The tragedy of the deprived
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.
This article is based on the following case studies conducted by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research – WOTRO Science for Development (NWO-WOTRO) programme,
‘Formalizing the unknown. The stalemate over formalizing small-scale mining in Madre de Dios’, by
Gerardo Damonte,which describes the conflict in Peru between the authorities and small-scale and artisanal miners.
‘The seed-fuel wars of Africa. Biofuel conflicts in Ghana and Ethiopia’, by
Richmond Antwi-Bediakoand Benjamin Betey Campion, which describes the land conflicts in Ghana and Ethiopia in the context of biofuel stock cultivation.
‘The demise of the Yasuní-ITT initiative. Back to reality or the end of the beginning?’, by
Murat Arseland Lorenzo Pellegrini, which describes the conflicts surrounding the Ecuadorian Yasuni-ITT initiative.
‘Between the devil and the not-so-deep blue sea. Asymmetrical power in the Indo-Sri Lankan fisheries conflict’, by
Joeri Scholtens, Johny Stephenand Ajit Menon, which describes the fisheries conflict between Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen.
‘The soy game in the Brazilian Amazon. Conflicting interests in the Brazilian soy industry’, by
Tim Boekhout van Solingeand Karlijn Kuijpers, which describes soy-related conflicts in the Brazilian Amazon.
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’
The UN Interagency Framework Team for Preventive Action distinguishes five stages in the conflict cycle:
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.
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.
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,
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).
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.