Iceland: natural resources are now owned by the people

Victor David: This formulation is a politically correct way of talking about the nationalization of natural resources. In Iceland, one of the big issues is seafood. Some big companies concentrate almost all the fishing quotas. This nationalization would make it possible to renegotiate the quotas towards a redistribution more favorable to the whole population. The prospects of finding oil in Icelandic territorial waters in the North Sea are probably not foreign to this proposal either.

More generally, nationalization is motivated by the fear of seeing multinationals, or even foreign states via public companies, monopolizing resources. For example, China has tried to acquire land in Iceland. However, we must relativize the scope of the Icelandic text which refers to resources not already privatized. So it’s not for the government to hunt for private companies.

So the changes are pretty marginal?

No, because there are still a lot of natural resources not yet transferred to the private sector, in terms of fishing but also the offshore oil reserves which are only at the stage … of potential!

Does the reference to “people” not give citizens more of their resources than nationalization alone?

Not really, as Iceland is a representative democracy. Participation mechanisms should be put in place for the population to be involved in the management of resources. Through local referendums in particular. Then the ownership of the people would make more sense. That said, it is true that the draft Icelandic constitution provides for citizens’ initiative referendums. 10% of the population could cause a referendum, why not, resources in case of litigation with the state.

Does this project suggest better protection of resources?

The environment does not necessarily have much to gain. Behind the term “natural resources”, we speak less of the flora, fauna or landscapes, than of all that can prove to be a “natural wealth”, such as oil, ores or products of the Peach. Natural resources that are not already privatized to give to the people are removed from individual appetites. In reality, it is the state that manages them in the form of majority shareholding, without necessarily protecting nature.

A real improvement in the protection of natural resources in recent years comes from the 2008 Ecuadorian Constitution which decided to grant “fundamental rights” to nature itself. In particular, this facilitates the defense of the environment because these rights allow anyone to speak out for nature in court and to make a complaint without having to justify personal harm. And the damage to the environment is imprescriptible.

Is Iceland’s proposal part of a broader trend?

Yes, the nationalization of natural resources is back on the scene. In all legality since since 1962, the United Nations affirms the sovereignty of States over resources. In recent decades, however, states had used these rights to privatize resources, under pressure from the IMF and the World Bank. Since the early 2000s, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador have begun or strengthened the nationalization of their natural resources, including oil but not only. In Bolivia, the nationalization of water has allowed the state to regain control over this sector against Suez.

In Quebec, nationalist political parties regularly claim sovereignty over natural resources. But a perverse effect of this kind of nationalization is the risk of corruption, because the rulers become the exclusive managers of these riches. It is therefore imperative to increase public participation in natural resource management decision-making and strengthen transparency guarantees for public action.

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