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Socio-environmental conflicts have a strong cultural component

South America

South America is a multi-ethnic and mega-diverse region of thirteen countries covering a surface area of 17,815,000 km2. The Brazilian territory constitutes nearly half of this area. The region is home to 410 million people who belong to hundreds of cultures with different traditions and languages. South America, rich in natural resources, consists of multiple eco-systems, for example in the Amazon Basin. They offer important economic and environmental benefits by ensuring, amongst others, continued access to water and energy and the provision of oil, natural gas, forestry resources and meat.

Nevertheless, accelerated economic development has caused an increase in production and consumption of goods and services, thereby endangering the equilibrium of these eco-systems, the sources of water and the forests that sustain quality of life for everyone. Although the majority of the population lives in urban areas, its security and livelihood depend on the natural resources provided by these key eco-systems. However, there is a disconnect between the urban individual and nature, and between the consumer and the place of production.

Urban growth

Today, half of the world's population lives in cities. South Americans live in one of the most urbanized regions of the world. During the past fifty years, South America developed from a rural culture to a predominantly urban one. According to the Atlantic Council, 80% of the population currently lives in more than 16,000 cities, which already account for two thirds of the region's GDP.

This development brings with it both challenges and opportunities. Even though the process of urbanization generally contributes to poverty reduction in South America, there is a simultaneous increase in urban poverty. In many cities, everyday life is marked by inequalities, violence and territorial segregation. The English newspaper The Guardian states that more than 100 million inhabitants continue to live in poverty, forced to earn their livelihoods in peripheral and marginalized zones of the big cities, which depend to a large extent on an informal economy.

Despite these challenges, cities also offer unprecedented economic opportunities. Latin American cities have developed as centres of technological and social innovation and have made huge progress in infrastructure development, public health, education and communication.

Migration from rural to urban areas will probably continue during the next decades. It is estimated that 90% of the total population will live in cities in the future. This will strengthen the economic importance of big and medium cities, but also exacerbate the challenges of urban growth as well as environmental threats.

Ecuador, 2013: View of Quito at night from the Panecillo.

Hidden impacts of consumption

The concentration of population in urban areas results in an increased consumption of water, energy and food with negative impacts for the environment. A report of the United Nations Human Settlement Programme states that while cities cover only 2% of the planet's surface, they account for between 60 and 80% of worldwide energy consumption and for 75% of greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, rapid urbanization puts pressure on the supply of fresh water, sewage treatment, land, sanitation, waste management, livelihoods and public health. In addition, the concentrated consumption of energy increases air pollution with a significant impact on human health and loss of urban forest land and wildlife.

The current model of the city is based on unsustainable consumption patterns. A transformation of the expansionist logic of the city and the implementation of a new rationality of responsible consumption, energy and water savings as well as a reduction and recycling of waste are required to improve the conservation of natural heritage, parks, gardens and public spaces. The revaluation of urban quality requires a process of cultural transformation to create a new relationship between people and nature, which would lead to the emergence of an environmental culture.

We need to consider that water, energy, food and health security of urban and rural populations depend on eco-systems to provide essential goods and services. Water constitutes the principal element in this regard as it is essential for agricultural production and fishery as well as for energy production, human consumption and the safeguarding of public health.

At the same time however, agricultural and energy production on a large scale increase the risks for eco-systems due to contamination and degradation, thereby affecting water, energy and food security.

The transformation of the Amazon, for example, has contributed to the economic growth of the countries of the region. At the same time, it has also dramatically accelerated deforestation, the loss of biodiversity and water pollution, affecting the security of the region and its population and increasing the risk of major socio-environmental conflicts.

Ecuador, 2011: A woman sowing oca (Oxalis tuberosa).

Climate change: a threat multiplier

Climate change constitutes one of the fundamental challenges for development and prosperity, in particular of the most vulnerable populations. The impacts of climate change include rising temperature and variability in precipitation, more intense heat waves and El Niño and La Niña phenomena, a larger number of hot days, a high concentration of strong rainfall in short periods as well as extreme weather events of increased frequency and intensity. 

Climate change multiplies the threats for water, energy, food and health security. The Andean countries, for example, have already been affected by the melting of glaciers, which endangers access to water and energy of rural communities and urban areas alike.

From the viewpoint of human security, we need policies that focus on the mitigation of these threats to water and other scarcities as well as incentives for a transition towards a more sustainable and equitable economy.

Chile, 2014: Valparaiso harbour.

Common challenges for a diverse population

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), António Guterres, stated at the Climate Summit in Copenhagen that "climate change will be the major cause for the displacement of persons in the near future" and added that "the phenomenon obliges millions of people to abandon their homes because of the conflicts generated by natural resource scarcity". In South America, droughts, floods, soil erosion, natural disasters and rising sea levels will foster migration particularly to medium and large cities, increasing the level of conflict in urban centres.

Women and men establish different relations with eco-systems and their resources in terms of access, use, control, impact and knowledge about them. Hence, the interests that women and men have concerning the use, management and conservation of natural resources can be very different and may even conflict.

Socio-environmental conflicts have a strong cultural component because one of the main challenges for conflict transformation remains the creation of intercultural relations to make 'the other' visible and make it possible to learn about alternate perceptions and priorities of the world and nature. The world views of indigenous people can help to rethink the occidental concepts of the exploitation of natural resources.

Uru Chipaya and climate change

The ethnic group Uru Chipaya, whose origins date back to approximately 2500 BC, currently suffers from the impacts of climate change because its vital source, the river Lauca in the province Oruro, Bolivia, is drying out. In addition, lack of food has led many members of the Uru Chipaya to migrate, leaving behind a population of less than 2,000 inhabitants in the village of Santa Ana, its main settlement.

Brazil, 2013: Girl holding two sacks of rice stolen from a truck in a flooded quarter in the northern zone of Irajá, Rio de Janeiro.
Colombia, 2011: Migrant and his son ask for a donation in a marginalized quarter in Soacha, Municipality of Cundimarca.


Water: quality, quantity and use

Water is an irreplaceable natural element, an indispensable resource for human life and every living being as well as a guarantee of the equilibrium of ecosystems. Access to water of adequate quality and quantity enables us to live in dignity. Access to water is a human right.

Water is present in a visible manner as we see and use it directly and in an invisible manner in the process of food and goods production. The water that we consume does not necessarily come from the nearest water catchment area, but is transported from other places and 'imported' through products and services.

When an individual or a society has water in adequate quality, sufficient quantity and when needed, one can speak of water security. This security does not always depend on natural factors, but on good management in all dimensions: environmental, social, economic, politico-institutional and cultural.

Did you know that:

  • 140 litres of water are used to produce one cup of coffee?
  • 1,000 litres of water are used to produce 1 kg of citrus fruits?
  • 1,500 litres of water are used to produce 1 kg of chicken meat?
  • 15,000 litres of water are used to produce 1 kg of beef?

Water in South America

According to the numbers of the Global Water Partnership:

  • South America possesses 28% of global fresh water resources and 6% of the world's population.
  • It is home to the Guarani aquifer, measuring over 1,200,000 km2, one of the world's most important groundwater reserves.
  • 23% of South America's surface is dry or arid.
  • The catchment areas of the river Amazon, Paraná-Plata and Orinoco provide more than 30% of worldwide renewable water to the Atlantic Ocean and are the largest in the world.
  • The mountain range of the Andes has a length of 7,240 km and is among the highest mountain ranges with snow in the world.

The water crisis

Deforestation, soil erosion, fragmentation of ecosystems, forest fires as well as changes in soil use and population growth are increasing thereby reducing water access, quality and quantity for its diverse usage.

The big challenge

Integrated water management can be defined as "a process that promotes the management and coordinated development of water, land and related resources with the aim of maximizing social and economic prosperity in an equal manner without putting the sustainability of vital eco-systems at risk".  

    Ecuador: Urban fountain in the centre of Quito.
    Brazil, Paraguay, 2000: Itaipú hydroelectric plant on the Paraná River.


    Currently, the largest part of the energy consumed in South America comes from non-renewable sources. Energy is the foundation for development, for the steady growth of the economy and all its sectors. Non-renewable resources are scarce, limited and their extraction costs are high; consequently they are very costly on the international market. This is particularly the case for petroleum extracted in the countries of the Amazon.

    In South America, there is a trend towards a change in the energy mix: the replacement of fossil fuels by alternative sources such as wind and hydropower.

    In countries like Ecuador, Peru, Brazil and Chile, new development plans are targeted towards obtaining energy based on hydropower; which currently constitutes only a small percentage of the region's energy production. The construction of hydropower plants improves energy efficiency but at the same time has social and environmental impacts that demand responses.

    The high environmental costs are characterized by an irreversible impact in the area, changes to the natural environment, destruction of ecosystems, alteration in the minimum flow rate of rivers, changes in climate as well as social and economic costs as a consequence of migration.

    These plants seemingly impact a limited area. However, these structural changes trigger others in local production patterns, with indirect impacts on agriculture, fishery and other human activities that take place in urban and rural areas surrounding the projects. These changes are wide-ranging and affect vast territories.

    In Chile, projects such as the hydroelectric power plant Ralco on the river Biobio, the hydroelectric power plant Neltume on the river Fuy and the hydroelectric power plant Alto Maipo have generated socio-environmental conflicts due to flooding of community lands that caused forced displacement as well as loss of biodiversity and essential resources of the riparian communities. 

    In the same country, the project HidroAysén, a megaproject, which was planned to have an installed capacity of 2,750 MW and an average capacity of 18,430 GWh per year with an estimated investment cost of USD 3,2000 million, was ultimately rejected by a committee of ministers after a wave of protests related to its projected environmental and social impacts. According to studies regarding the location of the plants and the transportation links needed for their construction, the project would have affected 6 national parks, 11 national nature protection areas, 26 conservation areas, 16 wetlands and 32 private nature protection areas. Moreover, it would have had an impact on 6 Mapuche communities.

    Projekt ENERGAL

    Project ENERGAL

    The programme ENERGAL developed under German cooperation is part of the ‘Zero fossil fuels on the Galapagos Islands’ initiative of the Ecuadorian government. The policy aims to replace the use of petroleum with renewable energy by 2020. The programme supports the generation of biofuels with investments, capacity building and consulting services. The biofuel is extracted from the Jatropha plant which is harvested by small producers from Manabi that use them as ‘cercas vivas’ (or ‘living fences’) on their plots. The programme is carried out with financial support of the German Federal Ministry of Environment, Nature Protection, Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB) and technical support of Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ).

    Project EcoAdapt

    The project EcoAdapt, financed by the European Union, initiates processes of water management to support local development and reduce the vulnerability of the human population to climate change by means of capacity building, knowledge exchange, prevention and mitigation of conflicts. The first studies conducted in three territories in South America – Bosque Modelo Jujuy (Argentina), Bosque Modelo Chiquitano (Bolivia) and Bosque Modelo Araucarias (Chile) – use local knowledge to develop strategies to adapt to climate change. 

    Case of the River Pilcomayo

    Pilcomayo River

    The river Pilcomayo has its source in the mountain range of the Andes and flows through Bolivia, Argentina and Paraguay. As the Pilcomayo constitutes an internationally shared resource, it creates tensions between these countries. The water catchment area is characterized by specific geographic and socio-economic features and its own history. It has 1,300,000 inhabitants, among them indigenous people and mestizos, who are directly affected by mining activities that pollute the river water. Other threats are the pollution of freshwater sources, extensive sedimentation and the spread of introduced species.

    The water catchment area of the river Picomayo, belonging to the Plata River Basin system, with a surface area of 288,360 km², comprises an important region of natural resources in South America, shared by Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay. Facing the problem of sedimentation, Argentina and Paraguay signed a treaty in 1939, which Bolivia joined in 1947. In 1995, the Trinational Commission for the Development of the Basin of the River Pilcomayo was established with the aim to find a consensual solution concerning the problems of the river basin. Until today, the Trinational Commission is the responsible entity for the integrated administration of the river catchment area.

    Forests and climate change in South America 

    Forests provide a wide range of eco-system goods and services, employment, energy and food.

    According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), about 21% of the forests worldwide can be found in South America, i.e. about 831 million hectares. The Amazon Basin contains the biggest tropical forest of the world. It is home to a high diversity of species, habitats and eco-systems. Moreover, a huge number of different peoples, particularly indigenous communities, can be found here.

    According to the Coordinator of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), this region hosts 390 different tribes. FAO estimates that 289 gigatons of carbon are stored in the biomass of the world's forests, a third of which are in South America. This means that conservation of the forests in South America prevents 100 gigatons of carbon from being released into the atmosphere.

    Despite the growing awareness of the importance of the forests (because of their environmental services and their function as a carbon sink, as a source of livelihoods for local populations and for the conservation of genetic resources), deforestation, degradation and insufficient forestry regulation place these eco-systems at constant risk.

    Palm oil and other monocultures

    At the northern coast of Ecuador and Columbia's South Pacific region, one can find one of the most biodiverse eco-systems of the planet,  El Chocó. The tropical forest located in this region is threatened, among others, by the palm oil industry.

    Approximately 2 billion people worldwide consume palm oil as part of their diet. The United States of America consumes about 55 kg per capita and year. The world average consumption per capita is 24 kg. The palm oil production accounts for 30% of the worldwide production of vegetable oils. This market, together with the new global market for biofuels, has resulted in enormous increases in the planting of African palm in tropical forests, such as El Chocó.

    Monocultures of palm trees replace tropical forests and thus limit the benefits that the eco-systems provide for local populations, such as pure water, climatic stability, food and fibre. Due to the use of fertilizers, some industrial plantations pollute water needed for people, animals and irrigation, with effects on health.

    The monocultures in South America, such as the palm tree and the soy plant, cover large territories and consequently place strong pressure on eco-systems. The cultivation of soy, for example, covers an area equivalent to the size of France.

    Colombia, 2011: A palm oil plantation in the valley of the river Magdalena.