International conference, August 28–29, 2023, University of Bern (Switzerland)

Natural Resources, Sovereignty and Markets: Revisiting Socio-Economic Histories of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Throughout the last two centuries, natural resources have influenced the development of sovereignty, law, and trade around the globe. Protecting, owning, and extracting natural resources have emerged as critical issues, resulting in disputes over social and economic rights and competing religious and economic views of resources. These matters have mobilized indigenous actors, local authorities, national agencies, and international bodies, thus interconnecting various communities on multiple scales of power and historical analysis. Resource extraction and trade profoundly altered local and regional social, political and economic structures, often provoking resistance and pushback against marginalization and dispossession. They also shaped regional environments through material transformations including the expansion of extractive infrastructures and the (toxic) legacies left behind by resource production. Since extraction frequently took place far away from the sites of consumption, it suggests an externalization and racialization of risk.

The various modes of exploitation, negligence and abandonment of commodity frontiers require an approach that is locally grounded without losing sight of the patterns and systemic nature of resource development.

This international conference invites scholars to examine the history and political ecology of various resources—biotic, animal, or mineral—in the modern era. It calls on scholars to analyze these resources, their trade and regulation, and their impact on national and world trade in the nineteenth and twentieth century. What roles did natural resources such as petroleum, copper, palm oil or water play in the field of law, the environment, and the economy? In what ways did these resources influence and transform national and international histories? What is the relationship between the past and our contemporary concerns with global supply structures and the volatility of markets. We particularly welcome papers that highlight the role of local actors; consider multinational firms operating during critical junctures such as military conflicts and across the era of decolonization; explore case studies within and beyond the Western hemisphere; and adopt an interdisciplinary approach to studying the global history of natural resources and their links to the worlds of politics, strategy, law, and the economy.

Potential papers can address (though are not limited to) the following:

  • The social and ecological costs of extraction in local and global contexts
  • International commodity schemes and control acts / monopolies and the manipulation of markets / systems of “imperial preference”
  • The role of smallholders and non-western actors at commodity frontiers, as intermediaries, smugglers, consumers and producers
  • Ruptures and continuity of resource production and trade across political junctures, including military conflicts and decolonization
  • National sovereignty and “layered sovereignty” at resource frontiers, including the power and political leverages of firms
  • Scientific-technical expertise and the role of knowledges
  • Resources, land rights and nationalism
  • The role of national and international institutions – from botanic gardens to the ILO
  • The history of labour and work migration, forms of indentured and unfree labour
  • Gender dimensions of land ownership, resource extraction, processing, and consumption
  • Discourses of scarcity and their reception
  • The Cooperative Movement and alternatives modes of commodity production and social organization
  • Postcolonial/National Development Programs, Five-Year Plans in the Communist countries and the Global South

The confirmed keynote speaker is Professor Corey Ross, Birmingham University. A one-page proposal should be sent to Moritz von Brescius,, before February 28, 2023. Accepted papers will be pre-circulated in advance of the workshop, which will be expected to be submitted by July 25, 2023. All travel and accommodation expenses will be covered by the organizer.