Do natural resources belong to a country, a community or a continent, and how do these competing claims fuel conflict in Africa?

This is the central question occupying Dr John Childs, a political geographer and expert in the African extractive industries, who joined the Lancaster Environment Centre from the London School of Economics in 2013.

“In the past we’ve tended to see nationalist claims to oil, gas, minerals, precious metals articulated in simple terms – that resources belong to a country”, John explains.

“In fact it is much more complicated than that. Some people see resources as belonging to the continent, to Mother Africa itself, and then there are many localised voices within a state making competing claims,” said John, who has a particular interest in environmental justice.

“Within a local area people often see natural resources as part of who they are, part of their livelihood, their backyard, their identity. When those resources are appropriated by a multinational or by the state, it’s like removing something of the person themselves and causes conflict. In Tanzania, for example, there are emergent secessionist narratives growing up around ownership of resources.”

John’s research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, is focussing on resource nationalism in sub Saharan Africa, including Tanzania, Ghana and Namibia.

Winners and losers

“Tanzania proclaims that it will become the third largest exporter of natural gas in the world with huge resources in the south of the country. All the big boys are there. The question is who gets the spoils of that gas, who wins and who loses economically, environmentally and politically?

“The local community don’t feel they have had access to information, or to policy formation in this area. Concessions have been granted to multi nationals and the local community ignored. If they protest they are stereotyped as trouble makers, who are not good Tanzanian nationals because they are opposing economic growth.

“Tanzania is not a country heavily associated with internal conflict, but in the wake of the new gas being discovered, the Government sent in armed groups which led to largely unreported violence,” said John, who is working on the project with Dr Julie Hearne from Lancaster University’s Politics Department.

The importance of perception

John, whose previous work focused on small scale mining and Fairtrade Gold, is particularly interested in how people perceive natural resources, and how this perception is affected by geography, for instance offshore gas. These perceptions, even when based on resources which are imagined and out of sight, often form the basis of contemporary resistance to the extraction of resources.

Using qualitative, participatory research methods, including focus groups and oral life histories, he hopes to find out how local people’s perception of ownership, policy development and resource extraction complicate understanding of nationalist claims to resource extraction.

For the past five years John has been exploring notions of ethical and responsible mining. He has sat on an expert advisory panel which developed the Fairtrade standards for gold in sub-Saharan Africa.