03 February 2015
By Anthony Bebbington
Clark University, University of Manchester
As a geographer, the idea that the relationships between humans and the environment are central to problems of development and social organisation is hardly alien to me. Yet in development studies and policy it has often seemed that natural resources are treated separately from the “big” problems of political economy and social change. This sidelining of nature seems strange.
Try talking about contemporary capitalism without thinking of oil or natural gas and their many derived forms: simply impossible, as Matt Huber (2013) and others have so clearly argued. Or try talking about the possibilities of democracy without thinking of hydrocarbons: equally impossible, or at least that is what Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy argues so compellingly. Or try thinking about the future of development and development policy without thinking of climate change. Indeed, one might argue that climate change is itself a product of this same policy and theoretical blindness regarding the ecological foundations of the economy; as well as of the political power that control over natural resources has conferred to groups who deploy this power to continue derailing any serious attempts to mitigate climate change.
So these reflections raise an interesting question for ESID – and one I began to explore in an earlier working paper: is it even possible to think of states without also thinking of nature? Or, put another way: as much as one might talk of the political economy of state formation, should we also be talking about the political ecology of the state? Continuing this line of reasoning – is the effectiveness of states’ ability to nurture and deliver inclusive development itself bound up with how these states govern natural resources and with the relationship between control over natural resources and forms of political power? And does the relationship between natural resource control and the politics of state formation vary, depending on whether those resources are deployed for internal consumption or for exports?
The ESID project on the politics of natural resources and inclusive development asks these questions for the case of mineral and hydrocarbon resources in Zambia, Peru, Ghana and Bolivia, focusing on countries that share a high level of dependency on the export of these resources. The natural resource curse literature suggests that too often countries with significant, export- oriented mining, oil and gas sectors perform disappointingly against an array of economic, social and political indicators: what Terry Karl evocatively called ‘the paradox of plenty‘. The existence of this paradox, as well as the possibility of escaping it, are, she says, problems of politics. In this same spirit, the ESID project asks how political settlements and natural resource governance shape each other, how ideas about development and the discovery of mineral, oil and gas deposits shape each other, and how natural resource extraction and patterns of inclusion and exclusion in development also shape each other.
In a recent meeting of the project’s researchers, several patterns began to emerge. First, and most simply, there is absolutely no way of understanding these different countries without also understanding how gold, silver, tin, copper, natural gas and oil have shaped both their histories and their present. Access to these resources, and control of the benefits they generate, have brought political actors into being and triggered political conflicts and alliance building that have shaped national politics.
Historical experiences with these resources have bequeathed memories and ideas that continue to shape contemporary political action: the idea that the Chaco War was over oil continues to influence national attitudes to hydrocarbons in Bolivia; the difficulties and demise of the state-owned copper industry in Zambia continue to inform thinking about international mining companies; the historical failure of mining to catalyse local development in Peru underlies much contemporary scepticism and conflict over the industry.
And in each country, discoveries in areas with no particular history of mining, oil or gas have brought a host of new actors into the political fray surrounding resource extraction. In each country, subnational actors in areas with important deposits have become significant players in national politics – frequently as oppositional groups demanding greater share of and control over natural resource extraction.
While researchers went into the study with a focus on large-scale resource extraction, in each country except Zambia it has become clear that small- and medium-scale miners have also become increasingly important political actors, strengthened by global prices, the sheer weight of numbers and, in a case such as Bolivia, their own direct access to dynamite as a simultaneous means of production and of political protest. Just over the last year or two, small- and medium-scale miners have shaped mining policy in Bolivia, helped discredit the executive in Peru, and become a central part of national debate in Ghana.
While artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) has become an increasingly critical part of rural livelihoods, it has also become a political force capable of upsetting or even constituting dominant settlements. And, interestingly, while today ASM is often decried as destructive, criminal and socially abusive, in several of our cases the sector is partly a product of public policy that decades ago sought to promote it.
The ESID project has, overall, struggled with the problem of methodological nationalism – that is, a focus on the national level to explain the politics of development. This has led the programme as a whole to pay more and more attention to the ways in which subnational, regionally defined actors constitute part of the national settlement. This natural resources project has endorsed the importance of the subnational and shown that such actors can come into being precisely because of resource extraction.
At the same time, the experiences of Bolivia, Ghana, Peru and Zambia also make palpably clear that the dynamics of political settlements and the ideas that can sustain or weaken them have a global and transnational component. These mining and hydrocarbon industries are simultaneously global and national, and are part of global histories as well as national histories. These global histories and global value chains impinge directly on relationships of power within countries, and global shifts in prices can change national settlements very quickly. They have done so in the past, and they are doing so right now.