Socioeconomic and environmental conflicts caused by
ecological distribution in the Sinifaná Coalfield, Colombia

Liliana Lotero Álvareza

a Pontificia Bolivariana University, Colombia.
Email address:

Date received: June 22, 2018. Date accepted: January 15, 2019.


This paper analyzes ecological distribution, with a focus on the socioeconomic and environmental conflicts generated by coal exploitation in the Sinifaná coalfield (SCF), in Antioquia, Colombia. The methodology incorporated a descriptive approach which focused on socioeconomic and environmental conflicts, and an analytical approach with a relational emphasis. The hypothesized relation between socioeconomic and environmental conflicts, ecological distribution and the Sustainable Development Goals was corroborated. In conclusion, the main conflict present in the study area surrounds the environmental unsustainability that derives from informal and illegal mining practices. This causes countless socioeconomic and environmental conflicts that are impacting the well-being of people living in the SCF.

Keywords: sustainable development; ecological distribution; ecological-distributive conflicts; coal exploitation, mining; natural resources.


In recent years, coal exploitation in Colombia has intensified, due to increasing natural resource prices and more demand for energy on the part of developed countries, and additionally, because of state policies established to attract foreign investors to the producing countries (Portafolio, 2012, p. 1). Furthermore, new mining projects have been generated with the goal of exploration and exploitation.

Antioquia’s participation in the total coal production of Colombia represents 0.11% (5.105 tons) and is concentrated at the Sinifaná coalfield (SCF), with a production of 2,485 tons (Amagá Municipality partial data of 2018; Sistema de Información Minero Colombiano y Agencia Nacional de Minería [SIMCO], 2018, p. 22). This encompasses a territorial extent of 236 km2, composed of the municipalities of Amagá, Angelópolis, Fredonia, Titiribí and Venecia (Gobernación de Antioquia, 2007, p. 9).

In the SCF, the type of mining uses tunnels or is subterraneous, which originated in the 1990s and has brought a multitude of conflicts for the populations where the mining exploitation is practiced, which are not only environmental but social and economic. As Bebbington argues (2009, p. 24): “The spatial expansion of mining does not happen on empty land. On the contrary, it happens on already occupied land which is someone else´s property, lands that have cultural and historical significance for their inhabitants and lands that are the source of diverse natural assets that sustain the life strategies of these people.” Attitudes towards such conflicts have been diverse: “from the state and mining businesses they have varied between silencing and negation, then passing to the mechanisms of self-regulation that have been part of the discourse of social corporate responsibility” (De Echave et al., 2009, p. 18).

Such considerations are the basis of the central theme of this article: the ecological distribution which is understood as “social, spatial and temporal patterns of access to the benefits obtained from natural resources and the services provided by the environment as a system of support” (Martínez-Alier, 2004b, p. 104). This is analyzed using ecological-distributive conflicts (EDC) generated by coal exploitation, which emerge due to access to natural resources and environmental services, contamination levels and the incident of ecological risks (ibid., p. 134).

With attention to the increase of EDCs and as a response to this situation, it was necessary to trace the EDCs which have existed in the country since the 1990s (a modification of Colombian Constitutional Policy), with the goal of assessing Sustainable Development (SD) in the SCF. This approach was undertaken using the theoretical approach of Political Ecology, which is described as “the study of social conflicts surrounding access to resources and environmental services and its destruction” (Martínez-Alier, 2004b, p. 106), and where SD as defined by the Brundtland Commission: “to satisfy the needs of the present generation without compromising the capacity of future generations to satisfy their own needs” (1987, p. 24) and by Sachs (2016, p. 26): “sustainable development is a way of understanding the world as a complex interaction between economic, social, environmental and political systems.” From a normative perspective, this is articulated through Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are a point of departure on a global level for the analysis of sustainability.

To this effect, this article proposes analytical variables that seek to shed light on the study of coal as a non-renewable service in the ecosystem, which include: Sustainable Development, Sustainable Development Goals, Ecological Distribution and ecological-distributive conflicts (see socioeconomic and environmental conflicts).

From the concept of SD, various theories were consulted by authors who have interpreted it in a variety of ways; for example, Riechmann and Naredo (1995), Pierri (2005), Adams (1990), Serrano (1997) and Canut (2007), who note that it is a confusing concept, due to the fact that it separates the environment from development and as such is based only on economic and social objectives, leaving environmental ones to the side. Within the central theoretical support is Political Ecology, a discipline which is under construction, which makes contributions to different disciplines which converge in it. It is appropriate to say that “Political Ecology is a set of common interests that are studied from perspectives that originate in both the natural and social sciences, which gives it its interdisciplinary character” (Durand et al., 2011, p. 8; Palacio, 2006).

Political Ecology opens a space for the study of EDCs, as proposed by Martínez-Alier (2004a, p. 134), which emerge from an unequal ecological distribution and consist of disputes over contamination levels, the incidence of ecological risk and access to natural resources and environmental services. As a way to connect the above variables, the following research question was formulated: What is the takeaway from EDCs emerging from ecological distribution to sustainable development at the Sinifaná coalfield, beginning in the 1990s?

The hypothesis of this work is that the EDCs being analyzed from the perspective of ecological distribution contribute to SD in the region. To respond to the foregoing, the following objectives were formulated: to characterize the ecological distribution in the SCF based on the concept of socio-ecological system and of the UN’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment; to identify EDCs in the SCF and interpret the results of the EDCs articulated to the SDGs as a way to determine the causes of ecological distribution in the ecosystem and their incidence in the SD of the region.

The article is structured in the following way: after this introduction, the methodology and data used to undertake the research are presented. The third section develops the results, and the fourth section provides a brief discussion of these results, followed by the final conclusions.


The practical stage of the research was performed using a descriptive and analytical focus with a relational emphasis. From a descriptive perspective, EDCs were identified and characterized insofar as they are associated with ecological distribution in the SCF, while from a relational analytical perspective, the hypothesized relation between EDCs, ecological distribution, and SDGs was corroborated. Integrating these two foci allowed for an understanding of the complexity of studying EDCs, which emerge around coal exploitation and the impact of SD on the SCF (see figure 1).


Figure 1. Methodological aspects of the research

Source: prepared by the author.


To characterize the ecological distribution, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) was taken as a reference (UN, 2003). This model highlights the interrelation between the various dimensions that should be taken account: ecosystem services, human well-being, and the direct and indirect driving factors of change. Furthermore, ecological distribution is referred to in terms of the socio-ecological dynamic associated with mining activities, and to the EDCs in terms of environmental benefits (see figure 2).


Figure 2. Approach for characterizing the ecological distribution in the SCF

Source: prepared by the author.


Fieldwork was performed in the Amagá municipality. From there a description of ecological distribution and EDCs was elaborated, structured on the EDCs deriving from the ecological distribution of the ecosystem, the identification of relationships between EDCs and transformations of the ecosystem and the human well-being component. Figure 3 shows the actors and institutions which made contributions to the conflicts that are presented (see Appendix, tables A1 and A2).


Figure 3. Environmental service users: actors and institutions

Source: prepared by the author.


Interviews and visits were performed in the region of study (Amagá Municipality), where the environs were observed wholly and in a direct manner, and participation in local quotidian life allowed for detailed information regarding the society and its conflicts (see Appendix). The interviews were done directly with the users of the SCF (see figure 3).

The information was directed towards investigating indicators of interest related to coal exploitation, in contrast to theoretical deductions concerning the relationship between the concepts of ecological distribution and EDCs, and to identify explicit relationships generated from coal exploitation between conflicts and SD from the social, economic and environmental equilibrium. The EDCs emergent in the SCF were constructed based on the empirical evidence. In order to consolidate information, testimonials published in the press and newspapers (see Appendix, table A1) were taken into account, allowing for the identification of general tendencies in conflicts.

The sample size was made up of different governmental actors and agents, economic agents, community organizations, and non-governmental organizations (40 interviews were performed, which are described in the Appendix, table A1).


Sustainable Development and the SDGs

The origin of the SD concept can be traced to the 1970s, as Mata argues (2009, 12): “Sustainable Development emerges as a concept for the first time at the Rome Club in 1972, alluding to existing links between global economic growth and scares natural resources.” Nonetheless, for authors like Pierri (2005, p. 6), “the introduction of the environmental crisis in the political arena took place at the end of the 1970s. This was prompted by a series of scientific reports, and had a decisive urgency at the UN Conference on the Human Environment which took place in Stockholm, Sweden.”

Nonetheless, the UN proposed the Brundtland Commission, which was presented to the General Assembly in 1987 in a report titled “Our Common Future,” in which the term SD was officially coined. This Commission established SD as a policy to be followed and its definition was taken as a framework for this article: “to satisfy the needs of the present generation without compromising the capacity of future generations to satisfy their own needs (Brundtland, 1987, p. 41). It has also been described as “a holistic approach in the sense that society must pursue economic, social and environmental goals simultaneously” (Sachs, 2016, p. 20).

Within this framework, a description the EDCs and their influence on SD in the region under study was performed, with the goal of identifying the satisfaction of human necessities and the generation of well-being in society, as reflected by access to the benefits of natural resources and environmental services in the SCF.

Based on the configuration of the 2030 Agenda, there are 17 SDGs represented by 169 goals, which were created as a way to implement actions which facilitate a path towards attaining SD in different countries. With respect to the SDGs, the UN states that “knowledge of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) associated with this Agenda helps to evaluate the point of departure for countries in the region [in this case the municipalities being studied] and to analyze and formulate the means with which to realize this new vision of sustainable development [analysis based on the objectives of the SDGs], which is expressed in a collective way and is reflected in the 2030 Agenda” (ONU, 2018, p. 5).

Each SDG (see figure 4) encompasses a variety of topics (goals that were used as a guide to identify conflicts), that is to say, each SDG is a world in itself and does not end with the naming of its purpose, the work of the SDGs is interdependent and each one, with its positive and negative results, has an effect on the others (INNOVE, 2016).


Figure 4. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the Global Development Agenda 2015-2030

Source: UN (2018)


Using this framework, a description of the EDCs is presented and analyzed from the perspective of ecological distribution and its influence on SD in the region under study, with the goal of identifying the satisfaction of human needs and the generation of well-being in the society, based on access to the benefits of natural resources and environmental services in the SCF and the SDGs economic, social and environmental indicators. The above approach led to an analysis (using the SDG objectives) of environmental services, in this case coal, and whether transformations of the ecosystem are being generated (ecological-distributive conflicts) as a result of human actions (unequal ecological distribution), that is, if changes have been caused to the components of human well-being. Such a description within this context allowed for an analysis of the existence of more sustainable relationships between human being and nature.

The concept of ecological distribution proposed by Martínez-Alier (2004b) does not offer a detailed theoretical formulation that orients its characteristics and manifestations. Accordingly, in order to identify indicators that allowed for a characterization of the ecological distribution in the SCF, certain concepts were traced, leading to the adoption of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) by the United Nations. This is an “international program designed to satisfy the needs of those in charge of making decisions and obtaining information about the links between ecosystem changes and human well-being” (ONU, 2003, p. 5).

The conclusions from the MEA provide scientific value regarding the condition and tendency of global ecosystems, the services that they provide and the options available to restore, conserve and better their usage (ONU, 2003, p. 11). The analysis of indicators under the MEA provided an assessment that led to a deduction of validity for the present article, in terms of the categories that constitute it: social, economic and environmental. Furthermore, it has an explicit consideration of the spatial and temporal context (see figure 5).


Figure 5. Conceptual Framework for the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment

Source: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (ONU, 2003).


As can be observed in figure 5, the list of benefits or provisions proposed by the MEA is diverse, yet, for this research an emphasis was put on provision or supply that “are the products people aquire from the ecosystem: food, combustibles, fibers, fresh water [energy resources]” (ONU, 2003, p. 13), where coal mining is taken as an ecosystem service, and as a finite and non-renewable resource.

Regarding the foregoing considerations and using the MEA, socio-ecological systems provide a framework for considering ecological and social dimensions in an integrated manner, in addition to their interrelations (Ostrom, 2009, p. 2). These systems “are characterized as complex, adaptive systems in which social and ecological components are linked […]. The natural system is related to the social system by way of the services offered by ecosystems, which contribute to the satisfaction of human needs and create well-being” (Vilardy et al., 2011, p. 19).

That being said, the SCF and its environs are taken as a socio-ecological system, insofar as it “integrates nature, the use made of her, society and institutions as a whole that interacts in a dynamic way in time and space” (Vilardy et al., 2011, p. 19). For knowledge of the socio-ecological system (see figure 6) and its dynamics, the relationships between the society and its environment were analyzed. In turn, this information “makes possible a reconstruction of the processes which generated environmental [economic] problems, and to identify patterns of changes and adaptive responses the system has to these changes, which facilitates the analysis of possible future answers” (Walker et al., 2004; Berkes et al., 2003; González et al., 2008 cited in Vilardy and Renán (2011, p. 109)).


Figure 6. Socio-ecological System

Source: Martin-López et al. (2009). Adapted by the author.


As a result of the analysis, all of the ecological distribution composition in the SCF was deducted, and the relationship of the social system to the natural system was defined; that is, the dynamic interaction of ecosystems with human populations and the result of human actions, that “on one hand, act to drive transformations of ecosystems [unequal ecological distribution] and, on the other hand, modifications in ecosystems provoke changes in the distinct components of human well-being [sustainable development]” (Vilardy et al., 2011, p. 49). These aspects of human well-being are associated with “the concept of necessities, in particular essential necessities that the poor should grant top priority” (Brundtland, 1987, p. 67). To analyze the EDCs, Martínez-Alier’s definition was used: “conflicts that emerge from an unequal ecological distribution or upon the worsening of ecological distribution […]”, which manifests as a common theme, as the study of social conflicts related to access to resources and environmental services, and its destruction (Martínez-Alier, 2001, p. 1). In this vein, Lamberti (2010, p. 307) argues that “these conflicts also involve assessment languages, and as such cannot be studied only from economic theory, which is why it is necessary to share interdisciplinary perspectives like Political Ecology.”

Political Ecology offers a holistic look at environmental conflicts, where distinct actors have different interests, values, cultures and knowledge, and who have or can use distinct languages of assessment (Martínez-Alier, 2009, p. 8). Within this framework, Fisher et al., cited by Vilardy et al. (2011, p. 49) note that “the ecosystem services are benefits that the ecosystem provides which contribute to human well-being, which can be used actively or passively.” The way that these services are used affects human well-being in a variety of ways (ONU, 2003, p. 13) and the SCF, as an ecosystem, provides a range of benefits to human well-being. According to the above approach, the relationship between the different variables can be derived (see figure 7).


Figure 7. Relationship between direct and indirect impacts, ecological-distributive conflicts and human well-being for SD

Source: prepared by the author.


Ecological distribution and environmental services in the SCF

As regards figure 7, the study was based on supplying services (coal), with an emphasis on the Amagá and Titiribí municipalities, which had 16.001 and 84.229 tons of carbon production in 2017, respectively (SIMCO, 2017). This means that coal should be considered the main economic activity in these places, in addition to causing the biggest changes based in the ecosystem (see Appendix). Coal exploitation is the most important source of economic income for the inhabitants of the coalfield, and the majority of family income comes from this activity. It is for this reason that in recent years, the increase in coal mines being built has been directly linked to the current internal and national demand for the mineral, as well as to scarce geological knowledge (see Appendix). This coal exploitation, as an environmental service, is interwoven with other services that the ecosystem supplies.

Among other productive activities which are environmental benefits provided by the SCF, agricultural production should be highlighted (see table 1); yet, in the Amagá municipality coal production currently exceeds coffee farming, which has been the source of economic conflicts generated by the lack of land available for farming, the deterioration of soil and the recreational use of property (see Appendix). An alternative to coffee farming is banana farming, as well as avocado and orange cultivation in smaller proportions, which are found to be isolated given their little commercial importance (see table 1). Agricultural, livestock, and forest production (BIRD, 2011) as environmental services have seen decreasing participation as economic activities, given the preference of the inhabitants to work in coal exploitation (Amagá and Angelópolis), which is expressed by the mayors, who argue that the greatest economic livelihood of the municipalities’ families comes from coal exploitation (see Appendix).



The unequal appropriation and use of environmental services generates environmental conflicts which are associated with damages to the soil’s surface and to vegetation, which cause the emission of particles into the atmosphere when blasting (Najera et al., 2011), decreasing water quality is found in the level of negative nature and mean impact (Corantioquia, 2007), caused by practical deficiencies of illegal and informal or traditional mining, which increases constantly, according to the National Association of Industries (ANDI, 2010), which states that “in environmental terms, the biggest problem is associated with unsustainable illegal mining practices” (see Appendix).

The above originates in the discharging of acid water, and the high solid content which when dumped without being treated come to affect the fauna that lives in the water bodies where they end up (Corantioquia, 2007, p. 125). On a temporal scale, these environmental effects are taken advantage of on short, medium and long terms, depending on the type of ecosystem service. On a spatial scale, usage is local, given that such services are present in the same region. Distribution of benefits is differential and provokes changes in different aspects of human well-being.

As a way to describe ecological distribution, drivers of change were defined as the factors that alter an ecosystem; these drivers are important in determining the origin of transformations which the ecosystem is suffering. That is, it allows for establishing which are the EDCs that are causing changes to the ecosystem and are thus direct drivers that influence ecosystem processes and the indirect drivers that it uses, changing one or more direct drivers. Direct drivers, like indirect ones, generally operate synergistically (ONU, 2003, p. 22). The interaction between some of these drivers affect resource consumption levels, and the society’s participation in consumption. Below, the main drivers of change present in the SCF are described, and the spatial scale on which they are developed (see table 2).



Table 2 demonstrates that transformations exist that affect the ecosystem and are established as drivers: population growth, energy demand, international coal prices, environmental and mining regulations, and macroeconomic policies, among others. These drivers deduce the key indicators that are the basis of the EDCs that affect access, usage or appropriation of the benefits provided by natural resources and environmental services, adding to the changes caused by human actions that are reflected through soil degradation and water contamination.

Below, the EDCs that are derived from ecological inequality in provision and supply to the SCF are described.

Coal mining and EDCs

As a result of the analysis of provision and supply for the SCF, drivers and empirical evidence (see Appendix), the EDCs that emerge are the following:

Socioeconomic conflicts

In table 3, users classify them as having greater relevance for the problem present in the SCF (see Appendix).



A decisive conflict can be verified by the necessity to earn economic income without taking into account social and mining security in processes of exploitation, that is, when life protection moves to the background. According to testimonies by community members (see Appendix): “Unfortunately there is still not awareness in the municipality about mining security, which means that miners are being worked with so that they organize, legalize and comply with regulations on mining security”; followed by the testimony: “security conditions in the municipality’s coal mines are very diverse, and great risks persist in the exploitation of these minerals, especially for a large number of tunnels and mines that are still being informally worked in.”

In addition to the above, mining exploitation does not coincide with good practices towards the environment and life, given that tradition and ancestral forms of exploitation have a greater weight and value than any other practice (see Appendix). The environment is new for the mine owners and miners, and is a new preoccupation. Accordingly, it is not yet within their priorities, as expressed by a mine worker (see Appendix): “Our mining is not very sophisticated, but we are working with good assemblies, the mines have their lamps, so it’s not with candles anymore. There are less accidents than before. We have failed in some things, but now we are trying to do things the right way.” Added to these conflicts, miner actors (see Appendix) find the following to exist:

  • Lack of mining and environmental regulations implementation, noncompliance with social security-related obligations, according to the Miner Security and Rescue Directorate: “There is a mistake in the ordinance’s interpretation. The norm prohibits women from working underground, but not outside the mine, where they can perform any type of activity. Furthermore, the ordinance says that women can only work under direction and supervision, which refers to those who eventually develop their work in the tunnels, like the engineers and security professionals.”
  • Lack of mining and environmental regulations implementation, security and industrial hygiene, according to a mine worker: “The Amagá Municipality has fought to end illegal mining through monitoring and training with SENA. The problem is that it is difficult to deter underage minors, especially when they are dying from hunger. The gurreras are more dangerous due to poor maintenance and the lack of safeguards provided to the workers.”
  • Small scale miners are not attended to by governmental entities, according to a lawyer specializing in mining: “Colombian law eliminates differences between different mining modalities, putting them under the same conditions; a new plan was determined using the figure of concession, including in Special Mining Reserve areas, and its authority was transferred to Municipalities and Provinces.”

Environmental conflicts

To complement the map of conflicts in the region, the EDCs of an environmental nature were presented (see table 3), allowing for a recognition of the consequences through environmental damages of a greater magnitude. These conflicts impact water, air and soil to a greater degree. According to the ANDI:

In environmental matters the biggest problem is associated with illegal mining and its unsustainable practices; an evident line of questioning is the impossibility in some cases and negligence in others, of many regional environmental authorities, with respect to illegal mining, making it necessary to open the debate on structure, formation of executive boards, requirements, functions and reporting systems.

Accordingly, Corantioquia (the governmental environmental organism) and the Antioquia government identify the biggest environmental problems (see table 3) as the following: worsening air and water quality, inadequate residue disposal, change in soil characteristics, soil subsidence and instability. This is in agreement with a professor at the University of Antioquia (see Appendix), who states that: “Today miners who, despite not being formal workers and being considered illegal, are advancing the betterment of the measurement system and gas control. The slide hammer technique is impacted the most by the use of combustibles, but is the most competitive.”

On a spatial scale, where changes that originate in the ecosystem also originate on a local scale, they have impacts on environmental services (described previously as agricultural and livestock production, forest loss, and availability of water fit for human consumption), according to a community member (see Appendix): “All of life revolves around mining. We have no other destination than to go to the little hole (the mine), in agriculture there is nothing to do, to bring food home […].”

EDCs and SDGs

After having analyzed the EDCs deriving from unequal ecological distribution, the goals and global indicators of SDGs were corroborated, and it was determined that the SDGs (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 15) would articulate with the conflicts. In table 3 it is demonstrated that on the basis of the conflicts generated by mining exploitation, the SDGs are not complied with. In particular, these conflicts include:

  • Lack of mining and environmental regulations implementation, as well as that of security and industrial hygiene. This conflict makes it impossible to fulfill SDG 1 “End Poverty” and 8 “Decent work and economic growth,” given that it does not guarantee the coverage of social protection for the poor and vulnerable, nor does it guarantee access to economic resources and basic services for the population of the SCF, according to goal 8.8. “To protect labor rights and promote a safe work environment without risks for all workers, including migrant workers, especially women migrants and people with precarious jobs” (see table 4).
  • Small scale miners are not accompanied by governmental entities, a conflict which prevents compliance with SDG 8 “Decent work and economic growth,” since the State does not guarantee a safe and protected work environment for the region’s miners (see table 4). According to goal 8.5, “From now until 2030, to achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including young people and people with disabilities, in addition to equal pay for work of equal value.”
  • The necessity to generate income for family subsistence, a conflict which prevents fulfillment of SDG 10 “Reducing inequalities,” and which establishes that there is an income increase in the poorest population of the region of study (see table 4). According to goal 10.2, “From now until 2030, to enhance and promote social, economic and political inclusion of all people, independently of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion, economic situation or other condition.”
  • Environmental problems include decreasing air and water quality, inadequate residue disposal, changes in soil characteristics, soil subsidence and instability, which prevents fulfillment of SDG 3 “Health and well-being” which establishes that contamination of water, air and soil should be avoided. SDG 6 “Clean water and sanitation” presents an efficient use of water resources in all sectors, and SDG 15 “Life of Land Ecosystems,” which is directed towards conservation and the reestablishing and use of land ecosystems (see table 4).



In summary, the EDCs generated by coal exploitation do not allow for fulfillment of the central SDGs, which are SDG 1 “Ending poverty” in the case of socioeconomic conflicts, and SDG 13 “Climate action,” due to environmental conflicts.


Ecological distribution as an object of study

Table 5 demonstrates changes and transformations (unequal ecological distribution) that are present in the ecosystem, where coal exploitation in the coalfield is an environmental service easily accessible to inhabitants, and which is currently the primary economic activity generating income for family subsistence. However, security in the SCF is affected by the changes that are caused by other environmental supply services such as food. Additionally, mining activity is performed with the risk of developing illnesses or lesions and without having adequate health insurance.



As a consequence, environmental services provided by the ecosystem, and what people expect from it, were elaborated on. This made it possible to highlight coal exploitation as the principal economic activity among the region’s inhabitants. Similarly, it reveals the way human well-being has multiple components, including the minimum material goods required for a good life, health, security, technology, social organization and institutions. Human intervention in the ecosystem can affect benefits to society, and are given through indirect drivers, which in the case of the coalfield are caused by demographic growth, the coal mining boom –the overexploitation of illegal and informal mining—and Colombian environmental and mining legislation.

EDCs as a central dilemma

From a holistic perspective, EDCs were identified as unleashing social and economic conflicts which go against SD in the region. This makes possible the deduction that within the reach of EDCs, two major limitations exist: small scale mining –informal or traditional—, which is done based on coal exploitation without any fulfillment of technical and environmental requirements; and coal exploitation as an economic activity upheld by the inhabitants with a strong tradition and set of customs, and which is considered the main source of income.

Seen from different interests, or assessment languages, it is difficult for miners to stop working with coal, given that their main concern is survival and the generation of economic resources. Accordingly, it becomes difficult for miners to resolve these conflicts. Until these differences are resolved, then, new conflicts based on bad mining practices will continue to arise, and the well-being of future generations will be damaged as a consequence.


  • Based on environmental services, transformations are being generated in the ecosystem, as a result of human actions (unequal ecological distribution). These changes derived from EDCs present in the region are for the most part caused by mining regulations, in addition to the necessity of miners to obtain better economic income.
  • The biggest conflict in the region of study is associated with environmental unsustainability, deriving from illegal and informal mining practices, which has caused a multitude of EDCs, in turn impacting the well-being of people living in the SCF. Additionally, this conflict is continually exacerbated due to little control and monitoring of mining practices in the region by local and national authorities.
  • Quality of life for the region’s inhabitants is detrimental to human well-being, as a result of EDCs caused by coal exploitation, and evidenced by the lack of SDG fulfillment. This points to the conclusion that SD in the region is decreasing, due to the fact that the goals agreed upon in the SDG Agenda 2030 are not met.
  • Human well-being in the SCF can increase by way of sustainable interactions between humans and the ecosystem, that is, relationships backed by efficient management instruments and control over mining and environmental regulations, regulations and coherent norms for coal mining activity and the interests of society, and by taking into account small and medium scale miners in the region.
  • Human interactions can be achieved using participatory, flexible and transparent processes between people who use the ecosystem’s services, which contribute to the strengthening of economic, social and ecological security for the region. In other words, “security […], that has a minimum level of supply […] necessary to guarantee a sustainable flow of services provided by the ecosystem” (ONU, 2003, p. 11). All of this should be steered towards the achievement of a SD which aims to construct a region with better economic progress, where extreme poverty is decreased or eliminated, where there is social trust in mining policies that are oriented towards the community’s well-being, and where the environment is protected from bad mining practices.


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