The relationship between conflict and natural resources from the perspective of peace research and conflict transformation

Rafael Grasa
President of the International Catalan Institute for Peace

From the point of view of peace research and conflict transformation, the relationship between violent conflict and the environment has been a frequent issue for many years. In fact, very often we hear speak of "environmental conflict" in at least two different ways. The first way is to refer to conflict related with an environmental agenda (dumping grounds, natural resources, administration of water, waste management, climate change, etc.), in other words, social conflict, often arising from incompatibilities or antagonism of a distributive nature, which affect environmental assets or issues. The second way, in which the issue has appeared in more recent times, is the use of the expression to refer to recent conflicts of an environmental nature, which require specific tools for their analysis and intervention, as is the case with biopiracy or, within the context of this current issue of the magazine, conflict associated with extractive industries.

Currently, the dominating position, the mainstream if you like, is the former: environmental conflicts are a specific type of social conflict to which the same tools for analysis and intervention must be applied (administration, resolution and transformation) as with other conflicts. It is true to say that these conflicts have certain specifications, which affect the motivations and interests of the stakeholders involved, the reasons for incompatibility and the behavior of the stakeholders throughout the process of the conflict.

Some have even gone so far as to refer to them as socio-environmental conflicts, given that the social and environmental causes and explanations are always inseparably linked and commonplace in developed societies. A recent development which allows a better understanding of the cases which are presented to us at the magazine is that of collaboration between experts in conflict transformation and those who are extremely familiar with specific socio-environmental conflict. The following findings, tool-kits and analysis guidelines based on clear assumptions can be summarized in the four points below:

  1. Conflict should always be interpreted as a dynamic situation.
  2. Socio-environmental conflict, given the overlapping social and environmental stakeholders, accelerate and exasperate its dynamic nature, increasing the potential for polarization and confrontation, a fact that almost always means there is a perception of grievance, injustice, of an unresolved distributive problem hanging over some of the stakeholders at odds.
  3. "Intractable" socio-environmental conflict, in other words, those resistant to administration and resolution, often exasperate this dynamism and polarization; despite conflict evolution, the confronted parties constantly feel a sense that the antagonism is total, unsolvable and permanent.
  4. The reason being, the framework of stereotyped vision of the conflict, which ultimately condition the way that the issues on the agenda are perceived, their eventual fair and acceptable solution, if we are to seek a solution, demands reframing our understanding of the situation, calling for a change in how we perceive the predicament. Alternatively, any mutually agreeable solution becomes an unviable option.

A good example of this approach is precisely that concerning one of the most prevalent sources of socio-environmental conflict in recent years, which furnishes a significant number of violent examples for analysis. We are referring here to natural resource extractive industries. The expansion of extractive industries to countries in the southern hemisphere has given rise to a myriad of socio-environmental conflicts. In Africa, for example, we can find conflict associated with contamination, as in the case with those analysed herein derived from the extraction of oil in the Niger Delta or the contamination, even though to a lesser degree, resulting from mining in Tanzania. Nevertheless, we can also find conflict associated with degradation of vital natural supplies which give rise to forced migration of peoples, such as the case in Botswana, Ghana, Namibia and Tanzania. In Asia, we discover conflict in several areas where extractive activities are taking place, such as Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, The Philippines or Thailand, and even, transnational armed conflict as is the case in India and resulting from gold mining.

In the case of Latin America, conflict has also become more frequent in areas where extractive activities are in operation resulting in confrontation between local communities and the state or the companies engaging in extraction, as a result of land use, contamination or distribution of income derived from the exploitation of resources. Therefore, it would be well worth reflecting on how to analyse, prevent and manage the conflict settings resulting from the extraction, administration and use of natural resources.

We can draw on the situation in Latin America to define several considerations regarding the causes and some lessons learned. The proliferation of socio-environmental conflict in Latin America can be explained by four associated causes. Firstly, due to the consolidation of an export model affecting the primary sector and which has generated a new cycle of geographic expansion of extractive projects, forging new frontiers for extraction. To serve as an example, in Peru, 65 blocks, or areas rich in oil and gas, cover more than 70% of the country's Amazonian territory. Many of these so-called blocks are located in areas belonging to indigenous peoples or considered protected zones. In Bolivia, due to the country's potential wealth of oil and gas resources, 55% of the territory has been earmarked for exploration and eventual exploitation by the state-owned company. Secondly, extractive activity is no longer seen as a source of employment in the region, especially in the case of new extractive projects, which hire very little local labour. Witnessing the short-term income dry up has strengthened the feeling of the importance of environmental degradation. In other words, the conflicts have gone from being confrontations over labour issues to becoming focused on environmental concerns. Thirdly, distribution problems are becoming more important and exasperating polarisation, to such a degree that disagreement over the distribution and use of income resulting from extractive activity are pitting the companies involved against central government, local administrations and departments and ultimately local communities and landowners. And fourthly, many of these conflicts are escalating and increase in complexity as a result of weak governance, such as the violence involved when projects get underway, corruption, lack of transparency and even noncompliance with agreements in force.

All of this, based on numerous examples allows us to draw several conclusions. Firstly, conflicts have to be prevented. This requires reinforcing the mechanisms for planning and strengthening rural development and implementing policy aimed at fostering participation in the decision making process. Secondly, the only way to manage conflicts, controlling an escalation to violence while at the same time allowing for the possibility of researching resolutions which enable stakeholders to transform the conflict, is to provide support for negotiation processes and transparent dialogue. And thirdly, the experience of recent years has shown that fortunately, there are positive examples of how stakeholders have managed to transform conflict while at the same time, transforming extractive activity.

In other words, it is vital to maintain structural social problems at the forefront of the debate, such as chronic inequality and marginalisation which create a breeding ground for the proliferation of conflictive and polarized situations in the context of extractive industry expansion. Social aspects exasperate the impact of the environmental dimensions.