SDGs, global commodity chains and environmental justice


The globalised expansion of capitalism and industrial economy is resulting in increase and expansion of extractive activities, production of waste, and their related social and environmental impacts that have generated conflict with, and resistance from, communities, indigenous groups and activists globally. We set out to understand how environmental justice (EJ) conflicts, identified by the Environmental Justice Atlas, linked to global commodity chains impact Ecuador’s ability to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) outcomes at local, regional, national and international scales. This project supports the key focus of the SSRP in understanding trade-offs and synergies among SDGs.

Project description

The project initially focuses on Ecuador as a case study. Ecuador is a global hotspot for biodiversity that suffers from high levels of poverty. Current Ecuadorian government development models to address poverty are underpinned by extractivism (logging, oil, metals) that continues to generate environmental conflicts (over 70 reported in the

The project begins by bringing partners from Ecuador (Universidad Andina Simon Bolivar), Spain (Institute of Environmental Science and Technology ICTA, Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona) and an interdisciplinary group from Sussex together in an inception workshop to integrate datasets and develop methodologies to assess trade-offs and synergies in SDG targets at a range of spatial scales (Parish to National) to determine impact of environmental conflict on SDGs.

Using a range of environmental justice conflict categories we also aim to identify and generate datasets required to map SDG outcomes throughout the life cycle of associated commodity chains, from conflict zones to final waste, to highlight trade-offs and synergies in SDG outcomes for spatially-dislocated processes. Incorporating a temporal dimension i.e. how the various trade-offs and synergies change over time within a global analysis will form the basis for a large-scale multi-partner grant application in 2019.

Project impacts include contribution to assessing progress towards sustainability by evidencing trade-offs, synergies and hidden global teleconnections that may blur clear assessment of progress towards UN-SDGs and enhanced accountability of stakeholders in environmental conflict by rendering visible, accountable and open to critical scrutiny, all beneficiaries from global commodity chains associated with conflict zones.

Timeline and funding


April 2018-September 2019




Building on environmental justice (EJ) conflicts identified by the EJAtlas ( we examined differences in social indicators, based on the national census data for 2010, for regions in Ecuador with extractive industries linked to oil, mining, and timber, and those without. We also assessed the feasibility of monitoring progress towards the SDGs using existing data from Ecuador - and whether indicators can detect local level EJ conflicts and their impacts. With the  EJAtlas team we undertook a review of EJ and the SDGs (Menton et al in review) and Dr Menton contributed to a study of the factors influencing murders rates of environmental defenders globally, comparing Global Witness’ database of murders to other global datasets (e.g. Rule of Law Index, area under agricultural production, area under mining concessions, number of hydroelectric dams) (Butt et al 2019).


Urban areas of oil extraction zones in the Ecuadorian Amazon had lower social indicators than those outside extraction zones (e.g. access to water, 76% vs 37%; households in poverty, 19% vs 27%; doctors per thousand populations, 77% vs 39%). Our review of SDG indicators linking global commodities and EJ conflicts found data lacking for many indicators at national and particularly local level. Importantly, even with adequate data, existing indicators were unlikely to capture local level impacts of EJ conflicts. Our review of SDGs in light of EJ conflicts and EJ frameworks identified a predominant focus on legal justice and rule-of-law that lacked attention to key dimensions of EJ (distribution, procedure and recognition). We found that cases with potential synergies between SDGs, wind farms for example appear to bring benefits for energy (SDG7) and climate action (SDG13), can still have negative impacts on local communities in terms of EJ (e.g. displacement from lands, conflicts with companies, lack of free prior informed consent) which are inadequately addressed within the SDG framework.  The global level meta-analysis found murders of environmental defenders were more frequent in countries with high levels of corruption and weak rule of law and countries with more mining and hydro-dams


SDGs need to do more to account for EJ implications of projects supporting subsets of SDGs, as negative consequences to local communities are not captured by SDG indicators. Future work focuses on working with local communities suffering EJ conflicts to co-produce locally relevant indicators of the SDGs and minimise extensive monitoring burdens.

Related work

This project was expanded through a 27-month project funded by the British Academy Sustainable Development Programme to work in 6 countries (Bangladesh, Brazil, Cambodia, DRC, Ecuador & Guinea-Bissau) to investigate how environmental defenders experience atmospheres of violence from development projects (mis)labelled as sustainable. Funding by the IDCF (University of Sussex) allowed mapping of indigenous rights violations in Brazil and we co-hosted an exhibit at ONCA in Brighton in November 2019 sharing artwork reflecting on experiences of violence by indigenous people and environmental defenders from Brazil, Bangladesh and Cambodia supported by the ESRC Festival of Social Science.

Read the related Policy Brief 'Europe imports Amazonian commodities linked to violence' in English [PDF 614KB] or Brazilian Portuguese [PDF 634KB].

The team

Where we worked