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Large-scale investments in natural resources can help transform African economies by accelerating economic growth, creating jobs and strengthening the links between local economies and the global economy. However, they often violate the rights of local populations and leave them with few benefits, which in turn may lead to social protests and political instability, potentially causing investments to be delayed or abandoned. In this article we explore how investments are implemented. To understand this, we develop a framework for explaining the triangular relations between investors, local populations and ruling elites. We argue that all three relations need to be taken into account in order to understand how investments are implemented (or fail to be implemented) and the extent to which the rights of local populations are accommodated. We focus in particular on how local populations react to investments with protests and resistance in order to understand how investments are implemented. We describe three examples of such investments: sugar in Uganda, rice in Mozambique and gas in Tanzania. We use these examples to further develop an analytical framework that moves from a focus on rights as absolute to one that see rights as outcomes of the relations between the main groups of actors involved in the implementation of large-scale natural resource investments: investors, ruling elites and local populations. The article is based on extensive fieldwork by the authors and the research teams they are part of that have explored large-scale natural resource investments in Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda in the gas/oil and agricultural sectors.