- Strong green regulations modeled on those in industrialized countries don’t always have the intended effects of reducing conflict and environmental degradation, new research shows.
- These rules can place onerous burdens on small-scale producers that ultimately force them to go around the regulations, at times leading to more conflict and harm to the environment.
- The study’s author argues that regulations should be flexible enough to accommodate small-scale producers and the unique challenges they face.
Strong environmental regulations might seem like a no-brainer for developing countries trying to avoid environmental ruin and conflict over resources. But absent an understanding of the challenges that local people face in adhering to them, they could have undesired effects, according to new research.
“I think you potentially need a more flexible system that accounts for differences between multinationals and artisanal and small-scale actors,” McKenzie Johnson, a University of Illinois assistant professor of natural resources and environmental sciences, said in a statement. “There needs to be at least some recognition of the barriers different actors face, and a lot more inclusive conversation about these rules, what’s legitimate [and] what’s not.”
Johnson’s fieldwork in the mining sectors of Ghana and Sierra Leone revealed that strong environmental regulations in developing countries sometimes “generate perverse outcomes,” she wrote in the paper, published online June 21 in the journal World Development. Though the regulations are intended to diminish both the negative impacts to the environment and violent conflict often linked to extractive industries, Johnson found that they can encourage an uptick in “informal” — and often illegal — logging and mining.
As small-scale producers look for a way around onerous regulations that are difficult to comply with, they can foul the environment. And, if, for example, they’re mining an area earmarked for a multinational corporation, that could stir up conflict.
“If you’re a small-scale or artisanal producer, you’ve got this mountain of paperwork to get through. Generally, you have to go to the capital city, and that could be days away,” Johnson said. “Even if you succeed in getting the licenses and finding land that’s not occupied by a multinational corporation, then you have to abide by all these compliance standards that are really difficult.”
Big companies, in contrast, have the staff to deal with those requirements, she said, adding that these systems have probably helped countries avoid some of the damage that multinational corporations likely would have inflicted.
But, Johnson said, “[R]egulation helps consolidate ownership of resources and becomes very exclusive. That’s created a sense that the system is really unfair, and rigged against the little guy.”
The idea that strong green regulations akin to those enforced by government agencies in industrialized countries such as the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States would help stem conflict and protect ecosystems arose in the 1970s, and was further buttressed by support from the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
Quickly, however, researchers realized that the cultural differences between the Western societies where these policies originated and societies in places like Sierra Leone and Ghana are vastly different, throwing up hurdles to implementation.
The solution, many argued, was to bolster the capability of officials from these countries to administer these reforms on local levels, who, in effect, act as “translators” between the global and local systems.
But that doesn’t always work out.
“What’s actually happening is these domestic-level ‘translators’ have become part of this global system of governance,” Johnson said. “They go to all the meetings, work with organizations like the World Bank, and essentially become part of that architecture. Through this socialization process, they come to perceive Western systems are the correct way to govern natural resources and environment.
“So there is, in fact, no translation.”
Johnson advocates rejiggering green regulations so that they’re strong while also flexible enough to include small-scale miners and loggers. That, she said, will require the recognition that regulations affect local producers and multinational corporations differently.
In Johnson’s view, it’s that exclusivity created by strong green regulations, and not the frailty of the institutions themselves in these countries, that’s engendering more social conflict and environmental damage.
“My research really pushes back against the idea that African regulators are corrupt or inept. They’re actually implementing global governance standards exactly the way they should,” she said. “And that’s what’s having the negative impact.”
Banner image of miners in West Africa by McKenzie Johnson/University of Illinois.
Johnson, M. F. (2019). Strong (green) institutions in weak states: Environmental governance and human (in)security in the Global South. World Development, 122, 433-445. doi:10.1016/j.worlddev.2019.06.010
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