Managing our resources: women, mining and conflict in the Asia–Pacific

This article is part of a series on women, peace and security that The Strategist will be publishing over coming weeks in recognition of International Women’s Day 2019.

The extraction and exploitation of oil and mineral deposits have become increasingly possible across Asia and the Pacific. Rapid industrialisation and technological developments have led to new large-scale mines, as well as discoveries of ore deposits throughout the region. New technologies also mean that extraction can take place in sensitive, remote and unstable environments—the same environments that are often sites of recent or ongoing conflict.

Trade in minerals and other commodities has played a central role in funding and fuelling some of the world’s most deadly conflicts. The Asia–Pacific region is already home to several conflicts driven by the exploitation of natural resources. As demand for key commodities such as nickel and copper grows, the region is likely to face an increasing number of disputes in the coming decades.

While resource-driven conflicts affect entire communities, women are affected in unique ways. Studies show that women are more adversely affected than men by extractive industries. A gender bias exists in the distribution of costs and benefits in extractive industry projects, in which benefits accrue mostly to men in the form of employment and compensation, and costs fall heavily on women.

Women’s traditional roles and responsibilities mean that they’re highly dependent on the environment for their survival and welfare and thus particularly affected by the environmental impacts of extractive industries. For example, when miners change water flows or pollute land, women have greater difficulty finding water and food. Women who lose their traditional livelihoods are unable to meet the needs that the land once supplied, or to offset that loss with compensation.

The close links between the mining industry and conflict are well documented. In the past two decades, global investment in mining has increased considerably, corresponding to a spike in conflict associated with mining. When struggles for control over mineral wealth turn violent, women are differentially affected. They may suffer from sexual and gender-based violence, which in mining contexts can come from security guards, police or military protecting mining companies, as well as from local actors in the conflict.

In addition, the destruction of civilian infrastructure reduces access to health, education, food and water, placing a greater burden on caregivers—more often than not women. The legacy of this violence endures long after a peace settlement is signed. In fact, in many post-conflict communities, we see violence and insecurity continue or even increase for women, facilitated by widescale impunity and the absence of effective justice systems.

Women’s participation rates are higher in artisanal and small-scale mining, which tends to occur in poorer and remote areas. The proportion of women involved in that subsector varies across the region, from 10% in Indonesia to up to 22% in Papua New Guinea. The informal and often illegal nature of artisanal and small-scale mining often means that women are more susceptible to human rights abuses, sexual and gender-based violence, and health risks. Those vulnerabilities are heightened in conflict settings.

Women’s rights to natural resources, land and productive assets are strongly linked to their security and resilience. Yet they have largely been prevented from effectively placing their natural resource needs on the political agenda. This begins with marginalisation from peace negotiations and extends throughout the peacebuilding process. And it continues to occur despite the growing body of evidence showing that including women in peace and security processes improves the effectiveness of those processes.

Through targeted programming, women can seize opportunities to engage more sustainably in the use of natural resources and begin to influence decision-making over the control of the resources. This requires promoting women’s participation in formal and informal decision-making and governance related to the management of mining projects as well as creating a legal and policy environment in which women are able to access land and credit.

Mining companies must work with communities, including women, to negotiate access to land and land use and keep the communities informed of ongoing activities, managing their expectations and concerns. Investing in these kinds of efforts can help to ensure that benefits from natural resources come back to communities and to address grievances linked to natural resource rights, access and control, which are often catalysts for violence.

As our region grapples with the responsible management of natural resources, it’s critical that our policies and programming are rooted in advancing the women, peace and security agenda. As we face the growing challenges of the 21st century, from climate change to conflict, we can’t afford to exclude the perspectives and skills of women. We need women and men, working together, to build resilient and peaceful societies that benefit all.