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Natural Resources are the Common Goods of Humanity
20 July 2008

Controlling the use of natural resources is one of the major concerns of all governments. However, large quantities of these natural resources are found in countries of the South (oil, metals, diamond, timber, etc.) and thus attract the great powers, such as the US, the EU or China, who have an imperative need for them to feed their economies. The consequences are often tragic for people in the Global South, who cannot benefit from their own resources. For instance the Democratic Republic of the Congo is often called a ’geological scandal’ because of the contrast between its incredible mineral riches and the fact that over 70% of the Congolese population suffer from malnutrition. Does uranium in the Niger subsoil benefit the Nigerian people or Areva –a French corporation-?

The looting of natural resources, with the complicity of leaders of the South and the North, backed by international donors such as the World Bank and the IMF, is to the benefit of Western multinationals. The keystone of the whole system is the loans which have been handed out since 1960-1970 by large private banks and the World Bank in order to get hold of these resources as cheaply as possible. While issues of human development were ignored by the creditors, the explosion of debt accumulation by countries of the South would coincide, at the turn of the eighties, with a brutal rise in interest rates, combined with the collapse of prices of raw materials, and finally the debt crisis. The consequences have proved to be dramatic, with IMF-imposed Structural Adjustment Programs, along with free-market economies, massive privatisations, enormous reductions in government budgets for health, education, etc., worsening of the standard of living, etc.

However, talking about “a curse of natural resources” is not appropriate here, because it clouds the deliberate strategy to monopolise these resources and the key role of the IMF and the World Bank. In fact, meagre debt reductions have been granted in exchange for the strict application of measures elaborated by their ultraliberal experts, measures which include massive privatisations in strategic sectors of the economy, the renouncing of any control whatsoever over the movement of capital, the opening up of the market, putting small local producers in direct competition with large international firms. The winners have been the same for years. Their names are Total, Exxon Mobile, BP, Shell, Bouygues, Bolloré, Aréva et al.

This global social injustice has, since the year 2000, led certain public authorities in Latin America to take control of their own natural resources. For example, water has been re-nationalised in Bolivia, Argentina and Uruguay, and oil reserves have been partly nationalised in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. Each time the European Union and the United States protested vigorously and their leaders unhesitatingly transformed themselves into sales reps for the large companies who in fact helped them get into power in the first place… Thus, the exploitation of natural resources of the South ultimately benefits the shareholders of the major corporations of the most industrialised countries, leaving no scope for development in the South. This goes against the rights of peoples to self-determination, in contravention of the major juridical texts such as the UN Charter.

In Latin America, recovering control of these common goods, which had been privatised under orders from the IMF and the World Bank, was only possible because of the considerable mobilisation of the people. The social struggle and political victory in Bolivia and Venezuela are symbolic of this turnaround of the situation in the people’s favour. After fifteen years of neoliberalism imposed on Bolivia by the international financial institutions with, since 1985, the laying-off of 23 000 public sector miners, 5 000 private sector workers and 18 000 civil servants, the Bolivian people gave the rest of the world a master class in public mobilisation for the defence of common goods. First, in 2000 in Cochabamba, the Bolivian social movements demanded the rights to water, and the US multinational Bechel had to pack up and leave. In 2005 in El Alto, the French multinational Suez was thrown out by the public authorities of the country, under pressure from the people who have managed to recover the management of their water resources from the private companies. During this time, the Bolivian president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada had been forced to stand down following the people’s struggle for the public control of gas, which had led to the death of tens of people through the violent repression of riots. This is the context in which, at the end of 2005, Evo Morales became the first indigenous president of Bolivia. With the backing of the whole population, who had voted in a referendum on 18 July 2004, Morales signed a decree on the 1st of May 2006, nationalising the hydrocarbon reserves and targeting 26 foreign multinationals. This decree is not only legitimate, it is also perfectly legal.

Venezuela is also an interesting case since the decisions of the president Hugo Chavez over energy resources are also the direct result of the people’s mobilisation. The State of Venezuela took control of the oil company PDVSA, which led to the aborted April 2002 coup by the US-backed capitalist class. It was thanks to a popular uprising that Chavez was brought back to power two days after the putsch.

These nationalisations, although roundly denounced by the western leaders and the media, are in fact quite simply the application of international law. Since UN Resolution 1803 of 14 December 1962 concerning the permanent sovereignty of States over natural resources, numerous legal documents have reaffirmed the right of public authorities to take all measures necessary to ensure the well being of the population. The right to nationalise is even an international legal obligation, in virtue of the “Declaration on the Right to Development” adopted by the UN General Assembly on 8 December 1986 – a seminal text which the CADTM wants to highlight. The right of public authorities over the extraction, management and commercialisation of natural resources is thus inherent to State sovereignty, and the sovereignty of States is the basis of international law. The court actions taken by the multinationals before the ICSID (International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes – the World Bank tribunal) are of little consequence since the sovereign decisions taken by the Bolivian and Venezuelan governments are legal.

Bolivia also set the example by leaving the ICSID on 2 May 2007, rightly arguing that the organisation is simultaneously judge and party, since it is a branch of the World Bank. Bolivia is thus a member no more and the new Constitution, which will be put to referendum this year, has a provision, in Article 135, stipulating that all companies operating in Bolivia must be subjected to the sovereignty, laws and authorities of the Republic. A good example to follow…

Evo Morales declared on 26 January 2006: “We have to nationalise our natural resources and set up a new economic system. (…) It is not a question of nationalising for its own sake, be it our natural gas, oil, mineral or forest resources, we have to industrialise them” and he did it, which proves that, in spite of strong resistance, it really is possible to overcome the stranglehold of the IMF and the World Bank.

An enlightened path that must not be abandoned. It is in the interest of the governments of the South to carry out debt audits to determine which debts are illegal and odious so as to repudiate them. Income from the extraction of natural resources should never be used to repay such debts. Together developing countries can invent new systems of mutual help and exchange, so that benefits from the exploitation of natural resources serve the people of the countries concerned. The mission statement of the Bank of the South, the future alternative to the World Bank, should make it possible to finance regional integration projects in the seven Latin American countries involved in this project, which would provide them with the means to extract, process and sell the natural resources while protecting the environment of these countries.

Public powers of the countries of the South have the inalienable right of property and exploitation over their natural resources to the benefit of their populations, which is vital to finally build a socially just and environmentally sustainable economic model. However, political will is needed to improve the living conditions and the elaboration of a logic based on the realisation of the fundamental human rights. The common goods must not be abandoned to a handful of millionaires while hundreds of millions of individuals do not have access to basic needs and services. The authors of human rights violations, like those who loot natural resources to the benefit of a handful, must now answer for their unjust acts.

The authors are Solange Koné, Damien Millet, José Mukadi, Victor Nzuzi, Salissou Oubandoma, Aminata Touré Barry, Ajit Muricken, Eric Toussaint and Renaud Vivien (CADTM), all members of the international CADTM network (Comité pour l’Annulation de la Dette du Tiers Monde – Committee for the Abolition of Thrid World Debt) in Belgium, Ivory Coast, France, India, Mali, Niger and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. See

Translated by Elizabeth Anne, Christine Pagnoulle and Diren Valayden