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Philippe Le Billon, Wars of Plunder: conflicts, profits and the politics of resources.

PHILIPPE LE BILLON, Wars of Plunder: conflicts, profits and the politics of resources. London: C. Hurst & Company (pb 20 [pounds sterling]--978 1 84904 145 4). 2012, xi + 363 pp.

The question of how an abundance of natural resources has impeded African development has been a major concern to many an observer of African political economy. Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion, equates the 'resource curse' with the 'Dutch disease', whereby the country's currency rises in value against other currencies, thus rendering the country's exports uncompetitive. One of the major criticisms of the resource curse argument is that it cannot explain why certain countries, such as the Arab oil producers, with their abundant natural resources, do not experience the resource curse. By crowding out export activities with the potential to grow rapidly, it is argued that the Dutch disease can damage a country's growth process, making way for patrimonial politics and eventual war. This latter point is central to Le Billon's work as he seeks to establish whether or not 'resource sectors do indeed influence the occurrence and course of wars, how they do this, and what can be done about it' (p. 1).

The book consists of an introduction, seven chapters, a conclusion and a rich bibliography. It focuses on the extractive industries--oil, diamonds and timber --which, together with narcotics, the author argues, are responsible for most resource-related challenges to the state. While arguing that resources shape and are also signifiers of social relations, the author is quick to point out that resources do not cause conflicts. In order to appreciate this conclusion, it is important to recognize the hybrid nature of resources as products of joint social and natural processes.

Chapter 1 deals with the definitional and conceptual framework and includes a fine critique of the conventional views of resource wars, not least because of their tendency towards environmental determinism. Chapter 2 examines explanations of resource wars in their historical perspective by identifying the dominance of socio-biological and geopolitical explanations in conflicts over resources.

Chapter 3 examines oil, and looks at three hypotheses linking oil to armed conflict: oil dependence and vulnerabilities to armed conflict; oil stakes and tendencies for conflict; and access to oil revenues and opportunities for criminal interventions. The author sets out the argument that the 'conceptual framings of oil wars, as driven solely or primarily by scarcity or greed, are overly simplistic' (p. 61). In his view, oil-related conflicts are the consequence of 'the interplay of institutional setting with oil abundance, dependence and location of oil fields' (p. 61).

In Chapter 4, Le Billon questions the conventional narratives of diamond wars, which, he rightly claims, obscure as much as they reveal. For example, greed-based explanations of the Sierra Leone civil war totally obscure the historical trajectory of the course of the war, because diamonds did not feature as a means of financing the war effort until well into the conflict. Not surprisingly, the author wonders if the concept of the diamond curse has any value. While not denying the existence of a diamond curse, he calls for caution and emphasizes the need to look beyond the simplistic association of diamonds and conflicts. Le Billon points out that there are two factors that expose a diamond-producing country to war: the mode of governance of diamond rents, and whether or not they appear as alluvial gem deposits, which are easily accessible and therefore a potential incubator for resource wars.

In Chapter 5, Le Billon concedes that forests and timber booms can affect state institutions by making them vulnerable to armed conflicts. The harvest of these products opens up alternative land use, and migration into forest regions and the displacement of large local populations through logging or land consolidation can lead to tensions, conflict escalation and organized violence.

Chapter 6, 'Spoiling war', analyses three conflict termination strategies: military intervention, economic or commodity sanctions, and what Le Billon calls 'buying peace', through resource revenue incentives for warring parties. He points out that this last strategy is premised on the assumption that the conflict has been driven by economic motives; in fact, conflict termination strategies should match the types of actors, resources and conflicts.

In his brief but pungent conclusion, Le Billon offers a potent warning, of which thirty years of Africa's encounter with the Washington consensus is the best testament: namely, that '"geopolitical" and "neoliberal" views are both incomplete and dangerous ... [Furthermore] neoliberal narratives presenting market laissez-faire as a panacea to resource woes also warrant caution. Increased demand will not simply be resolved by the market, nor will it translate into prosperity for the populations of producing countries' (pp. 225-6). For much of Africa, thirty years of neoliberal policies have witnessed the demise of the nascent industrial structure and the disappearance of branded agricultural exports, accompanied by the rise of unemployment, poverty and wars. The potent question for Africa is this: when will it end?

My criticisms of this book are few. It could have done with a key to acronyms to aid the reader, and perhaps the attempt to address the issue of the resource curse globally has meant that some regions have not been given the deep attention that is required. Nonetheless, this is an extremely well-written book, backed by years of field research in various parts of the world. In no small measure it represents a major challenge to those who seek to deny the oppressed people of Africa the right to say 'enough is enough' to neoliberalism.


University of Central Lancashire

doi: 10.1017/S0001972015000674
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Author:Zack-Williams, Tunde
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2015
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