Politics of Poverty

Rush for resources: Oil, gas, and mining trends in Asia

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Indigenous peoples march on Human Rights Day in Cambodia. Photo: Savann Oeurm/Oxfam America

A brief account of some of the key extractive industries issues that Oxfam is working on in East Asia.

Alex Blair is a former press officer for Oxfam America’s Extractive Industries team.

Recently, Oxfam staff from throughout East Asia met with local partners to discuss strategy and issues related to the extractive industries in the region. Oxfam works with partners on oil, gas, and mining issues in more than 30 countries. In many Asian countries, economic growth has been marginal and uneven, worsening inequality and poverty. The oil, gas, and mining industries are a huge economic driver in the region, so you can’t talk about poverty and inequality and not talk about the natural resource industries. Here are some of the key extractive industries issues that we’re working on in East Asia:

Defending the right to decide

Many of the lands being developed and granted to oil, gas, and mining companies belong to indigenous peoples. In Asia, the level of recognition of indigenous peoples is lacking—there is no common definition, and sometimes states will argue that international laws don’t apply in certain situations. It is important that the state and the companies recognize indigenous groups and those who live and work on the land as rights holders.

When companies come to these areas hoping to extract resources, there is a global standard of free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) to follow in order to protect the rights of indigenous communities. That means communities must be fairly consulted and given the chance to approve—or disapprove—the project before it begins.

It’s important that indigenous peoples be treated as equal parties in this process. Our partner organizations are mapping out lessons learned from communities that have defined their own FPIC processes or protocols, and a key role of civil society is sharing these lessons with other affected or potentially affected communities. In the region, there are key lessons to be gleaned from the Philippines, where indigenous peoples have made significant strides to protect their ancestral domains and identities. Although strong FPIC legislation has been in place since 1997, the challenge is effective implementation.

Putting women and girls first

Women are disproportionally affected by the worst injustices in the oil, gas, and mining industries. They are challenged with the heaviest tolls of poverty, and they are often the hardest hit by social and environmental problems related to large-scale projects like pipelines or a mine.

Oxfam and the Dhaatri Resource Centre for Women and Children worked on a collaborative research project, “Gender Equality and the Extractive Industry in the Lower Mekong Region.” The study looked at existing and potential challenges women face living in mining affected areas in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Oxfam Australia has developed a guide for the mining sector on implementing gender impact assessment. Written for extractive companies, the guide can also be used by governments, women’s rights, and civil society organizations.

Keeping political space open

There is increasing militarization of conflicts related to the extractive industries, especially in indigenous communities in India, Philippines, Nepal, and Cambodia. There have been more violent responses to communities demonstrating for their land or territorial rights. Closing civil society spaces, particularly when a government uses the tactic of criminalization, or targeting human rights defenders with false or misleading charges designed to intimidate or silence them, is a worrying threat to our work. As a result, environmental and land rights activists are becoming victims of violence or intimidation.

Oxfam has been working to challenge the Cambodia Law on NGOs, and Oxfam India is dealing with threats to civil society and human rights defenders working on extractives issues in the closed political environment of Chhattisgarh State in India—one of the country’s most militarized regions. A free and vibrant civil society is central to inclusive development, so it is concerning for our team and our partners to see shrinking civil society spaces in Asia.

Promoting transparency

A positive, growing global trend of increased transparency is also impacting the region. There is a movement to require companies to disclose their payments to governments, providing local communities with vital information to hold their governments accountable for how they spend these revenues, and also making it easier to crack down on corruption and mismanagement. The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) is part of this positive global trend. Myanmar and Papua New Guinea were accepted as EITI candidate countries last year, the Philippines is an EITI candidate country, and Indonesia is the first EITI country to report at the project level – though the country was suspended earlier this year for persistent delays and inconsistencies in reporting. Companies listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange are required to disclose payment information upon first listing on the exchange. And the US, European Union, Canada, and Norway have all passed disclosure laws which would cover companies operating in the region. Western investors should see that they can remain viable, profitable, and effective with transparency—we need them as leaders to continue to improve transparency in the region. Notably, the US law remains unfinished, which means communities in the region don’t know how much US-listed companies are paying their governments for natural resources.

Together, the EU and US transparency laws cover 65 percent of the value of extractive companies in major capital markets, including most international oil, gas, and mining majors, as well as Chinese, Russian, Brazilian, and other state‐owned companies. Our partners at the Cambodians for Resource Revenue Transparency (CRRT) have used this information in their advocacy work. We’ll be monitoring prospects for adopting EITI in Southeast Asia and disclosure requirements in other markets.

Defending traditional lands

Many local communities in the region do not possess land title even though they have lived on the same land for generations. Often these communities have not undergone the long and highly complex registration process for communal land titles, so it is the government who officially owns the land. They have a spiritual relationship with their land, forests, and water and they also rely on it for survival and livelihoods. Foreign companies—often from China—are moving into ancestral lands and clearing it for mines or plantations with little or no consultation or compensation.

Oxfam is working with local groups like the Highlanders Association in Cambodia to support indigenous peoples in asserting their rights, securing land titles, and preserving their traditions.

Looking forward: Natural resource extraction must not come at the expense of human rights and the environment

Looking at oil, gas, and mining issues from a regional perspective shows the interconnectedness of these issues. When it comes to poverty, social justice, and the environment, what happens in one country has an impact on neighboring countries, as well as countries across the world. This is why Oxfam takes a “local to global” approach—looking at these issues across borders, but also supporting partners and communities on the ground to assert their rights. You can find out more about all of the countries where we work on oil, gas, and mining issues here.

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