Michael Keating
Michael Keating
Former Associate Director, Research Partnerships
Marshalling the knowledge and growing expertise about how resources stoke conflict can help point the way to solutions.
Photo: Taylor Weidman / Contributor / Getty Images. Photo: Taylor Weidman / Contributor / Getty Images.

The world’s natural resources are under growing strain. Population growth, extractive technologies and consumer demand are putting unprecedented pressure on land, forests, water sources and the air. The continued search for hydrocarbons and minerals is pushing exploration into more technically challenging and environmentally sensitive areas

As the pressure mounts, so will disputes over resources. While there is nothing new about such disputes, their potential to undermine peace and security in an increasingly interconnected world is growing.

Dispute architecture

Many of the world’s untapped, non-renewable natural resources are to be found in fragile states, where the risk of resource disputes fuelling violence is high. Countries such as Afghanistan, Burma, Iraq, Libya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan and South Sudan are undergoing or struggling to pull out of civil wars. Critical questions include how to prevent disputes over the ownership, use and extraction of natural resources from turning violent; how to resolve them once they start; and how knowledge of resource governance can contribute to broader conflict resolution.

For international disputes, the architecture is in place, centred on the United Nations and regional bodies such as the European Union or African Union. In subnational disputes, the role of international actors is ill-defined, and the mandate of the UN and regional bodies can be politically contested. States tend to be highly sensitive to infringements upon their sovereignty. Moreover, security and financial constraints compromise intergovernmental bodies’ ability to mediate local disputes in dangerous places. Yet the international community has a strong interest in containing intrastate disputes.

Partly as a consequence, the number of international non-governmental organizations being funded to engage in intrastate conflict resolution is growing. NGOs working on resource disputes have notched up some important achievements – for example, fostering agreement on revenue sharing and management of oil and gas resources in Aceh, Indonesia, that helped end the insurgency. Other successes have been low-profile, made possible by deep local knowledge and acceptance, and sustained presence.

That said, mediation and related approaches to preventing and resolving natural resource disputes are underutilized. There are still relatively few people with the skills and expertise to mediate resource conflicts, especially in complex transitional or fragile-state situations. The legitimacy and motivation of even the most principled international organizations and NGOs are under constant scrutiny. Coordination among them can also be poor.

Resolving resource conflicts requires a wide range of skills. These include an understanding of precedent, local history and the political economy, including the contested role of the state, and the ability to build trust, be creative and manage complex processes. Knowledge of natural resources and resource governance is also essential.

These skill sets are available but are dispersed between local and international actors, governments and NGOs, natural resource experts, and political scientists. But the knowledge base has grown.

Understanding resource violence

There is more understanding of the complex interactions between political grievances, governance and access to resources, and how processes such as soil erosion, desertification and climate change can provoke violence. The role of droughts in Syria and Sudan in ratcheting up feelings of inequality and injustice are cases in point.

There is a better sense of timing and of the critical moments that can deflate or turbocharge violence, including elections, constitutional reviews, loan negotiations and private-sector deals relating to extractives.

In most cases, and in most societies, rich and poor, conflicts have been resolved locally or politically, through treaties, financial deals and legal agreements, usually without massive violence or civil war.

But a feature of fragile states is that local and traditional mechanisms that govern the use of resources, and through which disputes may once have been resolved, are weak or have broken down. National institutions and the rule of law in general are also weak.

A natural resource lens yields insights not just into the dynamics of conflict but also resolution.

Agreements involving natural resources can serve as confidence-building measures. The Indus Waters Treaty, signed in 1960, has survived several Indo-Pakistani wars and continues to provide a basis for dialogue. There are countless national or local agreements around the world over ownership, use and control of resources, though many of them are unwritten.

When core political differences seem intractable, dialogue over shared economic benefits from natural resources, such as oil and gas, can help create otherwise non-existent political space.

Investment in sustainable exploitation of renewable energy technologies – hydro, wind, thermal, biomass and solar – might even prove to be a means of decreasing tensions.

But the ability to deploy all this knowledge in a manner that helps resolve, let alone prevent, violence - particularly within countries - remains limited.

The way forward

At a minimum, given that global public goods are at stake, the business of natural resource dispute resolution should be taken more seriously by states, international organisztions and NGOs. Precedent and good practice need to be catalogued; expertise should be more effectively marshalled; and standards revisited.

Knowledge of natural resource governance and the potential for resource-based, confidence-building measures could have a more prominent place in the conflict resolution toolbox.

As a new research paper by Chatham House points out, more can be done to achieve better leadership and management to ensure a diffuse but essential set of skills is more consistently deployed.

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