It’s difficult to say how many conflicts stem from struggles over environmental resources. But for World Environment Day, it’s important to ask what’s the state of the world’s health, starting with the frontier realm of materials extraction and energy that feed our industrial economy. The many wars are conducted quietly but are changing societies, economies and power relations.
The EJAtlast project — or Environmental Justice Atlas — is a first attempt to catalogue these conflicts. The project is co-directed by Leah Temper and Joan Martinez Alier and coordinated for the past five years through the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, in collaboration with many other organizations and individuals from about 100 countries. So far it has mapped more than 1,700 conflicts related to extractive and productive activities, and waste disposal, and will continue in the coming years to include new areas and poorly understood cases.
Here we present 10 conflicts rooted in socio-environmental injustice: unequal distribution of the benefits and problems, lack of participation by the local community, violations of law, lack of access to justice, impunity of enterprises, pollution and corruption. These are cases in which the use and abuse of resources is compounded in a ruthless cocktail by the growing gap between the wealthy and impoverished, violations of human and environmental rights, and the system of impunity for corporations through the complicity of the state. And they affect varied geographic and thematic areas, from oil to renewable energy.
Guatemala: Palm oil and sugar cane violence
After the signing of peace accords in 1996, two German-born families took control of plantations, starting a palm oil business in 1998 and cane sugar in 2005, occupying a third of the Polochic Valley. The Polochic is fertile land, located in the northeast of Guatemala, but which experienced a spate of land grabbing and has been under the control of a few landowners since 1888, while most of the indigenous Q’eqchi’ population had no access. The locals denounce the soil contamination and the diversion of rivers, the deforestation for crops, and poisoning and diseases due to pesticides for sugar cane.
The case became known internationally when 800 families were evacuated from 13 Q’eqchi’ communities that occupied part of the land of the Polochic that had been planted with sugar cane by a Nicaraguan family. In 2010, some families who occupied the 13 estates claimed the failure of the sugar factories and tried to auction them off to the state. The negotiations were interrupted by violent evictions, during which they burned crops and houses of local residents and a farmer was murdered. Months later a two farmers were killed and private security staffer wounded with bullets. This is one of the 450 cases of conflicts over land grabbing identified by EJAtlas and is within 12 percent of cases in which there have been murders.
Spain: Almaraz nuclear power plant
Spain has extended the useful life of its nuclear power plants, which generate alarming environmental and social impacts that by their nature know no borders between states and regulatory apparatus. One of the most emblematic cases is located in the Cáceres province, where the activities of the old power plant of Almaraz is a major risk for the cross-border region with Portugal.
This station was built in the early ’80s by Arañuelo Campo, despite opposition from the anti-nuclear movement that arose at the beginning of the decade. They also opposed a project in Valdecaballeros (this also in Extremadura). Almaraz has two reactors of 1,000 MW each and cooling using water from the Arrocampo dam, on the transboundary river Tajo. According to the Spanish NGO Ecologistas en Acción, between 2007 and 2010, there have been at least 75 accidents at the plant. The local opposition has confirmed accidents, mistakes by the company maintenance and unscheduled interruptions that violated security protocols. New protests are scheduled for June 11 on both sides of the border.
Nigeria: Oil violence in the Niger Delta
The Niger delta is one of the places on the planet that has most suffered the consequences of extraction of crude oil. Mining began in the 1950s by Anglo-Dutch Shell and has caused irreparable environmental and social impacts, and a high level of violence, including even summary executions, torture and illegal detentions. Local communities denounce illegal practices such as the burning of residual gas that is produced in the process of extraction and processing of oil. The vegetation and crops suffer from the effects of acid rain, which is also responsible for an increased number of abortions, birth defects, respiratory diseases and cancer. The case of the Niger Delta came to a head in 1995 when the poet and community leader Ken Saro Wiwa was assassinated. Although the conflict has reached an international audience, access to justice for affected communities requires a great effort that frequently falls into deplorable impunity.
There are ongoing investigations in Holland, Ecuador and the European Union to determine the liabilities of companies operating in the Delta: including Shell, Chevron and ENI. Local environmental organizations have reported a large number of crude oil leaks from badly maintained pipes and a serious lack of clean-up and damage repair from businesses responsible.
In addition to compensation, the group Environmental Rights Action and many local communities are demanding more radical measures, up to that of leaving the remaining underground reserves where they are. The appeal from Nigeria joins other campaigns, such as in Ecuador with the citizen initiative for the Yasuní park, and quickly found new alliances, such as with North American indigenous leaders at COP21 in Paris.
Brazil: The Mariana dam disaster
On Nov. 5, 2015, the failure of the Fundão dam in the town of Mariana threw 34 million cubic meters of sludge, killing 19 people and leaving more than 600 families homeless. This is probably the greatest environmental disaster in Brazil caused by a mining company’s negligence. The dam held back the residue of mining and iron production by the company Samarco, operated by Brazilian mining giant Vale and one of the world giants, BHP Billiton. The Samarco mine was one of the largest iron ore mines in the world until the incident froze its activities. After the disaster of Bento Rodriguez, Samarco mud spilled into the Doce River, where it traveled around 700 km through more than 40 cities and out into the ocean.
In this way the sludge pollutants have contaminated the waters, exterminating fauna and flora. The activities and the sources of life of small farmers, fishermen and indigenous communities have suffered irreversible impacts. This year the company has been fined by the state, the extent of which seems ridiculous given the damages caused: just $70 million. Despite this, the company has had the courage to negotiate with the federal and state governments a fund of $5.5 billion to recover the Doce basin in 15 years. The scandal of this agreement has brought more than 100 institutions and social movements from all over Brazil to oppose the signing. Civil society demands real action — participatory and transparent — to clean up the area and take responsibility for the damage caused.
China: Cancer, the true cost of ‘made in China’
At one time the village of Yongxing was a small rural community, near the city of Guangzhou. Twenty years ago, the fields were irrigated with fresh water coming down from the mountains to the plantations of rice, vegetables and fruit. In 1991 the nature reserve was supplanted by a 34.5 hectare waste dump, where about 100 tons of garbage were buried every day. Later the same area was chosen for the construction of two incinerators and a plant for the storage of waste. The local population protested against the serious contamination; the water from their wells turned a dense yellowish-red color with surface films.
The protests in the streets ended in mass imprisonment for years. Since then the people Yongxing have been forced to buy drinking water and to abandon agricultural subsistence activities. The fields are rented at low prices to migrant workers who have no choice but to cultivate the unhealthy but cheap land to sell the harvest in the city. In addition to the seriously contaminated environment, the greatest concern is the rapid increase of cancer cases in the country. But local health authorities pretend not to see.
The WHO has warned that incinerating the waste results in the emission of dioxins and furans, with negative impacts on human health. The village of Yongxing is one of many “cancer-villages” in China, where industrial activity and huge landfills operate with ridiculous security standards despite the proven harmful effects on the human population and the ecosystem.
Honduras: Violence and repression in the name of green energy
With the 2009 coup, the state has intensified violence in Honduras. Between 2009-2013, the National Congress passed a series of laws in favor of the exploitation of natural resources. In 2010, it approved the hydroelectric project “Acqua Azzurra” on the Gualcarque River, sacred to the indigenous Lenca people. The grant was given to the Honduran company Desarollos Energeticos (Desa) and funded by the Dutch Development Bank (FMO), Finnfund (Finland) and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration.
The Lenca population denounced the approval as a violation of law because it lacked prior, free and informed consultation with the local population as well as the presence of the army to supervise the works and threats to Lenca leaders. For the local population it is not the first mining project it perceives as a threat; the Lenca have already spoken out against mining projects, initiatives financed with REDD+ mechanism and the construction of a so-called “model city.” The case of the “Blue Water” project gained international visibility after the assassination on March 3 of the COPINH activist Berta Caceres, winner of the Goldman Prize in 2015, by Desa assassins. The murder occurred precisely during a period when the Lenca villages in question took on a new energy and community design.
At present, organizations and movements are pressing for investigations into the murder and proceeds to discontinue funding of the project. After the murder of the activist and following the visit of an international delegation of members of European Parliament, the effects of the hydroelectric plant were recognized as a violation of human rights.
Agua Zarca, along with other projects such as Barro Blanco in Panama, Barillas in Guatemala, Belo Monte in Brazil and La Parota in Mexico delineate the violence of the energy model and the connivance between the state and business in Latin America.
South Africa: A popular bet for the end of coal
The mineral prospecting enterprise Ibhuto Coal has proposed developing an open coal mine in the South African region of KwaZulu-Natal. The Fuleni project is located bordering the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi park, the oldest natural park in Africa, home of the white rhino. Two mines already surround the park: Zululand Anthracite Colliery (owned by Río Tinto) and Somkhele (of Petmin Properties). Both mines are operational and generate a heavy impact on local communities: the destruction of sacred sites and cemeteries, loss of homes, water contamination, damage to crops and biodiversity of the region.
Local communities oppose the Fuleni project. On April 22, 1,000 people pressured the Mining and Environmental Development Committee to cancel supervision of the project area and remove legitimacy from the proposal. Activists raised the alarm with the aim to stop the voracious extractive economy. Alternatively, they propose structural solutions to stop global warming. The idea of putting an end to coal and develop local energy alternatives exploitation is also found in the village of Sompeta in Andhra Pradesh, India, and is in addition to the many requests to leave fossil fuels in the ground.
India: Wind energy at the expense of communities
Wind energy is widely promoted as sustainable and socially acceptable. However, large-scale wind projects around the world are causing an increasing number of conflicts, and they show that the impacts of this industry go far beyond issues related to the landscape. In these cases, green benefits are are sucked up by large companies, while the local social and ecological systems suffer from a profound transformation.
A recent case of great importance is happening in the state of Andhra Pradesh, India, where an interesting community project for reforestation and the promotion of subsistence activities is being undermined by a wind project called Nallakonda. Owned by India Tadas Wind Energy, it appears among the projects funded through the Clean Development Mechanism, aimed to stop climate change and strongly backed by the central government. The installation of more than 60 towers and Enercon turbines has led to the deforestation of the area and the degradation of productive areas, such as pastures, fields and waterways. In 2013, local communities and social organizations brought the case to the National Green Tribunal, which is responsible for handing down an opinion.
In the EJAtlas, we find similar and even larger-scale cases, such as wind corridors. They include the more than 15 projects in Oaxaca, Mexico, and the privatization of more than 16,000 hectares of land in northeastern Kenya. In these instances, the expropriation of land for renewable energy on a large scale represents a new frontier for environmental justice.
Italy and France: Megaprojects in the works
The 220 km/hour high-speed rail line that would connect Turin and Lyon has become one of the most important environmental conflict symbols in Europe. Il manifesto readers are familiar with this case. We’ll add only that the next international meeting of the activist groups against the mega projects will be in Bayonne in mid-July.
Somalia: Illegal waste dumping and toxic colonialism
Eighty percent of municipal waste is industrial and sometimes as toxic as energy company waste. In E.U. countries it’s expensive to dispose of, especially because legislation has become more demanding in recent decades. This has resulted in often-illegal exports of waste, a phenomenon known as “toxic colonialism.”
Tons of toxic waste was dumped off the coast of Somalia in spite of the Basel Convention of 1989. In 2004, a tsunami washing along Somali beaches brought containers full of hazardous waste, including nuclear. The NGO Common Community Care (2006) discovered radioactive and toxic waste scattered across the country. The same NGO indicated that an unconfirmed number of fishermen died because of contamination. Investigations revealed that the 90 entities connected to the discharge of toxic waste were European front companies associated with the Italian mafia.
In 1994, the journalist Ilaria Alpi was killed with her co-worker Miran Hrovatin while investigating the trade of toxic waste in exchange for weapons. The investigation seemed to have brought to light that both the Italian army as well as the secret services were involved. A year earlier Vincenzo Li Causi, an Italian agent and Alpi informant, was killed. The illegal disposal of toxic waste, combined with the illegal fishing of foreign vessels, has seriously affected the livelihood of Somali fishermen and encouraged their switch to piracy. In 2009, an investigation by the Somali news outlet WardheerNews identified that 70 percent of local coastal communities support piracy as a form of defense of territorial waters.
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