© Helvetas

Natural Resources and Conflict

© Helvetas

Drawing on experiences in more than 20 countries, Helvetas learned that any complex management of natural resources will likely have to address the issues of ownership of natural resources, allocation of power to manage and control natural resources and the sharing of natural-resource benefits. Many political contexts are therefore inevitably affected by conflicts.

Why natural resource management is conflict management by definition

Land, water, forests and livestock as well as marine life are primary sources of
income for a good part of the population of developing countries. In many cases,
natural resources are considered common goods or are utilized by several users.
Resource management always involves cooperation but also different – often
competing – interests.

To prevent violent conflicts, assess risks and foster adaptation as well as innovation,
we advocate for increased analysis of interest and needs of actors, as well as their
power relations and rights that influence resource management in different
settings. Evidence shows that good analysis and subsequent measures allow
projects to increase their impact and contribute to conflict prevention.

Causes and factors for conflict over natural resources

Conflicts over natural resources are not a new phenomenon. A series of factors
or trends are known which often trigger or substantially exacerbate conflicts
over natural resources
. The result is that local/traditional mechanisms are no
longer able to address or solve conflicts and mediate diverging interests. The
following list gives an overview of such factors:

  • In most cases, natural resources have more than one user. Without clear agreements and/or legal status, this opens doors for conflicts, which reflect the power relations between users.
  • Economic and population growth, combined with the destruction of ecosystems
    leads to a situation where competition over resources increases.
    Such conditions can easily exacerbate the potential for conflicts, particularly
    where other conflict factors (e.g. politicized ethnicity or social inequality) are
    also present.
  • Climate change substantially affects developing countries. More and longer
    drought periods increase the pressure on natural resources, thus triggering
    new or worsening existing conflicts.
  • A richness in natural resources (e.g. timber, mining, gold) can increase
    corruption and create a so-called “resource curse”. Here, conflicts between
    state officials or companies on one side and rural people and their
    organisations on the other side are likely to occur.
  • Political changes in many countries, especially in fragile contexts, can
    create new aspirations in terms of exploitation of resources. Functioning
    institutions, arrangements and regulations are especially necessary in such
  • Official laws regarding natural resources management do often not match
    with traditional indigenous user rights and regulations, thus causing
    conflicts between government officials and local users.
  • Privatisation policies of common natural resources or services can trigger
    serious (political) conflicts within a society (e.g. land grabbing).
  • Especially in post-war situations, but also in areas with neighbouring
    countries experiencing armed conflict, weapons are easily available. At
    times, armed groups play a role in controlling the access to natural
    resources or landlords are having their possessions guarded by armed
    militia. If safety and security are not guaranteed by the state, even small
    producers resort to weapons. This often leads to smaller or larger scale
    war-like confrontations between different ethnic groups or producers.
© Helvetas / Joerg Boethling
  © Helvetas / Joerg Boethling
© Helvetas / Flurina Rothenberger
  © Helvetas / Flurina Rothenberger
© Helvetas
   © Helvetas

Role of development aid

Development practitioners must be aware that any intervention they might make
around natural resources – even the most well-intended and humanitarian one –
will introduce new factors, which might change the existing balance of power. Any
such intervention may increase existing conflictive situations or even create new
ones. Assistance brought into a context becomes a part of the context.
Organisations can be neutral, but aid is not. Development projects dealing with
natural resources may trigger or exacerbate conflicts by having the following
(possible) effects:

  • They may change or modify production forms, processes and (informal) agreements.
  • They often create new decision making procedures or modify existing ones, thus affecting existing power relations.
  • They contribute with resources (directly or indirectly), and might create “winners and losers”.
  • They convey or introduce values and intend to change attitudes, which might be embraced by certain members of the target group while others might resist or reject it (e.g. a project which is primarily addressing minorities).

How can Helvetas support you?


  • Provide access to tools and instruments for conflict analysis, Conflict Sensitive Program Management, etc.
  • Discuss project ideas, issues to work on Assist in designing analysis (e.g. T.o.R., suitable tools, lines of inquiry, etc.)
  • Provide relevant further documents and guidelines
  • Assist in the assessment of the situation
  • Assist in finding specialized partners or consultants
  • Assist in elaborating and disseminating Best Practices and Lessons Learned

Field consultancies

  • Provide feedback and advice to programs
  • Conduct trainings or workshops on NRM and conflict, Conflict Sensitive Program Management, conflict analysis, peace building and development
  • Conduct assessments, evaluations and planning missions
  • Assist in necessary specialized analysis throughout the PCM
  • Elaborate Best Practices and Lessons Learned

Further information

Download the full publications and learn more about typical conflicts arising around natural resources management and about our projects related to natural resources and conflicts in Mali and Myanmar :

Our quarterly newsletter “Highlights”

For development practitioners and anyone interested in our projects and approaches.

Other topics that might interest you

© Helvetas / Simon B. Opladen

Climate & Disaster Resilience

Every year, we support over 1,000,000 people adapt to climate change, reduce the risks of disasters, sustainably manage natural resources, and conserve nature.

Voice, Inclusion & Cohesion

In many countries where we work, men and women are unable to claim their rights and participate actively in decision-making processes.

How Helvetas Supports People in Mali

Helvetas is active in efforts to integrate young people into the labor market and improve education and the supply of clean drinking water in Mali.