Socio-Environmental Conflicts in Asia: Insights from EJAtlas
Abstract: With increasing energy demands, the need for social infrastructure, and the neoliberalization of the environment, socio-environmental conflicts have increased dramatically in recent decades. In advocating for environmental justice and community rights, our collaborative research project titled “Socio-Environmental Conflicts in Asia: Insights from EJAtlas” examined different socio-environmental conflicts in South, Southeast, and East Asia. With the help of EJAtlas, a project that catalogues global environmental conflicts, the papers generated by this research project focused on the proliferation of resistance against projects negatively impact people’s livelihoods. Of particular interest among the topics examined is the social mobilization of different actors and the tactics employed, as the researchers charted the actions and activities within the identified sites of struggle. The papers examined a number of factors and actors mediating struggles such as affects, politics, media, and the state. These play a significant role in determining the course and outcome of the struggles.
Keywords: EJAtlas, environmental conflict, social justice, India, Philippines, Taiwan
Introduction to EJAtlas
The EJAtlas is an ongoing project launched in March 2014 that aims to catalogue the ecological distribution of environmental conflicts around the world (Roy and Martinez-Alier 2019). The atlas documents environmental conflicts in over 133 countries dating all the way back to 1919. With such a long historical and geographic stretch, the atlas is by no means a complete catalogue of socio-environmental conflicts. According to Joan Martinez Alier, coordinator of the EJAtlas, coverage of conflicts is growing on the atlas as more conflicts are added every year (Dasgupta 2016). EJAtlas uses a bottom-up approach when it comes to documenting conflicts. Local activists and researchers are responsible for reporting on conflicts which are then added to the atlas along with other relevant sources. Despite the gaps in terms of coverage, Joan Martinez Alier believes that the atlas does provide enough data to make conclusions (Dasgupta 2016).
Upon entering the EJAtlas webpage, researchers can search for conflicts by region, country, type of conflict, or by the impact on society. The atlas covers a variety of environmental conflicts related to land, biodiversity conservation, water management, waste management, and several other types. Researchers also have the option to locate specific conflicts by outcome, year, or by commodity such as land or specific mineral resources. EJAtlas is, therefore, a great tool for researchers and scholars interested in socio-environmental conflicts.
While this proposed project focused on environmental justice and community rights, it produced three individual papers that follow the ICCS project’s theme, “Conflict, Justice, and Decolonization: Critical Research to Inter-Asia Societies.”
Lungani Hlongwa’s paper titled “The Political Ecology of Socio-Environmental Conflicts in India” examines how development-induced conflicts play out in India through the lens of finance, extraction, and logistics. Using data from EJAtlas, this paper quantitatively maps out environmental conflicts in India, focusing on their causes, impacts, and the forms of resistance that follow. The paper then concludes by discussing the prospects for environmental justice in India as the clash between the economy and the environment seems to be intensifying. The Indian government has taken some steps in this direction by introducing the National Green Tribunal to oversee matters related to the environment. Some questions remain though. How can those dispossessed by development projects make their voices heard? Is there a possibility for forming alliances to intensify struggles and thereby increase chances of success? If indeed there is a global environmental justice movement as some have pointed out, tapping into the “global rage” might be one way to garner support and increase the chances of successful resistance.
Figure 1. Socio-environmental conflicts in India.
Meanwhile, Fernan Talamayan’s paper, “Mapping Anti-Dam Movements: The Politics of Water Reservoir Construction and Hydropower Development Projects in the Philippines” maps people’s resistance to large scale water reservoir construction and hydropower development in the Philippines. Using EJAtlas (see figure 2), it mapped the mega dam projects that denied or will potentially deny indigenous peoples’ (IPs) rights over water resources and sustainable livelihood. At the same time, it identified several resistance movements against these projects and examined the factors that contributed to their outcomes. Particular attention was given to the actors involved in various dam-related conflicts, as their relationship and actions are deemed crucial in understanding the consistent denial of IPs’ voice in political processes. The research confirmed the findings of several case studies that tell the rampant violations of the “Freedom, Prior, and Informed Consent” (FPIC) policy across the country. It also found that influential members and supporters of anti-dam movements are commonly “red-tagged” by the government—a state practice that legitimizes the surveillance, harassment, or murder of members or supporters of progressive organizations. Through the mapping of the anti-dam movements, the paper exhibited the state’s disconcerting interpretation of the “common good,” as the Manila-centric or urban-centric interpretation of such phrase invariably causes the IPs’ marginalization (see Talamayan, 2020).
Figure 2. Water management and dam-related socio-environmental conflicts in the Philippines as mapped in the EJAtlas.
Lastly, Weisyun Chen’s paper titled “A Democratic Nuke? —The Articulation of Democracy and Anti-Nuclear Movement in ‘Nuke 4 Referendum Association’” analyzes the change of the theoretical reflections on the socio-environmental movement in Taiwan, with the year 2000 as the watershed. The strategic transition of the environmental movement is scrutinized within the context of democratization in Taiwan from the 1990s. By tracking back the establishment of the “Nuke 4 Referendum Association” in 1994, we attempt to figure out whether the articulation of political, social, and ecological demands is harmful to the movement, as the previous analyses indicated, or the divisive definition of the social movement only responds to a specific social and political context.
In 2011, the anti-nuclear movement revived because the nearby Fukushima nuclear disaster awakened the fear of the nuclear accident in Taiwan. The cooperation and alliance of civil society and the political party were restored and successfully held back the construction of the Nuke 4. The politicized media representation of nuclear issues and the success of the alliance of the socio-environmental movement and the party lead us to the conclusion that the articulation of political, social, and ecological demands is not the factor that failed the movement. Moreover, the theoretical division between the socio-environmental movement and the political movement is more related to researchers’ interpretive framework, which is constrained by the background of time.
Figure 3. The halted construction of the fourth nuclear power plant in Taiwan.
There are several findings worth pointing out from this research project.
First, Hlongwa’s paper found that India has the largest number of environmental conflicts in the world according to the EJAtlas database. As of March 2020, the country had 328 conflicts recorded on EJAtlas. Of these conflicts, about 23 percent were related to water management proving that indeed the control of water is central to India’s idea of nationhood. Other prevalent sources of conflicts are related to fossil fuels and climate justice, industry and utility, infrastructure and built environment and the extraction of mineral ores and building materials. Second, the data showed that the loss of landscape, biodiversity, and deforestation are some of the most prominent environmental impacts of projects in India. As far as health impacts are concerned, malnutrition and the exposure to unknown complex risks were among the most reported on EJAtlas. The most prevalent socio-economic impacts include the loss of livelihood, displacement, and land dispossession. Finally, the data on EJAtlas showed that most conflicts were either of high or medium intensity. In some conflicts, activists and community members were threatened, arrested or even murdered. Defending land and livelihoods appears to have become more dangerous with each passing year.
Meanwhile, Talamayan’s (2020) paper found that: (1) mega dam projects in the Philippines mostly address Manila-centric water and energy problems, (2) the displacement of the IPs does not only deprive them of their right to have sustainable livelihood but also their right to exist, (3) while the government compensated (or will compensate) the affected IPs, no amount can ever offset the negative impacts of mega dam projects such as the destruction of intangible cultural heritage and natural ecosystems, (4) IPs who oppose mega dam constructions and their supporters are vulnerable to red-tagging, (5) extrajudicial killings can either make resistance movement weaker or stronger, and (6) The state often employs a “divide and conquer” tactic to penetrate and isolate ICCs (pp. 26-7). With the aid of the EJAtlas, the study was not only able to map anti-dam movements across the country but also paint in broader strokes the extent of IPs marginalization. It exhibited the extent of human rights violations in the country, as well as the common acts of resistance to mega dam projects (p. 26).
Chen’s paper concluded that both the nuclear power policy and the anti-nuclear movement are highly politicized in Taiwan even though the movement group denied such claims. From 2001 to 2011, there was a specific period that researchers and agents of the movement tried to distinguish the political intervention from the socio-environmental movement. However, the politicized media representations of the anti-nuclear movement in 1994 as well as of Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 proved the deep connection of nuclear issues and politics in Taiwan. Also, the overlap of the political and environmental domains was reflected in the interpenetration of talents, strategies, and resources.
Chen, W. (forthcoming). A Democratic Nuke?—The Articulation of Democracy and Anti-Nuclear Movement in “Nuke 4 Referendum Association” https://www.researchgate.net/publication/341354750_A_Democratic_Nuke_–The_Articulation_of_Democracy_and_Anti-Nuclear_Movement_in_Nuke_4_Referendum_Association
Hlongwa, L. (forthcoming). The Political Ecology of Socio-Environmental Conflicts in India https://www.researchgate.net/publication/341354942_The_Political_Ecology_of_Socio-Environmental_Conflicts_in_India
Talamayan, F. (2020). Mapping anti-dam movements: The politics of water reservoir construction and hydropower development projects in the Philippines. NCTU International Center for Cultural Studies (ICCS)-Working Paper Series, no. 22. https://iccs.nctu.edu.tw/en/wps_one.php?USN=25
This research project was financially supported by the International Center for Cultural Studies, National Chiao Tung University, from The Featured Areas Research Center Program within the framework of the Higher Education Sprout Project by the Ministry of Education (MOE) in Taiwan.