Is natural resource development a blessing, a ‘quick-fix,’ or a curse?

By | 19 September, 2013


Geneva, Switzerland – Economic development is widely assumed to bring the blessings of higher standards of living and to be a quick fix for cash poor countries. However, there are many who look at economic development and instead consider it to be a curse in the “global south” – South America, Africa, and Asia – and also in parts of the more industrialised world where indigenous peoples live.

All too often, development projects consist of a private, multinational enterprise working with a national or local government to obtain access to a natural resource, extract it, and then transport it elsewhere for processing. Residents of the country have access to the extraction jobs but processing, manufacturing and other higher-paying jobs that require technical skills are cultivated elsewhere. At the same time, profits from the project largely do not reach the people who bear the brunt of its environmental and health impacts.

Economists have examined countries relying on natural resource exports for economic growth found that the higher the reliance, the slower the growth. Even worse, this development model often leads to greater corruption and inequality. The typical government-business transactions that provide access to these resources have been referred to collectively as the “resource curse,” an oft-cited yet oft-ignored point that applies to many different sectors of natural resources, from minerals to forest products to raw food staples such as palm oil.

A faulty business model

The reasons for the resource curse frequently boils down to one simple problem: this business model does not recognise the rights of the indigenous peoples and local communities living on the land in question. I am referring to the indigenous inhabitants of the Amazon, for example, or other communities like them throughout the world where the government’s claim ownership of the land and the right to give away the resources as they deem best, and too many private enterprises are willing to play along.

However, the land is not empty and the communities that are there were established generations if not hundreds of years ago. In the case of indigenous peoples, their connections to the land invariably have a longer history than the government deciding what to do with the land. According to the Rights and Resources Initiative, ownership of roughly one-half of the global south is contested, directly affecting the lives and livelihoods of over two billion people. This is no surprise, since over sixty percent of the developing world’s forests are administered by governments – who all too often give it away for pennies per hectare, for the sake of “quick-fix” development.

The tragedy is that resource deals in the developing world often target the very people that rely on the land for their survival. They are often deprived of their property, the crops that feed their families, and the forests and land that support their livelihoods without being fully incorporated into the decision-making process.

Deprived of participation and self-determination these folks see their forests and fields quickly shorn of forests, biodiversity and wildlife, destroying their own hope for meaningful economic development and undermining their distinctive cultures.

For an example, consider the push for alternative fuels to help slow climate change, which has led to large-scale biofuel plantations. When a previously forested landscape is cleared to plant jatropha or other biofuel vegetation, emissions result from the industrial clear-cutting methods as well as the decomposition of the plants and woods. It takes decades for the emissions savings from biofuels to compensate for tree-clearing – and if peatland is cleared and drained, it takes centuries. This is not sustainable, and it harms the people whose material welfare and cultural patterns depend upon the land and its resources.

Role of the media

As a United Nations investigator, I have travelled the world and seen first-hand how these issues play out. Time and time again, I find that the attention brought by the spotlight of media coverage keeps all stakeholders honest and helps them act in a more responsible and sustainable manner.

But what keeps me up at night is when there is no spotlight – where resource transactions run roughshod over the people whose very existence is seen to stand in the way of progress. Protests, whether through legal action or street theatre, have few teeth when they can be disregarded without worry. And the transgressions and human rights violations that take place in the dark are unfathomable; one estimate found that the global rate in which activists were murdered doubled between 2002 and 2011, and now exceeds two deaths a week.

We as a global society are at a moment, however, where we can turn the page and write a new story of development, one in which the blessings of the land are shared equitably. The United Nations is leading the negotiations for new Sustainable Development Goals, which will guide economic development and poverty reduction for the next 15 years. These goals should include targets for the recognition of land rights that include rights based on traditional use and occupancy; this would direct attention and much-needed funding to ensure that economic development works to genuinely benefit Indigenous Peoples and the local communities that are on the front lines of natural resource exploitation.

Notably, industry, governments, Indigenous Peoples, and civil society are starting to work together to shape a shared vision in these negotiations. Their coordination – which will be advanced at a strategy conference in Interlaken, Switzerland this week – holds the promise to answer their shared problems of insecure land rights and contested ownership.

We have always viewed the natural resources of the Earth to be a blessing, yet the history of “resource development” on the lands of Indigenous Peoples mostly speaks to the paradigm of the resource curse. It is time to embrace the land and its bounty like they do, transforming development so that all can share in its wealth.

James Anaya is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. He recently completed a report for the UN Human Rights Council on “Extractive Industries and Indigenous Peoples”, available at