Building your identity on a minefield

Picture by poco_bw on Adobe Stock

Picture by poco_bw on Adobe Stock

Can mining influence the way in which we identify ourselves? According to economists Nicolas Berman, Mathieu Couttenier and Victoire Girard, mining in Africa may intensify feelings of ethnic belonging, by generating feelings of deprivation among the local population. Mining could therefore help explain ethnic fragmentation and certain conflicts observed in Sub-Saharan Africa.

By Nicolas Berman

Nicolas Berman

Auteur scientifique, CNRS, AMSE

Mathieu Couttenier

Mathieu Couttenier

Auteur scientifique, ENS de Lyon, CERGIC

Victoire Girard

Victoire Girard

Auteur scientifique, Nova School of Business and Economics

Claire Lapique

Claire Lapique

Journaliste scientifique

With its vast plains, lush forests, deserts and savanna lands, Africa is an abundant and nourishing land. But that also makes it a minefield. Not only because of its mineral wealth, but also because many conflicts are played out there. Economists have called this the ‘natural resources curse, in reference to the political instability and clashes often observed in natural resource rich areas. In a previous article1  a team of researchers, including Nicolas Berman and Mathieu Couttenier, showed that increases in the world prices of minerals were directly linked to increases in violence. In particular, the presence of mines enables nearby armed groups to finance and support their activities, thus contributing to the diffusion of conflict.

According to several economic theories, these effects of natural resources may be linked to the fragmentation of African states. Rivalries between different cultural or linguistic groups are a breeding ground for inter-ethnic conflict. These divisions limit trust, cooperation and the smooth running of institutions, therefore accentuating the natural resources curse. However, as the economists Nicolas Berman, Mathieu Couttenier and Victoire Girard point out in their article ‘Mineral Resources and the Salience of Ethnic Identities’ published in The Economic Journal in 2023, we are still a long way from fully understanding a the mechanisms through which cultural or ethnic identities are constructed. They therefore set out to study the impact of mining on the ethnic fragmentation of African countries. Their analysis underscores that social and cultural identities are not fixed characteristics; rather, they may fluctuate with the political and economic context.

  • 1Berman, Nicolas, Mathieu Couttenier, Dominic Rohner, and Mathias Thoenig. 2017. "This Mine Is Mine! How Minerals Fuel Conflicts in Africa." American Economic Review, 107 (6): 1564-1610.
Close-up of minerals (gold, bauxite and coal) on a map of africa

Picture by Corlaffra on Adobe Stock

The origins of ethnic identification

Why does one identify with a group more than another? And how does this identification vary over time? One might think that mining has little to do with such matters. Yet, it offers a unique setting to analyse issues of ethnic identity. First, a large proportion of mining areas are located in territories historically associated with different ethnic groups’ homelands. Colonisation seriously undermined African political structures by redefining national borders, but it did not erased the ethnic, cultural and linguistic affiliations that have historically underpinned African societies.

Ethnic identities have also been used as a political lever to regain control of certain territories rich in raw materials, as in the Biafran civil war that shook Nigeria. At the time of colonisation, when the country had more than 250 ethnic groups, the British administration strengthened the power of the Igbos by providing them with political positions. Located in the east of the Niger Delta, the Igbos homeland also hosted most of the country's coal mines and oil reserves. However, at the time of independence, another of the country's main ethnic groups, the Yorubas, organised a coup and removed the Igbos from power. In 1967, after several years of tension, the Igbos seceded in order to govern from their territory, which they then named the Republic of Biafra. Ethnic divisions, exacerbated by the interests of colonial power, were rekindled over control of territorial wealth, culminating in a three-year civil war that left millions dead and displaced.

Conflicts of this kind continue to erupt in Africa. In the Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province, in Sierra Leone, in the Central African Republic and around Lake Chad, ethnic rivalries are exacerbated over control of land, most of which is influenced by foreign economic interests. While they all bear witness to the curse of natural resources and colonial legacies, they are also evidence that African citizens continue to identify with their ethnic group, even when this group goes beyond the limits of state borders. This sense of belonging may then become a means of contesting ownership of territories filled with natural riches.

Aerial view of a open-pit mine=ing site in Cape Town, South Africa

Picture by Keren Su and Danita Delimont on Adobe Stock

Strong ethnic group identities in mining areas

To study the impact of mining on the ethnic fragmentation of African territory, the authors used different sources of information from 25 African states over a period ranging from 2005 to 2015. The data cover more than 100,000 individuals from a total of 296 ethnic groups. This mosaic was produced using surveys on national and ethnic identities carried out by the pan-African research network Afrobarometer combined with ethnographic data containing the historical boundaries of the homelands associated with each ethnic group. This information is then coupled with the number of active mines in each ethnic homeland, in order to estimate the impact of mining on the construction of the respondents' ethnic identity.

Although African national borders are mostly the result of arbitrary divisions carried out by colonial powers, ethnic group identities continue to be part of many African citizens’ identities. And this identification to an ethnic group is accentuated by mining. When mines open in an area historically belonging to an ethnic group, the members of that group tend to identify more to it and less to their national identity, in relative terms. Even if they live outside this historic homeland or in another country. In fact, of the 296 ethnic homelands identified in the study, 167 span several countries. Ethnic borders therefore continue to be of considerable importance, which may explain the inter-ethnic conflicts that exist in some African countries.

Local people feeling excluded from mining profits

How can mining affect identity? To understand mines’ impact on amplifying the sense of belonging, researchers turned to the underlying mechanisms. The opening of a mine could first and foremost be associated with local economic opportunities. However, the effects observed by on households’ wealth are very limited. In fact, the discrepancy between the aspirations generated by the installation of a mine and the reality produces a feeling of deprivation among the inhabitants. The weak economic impact generates disappointment or pessimism. Since they do not benefit from mining any more than other groups, the members of resource-rich ethnic groups are more likely to feel excluded.

This feeling of deprivation underlines the importance of how resources are distributed, or perceived to be distributed.. The deprivation effect is all the more pronounced for politically marginalised groups, i.e. those with no political representation at the national level. The effect of mining activity on the sense of ethnic belonging is also stronger for the poorest groups and those who have experienced recent conflict. So while the exploitation of resources has positive spin-offs, it can also hinder development and political stability by reinforcing fragmentation between ethnic groups and conflicts over resources in a context of inequality. This destabilisation is all the more significant because it lasts over time: it is accentuated in the two to three years following the start of operations, and is reinforced during election periods.

The sense of belonging not only leads to national fragmentation or the risk of inter-ethnic conflict. It also enables the groups in place to organise themselves politically to emphasize the consequences of mining. As a result, the political leaders of these groups have been able to denounce inequalities in the distribution of wealth or the hoarding of resources by using ethnic identity as a rallying flag for a common cause. On the other hand, the authors highlight how, through this fragmentation, mining contributes to the deterioration of the African social fabric by reinforcing inter-ethnic divisions. Although the mines can generate financial gains, some local populations express a feeling of exclusion, which can increase tensions. These results suggest that the effects of mining on social fragmentation, which could amplify or partially explain those already documented on conflict and political instability, are an important element, that the various players involved - governments, mining companies, etc. - need to take into account. 

Translated from French by

Translated from french by Cate Evans


Berman N., Couttenier M., Girard V., 2023, « Mineral Resources and the Salience of Ethnic Identities ». Social Choice and Welfare. The Economic Journal, Volume 133, Issue 653, 1705–1737.