Extractive Conflicts in the Developing World


This paper examines the rise of conflicts over the extraction of natural resources in the developing world. It  emphasizes  the  main factors that motivate collective action: threats and opportunities. Challengers join in action to avoid the adverse socio-environmental effects associated with extraction, but they also mobilize because of new opportunities or advantages that extraction brings to host communities. These incentives are most likely  to trigger collective action at the local level but can also prompt the participation of outside groups, depending on the nature of the threat. Mobilization strategies are partly shaped by the local conditions where mining is taking place; preventive mobilization is favored in some areas and the judicialization of conflicts in others. This paper draws on two extractive conflicts, the Tía María copper project in Peru and the Fuleni coal project in South Africa, to illustrate the drivers of collective action, the nature of mobilizing methods, and the impact of these methods on the cancellation of the projects. It concludes by discussing the long-term impact of mobilizing strategies on extractive conflicts.

Moises Arce
Riley Moran
October 29, 2020

At the onset of the 20th century, the high demand of oil and minerals from emerging economies led to an increase in commodity prices in the developing word. This commodity boom, from 2002 to 2014, produced  an important economic expansion and reduced prevailing levels of poverty and inequality, particularly in resource-rich countries. Twelve Latin American countries experienced a decline in their Gini coefficient between 2000 and 2007. In Africa, with growth rates hovering around 4.5 percent of GDP over the past two decades, poverty fell by 13 percentage points, from 60 to 47 percent. However, the commodity boom was also associated with a host of negative externalities, such as corruption, environmental damage, and social conflicts. Ecological economist Arnim Scheidel and his co-authors documented 573 environmental conflicts related to mining in 2020; the regions of Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa contain the most. Latin America is known to be the world’s most dangerous region for environmental activists, including those who contest resource extraction. The combination of an abundance of natural resources in these regions along with political environments conducive to mobilization helps explain the high incidence of conflicts and conflict-related violence there.

Social clashes over the extraction of mineral resources can occur at different stages along the commodity chain: the point of resource access— when agricultural producers and extractive industries clash over land and water use prior to extraction; the extraction stage itself—when extractive activities open or existing ones expand to new lands; the processing and transportation of oil and minerals; and the waste management stage—when tailing dams or oil pipelines fail. The main commodities inspiring these conflicts around the world are precious metals like gold and silver (39 percent), base metals like copper (36 percent), and energy resources such as coal and uranium (19 percent).

While it is hard to definitively state why conflicts erupt at different stages of the commodity chain, existing research has made important contributions to our understanding of their causes. In some instances, host communities reject projects altogether because of their adverse effects on water, land, and livelihoods. In other cases, host communities accept the projects but demand a better distribution of the economic benefits from mineral extraction. In this paper, following the literature on social movements, we explain the major drivers of mobilization over resource extraction: threats and opportunities. The nature of threats motivates different levels of col- lective action (local, national, and transnational), but some mobilization strategies may be more effective than others, depending on local conditions. For instance, preventive mobilization may be more advantageous to challenge extraction where local grassroots organizations are abundant. Conversely, the judicialization of the conflicts may be a better mobilizing strategy in contexts where local organizing is difficult. We draw on two extractive conflicts at the point of resource access—the Tía María copper project in Peru and the Fuleni coal project in South Africa—to show the drivers of mobilization, the nature of mobilizing strategies, and the impact of these strategies on the trajectory of the projects.

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