The exploitation of natural resources and land grabbing
The global need of land and its resources like water, plants, timber or minerals is continually increasing. This leads governments and private investors to look for cheap resource-rich land close to infrastructure. The land is often taken from farmers who are the traditional users. This phenomenon is called ‘land grabbing’ and contributes to poverty and social conflicts.
Land grabbing happens on all continents, but 60% of it takes place in Africa. Host governments tend to welcome investors hoping to benefit from the sale of land. They offer fertile land with easy access to water and infrastructures. The contracts rarely include conditions protecting the interests of local communities.
Extractive industries are part of this phenomenon. Concessions are smaller but extraction activities cause ecological catastrophes in the surrounding area and accelerate climate change. As a result, the land seized from local users becomes unusable. This is a trend most likely to rise as the world population is expected to grow from seven billion in 2011 to nine billion by 2050. This will result in higher energy needs and greater consumption of metals for construction and manufacturing. Altogether, it will cause a tripling of mining activities by that date. For example, fossil fuels like oil, coal and gas meet around 80% of our primary energy needs, and this number is very unlikely to decrease by 2030. Consumption of coal will rise by 50% and of natural gas by 43%. The number of nuclear power plants - under construction, planned or proposed - will double the world’s current nuclear capacity. The need for metals will grow 80% by 2015 in India alone.
Even a higher dependency on renewable energies will involve mining. Solar panels, wind turbines and electric cars rely upon a lot of different metals in their design and construction. For example, over 11kg of rare earth minerals are necessary to produce hybrid cars, double the amount for a traditional car.
An unmonitored and uncontrolled global increase of mining activities will be highly detrimental from an environmental perspective. More and more community lands, rivers and ecosystems will be despoiled. Today, extraction penetrates ever more deeply into the Earth and releases toxic chemicals that poison soil and water far beyond the site of operation. Mining activities demand huge amounts of water creating problems both upstream (strong competition with local farmers for access to water) and downstream (heavy pollution during and after mining operations). It also generates acid drainage into the soil, rivers and aquifers, polluting the air by releasing dust and toxins. It causes deforestation, destruction of biodiversity and loss of topsoil firstly through mining and afterwards through erosion.
An example of this can be found in Niger, a country with one of the lowest human development indices on the planet but rich in mineral resources. This is a place where AREVA, the French public nuclear energy giant has been exploiting uranium for 40 years now, scarcely providing any opportunity for development. On the contrary, AREVA’s operations have proved to be largely destructive. AREVA’s negligent mismanagement of the extraction process has caused radioactive substances to be released into the air, seep into the groundwater and contaminate the soil around the mining towns damaging the local ecosystem and creating a multitude of health problems for the local population. High exposure to radioactivity leads to respiratory problems, birth defects and cancers. In the localities of Arkit and Akokan, the uranium concentration was above the WHO recommended limit for drinking water. In the mining towns, radiation levels were found to be up to almost 500 times higher than normal. This situation is source of concern because while Nigeriens are exposed to radiation, illness and poverty, AREVA is making billions from their natural resources. Little effort is made by the multinational to take into account the well-being of its workers, the surrounding populations and the environment.
The Venda country, situated in Limpopo Province in South Africa is well known for its biodiversity and cultural heritage. Its people revere the indigenous forests, rivers, mountain peaks and waterfalls as sacred sites. Today, Venda’s cultural and ecological diversity are increasingly threatened by land grabbing, development projects, tourism and mining. Most recently, Coal of Africa, an Australian mining company, has proposed a mining project that causes severe damage to the local communities. The company itself has admitted that the project will exhaust the underground water in the Venda area by 2014. External reports have also showed high risk of contaminated water from the mine seeping. In response, civil society groups have mobilised demanding reconsideration of the project.
Exploitation of natural resources carried out in an unsustainable manner that deprives people of their very livelihoods can also be encountered in the Niger delta region. There, an ecological disaster is taking place due to oil and gas exploitation. Once again, the discovery of oil in the region should have triggered economic prosperity locally. Oil production in Nigeria, started in 1956 and since the 1970s has accounted for over 80% of the Nigerian government’s revenue and 95% of the country’s export earnings. All of Nigeria’s oil and gas come from its Niger delta region that consists of approximately 20,000 square kilometres of mangrove forest, fresh water swamp, coastal ridges and fertile dry land, forest and has an abundance of fish and marine wildlife. The environmental richness has turned the Niger delta into one of the highest rural population densities in the world.
But this was a long time ago. For more than four decades now, regular oil spills have been increasingly occurring, turning the luxurious marsh into no more than a pond of Nigerian crude oil. Leaks are caused mainly by the derelict state of the vast network of pipes and storage tanks scattered through the region and also at a lesser level by theft and sabotage. Gas flaring is another major challenge in Nigeria because it contributes to acid rain, desertification and drying up of rivers. Most certainly, the absence of laws and enforcement measures in Nigeria does not encourage change. An average of 2 oil spills are recorded everyday in Nigeria. This means that more oil is spilled from the delta's network of terminals, pipes, pumping stations and oil platforms every year than was lost in the Gulf of Mexico during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. In Ogogni land, the soil is polluted with hydrocarbons up to a depth of 5 metres and the source of drinking water for local communities is contaminated . According to an UNEP study in the same land, it would take up to 30 years to clean up the oil .
Recently, a lawsuit was filed by the local population against Royal Dutch Shell to seek compensation after two oil spills of about 4,000 barrels that occurred late 2008 and early 2009. Whether the company is adjudged guilty or liable, there has to be a sanction strong enough to deter any similar situation. If the only sanction is the payment of some small fine, it will do nothing to dissuade corporations.
As we have seen, those examples are the testimony that the growing need for natural resources worldwide has a tremendous impact on local populations living in remote areas - and extractive industries play an important role in this. Land which these people rely on is grabbed with the promise that it will foster development whereas its main effect is to destroy the meagre resources they depend on.
 Sibaud Philippe, “Opening Pandora’s Box: The New Wave of Land Grabbing by the Extractive Industries and the Devastating Impact on Earth”, The Gaia Foundation, London, 2012, p 18-39.
 Idem, p 47.
 Idem, p 35
 Greenpeace, « Left in the dust : AREVA’s radioactive legacy in the desert towns of Niger », April 2010, p 6-8
 Sibaud, op.cit, p 26.
 Ledum Mitee, “Oil exploitation, the environment and crimes against nature”, Vanguard, 26 March 2012.
 Sibaud, op.cit, p 20.
 Vidal John, “Nigeria’s agony dwarfs the Gulf oil spill. The US and Europe ignore it”, The Guardian, 30 May 2010.
 BBC News, “Nigeria Ogoniland oil clean-up could take up to 30 years”, 4 August 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-14398659
 Croft Jane, “Shell faces claims over Niger delta spills, The Financial Times, 22 March 2012.