An Approach to Conflicts for Natural Resources

Alexander RincónInstituto Alexander von Humboldt Diana LaraInstituto Alexander von Humboldt Mario Alejandro PérezUniversidad del Valle Jhonny Harold RojasUniversidad del Valle

Ecosystem services are the base of human well-being. In this sense, they tend to be valued by different perspectives, resulting in disagreements that turn into environmental conflicts and affect territorial management.

According to the Atlas of Environmental Justice1 in Colombia there are 115 environmental conflicts. Colombia is therefore the second country with the largest number of significant environmental conflicts. Conflicts are caused by inequalities in the use and access to natural resources and have suffered an accelerated growth in the last decades due to political decisions. These decisions have encouraged measures such as the expansion of productive activities like mining and oil exploitation that have been determinant for the management of the country's territory2.

Most conflicts are related to mining, chiefly of gold, oil and carbon exploration and exploitation, and biomass exploitation (the latter being distinguished for spurring disputes linked to extensive monocrops, forestry plantations, and intensive forest exploitation). To a lesser degree, although with significant impacts, conflicts are also prompted by projects of energy generation, particularly hydroelectric power plants.

The expansion of these activities and projects can increase social and ecosystem vulnerability. Proof of this is the elevated degree of degradation some territories, such as paramos, wetlands, and forests, have suffered despite their great richness of ecosystem services. According to the project MESO-ANCA of the Universidad del Valle (University of Valle), the resources that have been most affected are water, soil, and biodiversity, mainly in aquatic and forest ecosystems.

On the other hand, peasant, indigenous and afro-descendant communities suffer the damage megaprojects have on ecosystem services3. Their exclusion from enjoying and using natural resources, on which their subsistence usually depends, results in the transformation of their ways and forms of life, social networks, cultural structures, and customary rights of common property4. Consequently, initiatives have been developed to reclaim the rights to a healthy environment, the conservation of nature, and the ethic and aesthetic values inherent to the communities and their natural surroundings5.

In some cases, communities have empowered themselves and prompted dialogue between different participants of the conflict. In fact, in 20% of the cases analyzed, the community has accomplished the cancellation of projects and devolution of goods. This has been possible due to an adequate management in the moment of capacitating the population, democratizing information, and encouraging the creation of social capital. It is therefore indispensable to develop agreements between all the involved persons to consolidate mechanisms of collective actions to face conflicts. On the contrary, the conflicts will intensify due to the lack of social interaction, dialogue, and participation of the local population in public decisions6.

During previous decades environmental conflicts in Colombia have increased, and many include ecosystem services, particularly those of water and food, as a central element.
Environmental conflicts in Colombia.

Source: Project MESO-ANCA, Universidad del Valle (University of Valle).

Aerial spraying
Biomass and lands
Fossil fuels
Electricity generation
Water management
Waste management

Classification of environmental conflicts and their regional representation.

Source: Project MESO-ANCA, Universidad del Valle (University of Valle).

Ecosystem services that are affected in conflict scenarios.

Source: Project MESO-ANCA, Universidad del Valle (University of Valle).