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Econ 143 Summer Session B

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Instructor: Da Gong


Environmental Economics Paper (15 Points):

due at 11:59pm on Thursday, Aug 18th

Researching an Environmental Issue (Case Study)

First, visit the Environmental Justice Atlas database and select one case which you are interested in. It

could be from any country or any year. Second, You are to research this case from an economic

standpoint providing a literature review on the issue (big picture) and a background of this case. Third, by

focusing on this case, analysis the potential costs and benefits of the project which caused environmental

problem and provide


Here are some specifics regarding the details of this assignment:

1. The paper should be 2-3 pages (including Reference section) typed, double-spaced, and in 12-point font.

2. This paper should be include 3 parts:
2.1 What case you are studying and why it is interesting or important

2.2 Introduction of related research on this environmental issue and the background of the specific case

you are interested in

2.3 potential costs and benefits analysis of the project which caused environmental problem and provide


3. Please make sure you reference any sources that you use and please make sure these references are
professional (no Wikipedia citations please). Also, please make sure you cite all of your sources in a

references section at the end of the paper and provide internal citations where necessary.


Navas, G., Mingorria, S. & Aguilar-González, B. Violence in environmental conflicts: the need for a

multidimensional approach. Sustain Sci 13, 649–660 (2018).

This paper will be due at 11:59pm on Thursday, Aug 18th

A typical structure of your work looks like:

Paper Structure

1. Title
2. Abstract (2-3 sentences)
3. Introduction

3.1 What is your research question
3.2 Why this question is important or interesting (argument by yourself and supported by


4. Background
4.1 related research on this environmental issue

4.2 the background of the specific case you are interested in

5. Discussion
5.1 Environmental Impacts

5.2 Health Impacts

5.3 Socio-Economic Impacts

5.4 Policy Suggestions (Is there any possible solutions? )

6. Reference (Important!)
journal paper, book chapter, database, newspaper, weblink ….


1 3

Sustainability Science (2018) 13:649–660


Violence in environmental conflicts: the need for a multidimensional

Grettel Navas1  · Sara Mingorria1,2 · Bernardo Aguilar‑González3

Received: 6 April 2017 / Accepted: 13 March 2018 / Published online: 22 March 2018
© Springer Japan KK, part of Springer Nature 2018

Although studies on environmental conflicts have engaged with the subject of violence, a multidimensional approach has been
lacking. Using data from 95 environmental conflicts in Central America, we show how different forms of violence appear
and overlap. We focus on direct, structural, cultural, slow, and ecological forms of violence. Results suggest that the common
understanding of violence in environmental conflicts as a direct event in time and space is only the tip of the iceberg and that
violence can reach not only environmental defenders, but also communities, nature, and the sustainability of their relations.

Keywords Multidimensional violence · Resistance · Environmental conflict · Environmental Justice Atlas (EJATLAS) ·
Central America


Grassroot organizations and individuals protest and
denounce situations of social and environmental damages
leading to environmental conflicts (or ecological distribution
conflicts) (Martinez-Alier 1995, 2002). In their struggles to
save water and land, their livelihoods, their future, and the
future of the next generations, many of them are threatened,
wounded, killed, criminalized, and forced to leave their com-
munities (Edelman and León 2013; Aguilar-Støen 2015;
Mingorría 2017; Rasch 2017).

Global Witness, an international organization working
on environmental abuses and human rights since 1993,
has highlighted that during 2015, more than three environ-
mental defenders1 were assassinated every week around

the world (Global Witness 2016). In most cases, culprits
escape unpunished (Global Witness 2014, 2016). Concerned
with this, and aiming to move beyond their analysis, in this
article, we look at how different forms of violence appear
and overlap in environmental conflicts; our objective is to
propose a wider conception of violence, in which we con-
sider not only its visible forms, but also violence as unseen
processes, whose effect reaches beyond humans.

To do so, we use a database of 95 environmental con-
flicts2 from seven Central American countries (Guatemala,
Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and
Panama) from the Environmental Justice Atlas database
(http://www.ejatl Central America hosts important
biological and cultural diversity, and due to its geological
formation, it represents a biological corridor between North
and South America with only 0.1% of the world’s land mass
yet 7% of the world’s biodiversity. The region has a popula-
tion of 47,667,000 inhabitants (2016), around 80 indigenous
and afro-descendant groups and 60 different languages.

Central America is relevant for studies on violence in
environmental conf licts. First, Global Witness (2016)

The EJAtlas: Ecological Distribution Conflicts as Forces for Sustainability

Handled by Arnim Scheidel, Erasmus University Rotterdam
International Institute of Social Studies, International Institute of
Social Studies (ISS), Netherlands.

* Grettel Navas

1 Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA),
Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), Cerdanyola del
Vallès, 08193 Barcelona, Spain

2 FRACTAL Collective, San Remigio 2, 28022 Madrid, Spain
3 Fundación Neotrópica, San José, Costa Rica

1 Environmental defenders are people who take peaceful action to
protect land or environmental rights, whether in their own personal
capacity or professionally (Global Witness 2017).
2 Due to the large sample size, these conflicts give a reliable picture
of the environmental conflicts in the region. But, with a growing
number of cases, some results might change.

650 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:649–660

1 3

already identified the region as one of the most violent
around the world for environmental defenders. Second, an
analysis of the whole region using data for the seven coun-
tries as we do here is still lacking. Third, because it is a
socially, politically, and economically heterogeneous region
in which diverse characteristics such as a complex history
of war and peace play a role in current environmental strug-
gles (Wayland and Kuniholm 2015). Futhermore, the pres-
ence of environmental racism is related to the percentage of
indigenous population in each country, for instance, while
in Guatemala, 60% of the total population is indigenous, and
in Costa Rica, the percentage is around 2%. Finally, because
this heterogeneity reinforces the idea that just because vio-
lence is not visible, it does not mean that a country does not
experience violence, thus necessitating a multidimensional
violence approach.

The article is divided as follows. Section  2 brief ly
describes Central America’s socio-economic background.
Section 3 presents a theoretical background on violence and
environmental conflicts. Section 4 describes the EJAtlas as
a tool to analyze environmental conflicts, and the methods
used to gather and analyze how violence appear in these
conflicts. Based on regional tendencies and local examples,
Sect. 5 synthesizes and discusses the main findings in how
different forms of violence appear and overlap. In Sect. 6, we
insists on the need for a multidimensional violence approach
to address the study of environmental conflicts and in which
violence is defined as an action or a process that appears in
visible and unseen forms against humans, nature, and the
sustainability of their relations. Moreover, we show how vio-
lence is not always a response against resistance, but that
resistance can also be organized in response to a long-term
process of violence. In Sect. 7, we lay out our conclusions.

Central American background: common
traits and differences

Latin American history is marked by the plunder of raw
materials, inequality, power asymmetries, and violence
(Acosta 2009; Bebbington and Bury 2013; Machado 2014;
Svampa 2013), and Central America is not an exception. The
legacy of colonial and neo-colonial relations, the peace and
war historical traits, the external and political influence of
the USA (Faber 1992), China as a new economic actor in the
region (Urcuyo 2014; McKay et al. 2016), and the increase
of drug trafficking routes (McSweeney et al. 2014) are some
of the current realities that superpose with extractive indus-
tries, pollution, environmental conflicts, and violence.

The establishment of the United Fruit Company (UFCo)
in 1899 marks the beginning of an era of neo-colonial rela-
tions. Through the International Railways of Central Amer-
ica (IRCA), the company controlled commercial routes

and productive lands in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras,
and Nicaragua. These countries were nicknamed “Banana
Republics”3—a pejorative concept to describe poor, small,
dependent, and politically unstable nations. For decades, the
UFCO promoted enclave economies and influenced govern-
mental decisions for its own benefit (Bucheli 2008).

In much more recent times, geopolitical programs and
trade agreements continue to threaten communities at a local
level (Grandia 2006). For instance, the Central American
Electrical Interconnection System (SIEPAC) under “Mes-
oamerica Project” (2008) for energy exportation has had an
effect on the increase of hydroelectric dam projects (Sten-
zel 2006). In Guatemala, indigenous Maya-Q’eqchi have
protested against the Xalalá dam (EJatlas 2016a) claiming
for the protection of the sacred hills that it would flood. In
Belize, local communities have been concerned about the
loss of biodiversity in the Macal River due to the Chalillo
dam (EJatlas 2016b). These two cases—recorded in the
EJAtlas—are part of SIEPAC. By ignoring the sacredness
of the indigenous environment and failing to recognize local
demands, governments have supported these projects under
the idea of “national interest” and “development” (EJatlas
2016a, b).

Furthermore, since the signature of diplomatic rela-
tions with Costa Rica in 2007, China has kept an eye on
the region. One of its interests is to have access to both
Atlantic and Pacific oceans for commerce route expansion
(Urcuyo 2014). Though investments in extractive, energy,
and transport industries, China capitals, go to Central Amer-
ica sources, sometimes without considering environmen-
tal, labor, and social conditions (McKay et al. 2016). Key
examples on the EJAtlas are Sinohydro’s presence which is
becoming common in hydroelectric dam conflicts (EJatlas
2014a, 2017a) and the interoceanic Gran Canal in Nicaragua
(EJatlas 2014b).

Moreover, the region is also strategic for drug traffickers,
since it connects producers (South America) to consumers
(North America), and to increase terrestrial routes, the ille-
gal activity has led to “narco-deforestation” (McSweeney
et al. 2014). Trafficking has a relation with extractive indus-
tries and environmental damage, since in some cases, traf-
fickers incorporate the illegal income into the legal economy
through the investment on lands for cattle, timber, and oil-
palm plantations (McSweeney et al. 2014).

Despite commonalities across countries, Central America
is very heterogeneous. The consequences of its peace and
war history and the gaps between relevant social and eco-
nomic indicators between countries are some examples of

3 The term was first mention in the novel “Cabbages and Kings”
(Henry 1904) to describe the imaginary country of Anchuria inspired
by the author’s experiences in Honduras.

651Sustainability Science (2018) 13:649–660

1 3

this diversity. During the 1960s and 1990s, some countries
were marked as the confrontation stage of popular move-
ments, armed struggles, and repressive regimes (Brockett
2005). Civil war in Guatemala (1960–1995), El Salvador
(1979–1992), and Nicaragua (1962–1990) which resulted
in 255,000 deaths and thousands of people forcibly disap-
peared are notorious examples. The strongest guerrilla in El
Salvador was called “Farabundo Martí” from the name of
the leader of an insurrection in 1932 that ended with tens of
thousands of peasant victims, while in Guatemala, the mem-
ory of the failed land reform against UFCO because of a mil-
itary coup in 1954 sponsored by the United States was still
fresh. In the wars of the 1960s and 1970s, the victims were
mostly from rural areas, affecting indigenous and peasant
livelihoods (Kay 2001; Azpuru 1999). Some environmental
conflicts mapped on the EJatlas date from the civil war. In
1982, to make possible the construction of the Chixoy Dam
in Guatemala, the army and paramilitary forces murdered
444 indigenous Mayan people, the majority of them women
and children, these facts were later known as the Río Negro
massacre (EJatlas 2015a). The Esquipulas Peace Agreement
signed in 1987 was followed by a proliferation of extractive
industries. In post-war Guatemala, the government opened
the country to mining concessions (Wayland and Kuniholm
2015). In this scenario of open violence and war, Costa Rica
was an exception; its history of peace and democracy began
in 1948 when the government abolished the army. During
this later period, Panama had a military government until
the US briefly invaded the country in 1989 and Belize was
still part of the British Empire until it reached its independ-
ence in 1981.

Overall, Central America’s economy is based in the pri-
mary sector (export of raw materials) which is consistent
with other Latin American countries. However, Panama’s
and Costa Rica’s economies are based on the third sector
(services economy). Table  1 shows social and economic
indicators per country.

Costa Rica and Panama have the highest Human Devel-
opment Index in the region and Guatemala and Honduras

the lowest. Costa Rica and Panama have the smallest per-
centage of population living the below income poverty line
and (again) Guatemala and Honduras the highest. A gap
can also be seen regarding poverty: while CR has 1.6% of
its pop living below the poverty line, the value reaches 16%
in the case of Honduras. The Democracy Index is higher in
Costa Rica (7.88) and Panama (7.13) and lower in Nicaragua
(4.81). The homicide rate is higher in Honduras (74.6) and
lower in Costa Rica (10). This accounts for a very heteroge-
neous region. Overall, the Northern Triangle (Guatemala,
Honduras, and El Salvador) has been seen as one of the
most violent regions in the world with a combination of
strong elites, inequality, and weak institutions (Bull 2014;
Van Bronkhorst and Demombynes 2010). These indicators
may also be considered a reflection of violence. The next
section closely examines different theoretical approaches on
the phenomenon and concept of violence.

Theoretical background: violence
and environmental conflicts

Studies on violence

Why and how violence emerges has been addressed by
scholars from different disciplines. For Peace and Conflict
studies, there is a “triangle” with three corners from which
violence can start (Galtung 1990). The first corner is direct
violence, defined as an event in time and space that is brutal
and visible, where perpetrators are human beings (a homi-
cide, for example) (Galtung 1969). The second corner is
structural violence. It refers to a process that occurs when
social structures undermine individual wellbeing, especially
towards discriminated groups as a result of social inequali-
ties and institutional failings such as corruption or poverty
(Galtung 1969). This form is less visible than the former
and there is no one directly to be blamed except for the
entire political and economic structure. The last form is cul-
tural violence, and it indicates the use of cultural elements

Table 1 Social and economic indicators in Central American countries. Source: data from the Economist (2016) and Jahan (2016)

World Rank Human Develop-
ment Index (HDI)

Population living below the income pov-
erty line, PPP $1.90 a day (%)

Democracy Index (from 0
to 10) (2016)

Homicide rate
(per 100,000

Belize 103 n.a n.a 34.4
Costa Rica 66 1.6 7.88 10.0
El Salvador 117 3 6.64 64.2
Guatemala 125 9.3 5.92 31.2
Honduras 130 16 5.92 74.6
Nicaragua 124 6.2 4.81 11.5
Panamá 60 3.8 7.13 17.4

652 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:649–660

1 3

(religion, ideology, language, science, and technology)
to legitimize structural and direct forms of violence. The
Xalalà and Chalillo dam projects in Guatemala and Belize
in the name of “development” and “national interest” are two
key examples of this (EJatlas 2016a, b).

As with Galtung, Nixon was also concerned in expanding
the concept of what constitutes violence (beyond its direct
form). Moreover, like structural violence, his concept of
“slow violence” refers to a process. However, it differenti-
ates as it poses questions of “time, movement and change”
(Nixon 2011:11). Slow violence refers to a delayed destruc-
tion dispersed across time and space that is incremental,
accumulative, and exponential (Nixon 2011). This is the case
of climate change, deforestation, and ocean acidification.
The persistent accumulated toxic effects on human health
because of pollution from heavy metals in open cast mining
contexts, or because of the use of damaging chemicals such
as pesticides and herbicides are also examples. This form of
violence can remain unseen until its accumulative impacts
become visible; that is why (and contrary to direct violence),
it is difficult for the victims to identify it, to protest and resist
against it (Nixon 2011). It is similar to the concept of “slow
murder” to describe the health effects of heavy urban traffic
pollution in Delhi or the effects of spreading endosulfan in
cashew plantations in Kerala. “Slow murder” is a concept
that the Centre for Sciences and Environment in India has
used for many years (Narain 2007). Endosulfan would of
course “slowly murder” both humans and other “innocent”
biological entities apart from those targeted.

Nixon refers to a delayed destruction and its environmen-
tal aftermaths—using deforestation among other examples—
but he mostly focuses on the impact of slow violence on poor
and supposedly disposable people. Because of that, we find
it relevant to bring into the debate the concept of “ecological
violence”, a term aiming to make the violence against the
biophysical world and its interrelations visible (Watts 2001).
Cases of “ecocide”, a word coined to “denounce the environ-
mental destructions and potential damage of the spraying of
the Agent Orange in Vietnam” (Zierler 2011) are an exam-
ple. Moreover, the “non-focused” deaths or “deaths by indi-
rection” (Carson 1962) to describe how the biocides (instead
of insecticides) were poisoning not only enemy insects, but
other insects and all forms of life.

As Nixon and Galtung pointed out, there is an issue of
inequality, as these forms of violence commonly have an
unequal distribution of their effects. Poor and disadvan-
taged people and nature are the most affected. Through the
study of environmental conflicts, we link forms of violence,
inequality, and resistance. An ecological distribution con-
flict—interchangeable with environmental conflict (see
Scheidel et  al. 2017 this feature)—is defined as “collec-
tive manifestation of discontent that detonates when people
organize themselves, to denounce situations regarding not

only unequal distribution of environmental benefits but also
unequal distribution of the environmental costs” (Martinez-
Alier and O’Connor 1996).

The concept of ‘Violent Environments’ (Peluso and Watts
2001) intersects the study of environmental conflicts, vio-
lence, and power relations. Under this notion, ‘environment’
is defined as “an arena of contested entitlements where
claims over property, assets, labor, and politics of recogni-
tion are played out” (Peluso and Watts 2001: 25). Besides,
“violence” is defined as a “phenomenon deeply rooted in
local histories and social relations but also connected to tran-
sitional processes of material change, political power rela-
tions and historical conjuncture” (Peluso and Watts 2001:
29–30). In the following section, we describe the EJAtlas as
a tool for the study of environmental conflicts and the differ-
ent variables used to understand how violence manifests in
different environmental conflicts and countries.


The EJAtlas is a large-scale database to gather and analyze
environmental conflicts around the world (Temper et  al.
2015). The unit of analysis is an economic project (a mining
project, an oil extraction project, a hydroelectric dam, a tree
plantation, among others) which causes visible or potential
socio-environmental damage and where impacted people at
a local level (but sometimes at a national or regional level)
organize themselves to protest against such projects and
resist with different mobilization forms. The information
gathered on the EJAtlas is the result of collaborative map-
ping between academics and activists and sometimes also
the people most directly affected (Temper et al. 2015).

Methods used to gather information

In selecting the Central American cases, we used a snow-
ball sampling method, asking environmental justice experts4
which cases in the region were the most relevant to enter
into the EJAtlas. With this in mind, we made a general list
of conflicts based on secondary sources (academic and
non-academic articles such as newspapers and websites of
environmental defenders’ organizations). Then, we shared

4 People involve themselves in the regional struggles as activists or
academics or both. We got in touch with Centro Humboldt and Nica-
raguan Social Movement (Nicaragua); Panama Ecological Voices
(Radio Temblor), the Environmental Advocacy Center (CIAM) and
Alianza para un Mejor Darién (AMEDAR) (Panamá), the Salvadoran
Center for Appropriate Technologies CESTA – Friends of the Earth;
Justice and Freedom Movement (Honduras), Institute of Agrarian and
Rural Studies IDEAR-CONGCOOP, the Central American Institute
of Fiscal Studies in Guatemala and Madre Selva.

653Sustainability Science (2018) 13:649–660

1 3

the list with experts to validate these cases while asking
them to identify other ones. Subsequently, we entered the
cases based on secondary sources as well as information
previously provided by experts. Data were gathered during
the period 2014–2017; in total, it includes 95 environmental
conflicts that span nine different types.

Furthermore, the authors of this paper have been engaged
for many years in diverse environmental struggles in the
region so access to experts was made through personal con-
tacts. This paper’s first author made field trips in 2014 and
2015 to Belize, Guatemala, Panama, and Costa Rica to get
feedback and to gather information about less known cases.
Often, activists directly involved in the conflict filled in
the EJAtlas data sheets based on their own experience and

Variables from the EJAtlas used to analyze

The EJAtlas data sheet has over 100 different variables to
compare and analyze (Martinez-Alier et  al. 2016). First,
to describe conflicts we used “type of conflict”,6 “date of
beginning of the conflict”, “area of impact (rural, urban,
and semi-urban)”, and “mobilizing groups”. To analyze vio-
lence, we first chose the variable “intensity of the conflict”
which includes latent level (nonvisible organizing), low
level (some local organizing), medium level, (street protests
and visible mobilization), and high level (widespread mass
mobilization, violence in its direct form and arrests, and
deaths of demonstrators or activists). We also revised the
variables called “impacts” and “outcomes of the conflict”.

Table 2 Variables (not mutually exclusive) from the EJAtlas according to type of violence

Form of violence Definition Variables from the EJAtlas

Direct violence An event in a specific time and space that is brutal and vis-
ible (Galtung 1969)

Murders: selective assassinations of environmental defenders
Criminalization: unsubstantiated accusations of environmen-

tal defenders to demobilize them from their campaign
Repression: massive coercion in a social protest
Targeting of activists: direct attack aiming to cause physical

and psychological damage, death threats
Structural violence Social structures affecting individual wellbeing, espe-

cially towards discriminated groups, as a result of social
inequalities and institutional failings (Galtung 1969)

Institutional arena/judicial activism: institutional failings
endangering environmental defenders

Court decision (failure for environmental justice)
Criminalization: unsubstantiated accusations of environmen-

tal defenders to demobilize them from their campaign
Cultural violence The use of cultural elements (religion, ideology, language)

to legitimize structural and direct violence (Galtung

Impact on and lack of participation of historical discrimi-
nated groups (indigenous and afro-descendant’s groups)

Slow violence Delayed destruction dispersed across time and space that is
incremental and accumulative (Nixon 2011)

Exposure to unknown and/or uncertain complex risks
Deaths (conversely to murders these are deaths by indirec-

tion, for example through an illness caused by a long-term
exposure to an hazardous substance)

Water pollution
Air pollution
Soil contamination

Ecological violence Violence focusing on nature, on the biophysical world and
its interrelations (Watts 2001)

Biodiversity loss
Water pollution
Air pollution
Soil contamination

5 The data base has received contributions of scholars and activ-
ists representing a mixture of academic and grassroots organizations
whose names appear in the last part of the data sheet.

6 Ejatlas classifies conflicts according to ten mutually exclusive pri-
mary categories (Nuclear power, Mineral Ore Extraction, Water
management, Biomass and land conflicts, Fossil Fuels and Climate
Justice, Infrastructure and Built Environment, Waste management,
Biodiversity conflicts, Tourism, and Industrial and Utilities conflicts).
There are many more secondary categories. For instance, under
Nuclear Power conflicts (of which, incidentally, there are none from
Central America in the EJAtlas), there could be conflicts classified
under Uranium Mining, Nuclear Power Plants, or Nuclear Waste Dis-

654 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:649–660

1 3

We placed different variables in Table 2 depending on the
definition of violence according to different authors. As it
can be perceived, some variables can be placed in more than
one form of violence.

Table  2 shows a categorization of variables from the
EJAtlas according to the type of violence. However, this
relation is not so straight forward; environmental conflicts
are complex as is the way violence manifests in them. Who
are the main actors (both perpetrators and victims)? How is
resistance organized? How do the social structures from dif-
ferent countries shape these forms of violence? Can ecologi-
cal violence can be both direct and slow? How slow is slow
violence? In the next section, we will address these questions
by examining both regional trends and local examples from
the seven countries.

Results: How does violence manifest
in environmental conflicts?

The time span of start dates for mapped conflicts in Central
America extends from 1959 to 2015. From the total of cases,
70% occurred in rural areas, 15% in semi-urban, and 10%
in urban areas. The rest occurred offshore—such as the oil
drilling case in the Blue Hole in Belize (EJatlas 2015b). The

most common types are mining extraction (27 cases), water
management—mostly hydroelectric dam projects—(23
cases), and biomass and land conflicts—due to monoculture
expansion—(17 cases). Infrastructure and built environment,
industrial and utilities, and waste management conflicts are
less common. Figure 1 situates the conflicts by type and
intensity level (high, medium, low, and latent).

Most of the conflicts are “high-level intensity” (around
46%) followed by “medium level” (42%) and low level (10%)
and only one case (in Honduras) is “latent intensity”. Miner-
als’ Extraction and Water Management is the most common
and most highly-intense types of conflicts. Guatemala and
Honduras are the countries in which—no matter the type of
conflict—there are more high-intensity cases. Tourism rec-
reation conflicts are mostly categorized as medium or low-
level intensity; however, there is an exception in Honduras,
where Garifuna people defend their ancestral lands against
a mega-tourist project and a golf course (EJatlas 2014c). In
addition, the only high-intensity conflict from fossil fuels
and climate justice is located in Guatemala, while the rest
are medium level intensity (EJatlas 2015b). Regarding resist-
ance in these conflicts, Fig. 1 also shows how some conflicts
overlap offering multifold resistance to more than one pro-
ject at the same time. The following section explores key
examples of different dimensions of violence along Central

Fig. 1 Environmental conflicts per country by type of conflict and intensity level. Source: the authors, based on EJAtlas data

655Sustainability Science (2018) 13:649–660

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America. When possible, we identify the actors involved in
deploying violence, the victims, and their resistance.

Direct violence

The murder of at least one environmental defender appears
in 27% of the cases, violent targeting in 37%, repression in
37%, and criminalization in 38%. Data by country illustrate
substantial differences. Guatemala and Honduras seem to be
the most directly violent as they make up 79% of the total of
cases in which a murder has occurred. Even if the EJAtlas
does not specifically count the number of murders by con-
flict, some asymmetries are relevant to note. The number
of murders ranges from one such as in the case of Jean-
ette Kawas in Honduras (EJatlas 2017b) to at least 444, in
the Rio Negro massacre (EJatlas 2015a), while other cases
such as the expansion of oil palm in Bajo Aguán, Honduras
reported 93 murders (EJatlas 2014d).

Variables on direct violence are not mutually exclusive,
and it is common that an assassination is preceded by vio-
lent targeting and death threats. One of the most illustra-
tive cases is the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam in Honduras
(EJatlas 2017a), a project affecting and displacing Lenca
indigenous people from the sacred river Gualcarque. During
a protest in 2013, the community leader Tomás García was
shot dead and his son was wounded. Years after, in 2016,
Berta Cáceres—who won the world famous Goldman Prize
for environmentalism in 2015—was shot to death in her
home. Due to her active role against the hydroelectric dam
and other extractive projects in Honduras, she previously
had received threats against her life (Global Witness 2015).

Another such case is located in El Salvador, where six
environmental defenders were killed. The victims (a preg-
nant woman included) were activists against the El Dorado-
Pacific Rim mining project (EJatlas 2017c). Some other
female environmental defenders murdered include Alicia
Recinos Sorto (El Salvador, 2009), María Enriqueta Matute
(Honduras, 2013), Rosalinda Pérez (Guatemala, 2015), Les-
bia Yaneth (Honduras, 2016), and Laura Lorena Vásquez
(Guatemala, 2017). Similarly, in Panama, during a protest
in 2012, violent repression by the police left three environ-
mental defenders dead and more than one hundred wounded.
Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous, where protesting against Barro
Blanco Hydroelectric Dam Project (EJatlas 2016c) arguing
that this project violates the laws that define their territories,
water rights, and self-determination.

In general, direct violence is used as a premeditated act
to intimidate and demobilize environmental defenders from
their resistance. Who the main culprits are often remains
unknown and most of these cases remain in impunity
(Global Witness 2016); nonetheless, families of the vic-
tims and other environmental defenders accuse landowners,

foremen, policemen, and goons paid by companies as the
main actors.

Traits of structural and cultural violence

In direct violence, governmental institutions fail to ensure
justice by passively ignoring and not investigating these
murders. However, institutions can also actively play a role
in these conflicts through structural and cultural violence.
Environmental defenders appeal to State institutions to carry
out their actions in the conflict in 50% of the cases; at times,
this form of mobilization has become successful in terms
of Environmental Justice in stopping a project (Aydin et al.
2017). For instance, in Costa Rica, despite criminalization
of activists, the court annulled the Crucitas mining project
(EJatlas 2014e) and in El Salvador, despite the murders, the
struggles against El Dorado mining project lead to a new law
banning all types of metal mining activities in the country
(EJatlas 2017c). From the total cases accounted for, 34%
end in a court decision favorable to environmental defenders
and 27% end in resolutions against them. The rest remains
unknown or yet to be decided. To analyze structural and
cultural violence, we focus on cases of failure, where vis-
ibly weak institutions decide passively or actively against
environmental defenders and environmental justice.

In Guatemala, despite the fact that the National Attorney
General’s Office declared the concession given to Perenco
(a British–French company) illegal for oil exploitation in
Laguna del Tigre, the project continues (EJatlas 2015c).
The National Attorney argued that the concession was given
within the Mayan Biosphere Reserve, which is also part of a
Ramsar protected area. Regardless, in 2008 the Government
promulgated FONPETROL, a law that guarantees the con-
cession to Perenco if “the economic terms are favorable to
the State”. Perenco, received the license for another 15 years
more. This decision led to resistance by 53 communities that
were already suffering from spills (resulting in water pollu-
tion, livestock, and crop losses); however, they were totally
ignored. In 2010, the government established the “Green
Batallion”, around 250 soldiers to protect the Laguna del
Tigre but also to protect the company’s interests (EJatlas

Furthermore, in Guatemala, the Polochic Valley case
(EJatlas 2014f) shows how structural and cultural violence
are present. For years, the state used its force and differ-
ent powers (legislative, executive, and judicial), to repress
local people and facilitate extractive projects such as sugar-
cane and oil-palm expansion. In 2011, the government par-
ticipated actively in the process of eviction of indigenous
families of the Valley. A judge ordered the eviction of 14
communities at the request of an oligarchic family to plant
sugarcane. The Public Ministry (the state agency in charge
of executing court orders, somehow equivalent to an attorney

656 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:649–660

1 3

general) participated in the evictions as well as soldiers and
national police. The oligarchic family pressured the mili-
tary into burning crops and they decided an exact date and
time for the evictions. Around 800 families were violently
evicted, the National Civil Police killed one peasant, dozens
of people were injured, and the homes and 1800 hectares
of staple crops were razed or destroyed. At the same time,
the government, using the media, accused organizations of
being radicals that systematically implemented illegal meas-
ures. In a way, this is a century old conflict. Local commu-
nities have tried to recover the land they had lost from the
beginning of the colonial era, through liberal reforms and
the development of the agro-export model of cotton, banana,
beef, and coffee farming.

The last example is located in Nicaragua, and it combines
structural, cultural violence, and direct violence. In 1987,
as part of the negotiations after many years of internal con-
flict, the government created the Autonomous Regions of
the Atlantic (RAA-North and RAA-South) and conferred
its management to the indigenous Miskito. These lands are
protected under Law 445, which recognizes “indigenous
communal property” and established that these lands are
inalienable, immune to seizure, and exempted from taxes.
Nevertheless, the increase of settlers willing to expand their
businesses, wood smugglers, and ranchers is threatening the
local population’s livelihoods and leading to land disputes
over the last decades. Miskitos call for Tasba Pri which
opposes the notion of “economic development”. Tasba Pri
means “Free Land” and the right to continue their sustain-
able and ancestral activities such as agriculture and fishing.
In response of resistance, direct violence such as fire attacks,
kidnappings, tortures, and murders has been denounced by
the Miskito (EJatlas 2017d). To escape, indigenous groups
have crossed the border looking for refuge in Honduras.
In total, 3000 people have been displaced and at least 32
indigenous people killed. For Miskito—as for indigenous
from the Polochic Valley—these events hark back to another
time when they battled the leftist Sandinista government in
a quest to keep their land in the civil war in the 1980s. Up to
now, we have described examples of the Galtung’s triangle
of direct, structural, and cultural violence. In the following
section, we identify less visible and accumulative forms.

Slow violence

Human exposure to unknown and/or uncertain risks is
reported in 14% of the cases, deaths as health impacts in
24%, water pollution in 60%, and air pollution, and soil con-
tamination in 45%. Overall, these health and environmental
impacts are forms of violence to both humans and nature.
Not only environmental defenders but surrounding commu-
nities and future generations are affected since hazardous
substances can accumulate in future bodies and threaten

newborns before conception (Monge et al. 2007). Contrary
to direct or structural violence, data do not show remark-
able differences between countries. We see slow violence
exemplified through cases of monoculture—one of the most
common type of conflict in Central America—where pesti-
cides in water, air, and soil slowly enter and accumulate in
human bodies and the environment. The resistance appears
only after impacts become visible, if at all. The next regional
case in the “banana republics” (Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and
Honduras) exemplifies this.

Nowadays, ex-banana workers are still mobilizing for
compensation due to the effects of exposure to dibromochlo-
ropropane (DBCP), a nematicide used to kill worms on the
banana plants owned by the United Fruit company during
the seventies. The chemical was produced by Dow Chemi-
cal and Shell Oil Company (EJatlas 2016d, e, f). Years after
exposure, surrounding communities of the banana planta-
tions realized an increasing amount of premature abortions,
birth defects, or congenital anomalies and an increasing
number of sterile men. Once the chemical was proven to be
the cause of their health damages, banana workers began a
mobilization to ask for compensation. However, nowadays
and after decades of struggle (in national and international
courts), most people have not received compensation from
the companies. The efforts to sue the producers and users of
the chemical have faced difficulties, unleashing a circle of
injustices due to the power asymmetries between the multi-
nationals and the local people in terms of scientific support,
general information, relation with state institutions, and law-
yers. According to affected communities, there has been a
great failure in the institutional arrangements for enforcing
liability for damages to health.

Ecological violence

Ecological violence focuses on nature, but humans through
protesting and public campaigns play a role in making it
visible. For instance, the ecological effects of DBCP remain
unknown, and conflicts have mainly focused on the human
impact. Ecological violence is generalized along the con-
flicts in the region. Biodiversity loss, deforestation, and loss
of vegetation cover are reported as an impact in 80% of the
cases, water pollution, decreasing water quality and reduced
ecological and hydrological connectivity in 60%, and air pol-
lution and soil contamination in 45%.

To draw on this dimension of violence, we focus on two
key examples. The first one is in Costa Rica, where “shark
finning” became an illegal practice. Shark finning involves
catching the shark from the sea, cutting its fins off, and
throwing the rest of the body back to the sea, where the
shark slowly dies. This cruel practice is related to demand
for fins in Asian markets, where dishes such as shark fin
soup are popular. Against this, national and international

657Sustainability Science (2018) 13:649–660

1 3

organizations and universities have strongly denounced it,
leading to mass mobilization, calling for new and stricter
legislation but also encouraging consumer boycott (EJatlas

The second example of ecological violence (combined
with extreme direct violence against humans) is located in
Guatemala, where a high degree of pollution in La Pasión
River was caused by the spillage of malathion, a chemi-
cal used in oil-palm plantations (EJatlas 2015d). After the
spillage, there was a high impact on the aquatic ecosystem;
neighboring villagers saw the river full of dead fish and
used the word “ecocide” in their public campaigns against
pollution of the river and claims for decontamination. The
company (REPSA), owner of the oil-palm plantations and
responsible for the use of the chemical, did not take actions.
Concerned with this, Rigoberto Lima Choc—an inhabitant
from the community—denounced the company, and finally,
the local government took some actions against it. Days
after, Rigoberto was found murdered, but no investigations
were carried out to find the culprits. According to local com-
munity members, Rigoberto’s murdered was related to his
decision to denounce the company (EJatlas 2015c).

In this section, we have shown with specific cases from
the EJAtlas how different forms of violence are present and
how some of them overlap. We perceive how in some coun-
tries, violence is more visible than in others, governments
and companies are the main actors and how resistance is
carried out by local communities and environmental defend-
ers. These cases indeed support our hypothesis, the need for
a wider, and more complex comprehension of violence to
address the study of environmental conflicts.

Discussion: the need for a multidimensional
violence approach

Causes of environmental conflicts are multifold. Empirical
studies have shown how the extraction of raw materials and
energy production and supply has an effect in the increase of
environmental conflicts (Martinez-Alier et al. 2010; Mura-
dian et al. 2012; Pérez-Rincón et al. 2017, this feature). This
argument is highly consistent with our data, as the majority
of the conflicts are related to mining, hydropower supply and
the expansion of monocultures. One difference with other
regions in Latin America (Pérez-Rincón et al. 2017, this
feature; Teran 2017, this feature) is that conflicts related to
oil and gas exploration and extraction which lead to “petro-
violence” (Watts 2001) are less common in Central America.

Environmental conflicts are also a result of structural
and cultural dynamics; for instance, the unequal distribu-
tion of economic benefits and environmental consequences
influenced by coloniality, racism, class and gender ine-
qualities (Martinez-Alier and O’Connor 1996), clashes

of values over nature (Martinez-Alier 2009), or lack of
participation and the non-recognition of communal insti-
tutions (Schlosberg 2013; Walter and Urkidi 2017). Envi-
ronmental conflicts can arise suddenly or be a result of a
long social cost-shifting process (Kapp 1950; Teran 2017,
this feature). Regardless of the causes, different forms of
violence appear and overlap throughout environmental

Central American data report incidences of murders,
evictions, and tortures; however, these are not isolated cases
around the world (Del Bene et al. this feature; Global Wit-
ness 2015). Our findings go hand in hand with Global Wit-
ness reports, highlighting Guatemala and Honduras—coun-
tries with the poorest social and economic indicators in the
region—as the most directly violent (Global Witness 2016).
Why and under which conditions some conflicts are more
directly violent than others deserves more attention. The his-
torical conjuncture (Peluso and Watts 2001) and differences
in the democracy index (Van der Borgh and Terwindt 2014)
indicators might give further insight.

Overall, it is a constant that environmental defender mur-
ders remain impune (Global Witness 2016) and our data
show how governmental institutions are not neutral actors
in this, not only as they fail to ensure justice by passively
ignoring to investigate murders, but also by taking part in
evictions such as the conflict in the Polochic Valley (EJatlas
2014f) and by not respecting their own laws such as the
Miskito case (EJatlas 2017d). Weak institutions and strong
elites in some Central American countries (Bull 2014) are
certainly factors to explain how environmental injustices are
produced and reproduced.

Overall, powerless social groups such as indigenous,
afro-descendants, and peasants from rural areas are the most
impacted, the same groups who were impacted by internal
wars decades ago (Kay 2001; Sibrián and Van der Borgh
2014; Mingorría 2017). For instance, Miskito in Nicara-
gua relates their resistance today to their past struggles. In
Guatemala, Wayland and Kuniholm (2015) show how the
memory of the war plays a role in the social cohesion to
resist against mining and hydroelectric dams.

Despite the region’s internal differences, instances of eco-
logical and slow violence are more homogenous. Historical
factors or social and economic indicators do not seem to be
related to these forms of violence. Costa Rica—with a high
level of democracy and with a peaceful history—is one the
largest consumers of pesticides. This issue is leading to high
levels of diseases in rural settings (Monge et al. 2007) of
which the DBCP episode was a tragic early example (Thrupp
1991). Even if there is not an immediate killer, these bio-
cides (Carson 1962) or “slow murders” (Narain 2007) are
culprits of slow violence (Nixon 2011) due to the daily con-
tamination and the slow deaths they provoke. However, in
the environmental conflicts studied, resistance is organized

658 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:649–660

1 3

once the impacts in bodies have been felt and not before or
during the slow violence.

Nowadays, even though the DBCP was banned, it is still
causing impacts on human health (Bohme 2015). However,
the impact it is causing on nature remains unknown. Envi-
ronmental conflict cases in Central America also show how
ecological violence can be manifested twofold; it can be both
slow (daily and slow contamination, or loss of wildlife in
rivers cutoff by dams) or direct (by a specific action such as
cutting the shark fins).

Furthermore, different forms of violence can overlap in
a single conflict, and in addition, one form of violence can
lead to another. Due to the protest against ecological vio-
lence in Rio La Pasión, Rigoberto Lima Choc was shot dead.
Moreover, banana workers still protesting for compensation
have faced structural violence on the weak institutional sys-
tems that slowly ignored their need for a compensation (Boix
2007; Bohme 2015).

Also, Central America shows the key role of women as
environmental defenders. Berta Cáceres was one key exam-
ple, but there are many more in the region and around the
world (Martinez-Alier and Navas 2017). Studies on gender
and violence in environmental conflicts become relevant for
this debate, more specifically women who deploy a twofold
resistance against extractive companies and against patriar-
chal structures in their own homes and communities (Shiva
1994; Veuthey and Gerber 2010; Jenkins 2017).

Finally, most environmental defenders not only defend
nature, because they depend on it, but also because their
own values are congruent with this defense (Martinez-Alier
2002, 2009). Concepts such as “Tasba Pri” in Nicaragua
closely relate with the Andean notion of Sumak Kawsay
(Acosta 2013), and can lead to a wider discussion about
not only cultural violence (the use of language to legitimize
violence), but also the colonial, racist violence imposed by
the dominant western narrative of “development” (Escobar
2011), where indigenous peoples are depicted as “backward”
and their communal institutions are seen as “obstacles to
progress and development”.

In this article, we aimed at viewing violence from a wide
perspective, since a narrow view of violence will lead to
misinterpretations of how violence operates in different
countries and political and economic contexts. To approach
this, we propose a multidimensional violence approach that
we defined as “a focus in which violence is defined as an
action or a process that appears in visible and unseen forms
against humans, nature, and its sustainable relation”. In this
article, multidimensional violence is an aggregate of direct
violence, cultural, structural, slow, and ecological violence
but other forms might also be added (and some might be
missing) depending on the context in which environmental
conflicts are embedded. For instance, other forms can be
added such as gender violence in environmental conflicts.

Furthermore, the forms of violence that are mentioned can
be more complex; for instance, direct violence can be sub-
divided in different degrees of intensities (one murder or 90
murders makes a difference). Similarly, ecological violence
can be both slow and direct. Furthermore, one dimension of
violence can lead to the other and resistance can be deployed
before or after one of these forms of violence is applied.


Drawing on literature in political ecology and environ-
mental conf licts, studies of violence and rich empiri-
cal evidence from 95 environmental conflicts in Central
America recorded in the EJAtlas, we have shown how dif-
ferent dimensions of violence appear and overlap in differ-
ent historical, political and economic contexts. Violence
in its different dimensions becomes visible due to move-
ments of resistance and claims by environmental defenders
in environmental conflicts. Regional and worldwide data-
bases fed both by academics and activists are also useful
to increase their visibility. However, there are dimensions
of violence that are manifested in these conflicts that still
remain unseen—even for environmental defenders. Daily
violence such as slow violence and violence against nature
might not be crude types of violence but are also threaten-
ing livelihoods, humans, and nature, even though resistance
is only deployed once the impacts have been felt. Violence
goes beyond individual environmental defenders to impact
communities as a whole, nature itself and the human–nature
interaction. In this article, we have proposed the need for a
multidimensional violence approach (encompassing “slow”,
structural, cultural, and ecological forms of violence, and
not only direct quick episodes of physical violence) as a
tool for a wider conceptualization of violence for analysis
of environmental conflicts.

Acknowledgements We thank Arnim Scheidel, Joan Martínez Alier,
Giacomo D’Alisa, anonymous reviewers, and members of the ENVJus-
tice Project for comments on the previous versions. We also thank
collaborators of the EJAtlas in Central America, Francisco Venes, and
Lena Weber for language revision. Grettel Navas and Sara Mingor-
ría acknowledge support from the European Research Council (ERC)
Advanced Grant ENVJustice (No. 695446).


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List of cases from Environmental Justice Atlas:

EJaltas (2015d) Ecocide in River La Pasion, Guatemala In: Atlas Envi-
ron. Justice. http://ejatl ict/proye cto-miner o-el-corpu
s-hondu ras. Accessed 15 Dec 2016

EJatlas (2014a) Hydroelectric Project Patuca III (Piedras Amaril-
las), Honduras. In: Atlas Environ Justice. http://ejatl

ict/hydro elect ric-proje ct-patuc a-iii-piedr as-amari llas-hondu ras.
Accessed 7 Jan 2017

EJatlas (2014b) Interoceanic Grand Canal project, Nicaragua. In: Atlas
Environ. Justice. http://ejatl ict/gran-canal -nicar aguas
-proje ct. Accessed 7 Jan 2017

EJatlas (2014c) Los Micos Beach and Golf Resort Project. In: Atlas
Environ Justice. http://ejatl ict/los-micos -beach -and-
golf-resor t-proje ct-hondu ras. Accessed 7 Jan 2017

EJatlas (2014d) Oil palm plantations in the Bajo Agúan, Honduras.
In: Atlas Environ. Justice. http://ejatl ict/oil-palm-plant
ation s-in-the-bajo-aguan -hondu ras. Accessed 7 Jan 2017

EJatlas (2014e) Crucias, Costa Rica. In: Atlas Environ. Justice. http://
ejatl ict/cruci tas-costa -rica. Accessed 14 Jan 2018

EJatlas (2014f) Sugarcane cultivation and oil palm plantation in
Polochic valley, Guatemala. In: Atlas Environ. Justice. http://ejatl ict/sugar cane-culti vatio n-and-oil-palm-plant ation -in-
poloc hic-valle y-guate mala. Accessed 14 Jan 2017

EJatlas (2015a) Chixoy Dam and Rio Negro massacre, Guatemala. In:
Atlas Environ. Justice. http://ejatl ict/chixo y-dam-guate
mala. Accessed 14 Jan 2018

EJatlas (2015b) Offshore Oil drilling, Belize. In: Atlas Environ. Jus-
tice. http://ejatl ict/beliz ean-popul ation -again st-offsh
ore-drill ing-blue-hole. Accessed 8 Jan 2018

EJatlas (2015c) Oil Extraction in Laguna del Tigre, Guatemala. In:
Atlas Environ. Justice. http://ejatl ict/lagun a-del-tigre
-peten -guate mala. Accessed 8 Dec 2016

EJatlas (2016a) Proyecto Hidroeléctrico Xalalá, Guatemala. Atlas
Environ. Justice. http://ejatl ict/proye cto-hidro elect
rico-xalal a. Accessed 10 Jan 2018

EJatlas (2016b) Chalillo Dam, Belize. In: Atlas Environ. Justice. http://
ejatl ict/chali llo-dam-beliz e. Accessed Jan 2018

EJatlas (2016c) Barro Blanco Dam, Panama. In: Atlas Environ. Justice.
http://ejatl ict/barro -blanc o-dam-panam a. Accessed 8
Jan 2017

EJatlas (2016d) DBCP toxic exposure in banana plantations in Costa
Rica In: Atlas Environ. Justice. http://ejatl ict/afect
adas-por-el-nemag on-costa -rica. Accessed 10 Jan 2017

EJatlas (2016e) DBCP toxic exposure in banana plantations in Nica-
ragua In: Atlas Environ. Justice. http://ejatl ict/afect
ados-por-el-nemag on-nicar agua. Accessed 10 Jan 2017

EJatlas (2016f) DBCP toxic exposure in banana plantations in Hon-
duras In: Atlas Environ. Justice. http://ejatl ict/afect
ados-por-el-nemag on-hondu ras. Accessed 10 Jan 2017

EJatlas (2016g) Shark Finning, Costa Rica. In: Atlas Environ. Justice.
http://ejatl ict/shark -finni ng-o-alete o-en-costa -rica.
Accessed 17 Jan 2017

EJatlas (2017a) Proyecto Hidroeléctrico Agua Zarca, Honduras. In:
Atlas Environ. Justice. http://ejatl ict/proye cto-hidro
elect rico-agua-zarca -hondu ras. Accessed 10 Jan 2018

EJatlas (2017b) Oil palm and National Park Jeannette Kawas, Hon-
duras. In: Atlas Environ. Justice. http://ejatl ict/jeann
ette-kawas -ferna ndez-case-hondu ras. Accessed 7 Aug 2017

EJatlas (2017c) Pacific Rim at El Dorado mine, El Salvador. In: Atlas
Environ. Justice. http://ejatl ict/el-dorad o-el-salva dor.
Accessed 8 Jan 2017

EJatlas (2017d) Dispute over Indigenous Miskito Lands, Nicaragua.
In Atlas Environ. Justice. http://ejatl ict/miski to-nicar
agua. Accessed 7 Aug 2017

  • Violence in environmental conflicts: the need for a multidimensional approach
  • Abstract
    Central American background: common traits and differences
    Theoretical background: violence and environmental conflicts
    Studies on violence
    Methods used to gather information
    Variables from the EJAtlas used to analyze information
    Results: How does violence manifest in environmental conflicts?
    Direct violence
    Traits of structural and cultural violence
    Slow violence
    Ecological violence
    Discussion: the need for a multidimensional violence approach

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