Environmental protests succeed 20 percent of the time and 'compensation' rarely stops communities, research finds

| 31st January 2018
The Dongria Kondh tribe

The Dongria Kondh tribe inspired millions when they won a ‘David and Goliath’ battle against mining giant Vedanta Resources. The tribe vowed to save their Niyamgiri Hills in India and their self-sufficient way of life.

Survival International
Protects against the extraction of fossil fuels and other natural resources - ecological distribution conflicts - cannot simply be resolved by payments of compensation. That is because for most people outside of the corporate boardroom, money is not the primary concern. JOAN MARTINEZ ALIER, a leading academic, investigates

In the EJAtlas we find that almost 20 per cent of conflicts end with success for environmental justice, often meaning projects stopped.

The Environmental Justice Atlas or EJAtlas of the Autonomous University of Barcelona collected 2330 data sheets on ecological distribution conflicts from all over the world. On average, one more case is added per day.

The sheer size of our database makes new studies possible on the actors in such conflicts and their forms of mobilisation, on the deaths of activists in these conflicts or on the factors that lead to failure or success in achieving environmental justice.

Social studies can be done on the various cultural expressions such as banners, documentaries and songs used in the various struggles for environmental justice.  

Smelting and refining

What we see is that these conflicts are exposing value system contests. For instance, if a river is polluted or a forest destroyed by open cast mining, financial compensation may be a way out for the company responsible but other valuation languages (biodiversity, the “rights of nature”, the livelihood of local populations, indigenous territorial rights, sacredness) will then be sacrificed.

Money cannot compensate for all such loses. The language of economics (and of monetary cost-benefit analysis) is powerful but it is not always powerful enough. 

Why do so many “ecological distribution conflicts” (as recorded in the EJAtlas) arise? This is  because of the growth and changes of the flows of energy and materials in the economy.

We call those flows the “metabolism” of the global economy. For instance, coal mining leads to conflicts along the whole “commodity chain”, from mining to transport to burning in coal fired power plants producing pollutants and excessive amounts of carbon dioxide.

Another example is the increase in bauxite mining, that causes conflicts in mining, in smelting and refining of aluminum, in the process of creating electricity for that and when leaving “red mud” as waste.

Unsustainable economies

Some famous conflicts, such as in the Niyamgiri Hill in Odisha in India against the Vedanta company, exemplify the power of the value of sacredness and the power of indigenous territorial rights against the power of money.

In this particular case, the power of the local people turned out to be bigger than the power of a 7 billion dollar investment

Changes in the social metabolism lead to conflicts, which are then expressed in different valuation languages. Ecological and economic distribution conflicts are not the same.

Economists claim that all externalities just need to be internalised in the price, but reality shows that not everything has a price tag.

The circuit from changes in social metabolism to ecological distribution conflicts to environmental justice networks and movements, and to transitions to less unsustainable economies and societies, is depicted in Fig.1.

Overview of interactions between socio-metabolic configurations, ecological distribution conflicts, environmental justice movements, and sustainability transitions.
Overview of interactions between socio-metabolic configurations, ecological distribution conflicts, environmental justice movements, and sustainability transitions.

For instance, more coal for electricity production causes conflicts at different scales and may give rise to movements for “leaving coal in the hole”.

Monetary compensation

If such movements are successful, the economy will be more environmentally sustainable. More windmills or more dams might be built instead to substitute for coal fired power plants but this in turn sometimes gives rise to conflicts over land rights and water rights.

From the point of view of governments and business, economic growth and profits demand an expanding or changing “metabolism of the economy”.

As solution to the conflicts this creates, they propose improved Corporate Social Responsibility. This sometimes works in the West or in China, where “eco-compensation” is used to keep the population quiet despite damages from land grabbing and the extractive industries.

Less conflictivity is good for business and for economic growth, it allows more mining and more fossil fuel extraction to take place.

But in most places, no amount of monetary compensation will prevent a conflict from taking place, simply because people have non-monetary social values as well.

Value systems

That may be hard to believe in the boardrooms of companies traded on the stock market, or in the minds of  economists – but it's the reality and it explains the rising number of ecological distribution conflicts, in parallel to the rising number of tonnes of materials extracted in the world.

From the point of view of the environmental movement, we take a positive view of ecological distribution conflicts as forces for sustainability.

In the EJAtlas we find that almost 20 per cent of conflicts end with success for environmental justice, often meaning projects stopped.

More conflicts mean less mining, less plunder of biomass and less fossil fuel extraction. Networks are formed and new words invented to express the new fights, such as Blockadia.

The slogan that “water is more valuable than gold” is only untrue if we consider the value as the price per kilogram - but it is true in the sense that there are other value systems apart from money pricing.

So when a religious leader like Pope Francis accepted an invitation to hold up a t-shirt with that slogan, it was because he supported the view that some values of water are not counted in money. He and the vast majority in the world know that – it is the psychopaths steering our economy into the abyss who don't get it. 

Pope Francis and Senator and film director Pino Solanas from Argentina. Rome, October 2013. 
Pope Francis and Senator and film director Pino Solanas from Argentina. Rome, October 2013. 

This Author

Joan Martinez Alier is an eminent and award wining professor in ecological economy and a globally recognised specialist on environmental justice. Martinez-Alier works at ICTA-UAB, Barcelona. He wrote this contribution in his capacity as the coordinator of the European Research Council funded EnvJustice Project.

Help us keep The Ecologist working for the planet

The Ecologist website is a free service, published by The Resurgence Trust, a UK-based educational charity. We work hard - with a small budget and tiny editorial team - to bring you the wide-ranging, independent journalism we know you value and enjoy, but we need your help. Please make a donation to support The Ecologist platform. Thank you!

Donate to us here