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Beyond Greed and Grievances

Date Released: Mon, 20 August 2012 12:59 +0200

An acknowledgement of the implications of the characteristics of natural resources can have significant policy implications, as they can serve as early warning signs in outlining the predisposition of natural resources to exploitation.

This according to Mr Andrews Atta-Asamoah, Senior Researcher in the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, who was at Rhodes University recently to present “Beyond Greed and Grievances: Natural Resource Characteristics and Conflicts in Africa”.

To retain a holistic view of conflicts in Arica, Mr Atta-Asamoah argued, one needs to consider the role played by natural resources in fuelling tensions, and consider their characteristics as being predisposed to exploitation. While an acknowledgement of the links between conflicts and natural resources is not a new phenomenon, it has gained prominence in Africa since the mid-1980s with the end of the Cold War.

“This gave the sense that many countries couldn’t sustain themselves, despite having lots of natural resources. It opened up dialogue around the idea that natural resources, under certain conditions, can become a curse,” Mr Atta-Asamoah said, adding that not enough attention has been paid to the potential of natural resources to fuel tensions.

To date most literature on the topic has focused on the human aspect of conflicts and does not adequately reflect the role played by natural resources, which, Mr Atta-Asamoah suggested, have certain characteristics that lend themselves to exploitation and manipulation during conflict. Natural resources which require less specialised skill to exploit and refine, have high liquidity and are highly portable or “smuggleable” have a higher chance of fuelling conflicts, he said.

The accessibility of the resources and whether they exist in marketable forms plays a big role in the potential to contribute to conflict. He used the example of the alluvial diamond of Angola which is scattered over a great distance in remote areas of the country, is hard to police and easily accessible and extractable.

The diamonds, which are found in around 300 000km in the north eastern areas of the country, were utilised by the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) during the anti-colonial civil war via minimally skilled workforce, which financed the group’s arms purchases. Mr Atta-Asamoah said the resemblance of natural resources to currency also has a bearing on its potential to contribute to conflict, such as resources like sugar, copper and oil which have high value to weight ratio, hold their value over time and have high liquidity.

“These types of resources can become a form of currency. The closer the characteristic of resources is to currency, the greater the chances of use as mediums of exchange for arms for warlords and rent-seekers,” he said.

While these characteristics can be applied to most instances of natural resources in Africa, there are some exceptions, such as the alluvial diamonds and gold in Ghana, and oil in the Nigerian delta. Mr Atta-Asamoah also noted that while natural resources can play a vital role in fuelling tensions, they are usually the secondary drivers of conflict in African states.

“Where the primary drivers of conflict are effectively dealt with by the state, resources cease to create issues. The role of state weakness is paramount,” he said, adding that while the human aspects of conflict are important, it is essential that the characteristics of resources also be considered as an explanatory variable for the behaviour of individuals in the face of the abundance of natural resources.

Story and photo by Sarah-Jane Bradfield