In 2016 Global Witness reported that an average of four people is killed per week defending their land and their natural resources from commercial development. So this is why the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently observed that “many conflicts are triggered exacerbated or prolonged by competition over scarce resources; climate change will only make the situation worse. That is why protecting our environment is critical to the founding goals of the United Nations to prevent war and sustain peace.”
The relationship between environment, natural resources and conflict has a long pedigree and it’s important to stress that the causal arrow runs in both directions. We know that war can take an enormous toll on the environment both directly in terms of the damage that it does and indirectly in terms of the disruption of institutions and the disruption of positive environmental and natural resource practices. We’ve learned that processes of environmental degradation and change and certain practices in natural resource management can enhance vulnerability fragility and increase conflict risks. World War II gave the world an increased appreciation of the destructive power that humanity held over the natural world. The scorched earth policies, the carpet bombing, the firebombing of Dresden and of course the use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki really underscored our ability to damage the natural world.
Often, armed conflicts begin as social disputes. These may be over power, wealth, values, abuses, political marginalization, or some combination of these factors. There are often efforts to detect and resolve disputes before they escalate to violence. Once disputes have escalated to violence, or further to armed conflict, efforts become focused on ending conflict. This is known as peacemaking. After a peace agreement is in place, international soldiers, police, and civilians often are invited to help preserve the fragile peace. This is referred to as peacekeeping. With the end of hostilities, there’s a transition to post-conflict peacebuilding and, if successful, there’s another transition to sustainable development.
The transition from post-conflict peacebuilding to sustainable development is often difficult to discern precisely, although it may be said that the distinction is when social and political dialogues and debates are no longer dominated by considerations of the conflict, its cause or its effects. It’s important to note that this is an incredibly simplified depiction of conflict. Not all conflicts go through this process, or go through it linearly. Sometimes, disputes are resolved before they escalate to violence, and between a quarter to a half of all armed conflicts relapse within ten years. In many cases there’s a political conflict between leaders that builds off or feeds into a social conflict between groups.
When violence is stopped but grievances, mistrust, and social conflict often persist. Natural resources and the environment present both risks and opportunities at different phases of the conflict lifecycle. Grievances around the inequitable allocation of natural resources and the revenues can be a contributing cause of conflict. Indeed, corruption-fueled grievances can be a substantial cause of conflict. In Sierra Leone, grievances over the distribution of land, corruption in the diamond sector, and the inadequate sharing of benefits were driving causes of the civil war that killed more than 70,000 people and displaced more than 2 million.
There are three separate risks to natural resources and the environment during armed conflict: financing conflict, environment as a weapon of war, and being damaged by the conflict. Natural resources can provide a revenue stream for rebels and other armed groups. Since the end of the Cold War, rebels have used natural resource revenues to finance major armed conflicts in more than 35 countries.
There is a diverse array of natural resources that can finance conflict such as charcoal, fisheries, and bananas in Somalia and opium poppy and lapis lazuli in Afghanistan. Any natural resource that provides a revenue stream can provide a revenue stream that rebels can tap into to finance armed conflict. The environment can also be used as a weapon of war. During the Vietnam War, US troops seeded clouds over North Vietnam in order to slow down military advancement of the Vietnam. And in the 1990-91 Gulf War, Iraq set fire to more than 600 oil wells and opened the valves to an offshore oil terminal that created the largest oil spill this world has ever seen. The Taliban blew up a dam in southern Kandahar province in Afghanistan, and there have been similar concerns that the Islamic State would blow up dams in Iraq.
While people are often familiar with conflict resources and using the environment as weapon, the more common and often more serious environmental damages come from the breakdown of environmental governance and the short-term survival strategies that people have to adopt during armed conflict. For example, in Afghanistan, there was widespread deforestation, as the government could not prevent criminal gangs from cutting down trees. Subsequently, people cut down their own orchards to sell firewood so that they would at least secure some of the benefits for themselves. In some areas, woodland cover declined significantly. In the Badghis province, for example, woodland cover declined by 98 percent from 1977 to 2002. Natural resources also present risks after armed conflict ends. Even when peace agreements have been concluded and fighting has ostensibly stopped, natural resources can provide an incentive for peace spoiling. Armed groups and other individuals that exploit natural resources illegally or illicitly during armed conflict often seek to continue to benefit from this exploitation.
Weak governance enable the armed groups to continue extracting gold, tin, and other minerals despite an existing peace agreement. This exploitation led to further tensions and instability. Taking a step back, then, one sees a wide range of risks at different phases of the conflict lifecycle. These risks have traditionally been the focus of the field known as environmental security. However, understanding the drivers of conflict is only the first step in creating an environment for sustaining peace. Natural resources and the environment offer positive opportunities to end conflict, strengthen recovery, and build peace. Recognizing that the mismanagement of natural resources and the environment can be a contributing cause of conflict, a growing number of efforts seek to prevent conflict from escalating by improving governance of natural resources and the environment.
The principle of free, prior, informed consent seeks to prevent conflicts from escalating. Another strategy has been adopted is early warning and preventive diplomacy. By detecting disputes around natural resources and the environment early, these approaches seek to prevent disputes from escalating to armed conflict.
Natural resources and the environment also provide entry points for dialogue and an economic incentive to end armed conflict. For example, the sharing of oil revenues was central to ending the decades-long conflict between Sudan and then Southern Sudan. Increasingly, peace negotiators and belligerent parties have recognized the importance of natural resources in the peace process. Indeed, every major peace agreement from 2005 to 2016 has included provisions on natural resources and the environment, often multiple provisions related to multiple dimensions. During post-conflict peacebuilding natural resources are particularly important to employment and livelihoods and to government revenues that are necessary to providing for basic services.
Environmental peacebuilding is the process of governing and managing natural resources and the environment to support durable peace. In 2017, the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly adopted a conceptual framework of sustaining peace. Creating an environment for sustaining peace requires a comprehensive approach to preventing conflict and addressing its root causes through the strengthening of the rule of law, promoting sustained and sustainable economic growth, poverty eradication, social development, sustainable natural resource development, and reconciliation and unity.
Environmental peacebuilding includes a broad range of considerations and actions across the conflict lifecycle, but it’s really about how natural resources and the environment can support the sustaining peace agenda. This includes efforts to prevent, mitigate resolve, and recover from violent conflict. It comprises methods for both addressing underlying problems - this is often referred to as addressing negative peace, that is, the absence of conflict – and building trust, which is referred to as positive peace. Environmental peacebuilding involves both renewable natural resources, such as land, water, and fisheries, and non-renewable resources, such as minerals, oil, and gas. It also includes broader environmental considerations, such as ecosystems and ecosystem services, environmental degradation, and climate change. Environmental peacebuilding activities occur at multiple levels, from local to national to regional and international.
The linkages between the environment and natural resources and conflict and peace are widespread. In many cases they’re central to conflict and peace dynamics. These linkages are often connected to other causal dynamics of conflicts, such as weak governance and religious or ethnic marginalization. Environmental peacebuilding provides an overarching framework for understanding the diverse linkages between the environment, conflict, and peace and for acting on those linkages. It should be noted that the considerations and approaches for managing natural resources to build and sustain peace can and should be approached from multiple perspectives; from a security perspective, from an economic perspective, from a social perspective, from an environmental perspective, and from a humanitarian perspective. In this context, the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, are important. Adopted in 2015, the SDGs integrate economic, social, environmental and peace dimensions. They recognize that there can be no peace without sustainable development, that there can be no sustainable development without peace. Goal sixteen emphasizes the importance of peace and good governance as cross-cutting issues, affecting all other goals. Indeed, many other goals and targets are also relevant to environment peacebuilding.
UN Environment has been working on natural resources and peacebuilding in Afghanistan since 2003. Let’s explore Afghanistan’s mineral wealth and how it could potentially contribute to stabilization and post-conflict reconstruction. The latest estimates suggest that Afghanistan holds between 1 to 3 trillion dollars worth of mineral resources. But how can the mines and the related infrastructure be developed in a context of insecurity, weak governance, and low public trust? And in this context, how can Afghanistan ensure that the minerals become a blessing and driver of economic growth, rather than a curse and a source of conflict?
Shabir Ahmad is a UPSC aspirant from Raiyar Doodhpathri.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.