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Triggers of Energy Conflicts

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Title of Essay: Energy Conflicts are inevitable


As the global prices for finite energy resources steadily increase, a proliferation of energy projects have sprung up in all regions across the world. Many of these high profile projects, most notably fracking in the U.S.A and Great Britain, have largely been the result of governmental plans for domestic economic development, with an end goal of “consolidating particular political agendas” (,). Other projects have focused primarily on bringing more renewable and suatainable resource solutions into play in regions where no previous exploitation had taken place. Such _ has noted that as the number of energy developments have increased, so too have “accompanying conflicts”, which are more often than not excaberated by external political, social and, of course, environmental factors.

These conflicts quite often vary in their dynamics, however an underlying feature seems to be an inherent flaw in governance regarding the management of energy companies. Conflicts both at local and national levels have revolved around an array of issues, ranging from deep rooted opposition to the location of such energy projects to the very proceeses involved in harnessing particular resources. In less developed countries such as Latin America and India, the marginalisation of certain societal groups is strikingly apparent. However, as stated by Lustig (2011), “the last decade saw some improvements in terms of reducing the rising trend in inequality…that could be traced back partly to improved education levels and increased transfers to the poor” (). Energy conflicts consistently relate back to these aforementioned social and political influences and can generally be divided into three major geographical categories: local, regional and national.

All of these categories have implications on a geopolitical scale. For example oil projects is frequently used as a tool for building political alliances across borders. Sometimes conflicts, which are decades old, may re-ignite and therefore it is not always new investments within the energy sector that give rise to conflicts. On a national level, the exact distribution of energy revenues among institutions and/or economic groups fuel significant disputes. Local level disputes oftentimes offer up unique and insightful case studies on environmental conflicts. The reason being that, although these local conflicts unfold in the actual geographic sites of energy developments, the have been known to have national consequences if not dealt with in an appropiate manner. More importantly, these local conflicts tend to highlight existing failures within states, such as historic economic inequalities and weak insitutional frameworks. Unless addressed in a timely manner, these conflicts have persistently presented awkward challenges for governmental energy policies and have even threatened the stability of some governments.

Triggers of Conflict:

A primary reason why environmental conflicts can be regarded as inevitable is due to the sheer mulitude of triggers that can ignite disputes. Oftentimes, these triggers are provoked simutaneously, which can pose difficulties in producing strategies for conflict resolution or mitigation. The foremost trigger to energy conflicts appears to be the level of opposition to a certain project. Such_ claims that this particular trigger is the most intricate of all, mainly due to the fact that the level of opposition with regard to energy developments frequently range from an absolute rejection to a total acceptance. In the case of fracking in Balcombe, opposition to the energy operations of the drilling company Cuadrilla was based solely on the negative environmental and social effects linked to fracking. On the other hand, approval on the pro-fracking side was spurred on by the prospects of econmic benefits and the creation of employment. However, as other energy conflicts, there exists movements that occur in between the two extremities of approval and rejection. These frequently take the form of negotiations between the two opposing sides. Non-governmental organisations such as Greenpeace and the World Resources Institute are recent examples that have radicalised their direct actions across the world, while still gaining traction as negotiators for environmental issues. These, combined with non-homogenous views within the community vis-à-vis the energy development on their lands, have often resulted in protracted conflicts. The level and nature of involvement of international non-governmental organizations in the conflict. International NGOs not only have grown in power and sophistication over the last twenty years but, because of their strong environmental focus, they have become particularly active in the Amazon. They have played a fundamental role in supporting communities in their negotiations with companies and governments. However, they have also at times been accused of contributing to the escalation of conflicts through the imposition of agendas that did not fully represent the demands of local communities.

Historical greivances, coupled with prior attempts at energy developments in an area or region, contributes significantly as an enerfy conflict trigger, especially in places that have experienced social or even enviromental damage as a result of such projects. In attempts to prevent history from repeating itself in cases

Old grievances, or the history of previous energy projects in the area. In areas with a history of social or environmental damage from previous energy projects, local inhabitants tend to be more active in opposing similar new developments for fear of a recurrence of past negative externalities. Communities affected by old projects also tend to be more radicalized. The best example is widespread opposition to new dams, which builds upon the deep scars left by similar projects in the past. The Chixoy Dam in Guatemala, built in the 1970 to 1980s, entailed the forced displacement of more than 3,445 people, mostly indigenous, with no viable resettlement plan. That project also included allegations that the forced relocation included human rights violations by the then-military government. Another example is the legendary Yaciretá hydroelectric power plant built between Argentina and Paraguay in the 1970s; it displaced as many as 50,000 people.

The environmental and social standards of the company involved in the energy projects. In the past decade, Latin America has seen a proliferation of both small oil companies and large national oil companies (NOCs), some of which have shown less stringent social and environmental safeguards relative to the big majors. Many of these junior companies are not publicly listed; this leaves them less concerned about their image and less subject to shareholder pressure to perform as well as the largest corporations do. Furthermore, they generally operate under more restricted budgets than their larger counterparts and the contractual span of their oil projects is much shorter, meaning that they may not have the time, the resources, or the interest in engaging in long-term relations with the local populations. The degree to which companies and governments comply with agreements reached with local communities. A government or a company’s failure to comply with a previous commitment with a community leaves locals feeling betrayed and is very often a source of conflict. Trust is eroded and difficult to rebuild. Communities often protest the breach of contract with force or violence.

The extent of law enforcement. A brewing source of conflict is the improper enforcement of national laws or international conventions to which the country is a signatory. National laws may be either overlooked or not properly applied. Typical examples of this are oil projects developed in protected national parks, with full disregard for the laws that shield these socially and/or environmentally sensitive areas. At the same time, an overabundance of overlapping laws sometimes creates confusion as to their application, leaving them practically inoperative. These situations, combined with governments’ failure to comply with international legal standards—such as those imposed by the ILO 169 Convention and the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (see box on page 5)—could lead populations affected by the energy developments to resort to violence as they seek answers to their problems. Indigenous communities often accuse governments of infringement of their right to free prior and informed consent, as granted by those international agreements. Very often, consultations are conducted after the license has been granted to the private energy operator and it is too late to object. Adding to the tensions is the slow pace of the legal system, which can take decades to settle a case, as illustrated by the lawsuit against Chevron that started in Ecuador 17 years ago and has still to be resolved. The availability of institutional mechanisms to mediate conflicts. More often than not, countries lack well-functioning institutions with the capacity to effectively mediate conflicts. An exception is the Peruvian Ombudsman Office, an organization with an unusually high level of legitimacy among all the stakeholders and with proven success in de-escalating conflicts. Local NGOs have also participated in mediating conflicts but usually with lower success rates.

With all these triggers in mind, a so called elephant in the room still exists in relation to energy conflicts and that is the potential for economic and social disadvantages, which often leads to a political exclusion of sorts. This is more prominent in developing countries, whereby local communities are presented with the enormous task of bartering with global energy companies such as Shell and Chevron for healthcare and educational funding. These services, expected to normally be provided for by the government, is largely basic. Negogiating with energy companies therefore become the only method available to these communities in order to improve their living standards, or at the very least, gain access to basic state services. However the realistic results of such interactions are very seldom perceived as fair and as such, conflicts detroriate at local, regiona and national levels. Such_ has noted that unless these local conflicts are “addressed with the seriousness and depth they deserve”, then the ability of local communities to mobilise at national levels could be a major cause for concern for government stability. One need only look as far back as 2009, when the city of Bagua in Peru experienced violent conflicts between police and indigenous tribes, as a result of their oppostion to American resource exploitation in the Amzaon itself.

This essay identified five triggers of energy conflicts as well as three major types of conflicts within this sector. The national and regional conflicts often receive the most attention from the public and from the media, however it is within local conflicts that the potential to reach national importance exists, unless the conflict is addressed properly.

This paper identified four types of energy related conflicts in Latin America: geopolitical and border conflicts at a regional level; revenue conflicts at a national level; and local conflicts that carry the potential to reach national importance unless properly addressed. Geopolitical and border conflicts normally receive the most attention from the general public and the media. However, revenue and local conflicts carry a greater risk of destabilizing the region because they build on largely unresolved inequalities, weak governance, and increasing radicalization of the indigenous movement. Energy project expansion is necessary for economic growth in Latin America, where installed hydroelectric capacity remains very low and large oil and gas reserves await development. However, these infrastructure needs also constitute a tremendous risk factor as most of the still-untapped oil and water sources are in environmentally and socially sensitive areas. These social and environmental fragilities, combined with a dire economic reality and historical marginalization of the communities affected by the energy developments, result in gradually increasing conflictive situations. Unless addressed rapidly and properly, these conflicts could pose important challenges to Latin America’s political stability and to the region’s economic growth prospects.

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