'Tree stumps' / World Bank Photo Collection

The tragedy of the deprived

The political dynamics underlying disputes over natural resources

Saskia Hollander | November 06, 2013

The reality behind the game of who gets what, when and how when it comes to natural resources, reveals a power play in which deprived groups in society get the short end of the stick. It also portrays an inherent tension between environmental protection and economic development, in which the pendulum generally swings in favour of the latter. As shown by the case studies analyzed in this article, although these imbalances of power are often obscured by focusing on non-political dimensions, they serve as important catalysts for resource-related conflicts, especially when they coincide with other structural socioeconomic, cultural and ethnic inequalities. 

The ownership and use of natural resources – such as land, energy, water and minerals – tend to be less equally distributed across and within countries than other commodities. 1 Such inequalities enhance conflicts, especially in developing countries where political institutions are generally weak. Resource-related disputes do not occur in isolation, but are interconnected with the global trade system and often grounded in other structural socioeconomic, cultural and ethnic inequalities, traditional land tenure systems and poor governance. They arise because interests in natural resources are generally incompatible. The primacy given to national and global economic interests in relation to natural resources tends to empower an often small group in society that have a clear interest in exploiting those resources. These interests often interfere with local practices and wellbeing. Moreover, national economic interests and those of foreign companies are usually short term and do not easily coincide with the protection of the environment and human rights. Yet, when disputes over natural resources arise, they are often framed in discourses that obscure the politics of the issue by focusing on environmental dimensions or on institutional shortcomings. Such depoliticizing discourses mask the underlying power imbalances deriving from national and global economic choices. 

This article is based on the following case studies conducted by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research – WOTRO Science for Development (NWO-WOTRO) programme, Conflict and Cooperation over Natural Resources in Developing Countries (CoCooN):

Rethinking resource-related conflicts

Especially resource-rich developing countries with poor institutions, weak political systems, and disruptive social relations can be drawn into cycles of armed conflict over the use and distribution of natural resources (this is known as the ‘resource curse’ 2).  These conflicts are generally well covered in the international media, often because they are subject to international intervention and UN sanctions (as was, for example, the case in the Democratic Republic of Congo). 3 Less known however, are resource disputes of a non-armed or non-organized nature. Yet, there are many societies where the highly unequal access to natural resources leads to tensions that have not yet led to armed conflict.  

The UN Interagency Framework Team for Preventive Action distinguishes five stages in the conflict cycle: grievance, insecurity, conflict, negotiation and post-conflict. 4 In the first two stages, the conflict is ‘hidden’ but has the potential to evolve into armed confrontation as a consequence of underlying imbalances of power between groups in society to exercise control over or to access natural resources. Grievance refers to a situation in which some groups in society make claims against other groups or the authorities because they feel deprived from natural resources or are mostly affected by the environmental damage caused by their exploitation. Insecurity arises when the interests of  particular groups are directly under threat, and when imbalances of power to exercise control over natural resources become an object of dispute. Especially when these asymmetries of power go hand in hand with political exclusion, discrimination, economic marginalization and losses of community identity, these stages prove to be catalysts for active violent conflict.  Without removing the root causes of such conflicts, which in many cases are interconnected to the global political economy, grievance and insecurity can lead to a recurring pattern of intrastate conflict. 5

Lack of level playing fields

The Broker’s ‘Power dynamics and natural resources’ dossier focuses particularly on ‘hidden’ disputes, where  imbalances of power to exercise control over natural resources reflect other structural inequalities, be they economic, political, gender, cultural, ethnic, and/or religious, and which engender actual violent conflict (although not always armed and followed by international intervention, as in Sierra Leone). Such asymmetries of power can exist between different groups in society in relation to the direct use and distribution of resources, but also in terms of political agency – i.e. the ability to call upon the political establishment to adequately represent their interests. What the case studies in this dossier (see box) show is that grievance and insecurity over natural resources serve as easy subjects of political mobilization when they are linked to community identity, history and culture. 6

Examples are provided by often latent disputes in the resource-rich Amazonian regions in Latin America, where large-scale extraction of natural resources interferes with indigenous and tribal communities’ ancestral land rights agreements. 7 In Brazil, disputes have arisen between large-scale soy farmers and national and international agribusiness on the one hand and small-scale farmers and indigenous communities on the other hand, with the latter consistently getting the short end of the stick in their attempts to save their natural habitat and source of income from illegal logging and large-scale deforestation. In Ecuador, President Correa recently abandoned the Yasuni-ITT initiative, which proposed a moratorium on oil drilling in the ITT oil field in Yasuni National Park in exchange for international compensation, despite strong opposition from environmental NGOs, international donors, the Ecuadorian public and indigenous communities in the biodiverse area. In Peru, small-scale miners perceive a plan by the central state to combat illegal small-scale mining in the Amazonian region, Madre de Dios, as a threat to their livelihoods and as a violation of previous land agreements, resulting in severe clashes with the authorities. The miners are largely unable to make their concerns and interests known to the political establishment in Lima,  as combating illegal small-scale mining in the remote Amazonian region – far from the political centre – has long been a low priority for the national authorities. This has resulted in an inconsistent attitude towards illegal small-scale miners, in which lenient acceptance of the status quo alternates with punitive campaigns. The miners, in their turn, have responded to these campaigns with strikes and demonstrations. 

Land disputes have also arisen in Ghana and Ethiopia, where local farmers have been denied access to land that they previously cultivated. Chiefs or local authorities have made agreements with mainly foreign companies permitting them to use the land to cultivate biofuel stock.

In Sri Lanka, Tamil fishermen are involved in enduring disputes with their Indian counterparts over the use of fishing grounds in Palk Bay, the strait between the two countries. Until the end of the ethnic war between the Tamil Tigers of the North and the 'Sinhalese dominated' state in 2009, Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen were not allowed to fish, because of security threats from the Sea Tigers. Subsequently, for many years, the Tamil fishermen have not been backed up in these disputes by the Sri Lankan government.

The global political economy

In many of these countries, the global trade system has exacerbated existing imbalances of power. In the last decade, global trade in natural resources has grown tremendously, 8 largely due to an expanding world population, global increases in incomes and the advent of emerging economies like China and India, which has fostered an increase in global demand for natural resources. 9  To benefit from this rising global demand and subsequent rising prices and GDP, many resource-rich countries, like Brazil, Peru and Ecuador, have adopted a development model based on the export of extractives and commodities. This gained more impetus in the 1990s when the IMF called upon these countries to pay back their increased national debt. 10 Countries dependent on agriculture, including Ghana and Ethiopia, were able to benefit from the rising demand for biofuel crops in the early 2000s by retaining large parts of their agricultural land for the cultivation of biofuel seeds by foreign companies. In these countries, resource-based foreign direct investment subsequently increased, resulting in further expansion and prioritization of their extractives and commodities sectors.

This extraction-based and primary resources-led export model has made these countries vulnerable to global shocks and fluctuations in demand, especially when it is based exclusively on the export of commodities (as in many African countries). 11 External shocks affect the livelihood of the poorest in these countries the most. In addition, the primacy given to resource exports can enhance the risk of diplomatic tensions, as illustrated by the dispute between Ecuador and the international community (for example with Germany) over the Yasuni-ITT initiative.

Asymmetrical empowerment

Moreover, the rapidly expanding extractives and commodities sectors in resource-export countries have become hotbeds of increased political and social tension, as global economic interests do not always easily coincide with local interests and traditional land tenure practices. The case studies presented in this dossier show that the primacy given to economic development, which for many resource-rich countries implies primacy to the export of natural resources, tends to disproportionally empower those with a clear interest in the resource sector.

Many case studies in this dossier have shown that, due to strong conglomerations of political authorities, national and multinational companies, and representatives from the extractives and agricultural sector, other (often already marginalized) groups in society have few channels to safeguard their interests. In Peru this varies between the national and local level. Despite being marginalized at national level, the small-scale miners hold a powerful position in the Madre de Dios region as a result of the gold rush of the past decade. As small-scale gold extraction does not significantly contribute to Peru’s GDP, the national authorities have had little incentive to invest in understanding the societal dynamics underlying illegal small-scale mining in the region.

These imbalances of power have become an important driver of disputes over the use of natural resources and environmental degradation caused by resource exploitation. 12 Foreign governments and companies play an important and often fairly invisible role by upholding these power imbalances. In Ghana, it has mainly been the European Union that has invested in programmes for biofuel stock cultivation , and European companies, for example from Norway and Italy, operating on Ghanaian territory. Local chiefs have earned considerable revenues from selling large parts of the land, thereby de facto overruling local farmers and communities dependent on this land for their household income and food security. 13 By exporting their natural resources, many Latin American countries have been able to strengthen their position on the global market. This has empowered those with a clear interest in the resource sectors, most particularly multinational companies, at the expense of indigenous communities, which feel threatened by resource exploitation in their habitat. 14 In Brazil, a large part of the soy cultivated is transported to the European market by US-based commodity companies. The increase in export of agribusiness commodities like soy has endowed the agribusiness sector – generally, large-scale farmers and foreign soy companies and traders – at  the expense of small-scale farmers and indigenous communities.

Obscuring the politics

Many cases in this dossier show that resource-rich developing countries are often faced with a trade-off between countering environmental degradation and increasing GDP to combat poverty. This tension between economic development and protecting environmental and human rights is also a concern for the international community as a whole. And, in both developing and developed countries, national economic interests generally prevail. Consequently, although other interests are actually at play (see box on ‘eco-imperialism), the discourse tends to focus on environmental issues. This obscures the political economy of governing natural resources and the conflicts that arise around it. 15 


In many cases, the role that foreign countries themselves play, through the global market, in sustaining resource-related conflicts contradicts their moral claims on resource-dependent countries to counter the environmental damage they cause when extracting natural resources. Paul Driessen has referred to this tendency of the international environmental community to deprive developing countries for the benefit of developed countries as ‘eco-imperialism’. 16

Many climate change conventions (Rio 1992, Kyoto 1997, Bali 2007 and Doha 2012) have warned of the depletion of natural resources and subsequent negative effects on the quality of the environment. Resource-rich countries are subsequently being pressurized to preserve the environment, for example by countering deforestation and the negative environmental effects of large-scale extraction programmes. Brazil, for example, has been consistently ranked among the top-10 carbon emitters and urged to do something about it by the international community. Peru, too, is under pressure to counter the damage caused by its large-scale extraction programmes and the negative effects of small-scale artisanal mining in the Madre de Dios region.

 Ecuador challenged this eco-imperialism with its Yasuni initiative, which appealed to the shared responsibility of the international community. Ecuador believed that it should not pay the price for something that is in the interests of the international community as a whole.

In Ghana, for example, the discussion surrounding biofuel stock cultivation, and the large claims on agricultural land it implies, initially focused on its alleged environmental value, supported by ample scientific evidence of the greater environmental benefits compared to fossil fuels. 17Subsequently, use of biofuel was applauded in many climate change agreements, including the Kyoto Protocol and EU Directive 2030. What biofuel stock cultivation means politically in the context of Ghana’s traditional rules of ‘land tenure’, which define ‘how property rights to land are allocated within society’, 18 and the absence of individual land rights remained largely unacknowledged.

In Latin American countries, deals between authorities and multinational companies often conflict with legal procedures and existing land agreements between authorities and indigenous communities, resulting in grievance and insecurity on the part of the latter. 19 The disputes are often portrayed in terms of the environmental dimension (protecting the Amazon) or institutional shortcomings (corruption) rather than of power imbalances deriving from national and global economic choices and trade-offs. In Peru both environmental NGOs and foreign governments have pressurized the Peruvian authorities to combat illegal small-scale mining, because of the damage it causes to the Amazon ecosystem (for example, through the widespread use of mercury).  In response, Peru developed a plan to formalize the mining activities without taking into account the wide range of practices at local level, and the different ways in which the plan was interpreted locally.

Institutional power imbalances

Imbalances of power exist not only between different groups or at global level between incompatible interests and discourses, but also between political institutions. Institutional shortcomings are often portrayed as important catalysts for, and even as sustaining, resource-related conflicts.  The UN Interagency Framework Team for Preventive Action consequently argues that ‘strong, coordinated institutions can help ensure that land grievances are addressed, that land disputes are regulated, that land conflicts are avoided, and that the post-conflict period can result in a durable peace’. 20 Yet, institutional quick-fixes might prove to be blunt tools, as institutional shortcomings are generally grounded in power relations within a society. Often, institutional changes do not remove the root causes of conflict, and will therefore rarely lead to durable post-conflict peace, but rather to new stages of grievance and insecurity.

Due to the prevalence of export-led economic development, developing countries in particular have few incentives to develop and enforce regulation that protects the environment and human rights. A typical example is the case study of Peru, where prioritizing large-scale gold extraction resulted in an ambiguous attitude towards small-scale miners on the part of the national authorities. Because the formalization plan has long had low priority, the regional authorities have not been sufficiently equipped to grasp the complex societal and cultural dynamics underlying small-scale mining, thereby encountering severe opposition from small-scale miners, who are an economically important and powerful group at local level. 21 Moreover, in Latin America, institutional regulation is complicated by high levels of corruption, and collusion between authorities and groups in society who hold economic power, most commonly the agribusiness and extraction industries. 22 In Brazil, for example, the courts have proved unable to enforce their own rulings on agribusiness players like Cargill.

The African case studies show that national and local regulation of land acquisitions during the  biofuel stock cultivation boom in the first decade of the 2000s were largely discriminate. In addition, the economic interests of the authorities and mainly foreign agricultural companies often prevail over environmental law enforcement.  In Ghana for example, the law prescribes that any cultivating company operating on an area of 10 hectares or more is required to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). In theory, only companies that receive approval from Ghana’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are formally allowed to cultivate on a large-scale basis, but Norwegian company Biofuels Africa Ltd. is the only company to have received approval from the GPA of the many foreign agricultural companies active in the country. 23 When land acquisitions lead to conflict, local government officials may be called upon to mediate or arbitrate inter-community disputes over land use but largely lack the support of higher authorities, who have a large stake in attracting foreign investment for agricultural cultivation. In addition, courts – if invoked – have limited capacity to solve disputes in remote or rural areas.

Squaring the circle?

What the case studies presented in this dossier show is that resource-dependency creates power gaps between an often small group of people with a clear interest in the resource industry and marginalized groups in society. Breaking the cycle of conflicting interests, perverse economic incentives and insurmountable discourses appears difficult, as grievance and insecurity over natural resources are often grounded in structural socioeconomic, cultural and ethnic inequalities. As this  political dimension underlying the governance of natural resources is more often than not overlooked or deliberately covered up by a technical discourse, ‘opening’ the black-box of resource-related disputes is the first step towards conflict resolution.

At the same time, it is precisely these power relations that make it difficult to actually prevent conflicts from escalating. In Palk Bay, international appeals to the Sri Lankan  government to listen to the demands of the Tamil fishermen might be futile, as subordination of the latter is deeply rooted in a history of ethnic conflict between the Tamils and Sinhalese. In Latin America governments under pressure to increase GDP and fight poverty might feel little incentive to counter environmental degradation and respect land agreements with indigenous communities. General calls, largely by the international development sector and international donors, to strengthen national and local institutions in developing countries would hardly contribute to resolving conflicts that have already escalated; and even if they do, they will not necessary remove the roots of conflicts, as grievances and insecurity about natural resources largely derive from the global political economy.  The ‘tragedy of the commons’ that characterizes the governance of natural resources may prove to be, above all, a tragedy of the deprived.


Ajit Menon, Associate Professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai, India.

Aklilu Amsalu, Assistant Professor, Addis Ababa University, Addis Ababa,  Ethiopia.

Daniëlle Hirsch, Director, Both Ends, Amsterdam Netherlands.

Domien Huijbregts, Communications Officer, NWO-WOTRO Science for Global Development, The Hague, The Netherlands.

Frans Bieckmann, co-founder, executive director and editor in chief, The Broker, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Teyo van de Schoot, Human Rights Senior Advisor, HIVOS, The Hague, The Netherlands.

Photo credit main picture: 'Tree stumps' / World Bank Photo Collection