Resource Rights and International Governance: Learning from Rivers


This is the first in a three-part series featuring special guest posts on their recent work from the three philosophers honored in the American Philosophical Association‘s 2013 Book Prize competition.  Today’s featured author is Cara Nine, Lecturer at University College Cork in Ireland and the author of the prize-winning Global Justice and Territory (Oxford University Press).

(image: Yasuni National Park)

Resource Rights and International Governance: Learning from Rivers

Cara Nine (

Yasuni National Park in Ecuador contains one of the richest rain forests and holds the most biodiversity of any place on Earth. It also sits on top of a remarkable amount of oil. In 2007, Ecuador allowed the global community to help decide if that oil would be exploited. The government announced that if the global community contributed enough money (approximately half of their expected oil revenue) to offset economic costs, it would not seek exploitation.

The proposal was popular in Ecuador, but less so elsewhere. Ecuador failed to come even close to their objective, and in 2013, the government began allowing oil exploitation in Yasuni.

Philosophy is only starting to engage the issue of resource rights and responsibilities, and the Yasuni case presents some interesting questions. In particular: Do governments have responsibilities or rights regarding the management of natural resources in other states? Did America, for example, have a responsibility to help make a decision in favor of the good management of Yasuni?

At the heart of these questions is the territorial border. Borders divide jurisdictions between self-governing peoples. They also divide ownership rights. When a volcano suddenly appears in a Mexican national park, the created thermal energy belongs to Mexico.   While some aspects of a country’s resource ownership have come under scrutiny, two claims within territorial rights theory seem relatively unscathed: that clear borders should divide jurisdictions, and that jurisdictional rights are a ‘core’ right. A core right sets the geographical domain within which a people may claim some set of exclusive resource rights. A group claims self-determination rights (rights of jurisdictional authority) first, and then they come to have resource rights through their claims to self-determination.

I believe that both of these claims can be turned on their heads while still maintaining the basic idea of territorial integrity for self-determining groups. And, in fact, a model of this alternative is already practiced over many international rivers. River systems that cross international borders are often both jointly governed and not considered to be owned by any state. Think of the relationship between an upstream and a downstream state. If the upstream state destroys the capacity of the river for economic, health, social and religious uses, then the downstream state may lack resilience—be unable to bounce back from the impact of the upstream state’s decisions. It’s not hard to see why many states prefer to think that no state has unilateral jurisdiction over an international river; no state wants to be caught on the down (or cross) stream end of a unilateral division of river rights.

Another interesting feature of international river agreements is that, while no state has unilateral jurisdictional authority over the river, any riparian state has full property rights over the resources they extract from the river. Full property ownership of resources does not necessarily depend, then, on exclusive jurisdictional authority.

What is similar in the Yasuni case is that Ecuador acknowledges resources within its borders as globally shared (because of their significant role in the global ecosystem), and that because of this, Ecuador might not hold exclusive authority to determine how the resources should be used. When it came to the decision-making stage about usage rights, Ecuador gave the rest of the world the opportunity to be a part of that process, albeit in a very limited way. Also consistent with international river practice, Ecuador claimed full property rights in the resources that could be extracted from Yasuni, even though they acknowledged the area as a shared resource.

What can philosophy learn? Elsewhere I develop a principle regarding the joint governance of international rivers.[i] Basically, if two or more groups share a common resource (or set of resources), and this sharing allows at least one group to dominate another, then the groups should jointly govern the resource in order to eliminate the possibility of domination.

This principle may or may not apply in the Yasuni case. But it does begin to answer the question at the beginning of this essay: Do governments have responsibilities or rights to manage natural resources in other states? The answer to this question depends on whether any state’s continued use of a resource requires joint governance to avoid domination. Whether a group is on the up or downstream side of a resource-sharing relationship, it has a responsibility to engage in cooperative management of that resource.

A follow-on lesson concerns the derivation of property rights in natural resources from rights of self-determination. Under the international river model, states cooperate in decision-making about the use of the river, but they do not share income from the exploitation of river resources. In philosophy, the proposal is usually the other way around. Global justice literature calls for the redistribution of income from the exploitation of resources.

International river management tends to be successful in creating productive economic and environmental river usage agreements (although it is far from perfect). So, is philosophy missing something?

Yeah, definitely. But that’s not surprising. We’ve only just now started engaging with philosophies of resource and territorial rights. I don’t yet have a full theory of the connection between resource ownership and self-determination, but I’m led to think that answers will be found when we incorporate the study of a myriad of things analytic political philosophy often leaves aside: geography, regionalism, and scale (to name a few). That is, the way that people are morally connected to each other through place, I think, should start to play a role in analytic global justice theory.

[i] Nine, C., 2014. When affected interests demand joint self-determination: learning from rivers. Int. Theory 6, 157–174.

The Irish Research Council generously supported my research on territorial rights and rivers.  I owe thanks to Oliviero Angeli for introducing me to the Yasuni National Park example as a case study in resource rights.

2 responses to “Resource Rights and International Governance: Learning from Rivers

  1. What an interesting post! I wonder if you can comment on why river-management in the Western part of North America has worked so poorly. As you know the Colorado River does not make it to the Gulf of Mexico and, apparently, this is a much more general problem with rivers: Are some managed much differently than others? What can these cases teach us about appropriate division of “property” rights construed broadly to include control over resources?


  2. Thanks, Nicole, for this question. I’m not an expert, so I can’t say exactly why those particular systems have managed the resources in the way that they have. I don’t mean to imply that international river management always gets things right, or that it is a superior model to some alternatives. Rather, I think that the evidence surrounding river management points towards a few philosophical insights: (1) some resources are intricately shared by two or more states, making the division of territory tricky; (2) some of these shared resources are incredibly important, like fresh water and river ecosystems; and (3) sometimes in these cases, “normal” assumptions about state territorial rights seem to be set aside in order to facilitate mutually beneficial management, even if this means giving up on sovereignty. International rivers present some serious puzzles for philosophical theories of territory, and they also give us some alternative ways of thinking about how construct theories of resource rights.

    One thing I’m working on at the moment involves more local control over resources, as opposed to state control. On this proposal, local groups who actually live near or on the river would have priority in the co-management of international rivers. This proposal addresses some issues of bad river management (such as big government worries), but it creates others.


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