Key Findings from the Cross-Regional Workshop on Natural Resources

in Program

By Richard Cronin and Junko Kobayashi – Stimson’s Regional Voices: Transnational Challenges project recently held a two-day workshop in collaboration with CSIS-Jakarta, an Indonesian think tank, to discuss natural resources issues and the development-environment dilemma from cross-sectoral, cross-regional, and multi-disciplinary perspectives. The meeting brought together diverse experts from the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia.

As natural resources, especially water and forests are becoming increasingly scarce, most countries around the world-both developing and developed-are suffering from a kind of supply-demand disequilibrium. Pressures from globalization, unsustainable consumption and exploitative production patterns, population growth, urbanization, and impacts of climate change have played increasingly important roles. Unsustainable natural resources exploitation has contributed to transboundary and nontraditional security problems including haze from burning forests to make room for plantations in Indonesia, pollution and inequitable water allocations in international rivers like the Mekong and Ganges, pandemic diseases, and food and energy crises.

The loss of forests, farms, and fisheries leads to livelihood insecurity and poverty, and further degradation of resources, which can cause conflicts. For instance, the conflict areas on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border are also ones most denuded of forest cover. Illegal logging has been a major source of funds for weapons of Kashmir’s insurgents. The arbitrary exploitation of forests and other natural resources by governments and the private sector against the will of indigenous communities has often provoked a violent reaction, and in some cases directly contributed to radical movements like those of the Naxilites in India and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in southern Philippines.

Mining perhaps causes the most conflict between natural resources development and those who live on the land. Mining is economically lucrative because of rising global demand for energy and industrial inputs, and thus efforts to eliminate illegal small-scale mining and properly regulate large international companies have failed. Mining does not provide much alternative employment for the dispossessed since they do not have the necessary skills for the capital-intensive industry. The mining sector lacks transparency and accountability and continues to use crude and environmentally destructive technology.

The water sector best highlights the transboundary aspect of natural resources: rivers do not respect political boundaries. Water pollution, flooding, and allocation can best be managed through cooperation. However, the countries sharing the major rivers of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra in South Asia and the Mekong in Southeast Asia have thus far been unable to achieve effective water-sharing agreements. Upstream countries consider the rivers as national assets and resist equitable sharing with downstream neighbors.

The state remains the most important actor because it is vested with responsibility to promote the common interests of its citizens and provide security, yet it is also blamed for natural resource mismanagement and its consequences on the environment and people’s livelihoods. Most governments in the three regions suffer from a lack of political will and capacity to deal with these issues. Laws governing natural resources and the environment often conflict at different levels of government, undercutting implementation and enforcement. Through bribery and other corrupt practices, private and public businesses collude with government officials to bypass rules and regulations. Furthermore, the activities of human rights and environmental NGOs are often tightly restricted or repressed.

Efforts at participatory governance and community-based resource management in Asia have generally failed, and in some cases have accelerated resources depletion. This may be due to a number of factors: manipulation by locally powerful interests; lack of trust and communication between the local community and the government; lack of agreement on who constitutes the community and the legitimate stakeholders; insufficient political will and capacity at all levels; and inadequate economic incentives for alternative approaches.

All countries, regardless of their circumstances, can benefit from adopting best practices for natural resources management and promoting greater transboundary cooperation. Science and technology are critical in dealing with the increasing scarcity of natural resources and related environmental degradation, as is significantly upgrading education.

Opinion strongly favors giving communities a share in company profits (in addition to compensation) or even co-ownership. India and other countries have adopted equitable principles for compensation, but the necessary regulations and policies to implement these changes are the subject of continuing national debate.

Government policies for development should take on a more integrative approach, and realize that neither market-driven nor security-oriented approaches to natural resource management are viable in the long term. Natural resources policies have to be mainstreamed within the government’s socioeconomic development plans. The mindsets of policymakers and the general public need to change to prioritize sustainable development.  If such adjustments are not made soon, they will eventually be forced by necessity as is already evident in the cases of energy and food. 

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