Big mining firms in the Democratic Republic of Congo are worried. For the past decade they’ve made good money from the country’s huge reserves of cobalt, diamonds, gold and copper, and now the government wants to grab more of the action: a document leaked to Bloomberg reveals plans to raise royalties and profit taxes, and increase the state’s share in any new ventures.
This is so-called “resource nationalism” in action, and the DRC is far from alone in seeking greater economic control of its natural resources. The state is back, the theory goes, and it’s taking on the multinational. From Scotland to Namibia, Zambia to Ecuador, resource rich nations throughout the world are rhetorically reclaiming gas, oil and minerals as their own.
The trend is widely reported as the enemy of trade, investment and energy security alike. In the UK, for example, the Telegraph called it a “spectre” and government economists have labelled it as both a “threat” and “anti-competitive”.
On the other side of the coin, governments argue they are simply ensuring foreign businesses don’t unfairly benefit from resource extraction. Take Zambia, for instance. The landlocked African nation is a major copper exporter yet most of the population still lives below the poverty line. After the government looked to crack down on tax avoidance by multinational mining firms, one senior politician defended the move: “The situation is win on one side – only the shareholders are winning; the people of Zambia are still in abject poverty”.
The question of whether resource nationalism really is something to be feared is therefore a whole lot more complicated than it would first seem, for the three following reasons.
It isn’t really nationalism at all
Governments, most prominently those of Sub-Saharan countries like Ghana, Sierra Leone, Guinea or Tanzania, have argued for huge tax hikes on mining, oil and gas contracts in the name of the “national interest”. However, move beyond the rhetorical strength of such statements and resource nationalism is less the enemy of big business than a cover for a business-as-usual bias towards the interests of neo-liberal, foreign investment.
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