Our award-winning reporting has moved

Context provides news and analysis on three of the world’s most critical issues:

climate change, the impact of technology on society, and inclusive economies.

Natural resource activists are paying a heavy price

Friday, 23 December 2016 10:56 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Governments must stop cracking down on campaigners and support an open debate on resource use

Today, natural resource campaigners are facing increasingly virulent push-back from political leaders and powerful corporations intent on defending vested interests. From dam construction on the Honduran Gualcarque River, to gold mining in the Apuseni Mountains of Western Romania; from pulpwood plantations in Indonesian Sumatra to oil drilling in the Caspian Sea, all over the world, projects involving the exploitation of natural resources are sparking strong reactions from local communities – and not without consequence. 

Indeed, a new joint report from our organisations shows that in most, if not all resource-rich countries - from Australia to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Azerbaijan to Canada - civic space is shrinking fast. As we write, the world’s attention is on the Native American communities opposing the North Dakota Access Pipeline, who have for the time being secured a halt to its construction. During their ongoing fight to protect sacred land and a sensitive watershed they have been subject to excessive use of violence by both police and by private companies, including the use of water cannons and tear gas in sub-zero temperatures. 

Of course the struggle of indigenous communities to protect their land is hundreds of years old. Natural resource exploitation usually occurs in remote areas, mainly affecting communities whose fate tends to be of little interest to national politicians or global public opinion. Already marginalised in manifold ways, indigenous peoples have always faced great odds upholding their rights in the face of poorly defined communal land titles. 

Yet, in many ways, the struggle of recent years is also unprecedented. The spread of market fundamentalism and the tight overlap between political and economic elites means that the interests of natural resource companies and ruling politicians are often closely entwined, driving inequality and shrinking the space for activists to expose corruption.

In countries as diverse as Myanmar, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, states and ruling elites are now highly dependent on the income generated by their countries’ natural resources and, often, equally intolerant of those who seek to raise questions regarding its management. 

And activists are paying a heavy price. Harassment, arbitrary arrests, surveillance, public vilification, travel bans, unwarranted office raids and violent attacks are putting natural resource activists on the frontline of rising attacks against civil society globally. As well as indulging in illegal behaviours, states are using the law itself as a tool to undermine and restrain legitimate activism.

Regulations are being introduced as a means of obstruction and control, activists are being criminalised and legislation amended to facilitate authoritarian policing that can shut down protest. Powerful corporate players are operating in climates of impunity, able to give free rein to their hostility towards natural resource activism and reaping the benefits of relaxed legislation when it comes to their social and environmental obligations. 

With our joint report, we want to shine a spotlight on the local – and global – struggle for natural resource justice. We want to acknowledge the courage and resilience of those who fight for sound management of our natural wealth. And we want to make their stories known.

We also want greater unity of purpose among civil society so that we can succeed, together, in reversing negative civic space trends. When we work in silos, we all lose out against common patterns of aggression. In solidarity, we can find the strength to support and protect those struggling for a more equitable distribution of our planet’s natural wealth.

Most of all, we call upon governments to support an open, democratic debate about the governance of natural resources, to ensure their responsible exploitation is for the benefit of all citizens and to promote adherence to international human rights standards by all parties involved in the sector. We urge you all to join us in the fight-back against closing civic space in the natural resource sector, and around the world.

Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah is Secretary-General of CIVICUS, and Elisa Peter is Executive Director of Publish What You Pay.