How exploiting the Earth can fuel violent conflict


    At the end of May, the U.N. Environment Assembly (UNEA) will convene for the second time ever in Nairobi, Kenya, to discuss the United Nations’ sustainable development goals and the environmental challenges facing today’s world. And it looks like one major theme to be addressed — one that’s a growing concern among world leaders and activists — is the link between violent conflict and an increasingly over-exploited natural world.

    “I think we have, for a long time, overlooked often the root causes of conflict,” said Achim Steiner, UNEP’s executive director. “When civil strife, civil wars, internal conflicts happen, the attention is on, so to speak, the immediacy of the battle zone.”

    He said studies are increasingly suggesting that natural resources and the environment are often a central factor in these conflicts — and this can happen in three main ways. First, issues involving natural resources can be the direct cause of conflicts. Second, they can help prolong conflicts that already exist. And third, they can help revive conflicts that had paused or ended.

    Exploitation of natural resources can help start or revive conflicts in a variety of ways. Competition for land and water resources, for instance, can be a big source of tension between human communities, and environmental degradation — for example, deforestation, pollution or the redirecting of water resources — can increase this competition. Damaged or degraded environments also leave human populations more vulnerable to natural disasters, disease, food shortages and other crises, which can increase the odds of civil unrest or even force people to migrate to other areas.

    “What is of concern to us is that we currently underestimate the speed and the scale at which these drivers will become more significant as a result of climate change,” Steiner said. Increases in droughts, floods, other extreme weather events and even famines and disease outbreaks caused by the changing climate could lead to even more forced migrations and a sharp increase in competition over resources.

    Natural resource exploitation can also play a big role in keeping existing conflicts going — and a great deal of this likely has to do with the illegal extraction and trading of natural resources, which can be instrumental in funding wars and uprisings.

    “Wildlife is today the fourth-largest illegal trade, after the trafficking of drugs, people and arms,” he said. “So it gives you its sense of economic significance.”

    And aside from being a source of finance, issues with wildlife can also be a cause for conflict in the first place. Around the world, there’s increasing tension between farming communities and wildlife preserves, for instance. “It can create a great deal of tension between communities that have different interests,” Steiner pointed out.

    Indeed, Steiner said, there’s a great need for the global community to begin better addressing the fundamental causes behind human conflicts. If the environmental drivers are not considered, then it’s unlikely civil conflict can be completely resolved.

    So a major goal of the UNEA meeting in May will be “to actually draw the attention that sometimes the environment may in fact be a means to achieving conflict resolution and building peace,” Steiner said. “You ignore it and you do so at your own peril, because it will come back to haunt you because the root cause of the conflict has not been addressed.”


    Source: Washington Post