Putting the spotlight on local communities
Understanding resource conflicts
The CoCooN research programme produced 68 academic articles and many other publications, such as policy briefs and case studies. What have they contributed to our understanding of conflicts around the extraction of natural resources in developing countries? Now that the CoCooN programme has nearly finished, it is time to draw some conclusions and lessons learnt.
The CoCooN Conference held in The Hague on 25 to 27 November 2015 revealed what the six research projects in fourteen countries tell us about conflict and cooperation. The GOMIAM research project on small-scale gold mining in the Amazon, for example, has shown that distrust between governments and miners is an important obstacle to better policies and practices. ‘Small-scale gold mining in the Amazon region not only threatens the livelihoods of indigenous peoples and local communities,’ explained project coordinator Marjo de Theije, ‘it is also a conflict of interests between many actors, like timber firms and coca farmers, and haphazard responses by governments.’
This project was the first to look at the conflicts from a regional and multidisciplinary perspective. De Theije: ‘Conflicts can only be solved or mitigated if environmental aspects like deforestation and mercury pollution of watersheds are related to socio-economic aspects and include the legal and institutional context.’ For example, reducing mercury pollution is not just a case of enforcing a law; success depends on having a strategy to reach out to the small-scale miners based on understanding how mining practices are passed on by family members or colleagues. This should be taken into account when offering alternative techniques. A regional approach is also necessary because of the transnational mobility of small-scale miners. This was clearly demonstrated when a strict policy in French Guyana led to in an upsurge of mining activity just over the border in Suriname.
The research findings indicate that policies that make small-scale mining practices illegal and back violent campaigns of enforcement have failed to achieve their primary goal of curbing the expansion of mining and have fuelled further conflicts. Alexandra Uran Carmona from the University of Antioquia, in Medellín Colombia: ‘It is worthwhile questioning the effectiveness of violence and legislation as a means of dealing with illegal mining in the Amazon. Formalisation is better because it is about how to organise communities. Installing cooperatives and establishing Fair Trade schemes is one way forward.’ Conflicts can be reduced if local communities and miners participate in decision-making processes and policy formulation.
A recurring theme in all CoCooN projects is continued mistrust between indigenous communities and governments. In Ghana and Ethiopia the Jatropha project looked at the conflicts arising from the boom and bust of Jatropha production. ‘Many communities lost their land because the Ghanaian government paid no attention to the impacts that large foreign investments in Jatropha production in the region were having on food security, rural development and sustainability,’ explained Emmanuel Acheampong of the Kwame Nkrumah University in Ghana. ‘In the end Jatropha was not the holy grail it was made out to be and foreign investors stopped production. It was a hype based on weak evidence that Jatropha was productive enough to become a strong international commodity.’ In the end, small farmers not only lost their land, but there was no economic activity left in the region either.
The Jatropha project proves that local conflicts are often the result of international dynamics: findings show that governments should be more critical of foreign investors, the main issue being the ownership of land and lack of land governance. Whereas in Ethiopia the central government could regain the land after foreign investors lost interest, in Ghana land remained in the hands of the foreign investors because local chiefs were responsible for the concessions and not the state. Acheampong: ‘This research shows that we have to be careful with hypes. International investors may go for them without taking into account the interests of local communities.’ Other CoCooN projects mention the empowerment and participation of local communities for getting their voice across and starting dialogues to increase mutual trust as well:
- The Reincorporating Small-Scale Fishers in Governance (REINCORPFISH) project in South Africa and South Asia shows that in South Africa progress with developing and implementing a new fisheries policy was made with the participation of local fisher communities.
- The Lands and Rights in Troubled Waters (LAR) project in Brazil and Colombia revealed that crimes against marginalized populations – who lack political and economic power and access to justice and law enforcement institution – remain unnoticed and invisible in the formal economic and governmental systems. It also concludes that the Round Table on Responsible Soy agreement is not being implemented properly as deforestation for soy plantations is still widespread.
- The Nationalisation and State Activism in the Extractive Industries (NEBE) project in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru shows that activist governments that are more rooted in political movements and grassroots organisations also have to improve collaboration with local communities and social organizations to bring about a sustainable and inclusive management of natural resources.
- The Groundwater in the Political Domain (GPD) project in Ethiopia, the Palestinian Territories and Yemen shows that groundwater is a very local resource, but that access to and management of groundwater in these countries is regulated centrally. ‘Political agendas are the main obstacle to local communities increasing their access to and managing local groundwater sources,’ explained researcher Frank van Steenbergen of MetaMeta. ‘It leaves little space for local entrepreneurial initiatives or regulation of groundwater use.’
Looking at all the case studies of the six research projects in the CoCooN programme leads to the conclusion that conflicts related to natural resources occur when structural inequalities coincide with imbalances of power over access to and use of water, land, timber and minerals. Although the drivers of conflicts are different in each case – such as large-scale versus small-scale, local versus international or private versus public actors – when conflicts arise it is deprived local communities that suffer the most. Other conclusions are that local communities should be seen as essential partners in monitoring and evidence-gathering, and that a power analysis from local to the global is essential. To fully understand resource conflicts it is important that the conclusions from the CoCooN projects are translated into a more generic analysis and recommendations – while not losing sight of the daily struggles of local communities in resource-conflict zones and the peculiarities of each case.
Blog written by Evert-Jan Quak of The Broker