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Environment and conflict in Latin America
Renard Sexton

Environmental conflicts in Latin America are an important and often overlooked problem in the region. There are varying types of environmental conflicts, but their impacts on local communities are consistently negative. It is vital for the international humanitarian and development aid community to understand these conflicts and recognize how they, as relevant actors, can play a positive role in addressing and transforming them.

When the topic of conflict in Latin America comes up, many in the news media, policy-making circles and the academic community focus almost exclusively on the escalating drug war in Mexico, Central America, and parts of the Andean nations (especially Colombia, but also Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia).

While the issue of drugs and violence is extremely pressing, it has often overshadowed a more pervasive and, for the long-term, dangerous trend: increasing levels of socio-environmental conflict at the local level. In Peru, representative of the region as a whole, the government’s Ombudsman Division reported 149 active conflicts in the country, of which 102 (68 percent) are environmental conflicts [1]. These conflicts threaten to undermine poverty reduction efforts, reinforce political and social divisions and ultimately cause wider social unrest in the region.

Four main types of natural resource conflicts have come to the forefront in recent years in Latin America, though the issues they represent are by no means new. Most reflect inherited social, political and economic quarrels between groups separated by class, ethnicity, geographic region and/or political orientation. And with environmental and natural resources representing both requirements for rural livelihoods and pathways to enrichment for the well connected, disputes and conflicts can be expected.

Governments (national and local), rural and urban communities, the private sector and local civil society groups each have a responsibility to asses, analyze and address this issue across the region. However, there are also important tasks for international and regional humanitarian and development actors: First, to avoid exacerbating socio-environmental conflicts in the region through better calibrated programming, and second, to support conflict prevention and transformation efforts as a well-informed and sensitive party.

[1] Defensoría del Pueblo, Gobierno de Peru. (December 2011). Reporte de conflictos sociales No. 94.