Growing socio-environmental conflicts in Latin America are an opportunity for change

Facing poverty, inequality and the need for foreign currency, governments in Latin America have employed different strategies to promote development and economic growth, as multiple stakeholders seek to turn the reserves of natural resources into sources of wealth. It is against this backdrop that multilateral and regional agreements were concluded and national policies formulated promoting the construction of large infrastructure projects in sectors considered strategic, most notably the energy sector.

An example of this is the energy reform approved in Mexico in 2013-2014, whose purpose is to encourage competitiveness, provide greater certainty and promote private investment in this sector. Another example is the massive construction of large hydropower plants in the south of the continent. While the projects developed under this approach have been effective in attracting foreign investment, they often cause harmful impacts to the environment and produce few tangible benefits for the surrounding communities.

Environmental impacts, income distribution as well as the social and cultural impacts on communities coupled with the poor implementation of prior consultations have generated a growing set of conflicts in the region. According to a recent survey with more than 500 representatives from all sectors related to socio-environmental conflicts in Latin America, over 80% believe that the level of conflict in countries in the region has increased (FFLA 2016). This result demonstrates the need to rethink conflict transformation strategies in the energy and infrastructure sector, but also generally the strategies to solve environment-related disputes.

The multi-stakeholder dialogue is an important tool to achieve this transformation, but it does not replace other strategies, such as the defence of human rights, advocacy, Corporate Social Responsibility, resistance, among others. These tools should lead to greater justice and peace in the region within a transformative framework. To achieve complementarity between the different strategies and tools, we need a deeper dialogue among different stakeholders: companies, international organizations, communities, state actors and non-governmental organizations.

An attempt to bring different stakeholders together was made during the VIII Regional Forum on Transformation of Socio-environmental Conflicts in Latin America held on October 24 and 25, 2016.

More than 150 participants contributed to the multi-stakeholder event. Among them were representatives from different sectors such as business, civil society organizations, academia and indigenous peoples, and from a broad range of countries, such as Guatemala, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Germany and Switzerland.

The Regional Forums on Socio-Environmental Conflict Transformation are led by Fundación Futuro Latinoamericano. After seven editions held in Ecuador, the Forum was brought to Mexico this year. The meeting in Mexico had the support of 

  • Prodiálogo from the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económica (Centre for Economic Research and Teaching) (CIDE) 
  • Centro de Colaboración Cívica (Centre for Civic Collaboration) (CCC)
  • Centro de Estudios en Cooperación Internacional y Gestión Pública (Centre International Cooperation and Public Management Studies) (CECIG)
  • Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (National Council of Science and Technology)
  • Mexican headquarters of the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (Latin American Social Sciences University).

The Fundación Futuro Latinoamericano plans to continue with this dialogue. The organizing committee has agreed to organize the ninth edition of the Regional Forum on Socio-Environmental Conflict Transformation  in Mexico as well. This event, to be held in 2018, will discuss transparency and accountability mechanisms and their link to socio-environmental conflicts. This will give continuity to the discussions of the recent event that identified corruption and the existence of illegal armed groups as factors for the escalation of conflicts into situations of violence.