EJAtlas - Case Studies on Socio-Environmental Conflicts Around the World

Institute of Environmental Science and Technology at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB)

The Environmental Justice Atlas (EJAtlas), created by researchers of the ICTA-UAB, is an initiative created to monitor the distribution of ecological conflicts in the world. It includes 2,100 cases of identified conflicts over the World. This initiative, which could be by-named “the atlas of socio-environmental injustices and conflicts”, is covering an increasing number of disputes over the World. A huge growth is being experienced in China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, all large countries which until recently had no local collaborators. Currently, the country with the highest number of conflicts registered is India.

Since its launch in 2012, the EJAtlas is co-directed at the ICTA-UAB by Leah Temper and Joan Martínez-Alier, and being coordinated by Daniela De Bene. Its objective is to create a registry with all the socio-environmental conflicts around the world. Professor Martinez-Alier received in year 2016 an Advanced Grant (2M Euros) from the European Research Council to continue the project during the period 2016-2021. This has allowed to expand on the previous FP7 project EJOLT (Environmental Justice Organizations, Liabilities and Trade), creating the new project, entitled EnvJustice, A Global Movement for Environmental Justice: The EJAtlas. Importantly, the atlas also includes the support of the project Acknowl-EJ (2016-18), Academic-Activist Co-Produced Knowledge for Environmental Justice, directed by Dr Leah Temper at the ICTA-UAB.

"How many ecological distribution conflicts are there in the world? No one knows, but there is no doubt that there are many of them", Dr Joan Martínez-Alier points out. The EJAtlas aims to collect the most significant cases from the past twenty or thirty years through a collaboration methodology involving both academics and activists, as explained in the 2015 paper by Leah Temper, D. Del Bene and J. Martinez-Alier, “Mapping the frontiers and front lines of global environmental justice: the EJAtlas”., published in the Journal of Political Ecology.

New cases identified are added to the Interactive Atlas, generating a related report on the conflict. At the same time, this global inventory allows creating a variety of maps using filters which allow, for instance, to detect those conflicts classified as the most serious. Dr Martínez-Alier highlights that it should not be overlooked that indicators about the degree of seriousness of environmental conflicts directly relate with the impact on lives of the local population involved. This can range from minor to serious direct effects of environmental affectation (such as pollution or other kind of damage), to outright cases of assassination of activists against a specific project.

There have been identified up to 260 cases currently - somewhat over 12% of those registered - in which environmental activists have been killed. The majority of cases are from Latin America and Southern and South East Asia, according to the information included in the EJAtlas. However, Martínez-Alier points out that this data is only partial, due to the fact that the atlas still does not have enough information on other areas of the globe in which similar assassinations may have occurred.

On the other hand, the atlas allows users to identify cases in which opposition to an investment project (mines, dams, palm oil plantations, incineration plants, etc.) was successful. For instance, cases in which opposition helped to overturn a particularly damaging plan, or in which a state legally or administratively decided to implement regulations to act as a counterincentive for similar projects. The map includes 360 success cases, corresponding to 17% of the total registries, the majority of which are located in South America, with 95 cases, and Western Europe, with 55 cases.

The co-director of the project points out that gas fracking - an activity consisting of extracting natural gas from non-conventional sites - is one of the newest issues, something hardly talked about when the EJAtlas was presented in public for the first time (in March 2014, then including a total of 920 conflicts). "The increase and change in social metabolism (the set of flows of materials and energy) are the main driver causes of conflict".

There are also increasingly cases in which opposition to mining and coal burning or the extraction of oil and gas is linked not only to a local environmental threat, but also to the awareness of climate change caused by the excess of carbon dioxide emissions. Dr. Martínez-Alier also highlights conflicts related to sand extraction in order to obtain ilmenite (raw material for titanium), rutile and zirconium. Several of these kinds of conflicts were reported in Madagascar, South Africa and the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Interestingly, these are matters even the co-director was unaware of in 2012. And undoubtedly, many more exist.

With regard to Spain, the EJAtlas has currently gathered information on 55 environmental conflicts, some of which have been reported by Ecologists in Action and other environmental organisations. The EJAtlas allows conducting state-wide analyses, even though the information it contains is even more interesting for cross-state thematic studies. In connection with it, several thematic maps at global scale have already been presented. While the types of environmental conflicts in South America most often relate to mining, fossil fuel extraction, deforestation or land grabbing, in Spain, by contrast, conflicts relate rather to the disposal of residues, to infrastructure building projects, to tourism pressure and its consequences, and nuclear power.

In connection with nuclear energy, related conflicts have been on the rise across Europe and other parts of the World: as many nuclear power plants become old, they entail higher risks; yet, economic interests prevent them from being shut down definitively. It is noteworthy that, in Japan, as an aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, numerous people have demonstrated against the reopening of close to fifty nuclear power plants which had been shut down after the accident of year 2011.

Ongoing collaboration