Resource Grabbing in a Changing Environment

By Adwoa Yeboah Gyapong, Amod Shah, Corinne Lamain, Elyse Mills, Natacha Bruna, Sergio Coronado and Yukari Sekine | EADI/ISS Blog Series

We are living in an era where people’s daily lives are deeply intertwined with the impacts of global markets and the threats of climate change. Even good intentions for mitigating and adapting to climate change can jeopardise natural resources and rural livelihoods. These seemingly abstract issues are becoming increasingly clear through both research and the role of the media, sparking questions such as: How do attempts to address climate change prevent farmers from working their lands, or negatively affect the livelihoods of forest users? Why are fishers organising themselves to resist interventions intended to protect marine areas? How do human rights groups and indigenous communities resist the state and powerful companies despite civil society space being increasingly limited?

The rapid rise in the scale and scope of the commodification and exploitation of natural resources can be linked to four broad, interlinked drivers: the expansion of the industrial food system; increasing privatisation of the commons; changes in governance mechanisms; and the growing prominence of climate mitigation and adaptation responses. Both local and global issues shape and complicate the dynamics of contemporary resource grabbing, many of which are still not fully understood – and will be explored further in our workshop on  “Resource grabbing: impacts and responses in an era of climate change” at the EADI/ISS General Conference 2020.

The social and environmental impacts of resource grabbing

Resource grabbing impacts can include limited access to resources, insecure livelihoods, diminishing ecological sustainability, and restricted participation and political incorporation, all of which are embedded in broader power dynamics. In some cases, governance instruments (e.g. labour laws) can further exacerbate the impacts of resource grabbing. Four examples illustrate these diverse impacts.

Conservation in global fisheries

Small-scale fishers globally are facing an overlap of existing and newer processes of exclusion. Existing forms of exclusion caused by industrialisation and privatisation in fisheries have more recently overlapped with exclusionary processes stemming from climate change mitigation and adaptation initiatives. Prominent examples include the increasing establishment of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and blue carbon initiatives, which are presented as approaches to conserve and protect marine ecosystems. Such initiatives are often established close to the shallow coastal domains of small-scale fishers and involve the banning of fishing activities, leaving them with limited access to fisheries resources, territories and markets to sustain their livelihoods.

Climate funds in Mozambique

With 25% of its territory designated as conservation areas, Mozambique is the third-largest recipient of climate funds in Sub-Saharan Africa, having received approximately US$ 147.3 million in 2016. Most of these funds are directed to land-based conservation and climate change mitigation and adaptation projects. The Gilé National Reserve, a decade-old REDD+ project, combines such policies with the implementation of Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA) in the reserve’s buffer zone. This has limited rural livelihood strategies and local people’s control over land and decision-making processes, due to restrictions placed on fishing, hunting, cattle rearing and gathering forest resources (e.g. charcoal, medicinal plants).

Mining in Colombia

Since the 2008 commodity-boom, open-pit coal mining in the Colombian Caribbean region of La Guajira has expanded rapidly, leading to intensified land and environmental conflicts between mining companies, the state, and the affected communities. Land previously used for agriculture and grazing livestock is no longer accessible. Both the landscape and the local economy are now dominated by mining, which has consumed more than 12,000 hectares of land and displaced 16 local villages.

Hydropower dams in the Eastern Himalayas 

In the Eastern Himalayas (North-East India and Nepal), numerous hydropower dams are being planned or are already being constructed. Many of these are funded through the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), an internationally developed climate finance initiative aiming to stimulate the development of renewable energies. However, evidence suggests that dams contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions through the creation of reservoirs and changes in land-use. Large dams particularly disturb ecological systems, upstream and downstream river flows, and limit people’s access to riverside lands.

Political responses generated by resource grabs

Local people and communities affected by resource grabbing engage in both overt and covert responses against dispossession and exploitation. Overt responses include formal, organised actions, often by social movements. In contrast, covert responses may include everyday acts of resistance and adaptation through different livelihood strategies, such as migration or incorporation into projects. The dynamics of such political responses have implications for solidarity with and building alliances between affected groups, particularly those seeking social and environmental justice. Three examples illustrate these diverse responses.

Using legal tools in India and Colombia

Indigenous communities facing displacement stemming from hydropower and mining in India have effectively stalled land acquisition processes through court action.  These rulings have enforced existing laws mandating their prior consultation and consent. Similarly, in Colombia, more than ten popular consultation processes have been carried out at the provincial level since 2010. In each of them, large numbers of local people voted against the installation and expansion of mining or oil extraction projects. Legal battles have also taken place between companies, the state, and human rights defenders over the implementation of consultation results.

Scaling-up ‘agrarian climate justice’ struggles in Myanmar

The recent re-emergence of overt, organised resistance related to land, environment and climate mitigation issues in Myanmar has ranged from advocacy aiming to influence national-level land laws and policies that facilitate privatisation and concentration, to more localised resistance against large-scale oil palm concessions, mines and forest conservation initiatives that exclude small-scale farmers and forest users. Scaling up across struggles for agrarian climate justice has become imperative to counter elite power at national and regional levels. However, it sometimes triggers external threats, like repression, and ‘divide-and-rule’ strategies from above. Fault-lines within movements may also emerge, particularly due to competing political tendencies and legacies of ethnic conflicts.

Everyday strategies in Ghana

Farmworkers on an oil palm plantation in Ghana have engaged in covert strategies such as absenteeism, non-compliance to rules, and continuous production to resist exploitation. Workers on farms near the plantation occasionally use company vehicles on their own farms, while they absent themselves from plantation work. Casual workers use various tactics to obtain paid medical leave, while others do shoddy work, knowing there are few monitoring supervisors.  Through these everyday individual responses, workers can maintain a small supply of staple foods (e.g. corn and cassava), earn extra income, and rest.  However, their everyday actions also restrict their upward workplace mobility, such as moving from casual to permanent contracts, and productive autonomy on their own farms in terms of scale and crop choices.

Adwoa Yeboah Gyapong, Amod Shah, Corinne Lamain, Elyse Mills, Natacha Bruna, Sergio Coronado and Yukari Sekine are all PhD researchers in the Political Ecology research group at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS).

Image: ‘Kaibigang puno’ watercolour by Boy Dominguez (originally published by the Journal of Peasant Studies, 44:6, November 2017)

This article is part of a series launched by EADI (European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes) and the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in preparation for the 2020 EADI/ISS General Conference “Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice”. It will also be published on the ISS Blog.