Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Marc Edelman

Committee Members

Julie Skurski

John Collins

Leslie Gill

Subject Categories

Development Studies | Environmental Studies | International Relations | Other Legal Studies | Politics and Social Change | Social and Cultural Anthropology


extractivism, NGOs, coal, social movements, violence


After the murder of the president and vice president of the coal union by paramilitaries in the department of Cesár, Colombia, the union is left adrift. Its fragility is only heightened when the person who decides to take over, is killed six months later. The union has been vocal on their critique of environmental destruction produced by coal and argues that their criticism is part of the reasons why they were targeted. Not far from there, in the department of Guajira, the conglomerate in charge of Cerrejón, the largest open-pit coal mine of South America, wants to divert a creek to expand their operations. Indigenous communities, lawyers and environmental activists struggle to impede the diversion, claiming that the plan to divert the creek is a direct threat to human and non-human life in the region.

Both cases – the Bruno Creek diversion in the department of Guajira and the murder Valdemoré Lorcano and Víctor Orcasita- are used in Colombia and European countries to intervene in conversations about energy transitions, political violence, environmental degradation, war, impunity and the responsibility of transnational corporations. However, the cases are not always considered important, and they are often presented in diverse ways, depending on the specific objectives of scholars, activists, NGOs or grassroots organizations.

In this study I analyze what makes certain deaths more relevant than others, what makes some forms of dying more important than others, and what makes the claim of the universal value of life the condition of possibility for the marginalization of certain forms of death over others. By conducting a transnational analysis of the circulation of these cases, from Colombia to countries like Germany and the United kingdom, I maintain that there are some basic elements that organize the relevance of death: first, the anthropocentric hierarchy that subordinates nature to the human, and makes the former relevant only as long as it can be connected to the latter. Second, the idea that beyond the extended moral claim of a universal recognition of human life, the death of certain humans is considered more relevant than others. Third, the social and material relations through which violence is defined.

The historical making of the dichotomy between nature and society not only reproduces the idea of the environment as an economic resource that is supposed to serve humanity, but it creates a hierarchical valuation of life. Violence is not an ahistorical concept, but it depends on specific and geo-historical material relations that help to define what is considered violence and, in that connection, what forms of death are considered relevant. In the context of a longstanding war and a transitional justice scenario such as those in Colombia, the epistemological articulation of violence has been concentrated by a notion of violence related to the legal frameworks and discourses, institutions and practices of human rights and armed conflict. In this study I show that the prevalence of these notions of violence reproduces dichotomies of nature and society, and often understands nature as a theater of operations of war or as war booty. Furthermore, I show how in the transnational circulation of the cases contested definitions of war, violence, and environment are produced, depending on the actors, the institutions, the political objectives and the discourses at each location where the cases are discussed.