The world's biggest risks

Why resource nationalism could be increasing

Jessica Morris, special to

Conflicts over the ownership of mining and energy resources could be a growing concern for investors in the natural resources sector, warned analysts this week.

Resource nationalism describes a government's effort to gain greater benefit from its natural resources — sometimes to the detriment of private companies. This can range from outright expropriation — when a government takes away a company's assets — to more creeping forms of appropriation, such as higher taxation or more arduous regulation.

Papuan mining workers at a rally in Jakarta to protest the government's ban on mineral exports.
Bay Ismoyo | AFP/Getty Images

Outright expropriation, such as the seizure of Repsol's controlling stake in YPF by the Argentinian government in 2012, is the stuff that strikes fear into the hearts of investors. According to policy institute Chatham House, this expropriation cost investors around $13 billion when coupled with the asset stripping of Rio Tinto in Guinea and First Quantum Minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Subtler forms of resource nationalism are increasing, according to a report by risk consultancy Maplecroft, particularly in east African countries like Zimbabwe, Mozambique and the DRC.

(Read more: Why you don't need to cry over Argentina)

National interest

The line between resource nationalism and legitimate national interest isn't always easy to draw, and this can exacerbate tensions.

"It gets tricky when governments are after legitimate concerns, but do so in a clumsy way," Jaakko Kooroshy a research fellow at Chatham House told CNBC in a telephone interview.

In January, Indonesia — one of the world's biggest copper, nickel and aluminium producers — implemented legislation banning the export of raw minerals, effectively halting iron ore shipments.

The government said it intends to make miners process more minerals at home, therefore keeping a greater share of mining profits in Indonesia and boosting the economy. But some fear the policy will actually harm the Indonesian economy, increasing unemployment and wiping millions of dollars off export revenue.

"While I have sympathy for the policy goals, the way they've implemented it… might in the end be counterproductive," Kooroshy said.

Falling commodity prices

A fall in global commodity prices doesn't necessarily signal the end of resource nationalism.

"When prices are going down the size of the pie shrinks.Governments might turn around and try to get a bigger share of that shrinking pie," Kooroshy told CNBC.

(Read more: Warning: 'Prepare' for commodity super cycle end)

Companies are also guilty of this, and cost-cutting can weigh on national tensions. As corporate profits are crunched it can prompt companies to cut back on projects, slashing investment and undermining prospects for resource-led development.

This year for instance, Brazil's Vale to cut its potash mining project in Rio Colorado, after costs soared due to rampant inflation and currency depreciation, sparking a furious backlash from the Argentinian government. The two sides have since brokered a deal allowing for Vale's withdrawal.

Depleted reserves

Depleted natural resource reserves in developed countries could also encourage greater exploration in developing countries.

Chart: Precious Metals

Across the African continent, governments are moving to raise taxes and restructure ownership agreements. The Guinean government is currently reviewing mining contracts and in Mozambique, warring political parties are stirring up nationalist rhetoric.

"In East Africa, many countries are reworking legislation governing their natural resources, and in some cases it is resulting in an increased fiscal burden for companies," Erik Lambert, an analyst at Maplecroft, told CNBC.

(Read more: Steady oil market at risk from sabotage, instability)

"This is largely a response to increasing exploration and extraction of natural resources, in addition to a growing demand by governments to secure greater benefits from natural resource wealth to improve livelihoods and placate voters."

Political tensions

Resource nationalism is strongly linked to a country's political environment and is likely to feature in a number of emerging market elections this year, according to Maplecroft. South Africa is holding parliamentary elections, Brazil has presidential elections and Indonesia will have both.

South Africa's elections come as a debate over its mining sector — focused on gold, diamonds and platinum — is raging. Many ordinary South Africans have seen little benefit from the sector's boom, and uncertainty over its future is holding back investment and stunting growth.

(Read more: Global miners face rising risks in South Africa)

"Companies need to ensure they understand the priorities for local development," Lambert told CNBC by telephone. Aligning business operations with local socio-economic needs will help alleviate tension by ensuring a better return for the government, and hopefully the local population.

"That's the takeaway for investors. Conflicts with governments will not disappear because prices have fallen. Governments will continue to look to get a good deal, and where they feel they're not getting that …they may act on this," Kooroshy told CNBC.