ECC Platform Library


From Curse to Blessing: How Africa’s Natural Resources Can Build Peace

21 July, 2016
Jonathan Rozen

While natural resource development can generate economic success, it can also increase the likelihood of conflict, particularly in Africa. Ongoing violence in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta is a good example of the so-called “resource curse” in action. In response, African governments continue to grapple with how best to use their resource endowments to foster both economic opportunity and peace. At a time of much soul-searching for the United Nations, there is a unique opportunity to put responsible and effective resource development at the heart of African peacebuilding. But how might local communities take greater ownership of these processes?

The UN Peacebuilding Commission is now examining where and how it can contribute to better management of natural resource development, as part of its newly enhanced mandate to seek prevention of global conflict. “We’ve been supporting the type of discussion that needs to happen between citizens and governments and between governments and companies,” Oscar Fernández-Taranco, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Peacebuilding Support, told me.

In Liberia, for example, the UN Peacebuilding Fund is looking to help improve resource contract management and community complaint mechanisms to ameliorate tensions that may lead to conflict. Over the last two years, Liberia has suffered from the effects of the Ebola epidemic and slumping global commodity prices. Resource extraction sites have correspondingly become loci of unrest, including hostage-taking and riots. The Liberian government sought support from the UN to improve, among other things, citizen engagement in natural resource investment deals, operations, and revenues. It is here—in helping manage the space between communities, governments, and companies—that UN agencies believe they are best positioned to act.

The African Union is also looking to develop greater community involvement in the extractive sector as it takes on more responsibility for ensuring peace and security on the continent. The AU adopted the African Mining Vision in 2009, followed by a corresponding Action Plan in 2011 and Country Mining Vision Guidebook in 2014. African regional economic communities have also developed additional governance frameworks. Notably, the Economic Community of West African States’ 2008 Conflict Prevention Framework includes initiatives for bolstering community involvement and empowerment around natural resources. These various plans all link natural resources to conflict prevention and stress the importance of community negotiation.

The UN and AU have in turn combined efforts to target illicit financial flows out of Africa. This is in keeping with the findings of February 2015’s Mbeki Report, which stressed the need for resource revenues to remain within their country of origin. The report also highlights unequal contracts that fuel bribery, tax avoidance through abusive transfer pricing, and the complicity of international financial institutions in these practices.

By restructuring natural resource contracts and limiting illicit financial flows, African countries may gain additional capacity to boost development and peacebuilding project spending. But this is by no means guaranteed to benefit remote communities, which are often negatively impacted by extraction projects, especially where government institutions are heavily centralized.

Building Resilience Through Local Engagement

According to the African Development Bank 2014 Annual Report, the extractive sector accounts for over half of Africa’s exports, and in some countries up to 90%. This level of dependency creates significant risks during commodity market downturns such as the one currently being experienced.

Increasing interaction between communities and the extractive industries can help to diversify the types of extractive activities that take place and better cater to companies’ procurement and labor needs. Isabelle Ramdoo, Senior Adviser at the African Minerals Development Centre, has outlined the value of dedicated local content policies within extractive operations, as a means of achieving this.

Increased community engagement can also improve social resilience. Greater dialogue and coordination between communities, companies, and governments may serve to prevent social tensions. As an October 2015 assessment of mining in Mali’s Kayes region notes, disputes between communities can arise over employment opportunities and the distribution of other benefits such as health centers or schools. In Kayes, company-community consultation processes failed to adequately consider negative impacts on villages outside of the mines’ direct areas. This heightened tensions over perceptions of unequal benefit distribution. Additionally, companies’ selective consultation and recognition of land title disagreements stirred inter-community disputes.

Increased land ownership and initiatives to formalize the extractive sector could reduce potential violence over natural resources, especially among vulnerable or marginalized groups. For example, a 2016 panel noted how legal frameworks could provide land rights and access to dispute resolution mechanisms for “artisanal” female miners. Additionally, formalization of this nature may offer avenues for dividends from the inclusion of women in peacebuilding processes. Improved and formalized community interaction with companies and governments around natural resources can prevent development of informal economies that may be more easily used to finance criminal or armed groups, and thus decrease fragility. Positive and mutually beneficial relations between communities and companies have, nevertheless, proven elusive until now.

From a business point of view, investing in responsible and locally focused operations can ensure a social licence to operate, as well as compliance with international standards such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and those contained in the UN Global Compact. Proactive investment in community relations and conflict prevention may also reduce operating risks, thereby improving productivity and profit margins. As a 2005 International Alert guide for extractive industries outlines, conflict imposes costs such as destruction of materials, as well as temporary delays in operations from strikes, stoppages over safety concerns, and supply chain disruptions. A 2014 Harvard Kennedy School report examined 50 cases of sustained company-community conflict around the world and found that lost productivity resulting from delays was the most frequently cited, but often overlooked, financial cost of community-level conflict.

While many resources companies do pursue strong community relations through the lens of corporate social responsibility, a 2013 study from the Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining notes that community relations and development remain absent from the mining industry’s core business model. This means that when commodity prices drop, investment in these areas may suffer from cost-cutting.

The Pan-African Investment Code being developed by several of the continent’s governments offers an improved legal framework for companies operating in Africa. But further political commitment is needed to end the view of Africa as merely a lucrative business opportunity. “It cannot be that Africa is just a place where you go to do business in risky situations for high returns,” said Monica Juma, Principal Secretary at the Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, at an International Peace Institute event in May this year. “This must come to the table in terms of stabilizing risk factors for Africa.”

Meanwhile, the mining sector and affected communities are facing new challenges such as climate change, making social and economic stability even more important for conflict prevention. Indeed, the African Development Bank’s High-Level Panel on Fragile States identifies issues around extractive industries, climate disruption, and resource conflicts as key drivers of fragility in Africa. Peacebuilding strategies must therefore promote conflict- and climate-sensitive contracts between all parties.

African Ownership for Sustainable Peace

Maged Abdelaziz, UN Under-Secretary-General and Special Adviser on Africa, told me that building the necessary linkages between resource extraction and resilience on the continent must begin with the AU. “The UN will not be able to start this kind of global approach on extractive industries because it will be faced with opposition from countries that have big multinational corporations that are benefiting,” he said.

Further progress will be tied to the UN and AU’s continued consideration of how best to pursue the concept of “sustaining peace.” The UN Security Council and General Assembly adopted identical resolutions in April this year advocating this new vision of peacebuilding, which moves away from a reactive, peacekeeping-heavy approach to the deployment of more preventative strategies. Improved natural resource governance in Africa, principally through increased community involvement, has the potential to prevent conflict by fostering inclusion and promoting resilient economic development. The UN and AU should therefore pursue improved dialogue with local stakeholders and more equitable contracts for resource development, while continually stressing the business rationale for doing so. This is an invaluable opportunity to create African ownership of African peacebuilding.

Jonathan Rozen is an independent researcher on peacebuilding and violent extremism.

The article originally appeared on IPI Global Observatory.

Conflict Transformation
Minerals & Mining

Sub-Saharan Africa
Middle East & North Africa


Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

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Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

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Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.


Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.


The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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