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Environmental conflicts: Addressing the collateral effects of climate change in developing countries.

The effects of climate change have permeated their way through our lives. One of the collateral impacts of climate change and environmental degradation is the increase in environmental conflicts and violence. Environmental conflicts include conflicts that result from activities involving the consumption of environmental resources. It can include violence at a local level, like protests within a community, and violence at the national level, like a resource war.[1]

However, environmental violence is not limited to physically brutal instances of aggression. It includes violence that takes place over long periods of time. It includes effects upon workers’ health or long-term impacts of lead exposure.[2] These are instances of “slow violence,” which includes “violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space.”[3] Thus, the injustice that results from environmental conflicts is broad and affects people directly and indirectly.

The Environmental Justice Atlas (“Atlas”), a project created by the Environmental Justice, Liabilities, and Trade project, and funded by the European Commission, maps environmental conflicts and resistance.[4] In their most recent report, published in December 2015, India had the highest number of conflicts with around 200 cases, followed by Colombia with 101 and Nigeria with 71.[5] The concentration of these conflicts is primarily in the developing world.  In India, water management conflicts and injustice top the list, followed by fossil fuels and climate justice.[6]  In Colombia, conflicts related to mineral ores and building extractions are most frequent.[7]

The Atlas breaks down each conflict and discusses the type and impact of each conflict. One example of a mining conflict in Colombia is the Drummond Company’s activities in Santa Marta. Various local groups of fishermen and local government have mobilized for reparations.[8] The impact of the corporation’s activities has led to air pollution, soil, and groundwater pollution.[9] There have also been visible health impacts. In India, water shortages, compounded by the political decision making process, explain why water management conflicts top the list.[10]

The complex nexus between environmental degradation and the various activities that surround it make it a difficult problem for governing bodies to address. Most of these conflicts are under-reported or not reported all together, and most activities can be attributed to other causes. For example, the spread of disease in an undeveloped community can be attributed to a variety of factors like environmental degradation and a dearth of resources, such that members of the community cannot generate enough income to sustain a healthy lifestyle. Many of the environmental conflicts involve political corruption at the highest and lowest levels of government. However, all these activities involve the use of the environment in a way that is unsustainable.

One way to address this problem is through the adoption of legislation that strives to protect the environment and natural resources. That involves a bottom-up approach—strive to hit the root cause of the conflicts. However, even with the increased international cooperation on climate change through the Paris Agreement and other international treaties, countries in the developing world also have to take unilateral domestic action to combat the conflicts that permeate their countries.

For example, India needs to implement a sustainable system of water consumption that will allow it to address periods of shortage. This system must be independent of the political process—it could create an independent body that is charged with managing an essential resource such as water. The key is that this organization must also address the collateral impacts of water shortages, including the violence. Efforts must be made to provide citizens with resources and alternatives to resorting to violent means of protest, or having to resort to unclean supplies of water that will result in disease and unsanitary conditions. Such a process necessarily involves education and training, to show people alternative ways of adapting to the shortage of resources.

Domestic legislation cannot solve all the collateral impacts of climate change. Governments at the national and local level also have to take responsibility for their actions. Instead of condoning environmental violence, it must take affirmative steps to encourage responsible behavior by public and private entities that operate in the environmental and natural resource fields. Corporations must be incentivized to be socially responsible or face liability for the collateral violence that occurs from their conduct. For example, India has corporate social responsibility legislation that requires corporations to give 2% of their profits to charitable causes.[11] But efforts at corporate social responsibility should go beyond that, they should target environmental causes and other public health and safety issues stemming from the environmental conflict. Liability must be created for both short and long term incidences of environmental violence.

Violence in environmental contexts occurs in many shapes and sizes, but it is clear that we need more demanding legislation that specifically targets the causes and the effects of the violence. It must offer people a remedy for the injuries they suffer and offer them alternatives in the face of resource shortages. The collateral impacts of climate change demonstrate the urgency with which we need to curtail environmental degradation because they affect people in all societies, in a multitude of ways.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.












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