The rise of environmental conflict

With demand for food and energy expected to increase by 50% by 2030, conflicts over natural resources are an increasing risk
Photo by Lindsey G / (CC BY 2.0) / Source: Flickr / photo resized
Photo by Lindsey G / (CC BY 2.0) / Source: Flickr / photo resized

November 6 marks the United Nations (UN) International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict, an issue which has been become increasingly more relevant since the day was declared in 2001.

The day aims to raise awareness about the effect war has on the environment, but also how disputes over natural recourses can create armed conflict. Conflicts fuelled by natural resources are twice as likely to recur and researchers focusing on sub-Saharan Africa published an article this month showing  the risk of riots increases from 10 percent to 50 percent during droughts. While there have always been conflicts around natural resources, it’s predicted they are likely to occur more often with the demand for food and energy increasing by 50 percent by 2030.

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The resource curse

An example of the destruction caused over access to natural resources can be seen in the conflict, between Sudan and South Sudan in 2012. The conflict was driven by access to oil and resulted in the deaths of thousands of people and the displacement of 20,000. While South Sudan has rich oil reserves, Sudan has the much-needed pipelines to export oil to other countries.

A dispute over who owned the oil and the fees to transport it led to shelling and drone attacks which lasted six months. While Sudan and South Sudan have a complex history of war due to ethnic divisions, this conflict was over which country could claim the Heglig oil fields and was only resolved due to UN intervention and mediation between the two governments, after which South Sudan retained the oil fields.

Oil or peace?

Conflicts over access to natural resources are not only prevalent between countries but occur between governments and communities. This was the case in Peru in 2009, when the Peruvian government changed laws to allow oil companies access to the Amazon Rainforest, despite indigenous communities living there.

Political protests turned violent in 2009, when indigenous communities tried to fight against the legal changes. A state of emergency was declared with more than 30 people dead and 150 wounded. Although the 2009 laws were later repealed, the Peruvian government continues to allow access the rainforest and fails to seek input from indigenous people, despite being legally obliged to do so. Indigenous people continue to fight, mostly recently in September 2017, when, 600 people seize oil wells.

A catalyst

Environmental conflicts also arise over land resources such as water and arable land. In Mali, farmers and herders have always competed over arable land, but violent disputes have increased due to droughts and changes in rainfall patterns. Again, conflicts between the two caused deaths and required external intervention from the development agency Helvetas.

Whilst the link between the environment and conflict in Mali is clear, there are cases where there is fierce debate, for example, over the conflict in Syria. In the late 2010s, Syria suffered from severe droughts, resulting in many farmers being unable to make a living due to crop failure.

This led to mass rural-urban migration which exacerbated socio-economic tensions. Some researchers believe that the influx of unemployed, dissatisfied farmers, may have fuelled the civil war. However, others completely discard the argument. They believe dissatisfaction with the political system had been present for years, and that there is no credible link between the drought and uprising.  


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Governance in the environmental conflict debate

Although these conflicts all differ in nature, they have a key underlying similarity: poor governance. Without stable and effective governance, it is incredibly difficult to successfully mediate and reach a solution.

Weak governance and corruption also come hand-in-hand, as was the case in Peru. The Peruvian government accepted $29million in bribes from Odebretch, which owns the oil company Petrobras, with other oil companies doing the same.

Lacking strong, democratic governments, South Sudan and Sudan were not able to come to an agreement without international help, whilst deaths linked to droughts have controversially been linked to corruption.  Ethnic and socio-economic tensions between the two states also play a part, and though such tensions are historically complex, they too may be linked to a political system that is unable to dissolve tensions.

While conflict solutions are context-dependent, the UN has produced the handbook ‘Natural Resource and Conflict: A Guide for Mediation Practitioners’ as an overview. Natural resource management should not be overlooked and is also a form of conflict management. In the case of South Sudan and Sudan, wealth sharing settled the issue. Whilst both countries may have wanted better deals, it halted fighting that was linked to oil reserves.

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Participation at local levels would have allowed Malian farmers to voice their concerns to people who can bring about change, and potentially avoid conflict. Whilst in Peru, there needs to be both wealth sharing and participation, so indigenous people know what is happening to the land they live off and how it can help them.

Of course, it is not that simple, as communities will have differing ideas on how wealth is ‘shared’ or whether political bias to certain farming communities may leave some voices unheard in participation politics.

As the impact of climate change and the demand for natural resources continues to increase, countries may be more at risk of environmental conflict. In many countries, it will be a complex situation, where environmental issues aggravate poor governance and ethnic tensions to such an extent that conflict breaks out.

The countries that will be most affected by climate change and those that are natural resources, lack the ability to avoid conflict, therefore it is important that the international community is prepared to aid developing nations.   

Ailish Craig

Ailish Craig is a recent Geography and Economics student from the University of Southampton, where she enjoyed the conflict in interests between the two subjects. Ailish has spent time volunteering in Nicaragua, on a natural resource management and sustainability project. She has a keen interest in how developing countries will be effected by climate change and how impacts can be minimised, as well as women’s rights.
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