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Politics of resource extraction and climate change in Africa

Godwin Uyi Ojo

11 / 2011

Climate change is set to intensify, resulting in a rising number of conflicts around the extraction and export of Africa’s natural resources to feed the industries of the historically biggest polluters in the industrialised north, writes Godwin Uyi Ojo.


The last 15 years or so has seen a steady rise in resource conflicts across Africa and this is prompting a renewed examination of the manner in which resource extraction is undertaken on the continent.

Some analysts suggest that these conflicts, mostly externally driven, will increase in the coming years owing to the increasing volume of natural resource extraction to augment the decline in oil discoveries and energy production from fossils. The drive for energy production and overconsumption is leading to increasing global temperatures from greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.

Africa as a whole emits a negligible amount of carbon compared to the industrialised nations mostly responsible. However, the disastrous consequences of climate change will be especially felt in Africa owing to the continent’s weak resilience and poor adaptive capacities. The unequal consumption of resources is the result of a fossil-based economy driven mostly by the industrialised nations. The concept of periphery and core countries helps to explain the historical unequal exchange in the production and consumption of energy in Africa, mostly export-led.

Notions of unequal exchange

Countries on the periphery are structurally consigned to the role of natural resource extraction and are sites of raw materials in an export-led economy, ostensibly to raise funds to buy manufactured goods as consumers of finished products. Such countries are mostly situated in Latin America, Asia, and to a greater extent, Africa. They continue to exchange prized natural resources such as crude oil and gas, gold, diamonds, copper, and other metals and forestry products, resulting in ‘resource curse’ associated with rentier states.

Countries in Africa such as Nigeria and Angola are rentier states because they are mostly dependent on a mono-crop natural resource, and often collect taxes and royalties as revenue while neglecting other productive sectors of the economy. Many scholars such as Aunty Ross (1999) in the thesis ‘Resource Curse’ have documented the atrocities, acts of corruption and ecological devastation prevailing in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, or the mining fields in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Congo DR.

In contrast, core countries or empire states have the advantage of credit, capital and technology and depend on raw materials such as those mentioned above to feed their manufacturing firms. They exert influence and wield political and economic power to control structurally the articles of trade and prices under the guise of invincible market forces. They extract resources from Africa to meet their food and energy supply needs in ways that are cunningly presented as mutually beneficial trade and the promotion of economic growth and development. This sort of relationship is responsible for growing resource conflicts, poverty, pain and the misery on the African continent. It is partly responsible for how climate change negotiations are carried out – with little or no regard for developing countries whose demands for environmental justice and equity in resource access and use are repeatedly ignored.

Indeed, the neoliberal economic paradigm that emphasizes economic growth as development is built strongly on the premise of economic modernisation theory. This theory promotes, amongst other ideas, a trickle-down effect that claims that as the rich get richer, wealth will also trickle down to the poor, who then benefit from the process in terms of industry and employment, improved wages and income. But the reality is that the gap between rich and poor is widening and the rich are getting richer while the poor get poorer. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported in 2010 that the number of people who go to bed hungry on a daily basis has reached the one billion mark. Of this, a significant proportion is in Sub-Saharan Africa. The global desire to halve poverty through the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015 is under severe threat by the unequal exchange of natural resources in the production and consumption processes.

Historical extraction of natural resources is bleeding africa dry

The problems of resource extraction in Africa are many. Collectively, they are bleeding Africa dry. The continuing promotion of monetisation policy as a means to resolve environmental degradation and climate change is leading to serious consequences on the continent. The commoditisation of forests, biodiversity, water and other natural resources which local communities depend on is leading to resource conflicts between local communities and multinational corporations and their national governments. This is often under the guise of a ‘win-win’ situation.

The situation is also leading to significant land grabbing by multinational companies supported by their foreign governments. According to a Friends of the Earth Federation report, by 2010 about 11 million hectares of forest land had been acquired in Africa. Countries involved are mostly from Europe – the UK, Norway, Sweden, Netherlands, Germany – and the USA. The aim is to buy African forest and farmland assets cheaply and to use them in hedge fund, stock, and carbon trading while presenting a façade of large scale plantations to feed hungry Africans.

In reality, crops from plantations of edible foods and for biofuel energy production are mostly channelled for export rather than to meet local food deficits and energy shortfalls. A growing trade in biofuels shaped by a recent European energy policy directive to meet 10 per cent energy demands in Europe from biofuels by 2015 is thus promoting food scarcity because agricultural produce for biofuels energy production is competing directly with food sources such as palm oil, maize, sugar cane and soy beans.

The implications of this is that land is being taken away systematically from African peasant farmers and this is leading to displacement of the rural poor farmers that constitute over 70 per cent of the productive sector in Africa.

This article is not intended merely to bemoan the fate of Africa, but the greater global implications of resource extraction are significant and may result in Africa warming by a significant 1.5 degrees Celsius beyond the global average. Rather than a sense of despondency, a transformative change towards a real green economy will be required. According to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the extent of global warming implies that Africa will see 70 to 400 million people perish at the hands of the climate change phenomenon in the next 20 years alone (IPCCC 2007). Farm yields from rain-fed agriculture are projected to decline by a staggering 50 per cent.

Since environmental problems do not respect national boundaries, the problem of climate change should be of global concern, and countries of the north, historically responsible for climate change, must accept greater responsibility to rein in the phenomenon before it spins out of control.

Given its weak resilience, Africa will likely go first. Yet this lesson has not been well inculcated in the minds and action plans of African leaders to curb climate change. And, if and when, Africa burns, other nations dependent on the continent’s minerals and other resources will likely follow suit.

Towards Durban : making the best of COP 17

The next major climate change negotiations are scheduled to take place in Durban, South Africa later this year. In preparedness for the United Nations Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP17), it is up to African governments, their negotiators and their citizens to become more aware of the politics of resource extraction and climate change.

They should become more aware of the unequal exchanges in the production and consumption patterns of resource extraction that result in negotiations being driven lopsided as industrialised countries continue to foist aggressively their reckless positions upon developing countries.

It is time for Africa to awaken and restructure its economic relations and relate strategically to the rest of the world. In particular, African nations should address the imbalance and the rationale promoting an export-led economy that has held the continent subservient for centuries.

As the drums of Indaba sound in Durban, Patrick Bond and his colleagues have pessimistically dubbed this event the ‘conference of polluters’, fearing very little or no positive outcomes. It is also a gathering of champions of carbon emitters.

This is the challenge: Turning the conference into an occasion yet again to underline these problems of development, and turn the event towards pushing for reforms that will emancipate the continent from the clutches of underdevelopment and subjugation. Really, it is up to Africa to demand and lead in the reshaping of this cruel imbalance.

Notably, climate change seems a development opportunity for Africa, not in terms of economic development and growth, but as an opportunity to evolve a new economic model that is based on an emerging green economy emphasising a transition from a fossil fuel economy to one based on renewable energy.

This type of economy will emphasise de-growth rather than the forced growth that benefits only a few and spells doom for the majority. Here, some progressive social movements and civil society groups are advocating to ‘leave oil in the soil’ in their quest for alternatives. Such proposed change implies too the need to adhere to the agreed reduction of carbon emissions below 1990 levels as specified in the Kyoto Protocol and ratified by the United Nations (UN) in 1997.

This change implies too the need for African progressives to demand and insist on the payment of the massive resource extraction ecological debt owed by the industrialised nations to developing countries. Compensation and reparation for centuries of natural resource extraction is a rights issue for Africa.

In Durban, Africa should take its place to demand pay-back of climate debt owed by the north for polluting the global commons. It should equally demand clear and binding mechanisms that will ensure that the north commits to clean up its act and sign up to reduce greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere. Ecological debts and climate debts together represent a large scale unequal exchange in trade and resources owed to the people on the continent.

Africa needs to redesign its economy and focus more on local and value added production for local consumption rather than an export-led economy built on an unequal exchange of goods and natural resources. This is a call to promote food and energy sovereignty that will not only promote local resources for local use, but also see the discontinuation of long distance trade which experts have implicated in greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.

Climate change is a development opportunity because it provides the fresh space to rethink the appalling state of infrastructure on the continent. It is time to address the state of Africa’s vulnerabilities to climate change and build a stronger resilience and better adaptation and mitigation measures. Thus, the transformation of Africa and the placing of real value on Africa’s resources is dependent on the outcome of climate change negotiations. The survival of the continent lies in the hands of Africans.


gestão de recursos naturais, mudança climática, geopolítica


Coverage of COP17- Climate Change and popular struggles


Godwin Uyi Ojo is political ecologist and co-founder of Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria.

This article is available in english Politiques d’extraction et changement climatique en Afrique


This special issue is jointly produced by Pambazuka News and African Agenda, a publication of Third World Network-Africa.

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