Mining and social conflict in Latin America: Which factors drive conflict escalation?

Mara Weiß, Stefan Giljum & Sebastian Luckeneder

FINEPRINT Brief No. 11, July 2020

Extraction of metal and mineral ores exerts pressure on the environment and on societies, which can lead to social conflicts between local populations, mining companies and the state. We analysed around 300 mining conflicts in Latin America to find out which factors influence different escalation stages in these conflicts. We show that the type of groups involved and the timing of mobilisation have effects on the escalation stage, while the category of mined commodity has no clear influence on conflict escalation.
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Global demand for metals and minerals is rapidly increasing. They are needed for the construction and maintenance of buildings, transport and communication infrastructures, as well as for the production of machinery and consumer goods. The extraction of these resources exerts pressure on the environment, e.g. through pollution and waste, and on society, e.g. through displacement of people and destruction of livelihoods. For these reasons, mining conflicts emerge as social conflict between local populations, mining companies and the state.

In 2019, more than four activists were on average killed every week worldwide defending territories against the invasion of industries like mining, logging or agribusiness, with mining being the deadliest sector of all. More than half of those killings occurred in Latin America in the context of mining [1]. In that region, the mining sector experienced a significant increase in investments in the past decades and the occurrence of mining related conflicts increased accordingly [2]. The Environmental Justice Atlas [3], a database hosted by the Autonomous University of Barcelona, documents 296 cases of mining conflicts across Latin America (Figure 1).

Mining conflicts in Latin America, Environmental Justice Atlas (www.ejatlas.org)

Figure 1: Mining conflicts in Latin America, Environmental Justice Atlas (www.ejatlas.org)

How to define escalation in mining conflicts?

The research aim was to find out which factors influence different escalation stages in mining conflicts. Leaning on the classification of conflict escalation stages by Yasmi and colleagues [4], who investigated patterns of conflict escalation in natural resource management conflicts, the escalation stages were defined by the forms of mobilisation (actions by protestors, see Figure 2) and the responses by the company or the state (see Figure 3).

Each form of mobilisation and conflict outcome/response was categorised into the following four escalation stages:

  1. Campaigns, protests, blockades: conflicts of moderate intensity with street protests and media campaigns or petitions, but also conflicts including actions like blocking roads

  2. Legal action: conflicts with judicial activism, or court decisions

  3. Violent action: from corruption and repression to assassinations of activists

  4. Nationalisation or internationalisation: conflicts reaching (inter)national awareness

Forms of mobilisation in mining conflicts; data from Environmental Justice Atlas (www.ejatlas.org)

Figure 2: Forms of mobilisation in mining conflicts; data from Environmental Justice Atlas (www.ejatlas.org)

Outcomes/responses in mining conflicts; data from  Environmental Justice Atlas (www.ejatlas.org)

Figure 3: Outcomes/responses in mining conflicts; data from Environmental Justice Atlas (www.ejatlas.org)

Which factors influence certain escalation stages in mining conflicts?

To find out which factors influence certain escalations stages, a multinomial logistic regression was applied. This method performs a logistic regression on multiple nominal outcomes, meaning a regression on categories A, B, C, or D for the escalation stage in our case.

We tested the impacts of the following influencing factors:

  • Type of commodity: base metals and ferroalloy metals, nonferrous metals, precious metals, non-metallic minerals, energy sources, biological resources

  • Operator origin: foreign company, local company, illegal mining

  • Mobilising groups: the different specific groups were divided into four categories — organisation, economic actors, local people, excluded/marginalised

  • Timing of mobilisation: preventive, during construction, for reparations

  • Environmental impacts: visible or potential

  • Socioeconomic impacts: visible or potential

  • Health Impacts: visible or potenti