Spaces for Change | S4C joined Ford Foundation’s global partners, scholars, and key experts from Asia, Africa, and Latin America at the Energy, Extractives & Territories Gathering held on May 3 and 4 in New York, United States. Both days of the gathering featured a series of conversations on the state of affairs in the energy, extractives, and land and forest governance fields as well as a collective learning space for strategic analysis and collaboration across geographies and fields.
The convening began with a conversation among practitioners from different sectors proffering high-level analysis of trends in energy, extractives, and territories across the world. They explored the ways in which the concept of community is linked to the concept of territory. The majority of the world’s people are migrating to the cities caused in part by the climate crisis, declining opportunities for livelihoods, inequality, insecurity, etc. While energy transition is promising to help cut back on the climate crisis, the flip side is the anticipated mining boom that will result from the search for alternative transition minerals. This means that countries will be under pressure to explore and harness these minerals within a certain time frame. One major manifestation of this pressure is the rate at which countries are hastily revising regulatory codes to meet these deadlines and realize other country-specific targets. That rush often means less environmental protections, less human rights, less community and citizen inclusion, and more emphasis on outputs and mineral development.
While trends in energy and extractive sectors vary across sectors, certain commonalities still exist. For instance, corporate impunity exists due to legal scaffolding which relaxes mandatory due diligence on companies or creates avenues for corporations to escape legal liability for business-related harms. Complex legal arrangements often permit opaque separation of responsibilities between parent and subsidiary companies, which makes it harder to know where accountability lies when things go wrong. Access to the courts for dismantling the legal scaffolding is limited and often burdensome for the disadvantaged communities who bear the brunt of these relaxations and complexities.
Legal scaffolding entrenches power asymmetry between communities and corporations. It attributes rights to corporations and removes the language of obligations on them. It also displaces local norms and land freehold practices with imported flexible arrangements that are often inconsistent with local realities. Not only that, poverty and neocolonialism play major roles in entrenching corporate impunity and injustices in the extractives sector. Due to widespread poverty: communities live by the day, and focused on solving short-term needs of employment and livelihood. Hence, they are unable to negotiate long-term benefits. Corporations are exploiting the governance gaps and the short-term appetite of communities to short-change them.
The good news is that legal language is changing due to a lot of pushback from advocates. International recognition of the importance of community land is gaining momentum, but how to get them working in the domestic context still remains a challenge. To bridge the domestic-international law dichotomy, there’s a need to formalize customary rights. This approach will ensure communities have access to increased benefits from natural resources; have the rights to the use of extracted resources and meaningfully participate in the sharing of natural resource benefits. Also, communities are no longer folding their hands. Across countries, communities are taking action, including resorting to self-help, by monitoring their land using local vigilantes, confiscating equipment, kicking illegal miners out of their land, blocking roads, etc. Advocates are also pushing harder to cut good language in the agreements between communities and investors.
The lessons above—mostly witnessed in the fossil fuel era—underscore why energy transition must be done with a different mindset. More opportunities should be reserved for young people to be at the table where decisions on energy transition are being made. Only young people will be alive and active in 2060 when the net zero target will be supposedly realized.
Parallel sessions that followed the opening high-level panel featured thematic discussions focusing on the phase-out of fossil fuels as part of national energy transition process; Land and resource governance in energy transitions: phase-in of renewable energy & critical minerals; rights and communities; revenues and financing. At these sessions, participants discussed trends, similarities, and differences in the way these issues manifest in different regions, particularly in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbeans. From the communities’ perspective, the trends appear to be uniform across the regions. For instance, illiteracy and low technical knowledge of the industry is prevalent in mineral-rich indigenous communities. Land rights are not usually recognized as legal systems are mostly inherited from colonial masters. Corporate influence on rulemaking is rife, with the result that legal rules advance the interests of states and corporations and offer weak protection to communities. Lack of community inclusion is also another predominant feature. Others include the criminalization of activities and campaigns to protect indigenous land and forest rights. Some countries in East and West Africa have also witnessed political polarization of natural resource debates and dialogues.
There was also an interesting conversation among researchers regarding the role of research in contributing to social change as it relates to energy transition work. One thing is clear: social change research should be underpinned by rigorous methodology and insulated from external influences. Research methodology in support of community struggles for social change must take into account things like narratives, data collection, geospatial analysis inclusivity, sensitivity, and be mindful of how historical data will be used.
Furthermore, the academia make demands on researchers which can limit the impact on long-term knowledge and commitments. Translation of research evidence is another uphill struggle. Some meanings of local words are lost when translated into another language. Instead of these rigid academic demands, researchers may consider researching in the local language of the audience where the data will be used. Also, universities need to be transformed into places to have uncommon conversations on social justice. There’s also a need to shift the kinds of data we produce as social justice advocates; shift our mobilizations; shift from resilience to resistance; and finally, shift from resistance to defense.
With all the lessons shared, how can advocates working in different sectors, contexts, and fields build solidarity? What’s the value added in building transnational solidarity? Parallel sessions on the regional deep dives in Africa, Asia, Latin America & the Caribbean featured group discussions where participants identified opportunities for collaboration in geography; identifying asks or opportunities for global policy work and collaboration with other regions. National and regional framing of solutions is critical. This is necessary in order to better understand and map the varying interests and regional influences on extractive projects which can make or mar proposed solutions. Activists and advocates also need to balance defensive work with proactive work, and most importantly, follow the money to “follow the thing behind the thing behind the thing”. This simply means that the reason advanced for certain solutions may indeed be different from the real motivations behind them.
What roles should donors and philanthropic bodies like the Ford Foundation play? Some recommendations to donors include supporting the building of regional alliances and platforms. Secondly, increased investment in local content development to bridge knowledge and information asymmetry and balancing of power is very vital. Such investments need to be accompanied by specific and contextualized business models. Beyond the interest and camaraderie of colleagues throughout the entirety of the deliberations, the conversations wrapped up with participants deepening connections across geographies, leaning on the shared lesson that collective solidarity brings hope.