Is social conflict in decline as the Defensoría suggests?

19 June 2017

Each month the Defensoría del Pueblo, the ombudsman’s office, publishes a tally of social conflicts. Most relate to conflicts surrounding mining projects with communities protesting about the social and environmental damage they experience. Many relate to conflicts over water, whether the diverting of water resources to meet the needs of mining camps or the pollution to rivers caused by mining operations themselves.

In the last few months, the Defensoría’s figures show a surprising fall in the number of conflicts regarded as ‘active’. Since the beginning of the year, the number of such conflicts has dropped from 214 to 179. The decline in the numbers is particularly striking since March (when they totalled 204 conflicts). This marks a clear shift from the tally of conflicts since 2010, since when the monthly figure averaged around 220.

Cooperacción, the NGO which is probably more engaged than any other in monitoring mining disputes, publishes a graph of the monthly figures that goes back to 2009; it is sceptical about whether we can deduce from them any real and lasting improvement in levels of conflict.

It offers some explanations as to why there might have been a dip, namely the effects of the state of emergency introduced to deal with flooding in March, and the decline in mining investment and the tendency for mining companies to string out the development of new operations until world mineral prices improve.

But it also wonders whether there has been a change in the methodology used to measure the number of conflicts and their intensity. If so, then the Defensoría should come clean on this. In particular, it notes the fact that the decline coincides precisely with the appointment of a new vice-ministerial office to deal with social conflicts of this sort. Part of the new vice-minister’s job is to get the figures down. Now, whether he has done this by responding to the hard task of satisfying those locked in conflict or, rather, by shifting the way of measuring conflict has yet to be seen.

Cooperacción warns against attempts by the government, specifically the new vice-ministry of territorial governance, to proclaim any early victory in the pattern of conflict.

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