Development, the Environment and Conflict

Olympio Barbanti, Jr.

August 2004

Millennium Goal 7 - Ensure Environmental Sustainability

The nature of environmental conflicts in developing nations differs considerably from those in industrialized nations. In the latter, development has already occurred and most environmental conflicts are over how to minimize further resource destruction and how resources can be most efficiently used. But in the former, economic, social and political structures have not yet been widely affected by environmental changes brought about by industrialization. Therefore, what is at stake in developing countries is not only the use of environmental resources, but also the very process of development, and if state, civil society and the market can act cooperatively to create development while protecting the environment.

What one should consider when dealing with environmental conflicts in developing countries, is the fact that many of these countries have different situations within one territory. In Brazil, one can find urban, industrial areas with typical western-style environmental problems. But, in the same country, there are also regions with mixed development standards and areas inhabited by Amerindians, some of which still live in the Neolithic period. While the society in the industrialized southeast of Brazil has the same access to information as North Americans, within the Amazon forest one can find tribes, such as the Yanomami, whose members do not use numbers higher than three, do not have a written language and do not wear clothes.

Therefore, two main issues should be recognized when considering environmental conflicts. One, is that there should not be just one way of dealing with environmental conflicts in developing countries because local differences matter. The other, is that given the vastly different identities which exist in one country, the Western development model is not always appropriate. Nevertheless, market agents and donors financially supporting environmental organizations often do not understand this. As stated by Howell and Pearce (2001), development donors "usually overlook both local initiatives formed along ethnic, kin or clan principles that may play a role in achieving social justice and equality, and the fact that apparently modern organizations may be impregnated with primordial and clientelistic relations."

Western Models

Western development models have created institutional frameworks for negotiating environmental conflicts so they do not interfere with production or international trade. However, the legitimacy of this institutional framework has to be examined. As stated by Maria Dalce, "the great majority of the decision making processes taking place in the COPAM (the Brazilian regional environmental protection council) are controlled by the representatives of private companies". In such negotiations, the needs of local people are often overlooked.

This occurs because in developing countries, environmental problems are influenced by other issues such as social and economic concerns. Typically, these interests are related to the socio-economic structure and conditions under which people live. Thus, these interests sometimes take priority over environmental concerns.

Need for Structural Change

It emerged from the interviews that problems of insufficient education and nutrition, as well as ineffective social services, are dimensions that affect both identities and conflict dynamics. These, in turn, effect environmental issues.

Power Contests

Some of these dynamics are quite similar to those experienced in industrialized nations. Power contests are still the main reason behind many environmental conflicts. Development organizations, both national and international, have implemented local development projects that try to promote dialogue among stakeholders. However, as stated by Deborah Goldemberg, head of a governmental agency that focuses on small enterprises development, those powerful entrepreneurs don't participate in the projects.

In Brazil and in other developing countries, overall recognition of the importance of the environment resulted in the institution of good legal frameworks. These, however, are not always respected. Nevertheless, they have allowed for dialogue among the state, civil society and private companies, which has helped to change the prevailing image that NGOs were environmentally "good," while private companies were environmentally "bad." 


Nevertheless, some conflicts between companies and civil organizations still persist. The NGO, AMDA has reported that in its dialogue and negotiation processes with Vale do Rio Doce, the main Brazilian mining company, the frequent change of the company's personnel made it difficult for them to develop a continued and stable relationship. Moreover, the non- existence of an environmental management system within Vale do Rio Doce aggravated this problem.

While this is a common strategy of companies to avoid negotiation, in this case it was interpreted by AMDA as pure lack of concern and bureaucratic chaos inside the company. So, in developing countries, it is still possible to find situations in which conflict emerges not because there is manipulation of interests, but just as a consequence of pure administrative chaos. And this may happen even inside in large companies operating in international markets.

Slowness and Complexity of Public Processes

When conflict emerges, other difficulties also take place. Public bureaucracy is probably one of the main sources of conflict in developing countries. The lack of efficient, transparent and accountable public administration makes it very difficult to negotiate with state governments. Frequently, this is because of corruption. To reduce such difficulties, state governmental structures must be reformed to reduce corruption and better meet the needs of local communities. 

Interviewees such as representatives of the BAMCRUS project, AMDA, and the DLIS Forum have all declared that state failure constrains not only the implementation of their programs, but also the resolution of conflicts concerning environmental sustainability. As Maria Dalce from AMDA has stated:

What is needed is a deregulation that is probably going to create more space for these conflicts to be better negotiated, with more time. Mainly because if you are a counselor in the COPAM nowadays, you have to work with lots of papers and documents [...] and a lot of things could be simplified for you to have space there to negotiate more difficult conflicts.

Thus environmental conflict resolution in developing countries is more challenging than it is in industrialized countries. Many more issues are tied up in the environmental concerns. One cannot just address the environmental issues in isolation. One must address them within the greater social, political, and economic structural framework and one must consider the vast diversity present in all of these dimensions.

Use the following to cite this article:
Barbanti, Jr., Olympio . "Development, the Environment and Conflict." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: August 2004 <>.

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