Environmental Conflicts in Latin America & the Caribbean

By Claudia Lagos Lira


  1. Introduction
  2. Under fire: women, indigenous, and peasants
  3. Natural resources exploitation and colonialism
  4. Mining and more
  5. Further reading and resources
  6. Contact a Librarian


Berta Cáceres (44) was a member of the Lenca indigenous group in Honduras. She was a mother, a daughter, a friend, and an environmental rights campaigner internationally awarded for her activism. As a co-founder and leader of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras, Copinh), she led the protest against the Agua Zarca Dam on the Gualcarque River, an hydroelectric project developed by the local company, Desarrollos Energéticos S.A. (DESA). Cáceres was murdered in her home in La Esperanza, in March 2016, while supposedly under state protection after receiving several death threats over her opposition to the project.

Intelligence squads in agreement with corporate power are suspected to be responsible for the crime: Several men have been arrested in connection with the murder, “including one serving and two retired military officers,” as court documents revealed, according to an investigation by The Guardian. Among the civilians charged with murder or attempted murder are Roberto David Castillo and Sergio Rodríguez, the executive president of DESA and the manager of environmental and social issues at DESA at the time Cáceres was killed.

Unfortunately, hers is not an isolated case: Nelson García, also a member of Copinh, was murdered two weeks after Cáceres was killed; a few years before, Tomás García, another Lenca indigenous leader and member of Copinh, was shot dead by the Honduran Army as he participated in a peaceful protest. The killings triggered international investors to drop or stop their funding to the Agua Zarca project, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has been investigating human rights violations in the country, denouncing impunity, and recommending the government to take action.

Under fire: women, indigenous, and peasants

In recent years, several human rights organizations – such as Amnesty International or Global Witness – have highlighted the increasing violence that environmental human rights defenders are facing on a daily basis because of their engagement in protecting the land, the environment, or local sources of water. Many of the activists working on land rights, indigenous peoples’ rights, and in rural areas across the world face harassment, threats, assault, and death, as the cases of Tomás, Berta, and Nelson exemplify.

For instance, two-thirds of the human rights defenders assassinated in 2017 reported by the NGO Front Line Defenders were engaged in environmentalist activities, especially in the context of mega projects linked to extractive industries and big corporate power affecting local communities. The involvement of corporate representatives, paramilitary forces, organized crime, and state forces contribute to impunity.

Regarding the geopolitics of the phenomena, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defenders has pointed out that Latin America is the deadliest place for environmental activists. Even more: women activists in Mexico and Central America are in higher danger of being attacked and murdered – particularly activists involved in indigenous and environmental conflicts. In fact, Berta Zúñiga, Cáceres’ daughter, survived a gun attack after assuming her mother’s position at the Copinh in 2017.

Natural resources exploitation and colonialism

The history of extractives industries in Latin America and the Caribbean is as old as colonialism, as is its conflict with local communities. Indeed, the raise of capitalism and the wealth of colonial empires—England, Spain, and Portugal first, and the United States later—have depended upon the commercialization of commodities (gold, silver, copper, and so on) and people (slaves and free-wages labor, i.e.). So, commodities and people have been taken from their territories abroad or through the more sophisticated networks of corporate and political power fed by globalization in contemporary times, what Víctor Figueroa calls the “third stage of industrial colonialism”.

Thus, the exploitation of natural resources and its permanent impact on the environment is a phenomenon born out of colonialism in Latin America. As Kendall Brown says, “Mining began its assault on the environment in the first decades [of colonialism]. Verdant forests and grasslands became pockmarked by mining activity. Areas of intensive gold panning left the rivers clouded with silt, harming aquatic plants, fish, and other organisms. Mercury the miners used to refine the gold contaminated the environment. Diverting the indigenous population to mining also changed the ecosphere. Hard labor and unhealthy conditions weakened the islanders and made them more susceptible to diseases such as smallpox that were unwittingly introduced by the Europeans… [And] Spaniards willing to trade a hundred Indians for a horse were not likely to worry much about the death of a few workers” (A history of mining in Latin America from the colonial era to the present, p. 5). The effects of gold mining were pervasive in the Caribbean, as well as in colonial Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, and Peru, for instance, as well as silver extraction in Potosí, transforming labor, local economics, and the environment. In contemporary times and driven by a huge global demand, copper mining has become key to global economies, local communities, and national politics, sparking conflicts regarding indigenous lands and endangering local communities.

Mining and more

Although mining is at the core of Latin American and Caribbean history and colonialism, it also fuels contemporary conflicts. However, it is not the only source of social and environmental problems in the region. Indeed, as the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History states, “the region’s most pressing environmental problems in the 21st century include vast and complex processes of soil degradation due to erosion and pollution; forest loss; decline of biodiversity due to habitat loss and fragmentation; deterioration of watersheds and watercourses related to increases in the demand for water; deterioration and overexploitation of coastal and marine resources; and accelerated deterioration of urban areas, which is manifested in an increase in the demand for basic services—water, sewer, power, waste collection—and translates into an ever-increasing ecological footprint. These issues, in turn, interact with—and are exacerbated by—a persistent combination of economic growth and social inequality, with the result that poverty persists among approximately 30 percent of the population” (Castro, 2015).

Indeed, oil and gas operations in the region have also been a key source of some of the most terrible ecological disasters and human rights violations against local communities, as seen on June 5, 2009, in Peru “when at least 32 people were killed and hundreds injured when security forces clashed with indigenous peoples.” More than 800 indigenous demonstrators “took over oil and gas infrastructure, blocked access roads, and interrupted exports from the country’s main oil production area, located in the Amazonian province of Bagua”, as Patricia Vásquez points out in her book Oil sparks in the Amazon: Local conflicts, indigenous populations, and natural resources (2014, p. 1). She also identifies the number of gas and oil-related conflicts in Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru, their intensity, and the local as well as global factors shaping them.

Indeed, hundreds of the socio-environmental conflicts mapped by the Environmental Justice Atlas are located in Latin America and the Caribbean. The atlas documents and catalogues socio-environmental conflicts across the world and it defines them “as mobilizations by local communities, social movements, which might also include support of national or international networks against particular economic activities, infrastructure construction or waste disposal/pollution whereby environmental impacts are a key element of their grievances”.

As long as Latin American and Caribbean economic growth is natural resource-based and global economy and capitalism require support of the endless cycle of consumption, it is very likely that socio-environmental conflicts will last in the region, affecting millions of people, as well as depredating non-renewable resources.

Further reading and resources

The Latin American & Caribbean studies library collection at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign provides a wide range of material to better understand phenomena such as sustainable development, socio-environmental conflicts, and extractive industries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

For instance, Latin America and the Caribbean: atlas of our changing environment “collects more than 200 images showing the main environmental issues in the region.” Relying upon satellite images and scientific data, the publication analyzes “the transformation that the regional environment is experiencing” across the continent (p. 4 of cover). This big-size item was published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), with the support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the technical collaboration of the Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and The Caribbean (CATHALAC).

Regarding visual material, the documentary When Two Worlds Collide (2016), directed by Heidi Brandenburg and Mathew Orzel, portrays the battle between Peruvian authorities and indigenous peoples over oil and gas projects in the Peruvian Amazon. Also, our subscription database Latin America in Video offers quality original language documentaries from and about Latin America, including several pieces about environmental topics. For instance, the documentary La Buena Vida (The Good Life) (2015) tells the story of the Wayúu community in the Colombian village of Tamaquito and how their way of life is being destroyed by the vast and rapidly growing El Cerrejón coal mine.

The book Green Guerrillas (1996) “profiles the people on the frontline” of the environmental activism in Latin America and the Caribbean, such as “indigenous groups and forest settlers to fishing communities, peasant farmers, flower workers, shanty-town activists,” and many more. The edited work addresses rural and urban problems across the continent, in countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Barbados, or Ecuador, to mention some. Rhys Jenkins’ edited work Industry and environment in Latin America (2000) situates environmental problems in relation to the liberalization of the Latin American economies, analyzing the three most industrialized countries in the region: Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico. Recently, some Canadian mining companies have become key players across the region and in doing so, they are at the core of high-profile socio-environmental conflicts, such as Barrick Gold in the Andes in Chile and Argentina. Todd Gordon and Jeffery Webber critically examine the issue in their book Blood of extraction: Canadian imperialism in Latin America (2016). In his review, Noam Chomsky qualifies the work as a “careful and comprehensive analysis of Canada’s economic policies and political interference in Latin America.” According to Nature, “This eye-opening volume should pressure Canada to clean up its lax securities laws and imperialistic foreign policy — and push us all to rethink the unspeakable price of mineral extraction.”

Contact a Librarian

For more information about socio-environmental conflicts in Latin America and the Caribbean at the Library, please contact Prof. Antonio Sotomayor, Librarian for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, asotomay@illinois.edu, or visit the website at https://www.library.illinois.edu/lat/.

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