New Scientist June 29, 2002, Features
IT HAS become accepted wisdom: environmental crises cause wars. As we strip the planet bare of timber, oil and other natural resources, the theory goes, the most ravaged and least-endowed countries will descend into civil conflict. Some say it has already happened in Rwanda, the rebellious badlands of Mexico, Colombia and even Afghanistan.
But is it so? Many analysts who have searched for the link say not. Quite the opposite, in fact. More dangerous than environmental poverty are environmental riches. “Countries suffering from scarcity of natural resources are not, as far as can be measured, at heightened risk of civil war. But countries with resource abundance are,” says Michael Ross, a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Particularly in poor countries, nature's bounty seems to stymie economic development, cripple governments, fill the pockets of rebels and all too often trigger protracted civil wars. Today's rebels are more interested in liberating diamonds than repressed peoples. Worse, they finance their start-up costs by promising foreign interests a share in the spoils of war.
Recent years have seen a string of wannabe warlords selling resource rights to foreign corporations. Take Angola. Its rich resources make it potentially one of the wealthiest countries in Africa. But it has become synonymous with squandered wealth. After independence in 1975 it descended into civil war. Initially the US, Russia and South Africa armed the combatants. But when the cold war ended, they withdrew and, says Ross, the nation's natural resources became the main source of funding for both sides.
The main rebel group, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, led by the late Jonas Savimbi, invaded the diamond-rich Lunda region of northern Angola. The diamonds, littered along river beds, were easy to loot, and Savimbi raised several billion dollars from diamond sales in the 1990s. Meanwhile, the government held on to power by selling access to the country's huge offshore oilfields to a consortium of big oil companies, including BP, ExxonMobil, Shell and ChevronTexaco.
“Were it not for diamonds and oil, the war would have ended a decade ago,” says Ross. Savimbi's death early this year brought the conflict to an end, at least for now. But Angola's fields, which once bloomed with coffee and maize, are today littered with mines, and the bush is reclaiming them. Its 12 million people have a life expectancy of 44 years, one of the lowest in Africa.
Indra de Soysa of the University of Bonn's Centre for Development Research is one of several researchers analysing links between natural resources and civil wars. He plotted World Bank estimates of the value of natural resources in 139 countries against the frequency of civil wars since 1990. It seems that Angola's experience is the rule rather than the exception. De Soysa found that conflicts are more likely to take place where there are abundant natural resources. Civil wars are not being fought over “shrinking pies” but rather over “honey pots”.
Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler, both of the World Bank, have looked for a link between civil war and a country's economic dependence on exporting natural resources. They concluded that the ability of rebels to loot natural resources was “by far the largest single influence on the risk of conflict”. Michael Renner of the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington DC think tank, calculates that a quarter of all conflicts around the world are either fought over, or largely funded by, lucrative natural resources.
Previously, the idea that lack of resources triggers conflict had gained a tight hold. The notion goes back to 1992, when Thomas Homer-Dixon, director of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at the University of Toronto, wrote that “as resources are wasted, mass violence will rise. Scarcities of renewable resources are already contributing to conflicts in many parts of the developing world.” By 1997, even the then British foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind had recognised that “environmental problems undoubtedly contribute to disputes and wars”.
For many, the best evidence of this link came from the Rwandan genocide in 1994, when almost a million people died. Rwanda, as many pointed out at the time, is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa and was gripped by worsening food shortages. Renner and many others concluded that tribal hatreds were a poor excuse for the genocide. “The Rwandan apocalypse was rooted in a complex web of explosive population growth, severe land shortages, land degradation and rapidly falling food production,” Renner argued.
But on closer inspection, even Homer-Dixon found that this argument did not stand up. Food shortages were greatest in the south of the country; yet the killing started among militias in the north. Shortages of natural resources played a minimal role, at best, he says. It seems that ethnic unrest may have been to blame for the slaughter after all. One positive thing to come out of the Rwandan conflict was serious academic inquiry into the role of environment and natural resources in civil conflicts.
Despite his scepticism over Rwanda, Homer-Dixon believes that environmental decline helped trigger insurrection in Chiapas in Mexico in the 1990s, where a populist movement of poor peasants took on the land barons. Ross is sceptical. “I don't know the specifics of the Chiapas rebellion,” he says. “But environmental degradation is ubiquitous, whereas rebellions remain rare. I can't see a meaningful correlation.”
Last year, Ross conducted a series of case studies that he believes show a close connection between a wealth of resources and civil conflicts. For instance, following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 1996, the main rebel commander of what became the Northern Alliance, the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, kept his army in operation by selling emeralds from his heartland in Panjsher province to a Polish firm called Inter Commerce. The Northern Alliance is said to have raised as much as $200 million a year from natural resources. The Taliban, meanwhile, helped fund its operations by trucking timber to Pakistan.
In Colombia, rebels used the threat of sabotage to extort hundreds of millions of dollars from oil companies. They also prospered from cocaine sales. And in Cambodia, the friendless Khmer Rouge kept going through the early 1990s by selling rubies, sapphires and logging rights in their jungle terrain.
Nobody ever accused Liberian President Charles Taylor of idealism. But his despotic West African state has become a byword for the looting of natural resources. Last October, a UN panel of experts reported that 86 per cent of his country's vast timber production is controlled by people who are also players in the lucrative arms trade - a trade through which Taylor supports bloody rebellions in several neighbouring countries, including Sierra Leone.
Of course wars have long been fought over natural resources. But in many recent conflicts, the spoils of war seem to have become an end in themselves. “Today's conflicts are less about ideologies and more about the struggle to control or loot resources, less about taking over the reins of state and more about capturing locations that are rich in minerals,” says Renner.
Clearly the end of the cold war is one cause of this. Rebel groups can no longer expect funding from a superpower jockeying for strategic advantage. And the ideologies of socialism or liberation from it have largely died since the early 1990s. Moreover, particularly in the poorest states, the rise of the free market is reducing the power of governments. They control far less of their national economies and rebels can more easily sell their booty abroad.
Even for successful rebel groups, it seems that taking over governments is not the best way to maximise their wealth. Why bother with government when the rewards are few and when perpetual conflict maximises the potential for pillage, extortion and exploitation of labour, all under the cloak of rebellion? As David Keen of the London School of Economics put it in his influential 1998 essay, Economic Functions of Violence in Civil Wars, “We tend to regard conflict as simply a breakdown in a particular system.” In fact, it represents “the emergence of another, alternative system, of profit and power”.
None of this means conflict is inevitable in resource-rich countries, even in Africa. Botswana, Africa's longest surviving democracy, has grown wealthy by selling diamonds but remains peaceful--a sharp contrast with neighbouring Angola. So, under what circumstances do valuable natural resources generate conflicts? A key issue is the “lootability” of those resources. Botswana's diamonds are deep underground and can only be extracted with huge investment. Passing rebel bands cannot simply pick them up.
Ross sees two ways for rich resources to stir up trouble. First, they offer rebels the opportunity to loot, which seems the dominant cause of trouble in Africa. Second, they can also create grievances that trigger separatist movements. This seems to be what's happening in Asia, most notably in Indonesia. This giant archipelago is barely coherent as a state and is vulnerable to separatists driven by anger that the profits from “their” resources are being siphoned off to a distant capital. The present rebellion in Aceh, on the island of Sumatra, is centred on a giant natural gas plant which taps a field just off the coast. Its profits do not go to the locals, but to the capital, Djakarta. Similarly, the independence movement in Irian Jaya (known to the separatists as West Papua) is focused on the vast Freeport copper mine.
According to Ross, one way governments try to combat growing discontent is to crack down hard on rebels using “exceptionally harsh measures, including martial law and terrorising villages, to preclude any challenge to control of key resources located in a rebellious region”. But sometimes, governments act before a rebel movement even gets off the ground.
The most dramatic instance of this “pre-emptive repression” is taking place in southern Sudan, well away from the world's gaze. Here, huge oil reserves have been discovered in a part of the country that has been trying to secede for decades. The charity Christian Aid puts it like this: “In the name of oil, government forces are emptying the land of civilians, killing and displacing hundreds of thousands of southern Sudanese. Without oil, the civil war was at a stalemate; with oil it can only escalate.”
As the stakes are raised, rebels too have found a new tactic: the sale of “booty futures”. They are raising cash to start military action, or to sustain faltering rebellions, by selling the rights to the resources they aim to capture. “There don't seem to be any historical precedents for this. It is a new phenomenon,” says Ross.
In 1991, Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front got off the ground by selling diamond futures to Charles Taylor of neighbouring Liberia. This gave the RUF enough money to buy arms to take the diamond fields. By March 1995, buoyed by diamond revenues, the RUF was within 30 kilometres of the capital Freetown. Close to defeat, the government of Ahmad Tejan Kabbah hired mercenaries to push the rebels back. The government offered the mercenaries future rights to the same diamond fields, which they duly took. And so it has gone on.
Sale of booty futures has also been a major factor in the apparently endless civil wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo. On his way to gaining control of the country in 1997, Laurent Kabila sold a $885 million contract for mineral exploitation to the company American Mining Fields. But he soon faced a rebellion in the east, financed by revenues from diamonds, gold, timber and columbite-tantalite, an ore that contains valuable metals such as tantalum and the semiconductor niobium. It can fetch up to $200,000 a tonne.
One rebel leader told journalists last year that “coltan” earned him a million dollars a month. But as the well-heeled rebels closed in, Kabila appealed to two neighbours, Zimbabwe and Angola, for assistance. They agreed to send troops in exchange for extensive mineral and logging rights. It has since emerged that a company called OSLEG, owned by senior Zimbabwean political and military figures, has secured what Global Witness, a non-governmental investigative organisation, describes as “effectively the world's largest logging concession” in an area of forest one and a half times the size of Britain.
As a result of the deal, Kabila received support from foreign troops to fight off the rebels from the east. Ross believes that without the foreign troops, “the war might have been over in a month”. Instead, four years on, the conflict continues, with the Democratic Republic of Congo effectively divided in two, and both sides pillaging the country's natural wealth to maintain their armies.
Some think the argument over whether it is resource scarcity or resource abundance that triggers conflict is a false dichotomy. As Homer-Dixon points out, a resource that is truly abundant would not be worth very much. What is valuable is the local abundance of a resource that is increasingly scarce globally. That may be true. But what is clear is that valuable resources are increasingly the focus for conflicts. And for those who instinctively feel sympathetic to rebel groups apparently fighting to liberate their people from corrupt governments, the implications are bleak. In the new resource wars, rebellion is just a branch of capitalism.
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