This chapter connects the “agrarian question” with the “socio-ecological question”, through environmental conflicts associated with farming and land. Growth and intensifying social metabolism trigger land-use change (to produce agricultural and forest commodities industrially, wind energy and hydropower), with dire consequences for ecosystem and human health due to increased local toxicities or loss of access to land. For instance, kidney disease and sterility. Aware of (and suffering) these consequences, a variety of actors organise and raise against these injustices: farmers, peasants, landless workers, pastoralists... and also EJOs. Dispute examples relate to CAFOs, pesticides used for grapes, bananas, sugarcane. soybeans (California, Central America, Argentina, Sri Lanka), tree plantations (e.g. for carbon capture or paper pulp; Uganda, Cameroon, Brazil, India, Peru, France/Indonesia), and people's displacement and biodiversity loss to make space for renewable energy projects (India, Honduras).


Here is another thematic chapter on peasant environmentalism. The metabolic view of agriculture, forestry, pastoralism and fisheries opens up many new perspectives on socio-ecological conflicts. Here I shall focus on only a few: CAFOs, pesticides in agricultural plantations, deforestation, eucalyptus and oil palm plantations, “carbon capture”, land and water grabbing, also some conflicts on the electrical transition and hydroelectric dams.

The “eco-modernists” argue that humans should protect nature by developing technologies decoupling economic growth from environmental impacts. This is recognized also in the UN Sustainable Development Goal number 8 that calls for economic growth everywhere, as if this was “sustainable”. Eco-modernism is another name for “the gospel of eco-efficiency”, a political current indifferent to the value of “wilderness” and strongly opposed to “the environmentalism of the poor and the indigenous”. “Eco-modernism” is not new to agrarian studies. Technical improvements are supposed to increase crops and simultaneously help the environment. In 1840 Liebig lamented that large-scale commercial agriculture sending products to distant markets did not return the nutrients to the soil. He was alarmed by the possible exhaustion of guano deposits from Peru (because of the high rate of extraction in that commodity frontier in 1840‒80), and he proposed the introduction of chemical, factory-made fertilizers that would provide nutrients to the fields of Europe. He had himself researched some of the biochemical cycles. When we take energy into account (Georgescu-Roegeny 1971, 1975), the “circularity gap” of modern industrial urbanized economies based on fossil fuels becomes much larger. We could say, Kreislaufwirtschaft ist eine Illusion.

Liebig was an “ecomodernist” pointing out to the “metabolic gap” in the nutrient flows in agriculture (Foster 2000) and he wanted to mend it. Many years after the introduction of Chilean nitrates in 1880, the fantastic boom of the fertilizer industry in the early twentieth century and the Haber–Bosch process discovered in 1914, we now complain of excessive nitrogen in water tables, eutrophication of water bodies and at the same time the gradual exhaustion of phosphorous deposits. We also learnt (Odum 1971; Pimentel et al. 1973) that modernized agriculture relying on increased fertilizers and other inputs of fossil fuel energy meant a decrease in the EROI of agriculture (Martinez-Alier 2011; Yasin 2022). Agriculture is a system of conversion of sun energy and other inputs of energy including human work into the kcal content of crops and other by-products such as milk, dung and straw. Podolinsky in 1880 was one of the first authors to quantify the energetics of agriculture as a system open to the entry of sun energy and other inputs, gaining Vernadsky's admiration for it (Vernadsky 1924; Martinez-Alier 1987, 1990). Food provides the kcal that humans need per day (about 8 to 10 megajoules) and that allows them to work. Unfortunately, Podolinsky's calculations did not meet with Engels’ approval (Fomičev 2014) – as discussed again in Chapter 30. We now realize that the EROI, i.e. the efficiency of this transformation of energy, declines the p. 471more capitalized agriculture becomes, and this illuminates the “Biofuel Delusion” or “The Fallacy of Large Scale Agro-Biofuels Production” (Giampietro and Mayumi 2009).

The metabolic view of the agricultural economy has become well known after 1970 (González de Molina and Toledo 2014). We can speculate on what Marx would have thought of declining EROIs and increasing HANPPs (Krausmann et al. 2013). It is impossible to say. What we know is that the outstanding Marxist writers of the early twentieth century (Kautsky in The Agrarian Question and Rosa Luxemburg in The Accumulation of Capital) did not put the quantitative study of social metabolism at the centre of their preoccupations.

The discussion of the EROI of agriculture supports the Narodnik positions of the Via Campesina (Martinez-Alier 2011), bringing together the “agrarian question” and the “socio-ecological question”. Can you imagine the sensation if a fourth or fifth draft of Marx's letter to Vera Zasulich were to be discovered (Shanin 1983), saying “Dear Vera Zasulich, I have been thinking of agriculture as a system of conversion of energy, and how the positive EROI of peasant agriculture is an argument favourable to your Narodnik views”? But perhaps it was still too early (Franco 2019). The opposition between, on the one side, the Chayanovian view of the persistence of the peasantry (Georgescu-Roegen 1960) and, on the other side, both the mainstream economic view and the Leninist view on the obsolescence of the peasantry, cannot really be interpreted as an opposition between ecological and economic thinking. Chayanov could have been a proto-ecological economist; but he was not ‒ perhaps his early death (as a victim of Stalin) gave him no time to properly study the energetic and material metabolism of agriculture. An ecological argument in defence of the peasantry could have been made, as Netting did later (Martinez-Alier 1995c).


A definition of CAFO is a concentrated animal feeding operation with more than 1,000 animal units (which equate to 1,000 heads of beef cattle, 700 dairy cows, 2,500 pigs weighing more than 55 lbs, 125,000 broiler chickens or 82,000 laying hens). The opposition to CAFOs adds novel factors to the “agrarian question” centred on the ownership of land, the forms of land tenure and use and exploitation of labour, the persistence or disappearance of the peasantry and the land reforms. New questions are: Should we consume so much meat? Are we blind to animal suffering? Are we worried about the impact on human health that such concentrations of animals bring about? How is the HANPP increased by the feedstuffs for so many animals and how does this impact on the biodiversity? Are the excrements from animals being recycled? Here we are more in the terrain of Food Regimes (McMichael 2013) than of the traditional Agrarian Question. The environmental and human health issues gain relevance (Weis 2013).

The political ecologist Paul Robbins (2019) famously praised CAFOs as impressive enterprises of milk and meat production. In a debate on CAFOs in the journal Political Geography, Paul Robbins took the side of the eco-modernists while Gómez-Bagghetum took the side of Degrowers. 1 There is a third side to the debate: Environmental Justice, which goes together with “Degrowth in practice” as when CAFOs are stopped by activists for very material reasons. I remember the opposition to the project in Inner Mongolia (Chapter 6) in 2013 by the COFCO Group for creating the “Technology Model Zone for Raising a Million Heads of p. 472Pigs” on land expropriated from local herders. There are also conflict cases from Mexico against hog farms. We shall consider cases in France, Spain and in the country of origin of the CAFOs, the USA. These conflicts are not only NIMBY conflicts (no CAFO in my backyard), they become NIABY conflicts (Not in Anyone's Backyard), focusing on land and water use and pollution over wide areas, as well as on air pollution, excessive use of antibiotics and sources of zoonotic viruses.

The Farm of One Thousand Cows, France 2

In the North of France, a first CAFO was validated by the authorities but the population and some organizations were strongly against it. The history of this project is that of Mr Ramery, a local construction industry mogul, who decided to bring together several large dairy farms in a single 1000 cow + 750 calf farm linked to the largest anaerobic digestion unit in Europe. The strong opposition by the ad-hoc resistance group Novissen (a local residents’ and farmers’ opposition group), and the Confédération Paysanne (the French branch of the Via Campesina) stopped the project in 2020 after ten years of struggle. Imports of GMO soybeans were one of the factors in the opposition (Figure 21.1).

NOVISSEN against the “usine à mille vaches” (EJAtlas).
Figure 21.1

NOVISSEN against the “usine à mille vaches”

Source:  EJAtlas

Novissen is an acronym of Nos Villages Se Soucient de leur Environnement (Our Villages Care About Their Environment). By 2021, it was announced that “The Farm of a Thousand Cows” was over. It was to be located in Buigny-Saint-Maclou in the Somme; it closed its doors after heated controversy between environmental activists and economic interests.p. 473

In Noviercas, Soria, Spain 3

Neighbours from Noviercas, a village of 155 inhabitants, located in the province of Soria oppose the construction of a macro-farm for milk production. According to the Hacendera Association (a community-based organization against the project) it would be the largest farm on the European continent, with 24,000 animals that will be milked 24 hours a day. In France, as we have seen, the government prevented the installation of a “farm of a thousand cows”. The Noviercas village council approved the plan but there are local concerns on the environmental, socioeconomic and animal welfare damage that this CAFO will produce including the enormous consumption of water, the possible contamination of aquifers by slurry and dung from cows (or by waste generated from anaerobic digestion), as well as the impact on climate change from the release of large amounts of greenhouse gases.

Economically, opponents fear that many small family businesses will disappear and more jobs will be destroyed than created. At the country level, the macro-farms may plummet the price of milk thus threatening hundreds of producers throughout Spain. They call it “predatory livestock” production. The CAFOs in Spanish territory would be located in regions of low population density, the so-called “empty Spain”. A movement arose with a coordinating body at Spanish level with participation of Greenpeace with the slogan ni en tu pueblo ni en el mío, i.e. it is not a NIMBY although there is not yet a global anti-CAFO movement.

The USA is a Land of CAFOs 4

Meat consumption in the US rose from 144 pounds in 1950 to 222 pounds per person in 2007. Consumption of beef rose from 44 pounds in 1950, to 66 pounds in 2007. Perhaps this was a peak for economic and human health reasons. Livestock production also changed from hundreds of thousands of independent farmers to a few thousand mega-farms. Factory farming is facilitated by policy changes pushed by the largest agribusinesses, farm bills artificially lowering the cost of livestock feed; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) largely ignoring factory farm pollution; and the Department of Justice allowing the largest meat-packers to merge into a virtual monopoly. This led to the rise of CAFOs. I choose to focus on rural Michigan where Lynn Henning exposed socio-ecological injustices and was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2010.

Michigan previously had a long history of small family farms who are now outcompeted by CAFOs. Michigan's livestock and dairy industries are well-connected in the state, with ties to the Department of Agriculture and footholds in nearly every county. CAFOs promise jobs but end up using machines instead of skilled manual labour and give employment to migrant labour camps instead of locals. They also take business away from local communities. CAFOs have impacted the property values of homes and farms adjacent to them, with declines of up to 70 per cent in some rural counties. Furthermore, these industries have dire environmental consequences.

CAFOs can house thousands of animals in confined spaces with no natural vegetation, either in outdoor pens or in huge windowless structures. In a CAFO, high-pressure sprayers remove waste from the floors using powerful chemical solvents. The runoff is then channelled into huge open pits or vats on the CAFO's property. This toxic brew of faeces and urine, chemical agents, pesticides, hormones, bacteria, antibiotics, blood and even decaying carcass parts is left to ferment for weeks, creating noxious fumes and dangerous chemical p. 474compounds like methane. The waste is then trucked or piped to nearby fields, where the substance is sprayed as fertilizer, seeping into groundwater supplies and running off into local streams and rivers. Remaining family farmers, economically stretched to near collapse, are often paid by CAFO operators to allow them to spray their fields, creating toxic conditions on their property.

Soy and corn farmer Lynn Henning began finding manure leaking into the water shortly after CAFOs arrived in her rural community in Clayton, Lenawee County. Her mother and father-in-law, in their eighties and living within 300 m of a CAFO, were diagnosed with hydrogen sulphide poisoning resulting in irreversible brain damage. Twelve CAFOs were within 10 miles of her home. Between them they housed about 20,000 dairy cattle and 10,000 hogs. Some of these CAFOs were set up by a company in the Netherlands that recruited local farmers there and helped them relocate in Michigan, promising them plenty of land and less costly environmental regulations than in the Netherlands. The rest were owned by locals who decided to scale up after the Dutch dairies moved in. One elderly couple who lived across from a CAFO called Henning to tell her they were considering suicide. Their well was contaminated, they couldn’t go outside, couldn’t open their windows. They had to wear face masks. Their children wouldn’t visit because the stench was so bad, and they couldn’t sell their house because no one else wanted to live there.

In 2000, someone reported a CAFO for discharging manure into a creek. The owner wrongly blamed Henning for calling in the complaint. To find out more about the accusation, she started filing federal Freedom of Information Act requests. Reaching out to neighbours, fellow farmers and EPA enforcement officials, Henning gathered as much information as possible about CAFO pollution spills, their locations and points of origin. Regularly driving a 125-mile circuit to track CAFO operations, Henning began to understand the practices causing the pollution of the area's waterways. Educating herself and others about regulatory practices, aerial photographing, and water sampling, Henning, deeply rooted in the land, emotionally engaged and well-connected to those around her, began calling on state and federal authorities to hold livestock factory farms accountable to water and air quality laws. In 2001 she became a water sentinel for the Sierra Club. With other concerned neighbours she formed an EJO, the Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South-Central Michigan (ECCSCM), and they brought CAFOs to justice. Though almost entirely self-taught, she and the ECCSCM eventually compiled more data on these local operations than the state agencies responsible for regulating them. Henning brought her data and tools to state regulators to encourage them to take stronger enforcement action. In 2008, for the first time in its history, the government denied the permit for a proposed CAFO thanks to Henning's findings. As a result of her activism, Henning and her family were subjected to harassment and intimidation. Despite these threats, Henning continued to help farming communities mitigate the effects of pollution from factory farms and worked as a field representative for the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project (SRAP). In 2015, together with the SRAP she launched a national initiative called the Water Ranger program, training those affected by CAFOs to become citizen scientists. Moreover, with the help of Light Hawk, a volunteer group of pilots, Henning and the ECCSCM supported citations that state and federal agencies issued against CAFOs for violations of the Clean Water Act, resulting in fines and lawsuits. The movement against CAFOs became known and it spread out.p. 475


Banana plantations not only export large amounts of K (potassium) that do not come back to the fields, but also “virtually” export large amounts of water used to grow them. They also use pesticides such as DBCP that have damaged workers and their families (Navas 2022) in Central America, Ecuador and the Philippines… or chlordecone in Martinique and Guadeloupe, two French territories (DOM-TOM) in the Caribbean. Contemporary agrarian conflicts on health and environment are often marked by long periods of debates on causal links, and also by the “circle of poison”, i.e. the banning of pesticides in rich countries while they continue to be used overseas. Such conflicts are also characterized by the lack of environmental liability of companies.

Glyphosate has become a well-known word, the active ingredient in Monsanto's top-selling herbicide Roundup. Employed by aerial spraying on GMO soybean plantations in Argentina and elsewhere, it has given rise to movements by grassroots groups supported by some health professionals. The Mothers of Ituzaingó in Cordoba, Argentina, was at the vanguard of this movement together with the network of Pueblos Fumigados (Fumigated Towns). The Encyclical Laudato si and its Argentinian author, Pope Francis, state (paragraph 135) that “discussions are needed in which all those directly or indirectly affected (farmers, consumers, civil authorities, scientists, seed producers, people living near fumigated fields, and others) should take part”. We know where the word fumigated comes from. Glyphosate has been forbidden in 2022 by president Gustavo Petro for eradication of coca fields in Colombia.

Modern plantation farming implies increasing use of pesticides. The use of Endosulfan in cashew plantations in Kerala is another documented instance (Chapter 9). “Slow murder” and “silent killer” were terms used by Sunita Narain, terms similar to Rob Nixon's “slow violence” (Navas 2022). Rachel Carson's book of 1962 against DDT (Silent Spring) was followed by complaints by landless workers in California. In Chapter 24, the case of McFarland in California is analyzed. The migrant workers fought for their bodies, not for their territories. Also, malathion (an organophosphate pesticide used in cotton plantations) was denounced and did damage for many years.

Kidney Disease in Sri Lanka and Nicaragua: Silent Killers and Slow Murder 6

The following cases in the EJAtlas exemplify situations of massive human kidney failure in plantations of sugarcane and rice. Thus, in Sri Lanka kidney disease emerged mainly amongst males of the age group 30–60 years engaged in agriculture. High prevalence of Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) became an environmental health issue of national concern in the North Central province and North Western province. Here again people defend their own body more than their territory. More recently this epidemic was found in the Southern province near Hambantota as well. The affected area covered approximately 17,000 km2 and with a population of about 2.5 million. The presence of high levels of fluoride, widespread use of agrochemicals, presence of cadmium, lead and arsenic, as well as uranium in soil and water are postulated as contributory factors. The prevalence of the disease is mostly among paddy farmers and agricultural labourers. The lack of availability of dialysis facilities in nearby hospitals makes it difficult for the poor to get treatment. Also, in most cases, people find p. 476they are sick at a very late stage. Scientists suspect the illness is caused by a combination of dehydration from hard labour in tropical heat and exposure to toxins. A study conducted in Sri Lanka in 2013 by the World Health Organization detected both cadmium and glyphosate, as well as other pesticides and heavy metals, in the environment of affected areas, and in kidney patients’ urine. The CEJ (Centre for Environmental Justice in Sri Lanka) and other EJOs launched campaigns for awareness. This disease is not confined to Sri Lanka.

In El Salvador, Nicaragua and other Central American countries there are reported cases of CKD in agricultural plantations affecting tens of thousands of workers. In the community of Chichigalpa, on Nicaragua's Pacific coast, CKD mainly affects young men who work in the sugarcane plantations. Some attribute the disease to the use of pesticides and fungicides containing toxic substances (such as glyphosate) and to extreme working conditions (high temperatures, excessive physical exertion, dehydration, hours in the sun without the right to shade). The diagnosis coincides with that of Sri Lanka.

The emergency situation led the communities to form organizations such as the Chichigalpa Association for Life (ASOCHIVIDA) made up of former workers and widows of former workers of the San Antonio sugar mill (founded in 1890) owned by the Pella Group, producers of the famous “Flor de Caña” rum and also ethanol. The affected communities held demonstrations against the sugar mill asking for compensation and help to buy medicines and treatments for the sick. The demonstrations were strongly repressed. In January 2014, the national police killed Juan de Dios Cortés while he demonstrated to demand compensation for his illness. The community was divided, with some of them demonstrating in favour of the sugar mill in order to save their job. As Grettel Navas points out, while there was a technical-scientific discussion among universities around the world, in Nicaragua the men were still “working to die”.


Carbon Capture in Uganda 7

Local peoples often defend forests against logging. Famous cases in the 1970s and 1980s were the Chipko movement in Uttarakhand in the Himalaya, and Chico Mendes’ defence of isolated rubber trees in the forest in Acre, Brazil. But what we discuss here is different. The excessive production of carbon dioxide by the burning of fossil fuels has caused other land conflicts. On the one hand, the attempts to “capture” CO2 in tree plantations (in REDD schemes, causing social and political conflicts); on the other hand, the growth of windmills and solar panels to substitute for fossil fuels, a new “plague” of “green” land grabbing. In this section, I give examples from Uganda on “carbon capture” in tree plantations.

The FACE (Forests Absorbing Carbon Dioxide Emissions) foundation was created in 1990 by four major Dutch electricity companies. It had controversial pine-planting projects in the highlands of Ecuador. It also had projects in the west and east of Uganda with turbulent histories including human rights abuses at Kibale National Park and at Mount Elgon National Park. The Mt Elgon project involved the planting of 20 native tree species over a total area of 27,000 ha, sequestering 700,000 tons of CO2 over its 17-year tenure. In 1992 and 1993, and again in 2002, forest dwellers and peasants were evicted under the World Bank's Forestry Rehabilitation Project co-financed by the EU.p. 477

Even more controversial was the performance in 1999 of the Norwegian company “Green Resources” that acquired a 50-year licence to 2,670 ha of land in the government-owned Kachung Central Forest Reserve in Northern Uganda. Local inhabitants were violently forced off their land while others were denied access to grow food and graze animals. Furthermore, pollution of the land due to the use of agrochemicals in the plantation was reported. On 3 November 2015, the Swedish Energy Agency announced that it was freezing future payments to Green Resources, following a programme on Sweden's TV4 Kalla Fakta about the problems caused to local communities. Green Resources is a Norwegian company already mentioned in Chapters 12 and 13 with a total of 45,000 ha of plantations in Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda, converting grassland, savanna and small-scale cultivated land into tree plantations. Uncertainties remain about the potential of tree plantations to really sequester carbon (Figure 21.2).

Uganda: carbon offsets (Oakland Institute).
Figure 21.2

Uganda: carbon offsets

Source:  Oakland Institute

Industrial Tree Plantations – Eucalyptus and Others

Tree plantations are much older than REDD schemes ‒ one main reason for their existence is the appetite of the wood, pulp and paper industries but there are also rubber plantations and other types of tree plantations, i.e. extensions of land uniformly devoted to one or a few species, geared to the international market. A great book by Carrere and Lohmann published in 1996 introduced the slogan “Plantations are not true Forests”. They are typical extractivist industries causing hundreds of conflicts (many of them documented by the WRM network). Their metabolism is the biophysical basis of such conflicts. With J.F. Gerber and Sandra Veuthey (2009), we wrote that industrial tree plantations were rapidly expanding worldwide and notably causing a growing number of conflicts between companies and local populations. We combined elements of political ecology and ecological economics to understand the languages of valuation deployed in tree plantation conflicts in Southern countries. Combining fieldwork on a Cameroonian rubber plantation and an Ecuadorian eucalyptus plantation with the study of social metabolism, we found that both conflicts arose because of land and biomass appropriation, ground clearing, pollution from agrochemicals and water shortage, and p. 478they were expressed as conflicts on valuation. In the Cameroon case, resistance was mainly sporadic and individual, while in Ecuador, a grassroots organization was able to articulate rural demands in a structured way.

In the Aracruz Eucalyptus Plantations, RGS, Brazil 8

The action had this name in Portuguese: Mulheres Em Ação, Eucalipto No Chão! Women in action to cut down the eucalyptus (Figure 21.3). It took place on 8 March, International Women's Rights Day, 2006. Around 3,000 women from the Via Campesina occupied the Aracruz Celulose's eucalyptus nurseries located in Barra do Ribeiro (Rio Grande do Sul). Two months earlier, the company, with the assistance of the federal police, promoted the eviction of Indigenous people in the state of Espírito Santo. The occupation in Barra do Ribeiro was in solidarity with these evicted Indigenous people and a protest against the “green deserts” (Chapter 19). Organized women were reported to have destroyed millions of eucalyptus seedlings aiming to denounce the social and environmental consequences of the advance of the monoculture of eucalyptus in their lands and to condemn what they called “green latifundia” or “green deserts”. Women from the Via Campesina, jointly with the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) complained against this monoculture because of the land grabbing, the large use of water and the use of chlorine in the bleaching process of the eucalyptus pulp, which causes health damage. Eucalyptus have also come to be seen as an invasive species in Portugal and Spain (Chapter 23) and elsewhere; they take up water and facilitate fires.p. 479

Woman from Via Campesina (Via Campesina).
Figure 21.3

Woman from Via Campesina

Source:  Via Campesina

In West Bengal 9

In another conflict on eucalyptus that took place in West Bengal in India, Indigenous villagers chopped down around 6,600 young eucalypts on a 6-ha state forest department plantation. The residents claimed that the land was theirs and that they wanted it back. This was a small-scale conflict, when the villagers of Khorikashuli, West Medinipur district, comprising mostly Lodha tribals, complained because they grew multiple crops on this land, which provided them with enough food for at least six months a year. One activist said: “In 2001, officials asked for land along the fringes of our fields. Then they took our thumb impressions on some papers and by 2004 they took over all our land”. The eucalyptus plantation started in 2004 as a fake-Joint Forest Management scheme funded by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. Under the scheme, every family in the village would receive 25 per cent of the cash earned from selling the trees after harvests ten years later. But the villagers said that they cannot afford to wait that long. “Eucalypt doesn’t give us food”.

The Indigenous peoples were thus reclaiming their territory under the provisions of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. That the act, which recognizes the land rights of forest communities who do not have documentary proof of ownership, had not been implemented yet, did not seem to faze them. The land in question was originally a mahal forest owned by rich landowners or local royalty. The West Bengal Private Forests Act, 1948, was the state's first attempt to assert control over south Bengal forests. However, after 1953 no survey was ever conducted.

In Karnataka: Pluck and Plant Satyagraha 10

Here is another locally famous case in the 1980s in Karnataka, also in India, the KPL conflict. In 1984, the government of Karnataka made an agreement with Harihar Polyfibres (of the Birla family), a rayon producing company. The new company Karnataka Pulpwood Limited (KPL) was owned 51 per cent by the government and 49 per cent by Birla. The project (which would occupy almost 30,000 ha) overlooked the claims of the local villagers who depended on these lands to meet their basic needs. The move evoked widespread protest from local villagers and several EJOs. The Samaj Parivartana Samudaya, a Dharwad-based NGO, with the support of other organizations and eminent personalities such as Shivaram Karanth, Justice DM Chandrashekhar and Kadilal Manjappa led the “Save the Common Lands Movement” to reclaim their lands and rights. Initially, the campaigners sent petitions to local government officials and met the then chief minister with a plea to cancel the KPL agreement. But when these efforts did not yield the desired results, on 14 November 1986 (the anniversary of the KPL) they held a series of protest meetings and demonstrations in several places.

In December 1986, a PIL case was filed in the Supreme Court by Shivaram Karanth, Anil Agarwal (of the CSE in Delhi) and others. The Supreme Court issued a stay order on 24 March 1987 to maintain the status quo with regard to the possession of land. However, the KPL continued its operations. Meanwhile, the local people launched a satyagraha on 14 November 1987, which is now popularly known as the Kunsur satyagraha with a novel form of protest, termed the Kitikho-Hachiko (Pluck and Plant) satyagraha. Led by drummers, waving banners and shouting slogans, the protesters uprooted eucalyptus seedlings before planting in their place species useful for fruit or fodder. Due to a sustained struggle for over seven years, 72 legislators from various political parties brought effective pressure on the p. 480government to close the KPL. On 3 October 1991, the government wound up the KPL. There was a connection to the Chipko movement: in 1990 on Independence Day, 15 August, the respected Chipko leader Chandri Prasad Bhatt led a pluck-and-plant satyagraha in Hirekerur taluka of Dharwad.

Oil Palm Plantations and Refineries: The Total Refinery in La Mède, France 11

Oil palm plantations expand to the confines of the earth (Figure 14.2), the EJAtlas collects over one hundred conflict cases mainly in SE Asia, the Gulf of Guinea and in tropical America. Palm oil companies try to “green” their image through the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil). In the conflict against Total's palm oil refinery near Marseille, we look at palm oil from the consumer's point of view at the end of the commodity chain far from the damage done at the plantations. Here the agrarian question and the socio-ecological question (the land grabbing, the working conditions, the loss of fertility of the soils with monocultures of oil palms) mesh into the food regimes question (is the palm oil used for edible foods or for biofuels?). The media in France try to forget Areva's and Total's actions or Bolloré's feats in the Françafrique. This is the rule. The consumers in the Northern importing countries usually claim ignorance of what happens in the South. There are sometimes exceptions to this rule, as in the boycott against the palm oil refinery in Marseille.

In 2015, the Total company announced “green” plans to transform the refinery located in Châteauneuf-les-Martigues, near Marseille. This La Mède complex hosts these operations: HVO biodiesel, biojet, Avgas and AdBlue production; a logistics and storage hub for petroleum products; a training centre; and a solar farm. Production capacity for 500,000 metric tons of biofuel per year based on large imports of palm oil is contested by Greenpeace and others because of induced deforestation in Indonesia and other exporting countries.

In October 2019, Greenpeace activists blocked the entrance to the refinery that uses controversial palm oil to produce biofuel. Environmentalists say vast areas of rainforest have been logged or set ablaze in recent decades to make way for plantations. In addition to releasing vast amounts of carbon dioxide, this has threatened the habitat of orangutans and other endangered species (in Indonesia) and the livelihoods of local peoples. About 50 Greenpeace activists arrived outside the biorefinery in La Mède at around 6 a.m. on 28 October 2019. They placed two large orange containers in front of the entrance and a protester chained himself to both containers, which held enough supplies for the activists to remain at the site for several days. Banners read “Deforestation made in France” and “Emmanuel Macron complicit”. Indeed, Total acts often in concert with countries’ presidents because of the nature of its business (Chapter 27).

Several environmentalist groups contested in court the prefectural authorization to operate the La Mède refinery. The appeal was filed in July 2018 by Greenpeace, France Nature Environnement (both Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur and Bouches-du-Rhône), the League for the protection of birds and Friends of the Earth. The EJOs stressed that the EIA “did not mention either a detailed supply plan, or the disastrous effects of palm oil on the environment”. In April 2021 it was reported that Total had been ordered by a French court to review its impact study on the use of palm oil at its refinery, although the company retained its operating licence.

Fighting against Deforestation in the Amazon: Loreto and Ucayali, Peru 12

As we saw in Chapter 4, one of many hundreds of deaths caused by resistance to illegal logging and land grabbing in the Amazon was that of Zé Claudio and Maria do Espírito p. 481Santo. In their case, they were not defending seringais but castanhais. They saw themselves as “sustainable extractivists” in Pará, Brazil, opposed to the false production (unsustainable extraction) of timber, cattle and soybeans. As in Brazil, the Amazon territory of Peru is subject to deforestation. Sometimes this is because of new cocoa and palm oil plantations deep inside Amazonia. Some environmental defenders are criminalized and sometimes killed. The Melka Group, led by the Czech-American businessman Dennis Melka, owns 26 companies including Cacao del Peru Norte dedicated to cocoa and oil palm plantations. Another similar business group is Romero, a powerful economic conglomerate which has invested since 1979 in palm oil plantations in the Amazon of Peru.

In the Amazon there are Indigenous inhabitants and also poor settlers. The Melka Group uses various methods, ranging from corruption, fraud and land grabbing from settlers to the purchase of land by false settlers to later reacquire these lands, in violation of national environmental legislation. Thus, conflicts multiply between populations, authorities and the Melka Group. It is estimated that some 13,000 ha of land has already been deforested. The Group had allies in the regional governments, which determine the areas to be exploited and the protection areas. In 2013, Indigenous and international organizations filed complaints against the company, as did the Indigenous community of Santa Clara de Uchunya (Ucayali), home to more than 760 citizens of the Shipibo-Conibo people, who saw more than 5,000 ha of their land sold by the regional government of Ucayali. In the hamlet of Bajo Rayal, district of Nueva Requena (Ucayali), company workers slashed and burned nearly 1,000 ha of primary forests, pastures and farmers’ crops. In 2015 the Ministry of Agriculture (Minagri) ordered a halt to such activities but the Melka Group continued to operate. In October 2016, the company Plantaciones de Pucallpa withdrew from the RSPO table (table on sustainable oil palm production) and also decided to abandon oil palm production. This was due to the complaint filed by the Shipibo community of Santa Clara de Uchunya together with some EJOs.

In May 2016, the Constitutional Court ordered a precautionary measure against Minagri and the regional government of Loreto for the lawsuit filed by the NGO Kene to stop the company Cacao del Peru Norte. Protest marches were held to prevent the company from being favoured by the court. As a result of the lawsuit against Cacao del Perú Norte (now Tamshi SAC), the court fined a group of directors with 15 million soles and imprisoned them for eight years for trafficking and deforestation, a decision that was not ratified, but the State subsequently appealed the non-ratification. The case remained open. On the other hand, in a slapping case the company Tamshi SAC accused environmental defender and forestry engineer Lucila Pautrat of defamation in May 2020. In March 2021, the Criminal Court of Lima sentenced her to two years in prison (suspended for one year for a fine of 50,000 soles). She was subjected to what is internationally called a SLAPP, one instrument in the business’ armoury to silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defence in a lawsuit (Chapter 27).


We could mention other land conflicts, such as for instance on the destruction of mangroves by shrimp farming or other encroachments that arise from the land requirements for open cast coal and metal mining, oil and gas pipelines, for urban sprawl or for the military. They are covered in other chapters. But I want to focus on a novel kind of conflict, for the land requirements for wind energy. Sofia Avila (2018) wrote a pioneering article on the political ecology p. 482of windmill conflicts based on several cases registered in the EJAtlas. She included a conflict in Gujarat, India caused by a large-scale investment of the Suzlon company deployed on the coast and wetland of Kutch, displacing pastoralists and threatening wildlife. India kicked off its programme of wind energy in the 1980s when the Government set up the Commission for Additional Sources of Energy (CASE). India is in transition to a coal-based economy but other sources of energy are also increasing. The country is said to have a potential of harnessing 48,500 MW at 50-m height and 102,788 MW at 80-m height from wind projects. Gujarat has the highest potential, 10,609 MW at 50-m height and 35,071 MW at 80-m height.

The Little Rann of Kutch is a Wild Life Sanctuary for the so-called Wild Ass, and authorities tried to ban the entry of migrating cattle herds and salt panning activities triggering a strong social resistance by the local marginalized salt farmers, cattle breeders and fishermen. In contrast, wind power companies like Suzlon are allotted land for setting up wind farms dispossessing common lands of Indigenous people. Large-scale wind farms pose a danger to grasslands and scrublands, which have little if any protection from the law. They also threaten birdlife. In windmill conflicts we see sometimes alliances between local inhabitants needing land and conservationists worried about birds, i.e. alliances between “the cult of wilderness” organizations and the local poor and Indigenous environmentalists.

In 2001, the Gujarat State Government implemented a local plan for “development” for the Kutch district. Since then, vast tracts of wasteland, coastline and grassland areas in Kutch have been allotted to Indian and foreign corporations. The area affected by windmills belongs to villages surrounding the Little Rann of Kutch. The barricading of land by industrial units and building of roads blocked the traditional migration passages which the pastoralists and their herds used. This has resulted in increasing marginalization of traditional communities, “ecosystem peoples” with natural resource-based economies. It has increased social, structural violence in the region.

Companies such as Suzlon, Vestas and NEPC have established hundreds of wind power production units across the Little Rann of Kutch. The biggest wind farm is built by Suzlon Company, surrounding the Little Rann at Amaliyara, Sinoi and many other villages. By 2014, the company completed the installation of 1,100 MW of windmills at this park and planned to complete the 2000-MW Kutch wind park. This power would be equivalent to two very large coal-fired or nuclear energy plants. Enthusiasm must be tempered by the ample land (and material) requirements for the windmills themselves but also for the building and maintenance of roads and the electricity transmission towers and lines.

India's Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) assumed that, because wind farms produce renewable energy, no EIA of these projects was required. However, organizations like the CSE lobbied the Government to bring wind power projects under the EIA mandate. The most visible impact that windmills and the transmission lines have on the natural world is their impact on bats and birds, including vultures. Rich in marine life, the Gulf of Kutch is the breeding ground for endemic prawn species. Many migratory birds and flamingos come to this wetland. Wind power also impacts negatively on the pastoralists’ livelihoods. At best these wind farms generate a few low wage security jobs for local villagers, as they are outsourced to private security agencies.

Agua Zarca and Berta Cáceres 14

Finally, I want to reinforce the awareness of the conflicts on the land and water requirements for hydroelectricity (that we have seen in other chapters as well) through the well-known p. 483murder of activist Berta Cáceres in Honduras in 2016. She fought against a small hydropower project. The case was briefly described in Chapter 4 (Tran et al. 2020, 2021). The company DESA was created to build the Agua Zarca hydroelectric scheme with external financing by European banks, using the waters of the Gualcarque River regarded as sacred by the Lenca. Berta Cáceres was a leader of peasant, Indigenous and environmentalist movements at the same time. Her death had global resonance, partly because she had recently been awarded a Goldman Prize. Hydropower is supposed to be sustainable energy (driven by sun energy and the water cycle) but almost all dam projects imply the taking up of land and water, and the displacement of people (Del Bene et al. 2018). Per MW of electricity, hydropower is often more land-intensive than nuclear power or even CFPP, although biomass energy as ethanol or bio-diesel is even more land-intensive. Dams have been seen as apolitical or post-political, impartially built by liberal or neoliberal capitalists, fascists (like General Franco in Spain), social-democrats like Nehru or Soviet-socialists. Often, they have been and are strongly opposed by the local people.

The Agua Zarca project was a small hydropower project in a small country which is marginal in world politics but it had a great negative cultural and livelihood impact on the Lenca people. The keywords of this conflict are Indigenous territory, sacred site, hydropower, CDM, ILO convention 169, criminalization and murder of activists. They all intersect between the agrarian question and environmentalism. The murder became memorable for the global movement for environmental justice. Berta Caceres’ assassination has been well documented internationally in a book by Nina Lakhani (2020), an intrepid journalist with the Guardian. When she was killed, the Mexican activist Gustavo Castro, who almost died together with her, said: “Berta helped make Honduras visible. Until then, its social movement, political struggles and resistance were largely unknown to the rest of the region”. She had herself travelled in the region and had been in international meetings.p. 484

Mural representing Berta Cáceres (Tinaral, Wikimedia Commons).
Figure 21.4

Mural representing Berta Cáceres

Source:  Tinaral, Wikimedia Commons

The project caused the killing of Berta Cáceres (1971–2016) and other Indigenous environmentalists defending their territory. The commodities in question were water, land, electricity and also, in this case, impudently, carbon offsets. The Lenca would do a favour to the world by allowing production of electricity from hydropower at the cost of loss of their own land and sacred river. This electricity would in theory substitute for fossil fuels. They (or rather the government of Honduras or the building companies) would get some “carbon credits” in the international Clean Development Mechanism. This is another CDM absurdity, described as “carbon colonialism” in the Uganda case in this chapter.


Socio-ecological conflicts are certainly not extra-terrestrial, although some geo-engineering experiments might take place in the upper atmosphere trying to stop incoming solar radiation to compensate for the enhanced greenhouse effect. Extracting industrial minerals from the moon might also happen. Leaving this aside, it is obvious that environmental conflicts imply disputes on access to land, water and breathable air on planet Earth. But such disputes are the effects, while the causes are the growth and changes in the social metabolism, and the technologies used when expanding or deepening the commodity extraction frontiers to get energy and materials. Land and water appear as two main commodities in dispute in the conflicts registered in the EJAtlas. To get more biomass production, you have to get land, water for irrigation, and pesticides to eliminate competitors. To get more fish, you need bigger boats and more energy ‒ that eventually will eliminate some fisheries. Similarly, for extraction of minerals you need land, water and the legal or illegal possibility of disposing of tailings and noxious gases into the biosphere. To get hydropower and wind power you need to occupy land and displace people.

The old Narodnik slogan in Russian and other Slavic languages, Zemlya i Volya, “Land and Freedom” (Tierra y Libertad in Spanish anarchism and in Zapata's Mexican revolution of 1910) may inspire struggles of peasants, landless workers and Indigenous peoples defending themselves against land and water grabbing, against air pollution. Zapata's opposition to the water-guzzling sugar mill industry in Morelos that sparked off the Mexican revolution in defence of Indigenous land and water commons could have put forward the slogan Tierra, Agua y Libertad. We now enlarge the slogan to Tierra, Agua, Aire y Libertad thinking of so many conflicts on air pollution, and also on windmills (Avila 2018; Temper et al. 2020). Paraphrasing Amartya Sen, economic development should not mean losing the freedom to use land, water and clean air. “Land and Freedom” meant that access to land (“the land to the tiller”) went together with the practical freedom of having a secure place to live and to grow food thereby escaping from domination and exploitation by landlords. Access to water overcoming social class or caste monopoly is a requirement for human freedom and a necessity for plants and animals. Contamination of air, or its appropriation by the wind energy industry, is a more modern social injustice that must also be included in the slogan “Land, Water, Air and Freedom”.

In the past, agrarian studies avoided environmental issues by separating what is economic and social (such as land reform) from human ecology and the study of social metabolism. This started to change in the 1980s with ethno-ecologists, such as Victor Toledo's work on “the p. 485ecological rationality of peasant production” (Toledo 1990) and with the political ecology of Brookfield and Blaikie (1987), among other contributions. Now there is a rush to connect agrarian struggles to climate justice but, as shown in the conflicts documented in this chapter, the “environmentalization of the agrarian question” (Yasin 2022) is a wider issue than climate change.

The “agrarian question” referred in political economy to the unequal distribution of land property, the demands for land reform, the trapping of the peasantry in non-capitalist relations of production, their emancipation, the political attitudes of rural people with respect to economic policies such as free trade (as in the recent claim, “let's keep agriculture out of the WTO”). However, the old political economy of the peasantry (as reflected for instance in the Journal of Peasant Studies founded in 1972) left aside for many decades the study of energy and material flows in the countryside, as also the biology (e.g. seed selection) and the chemistry (e.g. fertilization) of rural production. To political economy we must add human ecology to obtain political ecology. The painstaking researches by a few anthropologists of the 1960s such as Roy Rappaport counting the kcal spent and obtained by “primitive” hunter-collectors and agriculturalists were sadly left aside. The agrarian struggles led by peasants, landless workers, pastoralists, fisherfolk link with the growth and changes in the social metabolism (and their effects on climate change, loss of biodiversity, soil degradation, local toxicities). Thus, agroecology practised by peasantries reunites the old “agrarian question” and the new “socio-ecological question”.

Regarding agrarian-environmental conflicts on land, water and air, and leaving anecdotal evidence aside, we ask in the perspective of a theory of movements for environmental justice:

  • Who are the main protagonists of such conflicts? Farmers, peasants, pastoralists, fisherfolk representing the environmentalism of the poor and the Indigenous? The activists that appear in conflicts in this chapter sometimes belong to organizations like Greenpeace, or to Friends of the Earth International (Iike CEJ in Sri Lanka) or to the Via Campesina but more often they are members of ad-hoc, ephemerous organizations. Sometimes the activists belong to religious groups or are professionals. Very often they are WEDs, women environmental defenders. A very small number indeed might even get a Goldman Prize ‒ although this does not necessarily stop the violence against them. Most of them are normal local people, men and women, farmers, peasants, labourers, citizens and neighbours affected and concerned by potential or visible damage. Often the protests (as with CAFOs or against eucalyptus plantations, in this chapter) precede the local organizations.

  • Which repertoires of contention are displayed in such struggles? For instance, direct action blockades but also letter writing, judicial activism, public consultations, hunger strikes… And which forms of violence are used against socio-environmental activists and local inhabitants? Not only open violence including killing of activists, not only “slapping” threats, also racist violence and the “slow violence” of toxics (Navas et al. 2018, 2022). Which are the roles of public or private national companies, or transnational companies? Of the police and the military?

  • What are the outcomes? How often are middle or small farmers and peasants expropriated or cornered by corporations (as in land grabbing for new plantations), how often are small-scale fisherfolk displaced by transnational fishing fleets? How often are investment projects that convert communal land, water and air away to commercial use stopped by local socio-environmental activists?p. 486

  • Can we easily elicit the valuation struggles in such conflicts on land, water and air? Which social values are displayed, such as, for instance, livelihood values, sacredness, ecological values, archaeological and other cultural values? How often is money compensation offered, and it is really equivalent to other values which are sacrificed?



Robbins, P. (2018). Is less more… or is more less? Scaling the political ecologies of the future, Keynote at POLLEN.


The CAFO-like “farm of a thousand cows”, France (Gabriel Weber, Joan Martinez-Alier), EJAtlas.


Macrogranja (CAFO) para la producción lechera en Noviercas, Soria, Spain, EJAtlas.


CAFO pollution in Lenawee County, Michigan, USA (Dalena Tran), EJAtlas.


Pesticides and childhood cancer, California, USA (Sara Orvis, UMich), EJAtlas.


Agrochemical pesticides and kidney related diseases, Sri Lanka (Centre for Environmental Justice Sri Lanka and Paula Camisani), EJAtlas.

Agroquímicos e insuficiencia renal, San Luis Talpa, El Salvador (Astrid Martinez, CESTA), EJAtlas.

Epidemia de Insuficiencia Renal Crónica (IRC) en las plantaciones de caña, Nicaragua (Grettel Navas), EJAtlas.


FACE Project: Rehabilitation of Mt. Elgon and Kibale National Park, Uganda (Patrick Bond), EJAtlas.

Forest plantation by Green Resources in Kachung, Uganda, EJAtlas.


Women against the expansion of eucalyptus (Grettel Navas), EJAtlas.


West Bengal eucalyptus conflict, India (J.-F. Gerber), EJAtlas.


KPL conflict, Karnataka, India (J.F. Gerber), EJAtlas.


Total palm oil refinery in Marseille, France EJAtlas.


Deforestación en Loreto y Ucayali por Grupo Melka, Perú (Raquel Neyra), EJAtlas.

Deforestation by Grupo Romero in Amazonia with oil palm plantations, Peru (Raquel Neyra), EJAtlas.

Santa Clara de Uchunya against palm oil plantation, Perú (Thomas Younger), EJAtlas.


Suzlon Energy wind farms in Kutch District, India (Sofía Ávila and Joan Martinez-Alier), EJAtlas.


Proyecto Hidroeléctrico Agua Zarca, Honduras (Grettel Navas and Daniela Del Bene), EJAtlas.

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