• Alexandra Vagg

Importance of International Legal Support Surrounding Natural Resource Management

“The management of land and natural resources is one of the most critical challenges facing developing countries today”.


As the world’s population rises, so does global consumption. This has led to the depletion of natural resources such as freshwater, fisheries, and forests. In combination with environmental degradation and climate change, the problems surrounding natural resources pose a serious threat to human security.


The destruction of ecosystems and livelihoods and the mismanagement of natural resources can lead to conflict. Many developing countries rely on natural resources to survive, both through exports and internal use. Tensions are rising as these become more and more scarce. The poor management of the environment and natural resources in developing countries contributes to heightened pressures and conflicts. For example:


“contrary to international news reports on Afghanistan, which emphasise instability caused by radical Islamist insurgencies, the most common causes of violence reported by rural communities are disputes over land and irrigation water”.


Managing natural resources has become essential to human security in order to both sustain life and prevent its loss as a result of conflicts over limited provisions. As such, international legal support surrounding the management of natural resources in developing countries is essential to both environmental and human security. Unfortunately, current international environmental law is insufficient.


The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972 is thought to be the foundation of environmental law. Since then, sustainable development has become one of the key objectives of modern international law in order to protect the Earth for future generations.


Some of the main principles of environmental law include the obligation to conserve and sustainably use natural wealth and resources, the obligation to safeguard natural resources for future generations (intergenerational equity), and the obligation to prevent damage to the environment of other states. It is enacted by many different organisations including the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that formulate guidelines for states. This international legal support is important as environmental issues often have disastrous global effects, such as air pollution and rising sea levels.


An example of successful natural resource management in developing countries, resulting from international legal support, was the creation of a framework to help battle environmental degradation in Afghanistan. As previously stated, the most common cause of violence in Afghanistan is natural resource disputes. A post-conflict environmental assessment of Afghanistan revealed the country was at risk of a “future without water, forests, wildlife, or clean air”. While 80 percent of the country relies directly on its environmental resources, Afghanistan lacked any environmental regulations and its policies and laws were outdated. UNEP assisted the government in developing basic legal instruments and, alongside the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), created the Environment Law, which was approved in 2007.


This provided the foundations for further environmental laws to be built and is based on international standards that legally bind Afghanistan and its people to a framework for effective natural resource management. Under the Environment Law, the Minerals Law has been implemented, with the Water and Forest Laws and hunting and wildlife regulations currently in development. This shows the impact the international environmental community can have by providing developing countries with assistance in implementing and enforcing positive environmental laws that increase the human security of their populations.


Not without fault, the support that is provided by many institutions is not always welcome. One criticism of international involvement in a country’s natural resource management is erratic engagement. There is currently no systematic approach for international involvement and, as a result, issues can go overlooked or unresolved.


In addition, the “backyard effect” is another criticism that suggests that international intervention only takes place in areas that are of specific interest (for example, where there is an international stakeholder involved). A lack of specific knowledge of an area’s political sphere, technical environmental strategies, or domestic issues can also mean that well-intentioned international support can be misdirected.


A final criticism is that international intervention can be perceived as meddling. Article 2 of the 1974 UN Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States dictates that a nation has sovereignty over natural resources in its territory. International attempts to manage the natural resources of particular states have therefore been viewed as intruding upon a state’s sovereignty, sometimes for the organisation’s own political or economic interests.


For example, in 1990, a United States oil company called Conoco wanted to expand drilling into the Yasuni National Park in Ecuador. However, this is part of the traditional lands of the Huaorani indigenous group who were strongly against Conoco’s plans. To resolve this dispute, a US-based NGO called the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) negotiated with Conoco on “behalf” of the Huaorani. In doing so, the Huaorani were excluded from negotiations with the terms agreed with Conoco were opposed by the majority of the group.


This could represent the “backyard effect”, as the NGO took on a case involving a large US company. As well as this, there is a clear misdirection of international efforts that disregarded the knowledge and opinions of the Huaorani. In this instance, their sovereignty was taken away in the negotiation process, in contradiction to Article 2 mentioned above. Therefore the support provided was largely ineffective and unwanted. A large amount of potential criticisms from just one case study emphasises the contentious nature of international legal support surrounding natural resource management.


However, the management of natural resources is essential to the survival of the human race. Overconsumption threatens irreversible environmental degradation and depletion. While legal input by the international environmental community into managing states’ natural resources is clearly controversial, cases such as Afghanistan highlight its necessity to protect the world’s climate and consequently protect human security. Therefore, the creation of a systematic framework of international environmental legal support would be beneficial, both to eliminate accusations of erratic, corrupt involvement, and to create a more united and efficient system to manage natural resources.