Military Police Await Indigenous Protestors / Ruy Sposati/Agência Raízes via International Rivers on flickr

Re-politicizing resource conflicts

Insights from the 'Power Dynamics and Natural Resources' debate

The root causes of many resource-related conflicts, hidden or openly violent and armed, are grounded within power constellations around conflicting interests. Within those power dynamics, national and global economic influences often override local environmental interests and human rights. As ‘the politics’ of resource conflicts is often ignored, and solutions are sought in temporary and technical interventions, a vicious circle of conflict prevails in many resource-rich and resource-scarce developing countries.

In November 2013, The Broker published its dossier ‘Power Dynamics and Natural Resources’ and launched an online debate (see box). From the debate, eight lines of conclusion can be drawn and are further addressed below:

  • The focus on GDP growth is at the expense of human rights 
  • Economic interests override environmental interests 
  • Environmental regulation often lacks recognition of previous land rights 
  • Short-term interests prevail over long-term interests 
  • External interventions have a negative effect on social and environmental justice
  • The structure of the global political economy limits national policy space
  • Depoliticizing discourses mask the root causes of resource conflicts
  • Tackling the resource curse requires recognition of conflicting interests and imbalances of power

Resource-related conflicts occur when imbalances of power over access to and use of natural resources coincide with other structural inequalities, be they socioeconomic, ethnic, cultural or political. Interests in natural resources do not easily coincide, and when conflicts arise, the already deprived groups in society usually get the short end of the stick. Yet, such power dynamics are generally not addressed, as conflict resolution interventions are focused on tackling the direct causes and often render quick fix solutions  rather than long-term ones. A re-politicization of resource conflicts is therefore needed to counter the structural imbalances of power over the access to and the use of natural resources. 

The Power Dynamics and Natural Resources dossier

The Broker’s Power Dynamics and Natural Resources’ dossier was produced in cooperation with the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research - WOTRO Science for Development’s (‘NWO-WOTRO’) programme called, ‘Conflict and Cooperation over Natural Resources in Developing Countries (CoCooN).’ It aims to unravel the power dynamics underlying both open and hidden conflicts over natural resources, by creating a series of case-study articles and by launching an online debate on the topic.

The dossier contains five case-study articles provided by CoCooN researchers. These are: 

Furthermore, in  ‘The tragedy of the deprived’, The Broker provides an analytical overview of these five case-studies by summarizing the main findings and reflecting on the overall tendencies.

Together with these articles, we launched an online debate on the topic. This resulted in 28 contributions from international academics, NGOs, research institutions and policy-makers on a wide range of topics, which covered many countries.

On the 15th of January, The Broker presented the interim findings of this debate in a conference organized by CoCooN. This fostered a fruitful discussion and those conclusions are also included in this synthesis article.

Local communities’ rights versus GDP growth

In many resource-rich developing countries, large scale extraction and export of natural resources is part of a national economic strategy focused on the rapid increase of GDP. As Vladimir Pinto stresses, this strategy generally does not coincide with the interests of local communities, who are dependent on the land that is being extracted. Our debate revealed many examples of Amazon countries where indigenous communities have been pushed from their lands without proper consultation and despite existing land agreements. Also, the export of unprocessed agricultural commodities, such as soy, palm oil or biofuel stock,  has proven to be a productive way to increase GDP in African, Asian and Latin American countries. Yet, local communities clearly pay the price, as large parts of the land that they previously inhabited or cultivated, are being deforested or simply ‘grabbed’ in order to make room for agribusiness projects.  

Although well aware of these sacrifices, governments of resource-rich developing countries are faced with the impossible task to strike a balance between the protection of local communities’ rights and the fight against poverty. While for example in Bolivia, Evo Morales’s left-wing government certainly does sympathize with indigenous communities, economic and political  pressures push him  towards extracting and exporting natural gas and other resources – he has to worry about feeding the majority of the population and winning elections.  In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa initially aimed to protect the Yasuní National Park and the local communities living there from exploitation by international oil companies. But when financial compensation by the international community did not actually materialize, he felt forced to choose for the oil drilling in order to have the necessary financial means for poverty reduction.

Environment versus economy

National economic strategies often do not work out well for the environment either. The world’s resources are being gradually exploited, and the quality of once biodiverse ecosystems is affected by large-scale deforestation for extraction and agriculture. As put by Pim Kraan and Jaap Smit,  “the planet’s ecological boundaries have already been exceeded.” Although this has been widely recognized, economic interests still largely prevail over tackling environmental degradation. Around the world, Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA’s), which are designed to assess the environmental impact of certain projects (related to for example infrastructure, agriculture, industry or extraction), are largely circumnavigated. Many developing countries lack the resources to fully implement the regulation, and the penalties for companies that do not complete an EIA are often negligible. Moreover, corruption makes EIAs an ineffective tool in striking the balance between the economy and the environment. In their article, Tim Boekhout van Solinge and Karlijn Kuijpers show for example how institutional and judicial shortcomings enabled the commodity company, Cargill, to build a port in the Brazilian city of Santarem without completing an EIA.

Land rights versus environmental regulation

Sometimes, however, the pendulum does swing to the side of the environment. Yet, this does not always coincide with local interests. Ahmad Dhiaulhaq shows how in Southeast Asia, global efforts to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation, known as ‘Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation Plus’ (REDD+), resulted in zoning regimes and forest access restrictions that do not take into account previous land agreements with indigenous communities. The article by Gerardo Damonte on Peru describes another striking example. Mainly pressured by the global environmental community, Peru’s national government has imposed a plan to formalize the small-scale mining sector. Part of this regulation includes a ban of mining activities in protected Amazon areas. This has led to conflicts between small-scale, indigenous miners and government authorities, as the ban conflicts with existing land agreements with indigenous communities, for whom small-scale mining is often a main source of income.

Long-term versus short-term interests

These trade-offs between economic interests, environmental concerns and land rights portray the unavoidable tension between long-term and short-term interests. According to Jamie Kneen, the logic of the market-based economy means that short-term financial incentives become the main focus of policy-making, instead of preventing long-term negative effects of large-scale extraction. Many developing countries are in need of a structural economic transition in which countries are no longer solely dependent on the export of raw materials and agricultural commodities. As Judith Fessehaie argues, such a structural economic transition would require a key focus on industrialization and processing of commodities. Yet, many countries still choose the option of short-term economic gains, also because the production cycle is largely dominated by multinational corporations. This is shown in the contribution by Isabella Margerita Radhuber, who argues that despite civil society pressures for economic diversification, the Bolivian government is still largely focused on the export of natural gas.

Moreover, when countries are in the phase of economic transition, conflicts arise over the short-term negative impacts. An example is described in the debate contribution by Anthony Turton on the mining conflicts in South Africa. While South Africa has the world’s biggest gold and platinum reserves, its global output is steadily declining. And mines – once the engines of South Africa’s economy – are becoming depleted.  South Africa’s steady economic transformation has clear short-term downsides. Conflicts over the loss of jobs came to an ugly head in 2012 when the police killed many striking miners in what has been dubbed the Marikana Massacre. Recently, violence again flared when initiatives to transform the mining sector caused resistance among the miners. Conflicts have also arisen since mine depletion has some severe environmental consequences. As argued by Anthony Turton, environmental NGOs’ calls for the environmental impacts of mining depletion to be countered, move attention away from the more structural problems of a country that is trying to transform its economy, and could hamper South Africa’s long-term structural economic transformation.

External interventions

The debate has shown that, in striking a balance between such conflicting interests, external influences often play a decisive role. As argued by Oliver Schultz, power constellations between government authorities, national and international companies and global capital, result in outcomes that are usually disadvantageous for local communities. From our ‘Power Dynamics and Natural Resources’ dossier, we can distinguish four kinds of global influences that tend to have a downward catalyst effect on natural resource governance.

a) Multinationals and global financial institutions

TNI researchers, Jennifer Franco, Timothé Feodoroff and Sylvia Kay show how large multinational agribusiness corporations and financial investors, such as banks and hedge funds, often play an important role in encouraging resource conflicts. Large tracts of land in Latin America, Africa and Asia are being acquired for extraction and agribusiness projects under the disguise of rural development, thereby expelling local farmers and communities from their lands for economic profit. According to Ivan Danilo Rueda and Abilio Peña Buendia, companies from Italy, Spain and the US have bought up Colombian land for the production and export of biofuel and food commodities to China and India. Sometimes the influence of multinationals is more indirect, such as through tough economic competition or by pushing national governments in a certain direction. As Oliver Schultz puts it, companies and private investors, whose main aim is to maximize profit, generally show little awareness and care of how their actions affect nature and society.

b) Foreign debt

Foreign debt is, in many cases, the reason why developing countries choose a strategy of short-term economic gains over long-term sustainable development and the guarantee of (indigenous) land rights. The need to repay debts to international financial institutions and foreign countries is an important reason why resource-rich countries focus on the (often monolithic) cultivation and export of agricultural commodities and the export of raw materials. Kevin Koenig for example argued that debt to China – which has to be paid back in crude – is the main reason for the failure of the Yasuní ITT initiative, as well as for the Ecuadorian government’s decision to offer up  13 new oil blocks for tender. These moves occurred  despite public demonstrations and the fact that the land overlaps with the territories of seven indigenous nationalities.

c) Systemic forces

The dominance of global capital and incentives for developing countries to export resources to pay back foreign debt, is yielded by the global trade system. Global trade in natural resources often occurs on the basis of organized commodity changes, resulting in high volatility of prices. When a price of a certain commodity peaks, this is a big incentive for developing countries to push for its cultivation and export. The abrupt boost of Jatropha and Castor bean cultivation in Ghana and Ethiopia in the early 2000s forms a clear example. Such incentives prevent developing countries from adopting a long-term sustainable economic strategy based on local and national priorities and economic diversification. Moreover, developed countries’ protective policies, such as subsidizing processed agricultural products, prevent developing countries from playing an equal role on the global market and subsequently pull them back into resource-export dependent strategies.

d) Development interventions

Another form of external interventions that serves as a catalyst for resource-related conflicts comes, although unintendedly, from the development sector itself. While development organizations, international donors, and environmental organizations are supposed to counter the above-mentioned influences, several contributors to The Broker’s ‘Power Dynamics and Natural Resources’ dossier have shown that this is not always directly the case. As Oliver Schultz points out, this is because development organizations, policy-makers and funding institutions such as the World Bank, have long ignored the power dynamics at stake. Anne de Jong describes how NGOs and ad hoc projects in the occupied Palestinian territories for example unduly relieve Israel from its obligation under international law to ensure sufficient hygiene and public health standards and to provide food and medical care to the population. As she argues,  “NGOs and their donors sustain Israel’s unequal water policies because they ‘stay away from politics’ and thus work within this polluted system.”

Limiting national policy space

Thus, while conflicts over natural resources are fought over direct causes, like land access restrictions, violations of human rights and negative environmental effects, external interventions play a decisive role in maintaining structural imbalances of power that underlie most resource conflicts. External interventions  also limit the national policy space of resource-rich developing countries, by pushing them towards strategies that place short-term economic gains over long-term sustainable development and local communities’ interests. As argued by Jennifer Franco, Timothé Feodoroff and Sylvia Kay, the structure of the global political economy creates a strong coalition of forces, where those parts of the national economy and national politics that are related to the exports of natural resources and commodities gain the upper hand. This prevents these resource and commodity exporting countries from adopting strategies based on a structural transformation of their economies. Hence, there is a lack of what economists call ‘national policy space’, the room for national governments to manoeuvre and determine their own economic development path. Isabella Margerita Radhuber for example argues that the lack of economic diversification in Bolivia is largely due to resistance from sectors that are strongly entangled in the global economy.

Depoliticizing discourses

A striking conclusion to be drawn from the debate is that imbalances of power over access and use of natural resources are very often deliberately and unconsciously covered by depoliticizing discourses.  As argued by D. Partasarathy, conflicts and their solutions are generally not framed in terms of conflicting interests and not treated as a problem of ‘politics’. Instead they are, according to the author, treated as   “micro-level issues which can be addressed in a participatory or technocratic way, rather than through normal political processes.”  There are four depoliticizing discourses which are used to mask power imbalances and equal access to resources. The discourse that highlights the institutional aspects of resource-related conflicts; the discourse of sustainable development; the discourse that emphasizes technical aspects of resource management; and finally, a discourse that stresses the legal dimension of resource conflicts.

a) Governance

In many cases, conflict prevention is undertaken through strengthening governance, like capacity building, institutional regulation or through public-private partnerships. Yet, strengthening institutions at the local level alone will not solve the problem of land grabs if the rule of law remains discriminative towards already marginalized people.  As put clearly by Oliver Schultz, “the discourse of ‘governance’ conceals the structures of power in which governance is embedded. Words like ‘class’, ‘domination’, ‘inequality’, ‘conflict’ and ‘power’ are exchanged for words like ‘partnership’, ‘cooperation’, ‘synergy’, ‘solutions’ and ‘compromise’, thus depoliticizing decision-making and implementation processes.”  In Ghana and Ethiopia, a lack of regulation during the boom of biofuel stock cultivation was partly to blame for local conflicts over land access. Yet, Benjamin Betey Campion and Richmond Antwi-Bediako show how multinational companies in these countries have largely sidestepped EIAs and how local authorities largely chose the side of private capital. While a lack of governance surely did not work in favour of the local farmers, simply strengthening institutional capacity will not solve the problem when the underlying structural inequalities are not addressed.

b) Sustainable development

Often, resource conflicts are framed in terms of their environmental dimension rather than in terms of the power imbalances deriving from national and global economic choices and trade-offs.  As argued by  Karolien van Teijlingen, the sustainable development discourse gained ground as way to reconcile economic growth and ecological sustainability. Extraction companies now face codes of conduct, and the increased use of EIAs are also a clear result of the recent emphasis placed on sustainable development.  Linked to this discourse is the recent focus on the concept of the water-energy-food nexus, which focuses on the interdependencies between water, energy and food security and the need to deal with our environment in a more sustainable way. However, in many cases, the sustainable development discourse is adopted by governments and companies to legitimize international interference in national resource policy, thereby masking economic and geopolitical interests. In Ghana and Ethiopia, for example, the discussion surrounding biofuel stock cultivation initially focused on its alleged environmental value. Foreign investment was legitimized by ample scientific evidence of the environmental benefits and the necessity to develop more sustainable alternatives to fossil fuel. Little attention, however, has been given to the effects that large-scale biofuel stock cultivation has had on local farmers, in terms of land grabs and violent conflict between investors and farmers.

c) Technical

Inequalities are very often masked by technical discourses. An example is provided in the contributions by Anne de Jong and Mark Zeitoun on the freshwater conflict between Israel and Palestine. Israel’s water management is often portrayed as a success story because it has used innovative projects to counter drought and to irrigate the desert. As both authors argue, this discourse masks how Israel’s uses ‘water politics’ as way to exercise power and expel Palestinians from the West Bank. The need to move beyond such exclusive technical approaches to resource management is stressed in Casper Rutting’s review of Mark Everard’s book, The Hydropolitics of Dams: Engineering or Ecosystems?. In this book, Everard emphasizes that a predominant focus on the technical aspects of hydro projects, in China and elsewhere,  tend to mask their societal impact. In China, for example, large dams have disproportionally benefited the privileged sectors of society at the expense of others.

d) Legal

As shown by D. Parthasarathy,  the tactic often used by or for  local communities is to refer to the ‘rights’ that they have, for example with respect to previous land agreements. Or they  call for the implementation of legal enactments or  creation of specific tribunals or authorities. While this may be helpful in countries where there is a certain degree of rule of law, various contributors to the debate have shown that these are fruitless efforts in countries where rule of law is absent or largely discriminative. In these cases, blunt references to ‘land rights’ or the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent can have a depoliticizing effect, as such claims ignore the real power relations that impose certain outcomes. An example is provided by Brazil, where a solution to the soy conflicts was sought by bringing Cargill to court. In this way, the issue became ‘legalized’, and despite the fact that the court ruled against Cargill, the port was opened and put into operation. The failure of the Brazilian courts to legally enforce its own rulings on Cargill reveals how, according to Tim Boekhout van Solinge and Karlijn Kuijpers, “the interests of the agribusiness sector are widely interwoven in Brazilian politics and society, making it difficult to change the status quo.”

Opening up the black box of resource-related disputes

This by no means implies that these depoliticizing discourses are invalid. On the contrary. Weak governance structures and institutions are often a reason why conflicts are perpetuated and environmental degradation harms communities and the world in general. And resource-related disputes clearly have legal underpinnings in terms of land tenure and lack of accountability. Yet, an exclusive framing of resource conflicts in these ways often mask the structural inequalities and conflicting interests that underlie them. Thus, these discourses need to recognized and re-politicized.

Contributors to the debate largely agree that without tackling the imbalances of power over access to and use of natural resources, (resource-rich and resource-scarce) developing countries will be drawn into perpetuating cycles of violent conflict, thereby hampering structural development.  Tackling such inequalities implies breaking the perverse economic incentives – for companies and governments. This is surely a long-term affair, which requires, as Pim Kraan and Jaap Smit argue, international cooperation and alignment. Others, like Lisa Olsthoorn and Ries Kamphof have stressed how consumers themselves can take control by decreasing demand for conflict-prone products.  

An obvious conclusion to be drawn from the debate is that quick fixes will not be sufficient. As pointed out by Larry Fisher, opening up the black box of resource-related disputes for re-politicization requires a critical study of the powerful discourses that legitimize and steer current and past interventions, and to reveal ‘taken-for-granted’ concepts and how they are transformed into material practices and control.

Photo credit main picture: Military Police Await Indigenous Protestors / Ruy Sposati/Agência Raízes via International Rivers on flickr

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The ‘politics’ of resource conflicts is often ignored. Solutions are usually sought in the form of temporary and technical interventions, yet the structural imbalances of power underlying these conflicts need to be tackled. Meanwhile, a vicious circle of conflict prevails in both resource-rich and resource-scarce developing countries.

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