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Environment and social conflict in Latin America – study results

Ore truck at copper mine

Socio-environmental conflicts have increased in Latin America, in part because of extractive projects. But, how is this linked to “irregular” groups? And what strategies are needed to transform the conflicts? The article resumes some results of a recent survey.

In the last 15 years, socio-environmental conflicts have increased in Latin America, partly due to the increase of extractive projects in the region. The Atlas of Environmental Justice has recorded 587 conflicts in Latin America, representing 32% of the total socio-environmental conflicts worldwide. A clear majority were registered after the 2000s, indicating a concerning upward trend. In September 2016, a 34% increase in conflict cases was seen in South America alone compared to the previous year. Almost 40% of all conflicts revolve around mining.

Fundación Futuro Latinoamericano, a non-profit organization founded in Ecuador in 1993, conducted a study that aims for a deeper understanding of the trends of socio-environmental conflict, the efficiency of different methodologies and strategies, and the conditions necessary to design and develop a regional mechanism to approach conflict in Latin America. A field consultation process was conducted, combining qualitative and quantitative research methods, in order to account to collect the diversity of approaches and perspectives on the subject of socio-environmental conflict in Latin America. Thus, a quantitative survey which received 520 responses from different sectors – ranging from the public and private sector to international organizations, civil society and academia – and different Latin American regions was at the core of the study.

Increasing infrastructure – increasing conflict

The results of the study show a strong public perception that the number of socio-environmental conflicts has increased. 81% of all respondents answered that there has been an increase in the last decade. In the Andean Region, 79% of the respondents believe that socio-environmental conflicts increased. In the Southern Cone, this percentage goes up to 86% and in Mexico and Central America to 84%. When answering the question: “What are the main causes that influence socio-environmental conflicts?” about 70% of respondents from all regions answered that conflict is mainly due to the increase of infrastructure projects related to mining, oil, gas, hydroelectricity, and roads.

Links between armed groups and socio-environmental conflict

The study also looks at socio-environmental conflicts and “irregular groups”. Irregular groups are defined as armed groups such as the FARC paramilitaries in Colombia, drug cartels, and groups involved in money laundering and organized crime. The link between irregular groups and socio-environmental conflicts is a topic that has not been approached in its specificity and generality within literature, except for some case studies in Colombia and Mexico, even though the issue is becoming a major problem in Latin America.

The survey shows that the perceived link between socio-environmental conflict and irregular groups in Latin America is not strong (yet). Almost half of the 520 responded surveyed answered that there is "definitely not" a link, opposed to 26% of the respondents who thought that there "definitely is" a relationship. Disaggregated by regions, 29% of respondents in the Andean Region agree with this link, compared to 9% in the Southern Cone, and 43% in Central America and Mexico.

Conflict transformation

Eighty percent of those surveyed mention the need to promote dialogue as a principal strategy for the transformation of socio-environmental conflicts without significant differences between countries, regions, or sectors. Nonetheless, the study concludes that dialogue processes need synergy with other strategies that focus on the defense of human rights, the empowerment of weaker actors, the treatment of traumas, the construction of social fabric, and the construction of peace.