Contested Territories in an Environmental Conflict

Ursula Balderson [ ]
University of Cambridge

Extractive conflicts often entail conflicting knowledge claims which bring the lack of shared reality between protagonists sharply into focus. My observations of a small scale mining conflict taking place in an Andean region of Peru revealed the extent to which discontinuities between lifeworlds and ways of knowing crunched up against each other during the dialogue table which was intended to resolve the conflict. Within the general trajectory of conflict in Mataquita issues of uncertainty were strikingly prominent. In this context expertise has significant power to produce meaningful alterations in the material environment. Uncertainty is the opposite side of the coin to expertise, yet they exist in a dialectical relationship: uncertainty can destabilise expertise, and conversely, expertise can sweep away, or at least render invisible, uncertainty. Contested issues included the extent of the water deficit in the village; the cause of the reduction in stream flows seen locally; whether the Uliyacu stream at the centre of the conflict had ever existed at all; and the size of the reservoirs that needed to be built to address the scarcity. The fraught debates that these contestations triggered show the impossibility of separating the technical from the political. I hope that my discussion of knowledge, power, uncertainty and politics will contribute to improved understandings the role that Contested Territories play within an environmental conflict.


The data for this paper is drawn from my PhD research which took place in the North Andean region of Peru, in Ancash just outside the town of Huaraz. As part of my investigation I observed a dialogue table between a local community and a large multinational mining company operating nearby. The dialogue table revolved around the insufficiency of water resources as a result of mining activities. However, within the conflict much was contested and there were numerous versions of events circulating. The complaint by the community was that in 1996 a subsidiary of Barrick had damaged a stream called Uliyacu which contributed a significant quantity of water to the community’s water distribution network. In addition since then other water sources had begun gradually disappearing and both mining activities and climate change were blamed for the increasing levels of scarcity. BarrickGold however put forward a completely different story. They claimed that a local community were intentionally manufacturing scarcity in order to get their hands of an undeserved compensation payment. The lack of water which they doubted existed at all they claimed was caused by intra-community conflicts and rivalries. The Uliyacu stream didn’t formally belong to the community so they had no right to seek replacement water sources or damages they stated. The dialogue table convened to look into this dispute engaged an agricultural engineer who job it was to investigate and document the extent of the water the scarcity in the village by creating a hydrological study of the available water balance. Although interestingly the cause of the scarcity remained firmly outside the ambit of his investigation. The implications of which I don’t have time to address in this presentation.
In my discussion I would like to highlight how the term contested territories can be used to conceptualise the clash of knowledges, values and lifewords that was an important aspect of the conflict at the site. In an earlier version of the paper I used the term ecological imaginaries, taken from the work of Peet and Watts (1996) as a means to flag up the different lived realities of the actors and some of the power relations involved in the production of understandings of the natural world. However, I am not entirely sure that the term captures well enough the friction between accounts given by different actors in the conflict.
So, to return to the hydrological study that intended to quantify the extent of the deficit in Mataquita. Both actors recognised the power that document to fix an external reality in a way which had serious implication for them into the future. The mine regularly emphasised the epistemological importance of documentation with statements such a “It is necessary to demonstrate with legal documents [that water resources have been affected]. It is easy [just] to say they have been impacted”. As the community discovered to their detriment, their embodied accounts of water scarcity could not compete with supposedly scientific accounts of water flow rates within a catchment. A steep hierarchy of knowledge was observable in which knowledge associated with forms of technical expertise is much more powerful than other accounts such as historical memory in the community or emotional testimonies of the impact that a lack of water had on everyday lives.
But the community didn’t enter into the conflict in a state of nativity. They had been interacting with the mine for a period of over 15 years and they had their own strategies for creating their desired reality. These strategies rather than contesting the value accorded to scientific epistemologies adapted them to suit their own purposes. Tactics included the diversion of stream from drinking water to agriculture which had the effect of increasing the measurable quantity of scarcity, knowing that once a degree of scarcity had been documented it was almost unchallengeable. As well as blocking access to certain territories which would have allowed the flow rate and location of particular streams to be formally quantified. The seeming counter intuitive move of increasing the level of scarcity placed the mine greater pressure to respond to the crisis.

It also increased the degree of intervention required by the mine to address the problem, with the solution mooted at this stage being water storage reservoirs. More scarcity meant bigger collection tanks would need to be built. The broader context for these actions are important to recognise as struggles to define the contours of the hydrosphere do not take place in a vacuum.
However, the extent to which territories were contested and the level of uncertainty around the natural environment took on an even stranger dimension when the mine and certain state actors at time threw doubt onto whether the Uliyacu stream at the centre of the conflict had ever existed at all? “Uli means lie as in to tell untruths” remarked a representative from the PCM “so if one considers the connotations it could be that it has existed or it could be the case that in certain months it did not”. Or in the words of an engineer: “No type of document about this stream exists, so although it could exist I have never seen it.” The community unsurprisingly found this very frustrating: “We clearly know that Uliyacu was there, it came down the hill and maintained Mareniyoc until Huecho, but they deny the evidence that are buried, the tubes and whatever”. This ontological uncertainty about the natural environment again relates to the value accorded differing epistemologies. And beyond this the politics of time was used construct the past as obscure and potentially unknowable due to its unreachability with modern measuring techniques. Research has shown that material interests influence the credibility attributed to sources of information. The reference to the material realities of old tubework again shows the communities willingness to present evidence in a format that is known to be accepted and valued by more powerful actors such as the mine and the state. Basically the community were saying there is old water infrastructure buried in the ground. How can you possibly doubt the prior existence of this stream?
But why such competing versions of reality? Why was there no straightforward apolitical truth about the natural environment in the first place? Well, at the risk of glossing over a hugely complicated issue ne part of this is that social reality is to a certain extent affected by discourse and the different discourses in circulation had differing degrees of saliency to the actors involved. The community knew that climate change was making water resources less secure across the board and were influenced by the climate of fear that threat of climate change and constant high profile water conflicts splashed across the country media engender. Interestingly, during the roadside protest I witnessed in Mataquita, the Present of JASS remarked, that he thought the next world war would be about water, which shows how these types of discourses are being incorporated in to folk understandings of scarcity. The mine’s account of scarcity on the other hand drew on well-established racist tropes to position the indigenous villagers as resentful and untrustworthy. The right wing-media regularly portrays any concerns about mining activity as illegitimate and in contrary to state interests.
The evidence above suggests that any understanding of contested territories would do well to keep in view the processes through which claims about the natural environment are both made and validated. In this context expertise has the potential to sweep away uncertainty around what is happening to the water. However, the inability of scientific measurement techniques to deal with environmental change and the embodied lived experience of scarcity means that rather than providing a definitive answer they often just gloss over a complex issues and pushing less powerful voices into the margins. The discussion above has highlighted both ontological and epistemological uncertainties. Some of these are things which cannot be known and others are issues which are not known yet.


Peet, R. and Watts, M. 1996 Liberation Ecologies: Environment, Development, Social Movements. London: Routledge.