Tricky Business: Space for Civil Society in Natural Resource Struggles


The scope of action for civil society actors opposing large-scale projects; protesting social injustices, land grabbing, and environmental destruction; and demanding democratic participation and human rights is shrinking continually.

We are experiencing an unprecedented worldwide race for natural resources: Governments and national as well as transnational corporations are driving the demand for water, land, fossil fuels, raw materials, and organic resources of all kinds, as never before. Previously intact ecosystems are being sacrificed to satisfy this hunger for resources. Forests are being cut down and arable land destroyed, soils contaminated, water consumed or tainted on a grand scale, air polluted, and the climate impacted.

Thousands of people are losing their livelihoods and are being more or less forcibly displaced as a consequence. The few hard-fought participation rights of the public that have made it into law in recent decades, as well as ecological and social standards – assuming any existed in the first place – have impeded investors and their attempts to explore and extract resources. Therefore, these rights and standards are being curbed or watered down.

Citizens, organized civil society, social movements, and affected communities worldwide are pushing back against these developments. They are fighting for their rights, working to preserve their livelihoods, and insisting on democratic participation. Local populations, communities, and organizations that have different ideas about the use of natural resources – and of a socially just and fair economy as well as distribution – are coming under pressure. Questions, criticism, and protests are increasingly being met with repression, harassment, and defamation. Business interests and profit-orientation are, thus, competing with sustainable and just resource policies, environmental protections, democratic standards, and human rights.

The scope of action for civil society actors opposing large-scale projects; protesting social injustices, land grabbing, and environmental destruction; and demanding democratic participation and human rights is shrinking continually. The fact that the rights of civil society are being curtailed worldwide is, unfortunately, not a new finding, but the current scale and scope are new and dramatic. In light of the issues at hand, democratic civil society, in particular, can engage in the critical monitoring of investments in infrastructure and resource extraction, collect information, demand transparency and accountability – not least through legal action – as well as organize communication, shape public opinion, and stage protests. A democratically negotiated diversity of opinions and interests does not seem to mesh with business logic, as it costs time and money and stands in the way of swift project implementation. In addition, whereas the interests of investors enjoy protection, the same cannot be said about human rights and the environment.

The Heinrich Böll Foundation is active in all regions of the world. Together with its project partners, the Foundation is experiencing first-hand how democratic principles and the social and cultural foundations of people and local communities are being violated. In this study, which we have produced together with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), we want to show how the mechanisms of expropriation and the undermining of human rights work. At the same time, we want to help develop strategies to strengthen democracy and human rights. We therefore wanted to know how civil society actors and affected communities that take a critical stance toward resource projects are restricted in their scope of action. The authors – Carolijn Terwindt and Christian Schliemann of the ECCHR – traveled to India, South Africa, Mexico, and the Philippines to study projects and talk to civil society activists and organizations on the ground. The resulting analysis provides us with insights on how we can better address and monitor resource and environmental policy projects. The counterstrategies that civil society actors use to defend themselves against restrictions and repression are particularly revealing. The authors call for corporations to take greater responsibility for the negative consequences of resource depletion and for the associated restrictions on civil society’s scope for action. The use of legal remedies is shown to be another way forward, albeit a difficult one in view of the structural hurdles. Nevertheless, it is a viable way for civil society to defend itself against criminalization and the curtailment of civil political rights. After all, opportunities for participation – above all, consultation and the requirement for the consent of the affected communities – must be taken seriously and protected against misuse as simple tools to legitimize projects. We also hope that this study will prompt governments and businesses to establish a sustainable and just resource policy and acknowledge the role of civil society.

We would like to thank, in particular, all those who shared their experiences and strategies with us on the ground, as well as the authors of this study, who carried out their research with thoroughness, sensitivity, and care and summarized the results in an insightful analysis. Claudia Rolf monitored the entire project in terms of content, concept, and organization – we would like to thank her as well. Finally, we would like to express our gratitude to all those who contributed to the success of this study with valuable comments and suggestions.

Berlin, November 2017

Barbara Unmüssig, President, Heinrich Böll Foundation

Wolfgang Kaleck, General Secretary, ECCHR