Author: Thomas Crosbie
Yesterday, the Program for Society and the Environment and the Center for Research on Military Organization cohosted a fascinating presentation from Marina Malamud, titled “Resource-Based Conflict in Latin America: From Border Disputes to Internal Battles for Land Control.” Malamud is a tenured assistant researcher at CONICET, the Argentinian equivalent of the National Science Foundation, and was formerly a professor of military sociology at the Argentine Air War College. She previously visited UMD’s Department of Sociology to present her work on civilian control of the military in Argentina, Brazil and Chile. This presentation was also comparative and introduced her ambitious new project which links violence with environmental concerns throughout South America. The presentation and Q&A raised a number of questions that remain unsettled in my mind but which I think worthy of serious thought.
Malamud has a great hook for her project. South American countries have extraordinarily high rates of violence by global standards. They also have extraordinarily rich ecosystems, which are valued globally and locally and are essential to the survival of many indigenous and rural communities. Ironically (and tragically), South American economies are based on the extraction of raw materials, which pits metropole economic interests against peripheral communities’ reliance on the environment. Might the high rates of violence reflect the dark reality of this struggle over the environment?
This unfolds across three dimensions.
First, from a regulatory perspective, even Constitutional provisions can be simply ignored by authoritarian presidents.
Second, from an information perspective, presidents, in collusion with media industries, often manage to exert extraordinary control over the news, so that many conflicts are unreported or underreported and many protests are ignored or painted in a negative light.
Third, from an institutional perspective, most South American countries lack stable public agencies and autonomous state structures. Paradoxically, while executive overreach approaches authoritarianism, the ballot box still restrains presidents and keeps them responsive to short-term electoral needs. This creates a condition where policy swings back and forth between election cycles, making it ineffective in practice and misleading to researchers.
Malamud provides many helpful inroads to understand resource-based conflict in South America. By developing a network of case studies that range across two dimensions (cause and intensity), she undermines the state control of information and points to the large number of cases that demand systematic research. She argues for the need to attend closely to public speech as a key pivot for the legitimacy of presidential policies. However, she also points to the strategic character of much of this discourse, noting that economic factors often force presidents to adopt contradictory positions on environmental concerns. She also notes the unexpected restraint of global opinion, with recourses to The Hague allowing some environmental conflicts to be resolved without violence.
Overall, the story Malamud paints is one where the world’s most vibrant ecologies will continue to be exploited almost without restraint by South American governments and foreign companies unless there is deep systemic change across multiple societal axes in multiple countries. This includes an overall improvement in the rule of law with decreased corruption; the dramatic expansion of regulatory powers and regulatory agencies; broad education about the value of the environment that connects to local meanings about nature (and is not simply imported from developed-world discourses); and an integration of environmental concerns into broader diplomatic efforts (e.g. expanding cease-fires to prohibit damage to the environment).
Several questions remain unsettled to my mind.
First, as one audience member noted, the Northern hemisphere has recently produced a rich literature describing resource-based conflicts as part of a world system rather than part of independent regional systems. Furthermore, many of the American efforts to protect the environment have failed in ways that look suspiciously like those advocated by Malamud in the South American context. The degree to which the South American case can be separated from other global patterns needs to be determined, as does the degree to which the particular recommendations resemble and differ from existing efforts in other parts of the world.
Second, I wonder how fine a brush we can use to paint the regional varieties of conflict. Surely some South American polities are more environmentally-conscious than others, and some political parties less willing to bow to economic pressures than others. What are the best practices in the region? What legal systems and what bureaucracies succeed in resisting presidential overreach and manage to actually protect the environment?
My final question concerns tourism and other positive economic assessments of the South American ecosystem. Surely there is something to be gained in preserving these regions that may in the right regulatory and political contexts outweigh the immediate benefits of selling raw materials?
I look forward to seeing the next articulation of Malamud’s work on this extremely important and under-researched topic.