Natural Resources and Natural Security

In the 21st century, the security of nations will depend increasingly on the availability and access to natural resources. Countries need natural resources to meet the rising needs of their growing populations and the requirements for growth of the neoliberal economy. When key resources are not found locally but need to be imported, the main concern is to secure their “access”. In the race to get the giant’s part of the resources, the respect of the populations where the resources are found, the sustainability of the resource, the environment, and the needs of future generations are rarely considered. Also, new technologies increase production depleting the resources at rates unknown until now. This puts great pressure on the planet, favours the ecological decay, the loss of biodiversity, and influences climate change, which in turn, constitutes a threat to the security of countries and peoples where the resources are located.


Security and access to resources


 Natural resources can promote development, but they can also attract the greed of groups, businesses, and powerful countries searching for easy and cheap access to the resources to get benefits, even at the price of fuelling insecurity and conflicts. Though a peaceful and stable situation in the country where the resources are found and in the distribution chain seem essential for both demanding and supplier, the fact that many big players benefit from the current situation of insecurity in certain resource rich areas questions this assertion.


 Global commons


Natural resources essential for life such as water, land, air, biodiversity, etc. should be considered as global common goods not to be exploited and marketed as any other good. They need to be recognized and protected by binding international agreements and collectively managed by the community of nations (not exclusively by the state), in order to serve the needs of all.


 Resource security for both exporters and importers of resources


Resource security refers to the security of access to the resource for the foreign country or company that wants it; however, it does not include the security of the country and population where the resources are found. The distribution of resources in the earth leads to significant vulnerabilities. Oddly enough, this vulnerability affects not only the countries missing the resources, but often even more those where the resources are found, as these attract the greed of many. Thus, free access to cheap natural resources has become essential, and, as such, it is part of national security and of foreign policy interests.


To facilitate the access to the resources, international and cooperation agreements and charters are signed between those needing them and those owning them. The problem comes when the two signatories of the bilateral agreement are not on equal terms. The strong player will try to get the resource at the lowest price possible to maximize benefits and minimize costs that will translate into lower prices for consumers, but it will have little or no concern for the needs of the country and population owning the resource.


 Factors affecting resource security


The security linked to the resources depends on the scarcity of the resource and its price. As “resource security” is seen from the demand side, increases in price and barriers to access are considered threats. Companies can put pressure on their governments to act politically in order to facilitate their access to cheap resources. Western countries consider increased competition for African resources by China, India and Brazil as threat as well as the recent restriction of China’s exports of rare earth minerals[1].    


Political and social unrest, warfare, terrorism, natural disasters, competition over resource sources, and manipulation of prices are some of the threats to resource security. Lack of transparency in buying and selling the resource contributes to insecurity.


Environmental security


Environmental security considers how environmental factors can contribute to social and political tension or future conflict, as well as the impact of conflict and international relations on the environment. Increasing competition for scarce natural resources needed for life - water, fisheries, land, and biodiversity - can instigate conflicts, instability, and waves of environmental refugees. Some late environmental conflicts confirm this claim: the forest fires in Indonesia, the turbot fishery dispute between Canada and Spain, and the land conflict in Rwanda. 


Resource conflicts


The search for resources has stimulated conquests and wars since ancient times and continued in recent times by colonization. The goods, strategies, and methods may have changed, but the motivation remains: the thirst for benefits provided by the resources wherever they are (countries, Arctic, oceans, deserts, moon, universe) without concern for the consequences for the population and nature. Multinational companies helped by their government, roam the planet in search of new reserves as they compete for control of hugely profitable resources.


Natural resources, mainly oil and hard-rock minerals (gold, coltan, diamonds, wolframite) but also timber and water, play a key role in triggering, prolonging, and financing conflicts. Conflict can emerge over how a resource is used, allocated, or exploited and over who benefits from it. Different actors fuel the conflict as a means to gain access to and control over natural wealth.  The demonstrations of the Arab Spring kindled by high food prices show how poverty and declining living standards can cause internal turmoil ending in war. Poverty, injustices, ethnic or religious grievances, and unstable governments play major roles, but natural resources heighten the danger that a civil war will break out.


Resources influence insecurity through the effect on their: economies - by paying low prices and repatriating all benefits; governments - by weakening it, corrupting it, and lacking accountability; people -by unjust working conditions; environment - depletion and destruction; and rebel movements - by financing. To secure the access to resources, foreign governments are ready to use any means: support and fund dictators, side with rebel groups, use military/intelligence, diplomacy, etc. The NATO occupation of Iraq and the bombing of Libya, and the French intervention in the Ivory Coast are recent examples. The losers in the equation are the population where the resources are found and the less developed economies.


The “curse” of natural resources and security in Africa


In the last decades, the hunger for African resources - minerals, hydro-electrical power reserves, and offshore oil - has led to nine 'resource conflicts'. The link between natural resources and conflicts is so strong in the continent that the rich African natural resources are sometimes described as a “curse” as they have contributed to the use of violence and gross human rights violations.


Companies, countries, groups, and individuals have sought to profiteer from Africa’s vast natural resources playing troubling roles in the region, either motivating or fuelling armed conflicts in their aim to control valuable oilfields and minerals or at the expense of the suffering of the population. Arrays of players also influence the conflicts: shadowy resource traders, smugglers, corrupt local officials, arms dealers, transport operators, rebel groups, and mercenary companies. In Angola, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, rebel groups financed a long, violent civil war by selling diamonds. In the eastern DR Congo, the exploitation of the mines plays an important role in the conflict and in the violation of human rights.


Africa has not been able to transform its enormous economic potential and wealth into benefits and development for its people. The control over natural resources and their revenues often stay in the hands of small elite. Revenues from the resource exploitation are not only used for sustaining armies but also for personal enrichment and building political support.


 The main “external” players AFRICOM and the EU


The role played by the “internal” actors: government, rebel groups, suppliers, and beneficiaries of the exploitation of natural resources in conflicts, warfare, and their cessation is well known.  Their responsibility is certain, but we will look only at some “external” actors.


AFRICOM, the US military's new command for Africa says “to bolster regional security and upgrade humanitarian efforts”, but is seen by many as a US’s tool to push its corporate agenda on Africa to get access to its vast natural resources. The US supported Rwanda to move into eastern DR Congo to open up its vast mineral riches to North American based mining companies[2]. Millions of AFRICOM’s US dollars go to military contractors[3] to train and provide military logistics for African Union peacekeepers. AFRICOM's inaugural mission to help establishing a no-fly zone over Libya has reinforced African’s belief that AFRICOM intents the promotion of US strategic interests.


The European Union (EU) has not yet set an external policy, though the new European External Action Service (EEAS) aims at increasing EU's influence in the world. EU countries have intervened in different African conflicts. The recent French intervention in Ivory Coast is an example. They also actively participate in NATO actions in Iraq and Libya. The EU feels threatened by the entering of China, India, and Brazil in the search for African resources, and different means are taken to maintain EU’s influence in Africa. 


Towards resource security for all


Different approaches are needed to promote resource security for all.


At short term transparency at all levels (companies and governments); international cooperation through multilateral[4] fair agreements; economic security for all; restriction of conflict commodities; sustainable and responsible use of natural resources; reduce dependence by repairing, recycling, and reusing; fair leadership of national stakeholders; including the social and ecological ‘externalities’ in economic calculations. Better policies should help direct resource wealth to development and poverty reduction.


At medium term, there is need of a new relationship with nature, the recovery by states of their sovereignty over their natural resources, and an end to their private appropriation. This equilibrium needs not only political will on the side of all the stakeholders but mainly a change in the international system.


At long term, enhanced security demands a new and just international order and a personal change of behaviour.  This means a new approach to the relationships between human beings and to their relation to nature - the source of all life - moving from exploitation to respect. The “new order” needs international frameworks for resource governance and collective management of global common goods to make them available to all. This new order needs to serve the live of all on the planet Earth; answer the needs of developing countries; make the populations where the resources are found the main beneficiaries of the exploitation; foresee the protection of the environment; and prevent the degradation of the resources. But together with political and structural changes, a change of personal behaviour is also essential to diminish consumption and to live more austere.


Some other possible orientations could be: the sovereignty of nations over their energy resources; the prohibition of speculation o­n food products; the regulation of agro-fuels so that they respect biodiversity, the conservation of soil and water quality and the principle of peasant agriculture; the adoption of measures necessary to limit the increase of the earth’s temperature to 1ºC during the 21st century; and public control over oil and minerals through an international code of exploitation, verified and authorized, concerning the ecological and social effects (including, inter alia the rights of indigenous peoples).


Begoña Iñarra

[1] Rare Earth Minerals are a suite of 17 elements used in products from high-powered magnets, and fuel refining to energy-efficient light bulbs, mobile phones, screens and modern military equipment. This critical natural resource is relatively plentiful but dispersed and not often found in concentrated and economically exploitable forms. The West was happy to allow China to do its extraction as it is very polluting.

[2] Madsen testimony before  the US Congress  in 2001

[3] DynCorp and Pacific Architects and Engineers, which is now run by defense-contractor giant Lockheed Martin.

[4] In international relations multilateral refers to multiple countries working in concert on a given issue. International organizations, such as the United Nations (UN) and the World Trade Organization are multilateral in nature. 

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