Michael Keating
Former Associate Director, Research Partnerships
Oli Brown, Former Associate Fellow, Energy, Environment and Resources, Chatham House (2012-14)

The international community should approach intervention in national and sub-national resource disputes with caution, and its primary role should be to support the ability of countries to resolve their own conflicts, write Oli Brown and Michael Keating.

Photo: Taylor Weidman / Contributor / Getty Images. Photo: Taylor Weidman / Contributor / Getty Images.

Disputes over natural resources – such as land, fresh water, minerals or fishing rights – are ubiquitous. When resolved peacefully, as is most often the case, such disagreements are an essential part of progress and development.

However, resource disputes can also trigger violence and destruction, particularly in states with weak governance, high levels of corruption, and existing ethnic and political divisions. Bitter disagreements over the distribution of Iraq’s oil wealth among Sunni, Shia and Kurdish regions, for example, have contributed to the fragmentation of that country. In the Darfur region of Sudan, disputes between pastoralist herders and farmers over livestock migration routes and watering holes have become a violent flashpoint for wider cultural, ethnic and religious differences.

Population growth, urbanization, rising consumption, climate change, environmental degradation, and new technologies for the extraction and processing of resources are changing the patterns of resource supply and demand. This has profound implications for the political economy of resource use – both globally and locally. By the middle of this century, for example, it is predicted that the world’s population will have exceeded 9 billion, global energy use will have doubled, and global water demand will have increased by 55 per cent over 2012.

These various trajectories, when taken together, strongly suggest that disputes over resources will occur more frequently in future. They may arise over issues and resources that are hard even to imagine now, and in places that we may not anticipate. In our globalized world the costs of violent conflict are incurred not only locally in terms of human lives and destruction, but also regionally and internationally. It may not be too much of an exaggeration to suggest that politics in the 21st century will be shaped, in part, by how well these disputes can be resolved.

At a broad level four types of resource dispute can present a general challenge to national stability: secessionist conflicts in which resource-rich regions seek to split away from the rest of a country; disputes over resources as part of a new national compact (i.e. in the context of a peace agreement or new constitution); grievances over standalone projects such as mines and hydroelectric dams; and the cumulative impact of multiple small-scale clashes, typically over land, livestock or fresh water.

One of four potentially contentious issues is typically at the heart of these national or sub-national resource disputes: ownership of the resource; allocation of power for managing access to or developing the resource; the distribution of resource revenues; and environmental and social damage caused by extracting the resource.

Most disputes are resolved locally without any international intervention, through existing legislative, judicial, traditional and management mechanisms. Occasionally, however, national authorities and local communities may be unable or unwilling to settle their differences. In these cases, with the attendant risk of violent conflict, the international community may have an important role to play in helping to resolve the dispute.

This is particularly true in cases where the dispute is intractable, funds to support dispute resolution are lacking, or there is a need for an impartial outsider to bring protagonists together to develop creative solutions. In Aceh, Indonesia, Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, and Timor-Leste international support helped to surmount difficult issues and facilitated agreement.

This is not to suggest that international involvement in national and sub-national resource disputes is necessarily either desirable or feasible. Such interventions can be seen as an affront to a country’s sovereignty or as ‘taking sides’ in a bitter dispute, and thus risk a range of potentially dangerous unintended consequences. The international community may not have any mandate or legitimacy to intervene in what are essentially sovereign issues. In Ecuador, a US-based NGO negotiating with an oil company on behalf of the Huaorani – an indigenous group in the Oriente region – held meetings in private without the presence of Huaorani representatives. It then concluded a deal that went against the collective wishes of the Huaorani.

Even where international actors are invited to help resolve disputes, their track record in this area is patchy. International support for the resolution of national-level resource disputes is neither consistent nor systematic, and is often poorly timed, badly prepared and ill-informed with regard to the specific local context. There has also been a proliferation of international initiatives and actors, which has made coherent, coordinated action even more challenging. Moreover, international activities on the ground are often undermined by weak cooperation among development, mediation and security actors; insufficient human and financial resources; a lack of ‘conflict sensitivity’; and a general reluctance to learn from mistakes. A 2011 OECD report on conflict prevention argued that ‘the multiplicity of actors and responses means that the problems of late, incoherent, fragmented, and confused response are perhaps greater today than was true at the time of the Rwandan genocide’.

The international community should approach intervention with caution, and its primary role should be to support the ability of countries to resolve their own natural resource disputes: building local capacity wherever possible, but providing impartial mediation services where appropriate.

There are three ways in which the international community needs to improve its capacities if it is to play a more effective role in the resolution of violent national and sub-national resource disputes.

Developing more sophisticated analytical competency is the first component. This entails the ability to understand the social, political and institutional context; to work out what the driving issues are; to get to know how different stakeholders are involved in, or affected by, the dispute; and to find ways to measure outcomes and impacts of dispute resolution. Ultimately this means tailoring the response to the specific type of resource dispute (constitutional, point source or systemic) and the issues at hand (ownership, control, division of revenues, or environmental or social damage).

The second component is improving process competency. This involves the ability to design effective processes, to negotiate, to coordinate, to communicate with stakeholders and to work in diverse teams. 

The third component is enhancing leadership and management competency. In the context of resource dispute resolution, this comprises skills of collaborative leadership, facilitation and mediation. The international community often has little, if any, coercive power to force an agreement. Rather, it needs to build a consensus among stakeholders at the national level on the need to resolve resource disputes, and provide the tools that can help them do so.