of three (three!) millenary glaciers by US-Canadian trans-national mining giant Barrick Gold in Pascua Lama, Argentina are examples of a new reality of environmental conflict: one that, through the extraction of natural resources, firstly degrades the environment and secondly destroys the livelihood of small communities.

Redefining ECs

The point is that the very authoritative definition that the UNEP gives to an environmental conflict allows for the systematic violation of human rights to pass as a small but necessary consequence of an overbearing and all important economic process.

If the assumption that ECs are essentially a conflict over natural resources were true, then conflict could be easily prevented by changing the economic dynamics of natural resource distribution and management; in this way the notion of sustainable development would provide the solution. Yet, we have seen what “sustainable development” in the key of neoliberalism has done to Latin America with all its grand narratives of Environmental Kuznets Curves, trickle down theories, and social development through capital growth.

The redefinition of an environmental conflict must refute this economically determined assumption. It must shift the grounds for the outbreak of environmental conflicts away from that of a simplistic contention of natural resources.

A new proposition must point out that an environmental conflict occurs when the act of natural resource exploitation/extraction systematically violates human rights and destroys livelihoods through the degradation of the environment. Proposing new strategies of sustainable development or corporate social responsibility neglects the crude reality of the violation of human rights. It neglects the displacement of families, the loss of biodiversity, and the magnitude and damage of irreversible environmental disasters. This is not a naïve appeal to an abstract notion of human rights; rather it is a very pragmatic strategy to shift the attention back towards the destruction of the livelihoods of millions of people throughout Latin America.

If human rights are the ultimate, inalienable, and universal set of non-refutable assertions, then no version of “sustainable development”, free-market environmentalism, or revised notion of “capitalism with a human face” can logically and legally legitimize their violation. An environmental conflict is thus, a-priori, a degradation of an ecosystem which, by extension, violates human rights and destroys ancestral livelihoods. Only by linking these notions together can the true extent of socio-environmental damage be acknowledged.

This proposition could draw criticism from proponents of deep ecology. Deep ecology asserts that nature has an intrinsic value; where the environment has the inalienable right to live, evolve, and reproduce. The above mentioned re-definition of an environmental conflict does not account for this, and views nature as having an instrumental value for humans and no transcendental value in itself. Although ethically contestable, this anthropocentric point of view is necessary to shift the attention from the technocrat jargon of macroeconomic stabilization and environmental Kuznets curves to the reality of pain and suffering and towards the universality and non-refutability of human rights.

The New Constitution of Ecuador and Environmental Rights

The adoption of the 2008 Constitution of Ecuador throws this whole discussion into a new light. The Ecuadorian people have decided that the environment possesses inalienable rights. Article 1 of the environmental rights section states that “Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.” In this way, any citizen can sue on behalf of the ecosystem. In practical and legal terms, this could provide the ultimate form of prevention of environmental conflicts. By extending inalienable human rights to nature, and if the violation can be proven, there could be no possible legal loophole or argument that could justify such violation. Ecuador’s Constitution thus poses nature as having an intrinsic value.

However, the decision of instituting environmental rights, thus delegating intrinsic value to nature, is highly controversial: Could I be sued for picking flowers because I have prevented Pachamama’s life cycle? It is not the aim of this paper to delve into the discussion of intrinsic/instrumental value of nature, nor to debate social ecology vs. deep ecology. However we must take into account the ethical implications of extending human rights to nature.

Ecuador’s Constitution is important because it is the first constitution that recognizes the symbiotic link between indigenous livelihoods and the conservation of the environment. This bond is called the Sumak Kawsay in Quechua, the communitarian ancestral “good lifestyle.”  The modes of production and strategies of natural resource management which have ancestrally been practiced by many communities in Latin America are in fact sustainable. It is solely the callous exploitation of natural resources driven by the exaggerated quest for short-term profit that destroys the sustainable bond between man and nature.

The symbiosis between man and nature must not however be interpreted as a nostalgic return to a golden age of pre-modern agrarianism. Rather, it must embrace its emancipatory potential by providing a sustainable post-industrial alternative within a democratic logic.


If a revision of human rights and the drafting of environmental rights are the only strategies left for developing countries to protect themselves from future environmental conflicts, then such strategies must be seriously considered. They are the only (and ultimate) legal and ethical tools with which Latin America can re-appropriate its ancestral livelihoods and protect its environment. If the focus is not shifted from economic determinism, to human/environmental rights, then environmental conflicts will be continually relegated to a small but necessary side-effect of the fallacious “sustainable development” models proposed by free-market environmentalism.


Filed under Development, Environmental Rights, Human Rights, Latin America

3 responses to “Redefining Environmental Conflicts in Latin America

  1. Alan Hertz

    We often hear assertions about the inherent sustainability of indigenous cultures. They make me a bit uneasy — is this unquestionably true of all indigenous cultures? Is it even a safe working assumption? Do they or we understand the environmental impact of their activity? Do they or we even have a methodology for doing so?

    • The inherent sustainability of indigenous cultures is not some 1st world superimposed romantic idealization. There are agricultural and husbandry techniques that are perfectly sustainable and productive, and which simultaneously foster a correct management of natural resources. The Inca terrace agriculturalists are a perfect example. Early conquistador literature depicts the Andes mountain ranges as being lush and green, and home to a multitude of species of flora and fauna. Today, they are brown, desolate, and arid. What happened? The conquistadores forced the natives into the silver mines. The same occurs today, where people are forced to migrate towards urban centres or are forced to plant coca. As a result, the terraces are not maintained and they loose their capacity to retain water. Mountains managed by Incas acted as giant reservoirs, capable of storing enormous quantities of water. Now the Andes altiplano region is one of the most arid in the world.
      The point is that the knowledge does exist, it is first world modernists who have ridiculed, belittled and discredited practices which were given up for “progress”, “industrialization” and “modernity”. Specialists in organic farming techniques today look back to ancestral indigenous practices and have indeed developed a methodology. It is called agroecology. This is not some new-age hippy-commune concept; rather it is a legitimate branch of agriculture also embraced by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN.
      What is needed is a revival of ancestral practices: they need to be endowed with legitimacy by a scientific and political discourse. In addition, it is necessary to act quickly, because as urbanization and migration rates continue to rise, this precious knowledge is rapidly vanishing. Reviving ancestral practices must be part of a much wider political process, one that recognizes the right of indigenous peoples to develop and continue their autonomous modes of production.

  2. Manuel

    Adopting ancestral practices might solve part of the problem. Technology and industrialization has developed a variety of businesses and techniques which were unknown to our ancestors leaving us no other option than to use the techniques and practices that we have learnt in the last few decades. This, as the essay explains, has created what we call Ecological Conflicts where on one side a few people and corporations benefitted from the so called “economic growth” , and on the other side a wide population is being exploited and degraded but nonetheless is working and feeding (poorly) their families.
    It’s similar to China where a variety of factories don’t meet the human rights standards that we affirmed. But if we were to close down those factories, you would have thousands of Chinese people left without a job.
    My questions are: can the ancestral practices be applied to the new businesses and technologies that were developed way after our ancestors?
    More importantly, can going back to ancestral practices make sure that the efficiency of production and the employment rate meets the standards that we are used to today?

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