For the better part of their existence, the global anti-war and the environmentalist movements have typically existed side by side, each pursuing noble but separate aims. Today, however, a new trend has become apparent: the mutually reinforcing interaction between human violence and planetary change. No longer can peace and the environment be seen as separate issues. Consequently, no longer can the two movements merely work side by side; they must work as one.
From Violent Conflict to Environmental Stress
Data collection on war-related environmental effects is dangerous, complex and costly, meaning that our understanding of the environmental impact of war remains limited. First and foremost is the challenge of simply getting scientists, data, samples and instruments into and out of war zones safely. Not everything can be measured remotely; ground-based field work is necessary. And measurement is critical because the relationship between war and environmental harm is not as straightforward as we might think. Occasionally, war benefits the environment by reducing harmful peacetime economic activity, as during the Balkan wars in the 1990s, or creates safe havens for wildlife fauna and flora, as in the Korean demilitarized zone today. Nevertheless, the existing research into the effects of violent conflict on ecology suggests at least three clear, and harmful, dynamics.
First, internal conflicts directly funded or co-funded by external actors, such as foreign governments, tend to rely less on pillaging the local ecosystem. But when armed groups must generate their own revenue, they turn to the local natural environment and convert it to cash to fund their fights. This latter type of internal conflict makes up the majority of current conflicts. No longer proxy wars funded by global powers, they are complex internal conflicts funded by illicit drug production, diamond digging, rare metals extraction, unsustainable timber harvesting and even petroleum siphoning and shipment to consumer markets around the world. In Nigeria, there are presently at least three separate types of ongoing violent conflict, all at least partially financed from within the country. In Mexico, at least seven major drug-trafficking organizations are fighting against the national governments of both Mexico and the U.S., and the number of armed community militias is on the rise. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), analysts estimate that at least 40 armed groups are active
in one of the most ecologically rich battlefields on the planet.
The illegal poaching, mining, logging, cultivation of illicit drugs and other crimes that accompany and fund these conflicts all carry adverse effects on the environment. Illegal coltan mining in Rwanda and the DRC, often in nominally protected parks, has resulted in clear-cutting forests, water pollution, erosion and run-off, a variety of disturbances to wildlife, reduced riverine fish stocks and ecological alterations due to the loss of keystone species such as elephants and gorillas. Illicit crop production involves clear-cutting forests and unregulated chemical and water use, while crop eradication relies on aerial herbicide spraying whose effects are inadequately assessed. In 2013 in Colombia alone, 115,000acres were sprayed with glyphosate
, the active ingredient in the commercial weed-killer Roundup.
Second, significant adverse ecological effects are associated with refugee movements, a growing concern as the number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) worldwide has been rising in recent years
. Those seeking refuge in urban areas stress and overwhelm urban health and sanitation infrastructure, which oftenare highly inadequate to begin with, especially in less developed economies. Refugees in rural areas, especially those housed in large camps, turn to the natural environment to meet their needs, for instance harvesting wood for fuel to cook. From the evidence we have, limited as it is, we also know that they attempt to replicate the livelihood strategies they relied on at home, such as clearing forest to establish agriculture or to create pastures for grazing animals.
During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, for example, refugees fled violence through the Virunga mountain range, a chain of volcanoes spanning the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC. At the Kibumba refugee camp, located near the Congo’s Virunga National Park, approximately 19,000 people used 20 paths into the park to collect some 406 tons of wood each day. The consequences of deforestation included habitat destruction, loss of local biodiversity, land-use changes and soil erosion, not to mention interference with the important role forests play in absorbing excess carbon. Similarly, lowland Afghan refugees fled with their grazing animals to the mountains of Pakistan, clearing land for meager highland pasture there.
Third, we know that violent conflict significantly reduces a state’s ability to protect its environment and to adapt to climate change. In particular, virtually every African state experiencing violent conflict has partly or fully defaulted on its conservation obligations in order to reallocate scarce funds to fight rebel movements. While vast areas are designated by law as protected, the Congolese nature protection agency, for example, has been largely unable to protect Virunga National Park due to lack of funding, the absence of regional coordination and the reduction—or wholesale withdrawal—of efforts by international conservation organizations during periods of intense fighting. In addition, the agency lacked legitimacy among the local population, and its agents were hampered by general insecurity, all of which then permitted encroachment by illicit poachers and miners. Tourism, which once had helped to fund Virunga’s protection, completely stopped by 2008. Today, while some tourists are returning to the park, rangers are still removing poachers’ traps
and exchanging gunfire with the remaining rebels.
In Afghanistan, the cumulative, long-term effect of war on the environment is perhaps clearer than anywhere else. Whereas we know quite a lot about what has happened in isolated instances and specific locations elsewhere, like Virunga National Park, only for Afghanistan do we have time series data, some 30 years of it, that demonstrate the effect of prolonged violent conflict across species and ecosystems. Many of the country’s wetlands are completely dry; forests are highly degraded; soil and riverbanks are exposed to erosion; air and groundwater have been polluted by poor waste management; and the institutional capacity for conservation and protection of land and wildlife is seriously impaired. The Wildlife Conservation Society, a U.S.-based NGO, is working to protect the greater flamingo
in Afghanistan and what may be its last breeding haven across Central Asia. But the Siberian crane
, once a regular migrant through the country and now a critically endangered species, has not been sighted there since 1999.
From Environmental Stress to Violent Conflict
While the arrow of causality from violent conflict to environmental degradation may long have been suspected, if generally ill-documented and ill-attended to, what is relatively new is awareness of the reverse effect: how environmental stress can increase the likelihood of violent conflict. The primary factor driving climate change is “peaceful” economic development, and it is in the less-developed economies that people will likely suffer the worst effects. They will also be least able to employ peaceful adaptation and mitigation strategies. Migration, for instance, can compound vulnerabilities, exacerbate risks of violent conflict and compromise human security. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
, uncontrolled climate change can lead to unsuspected economic shocks, threaten rates of economic growth, lower per capita income, undermine political institutions and result in inadequate public policy responses and the under-provision of much-needed local and global public goods. All these, in turn, are among the factors known to increase the risk of violent conflict within states and between them.
Climate-induced conflict is not inevitable. The quality of public policy and the institutional setting, including civil society, for climate change response will likely prove the determining factor. As mentioned, for example, the number of refugees and IDPs is rising, both as a result of violent conflict and of climate change. At the end of 2013, 51 million people worldwide were displaced
by violence, conflict and human rights violations. Another 32 million people were newly displaced
in 2013 by weather-related or geophysical disasters such as fires, floods, storms, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Neither of these numbers includes people displaced by slow-onset events like droughts or technological and biological hazards, such as nuclear accidents and epidemics. As variance in climate becomes more severe and as arable land changes and storms damage and move existing communities, aid and humanitarian relief organizations, including UNHCR, can and must facilitate movement that does not contribute to even further displacement,whether by harming the environment or by creating or worsening conflicts.
We will need to mitigate, mediate and resolve political and climate conflict so as to maintain support for human security. It appears that the U.S. and China, as well as their respective private sectors, are cooperating
on climate change mitigation strategies. Yet, with East and South Asia expecting severe effects from changes in weather and sea levels, there are fears that in coming decades China and India will see increasing internal violent conflict
as well as conflict with each other or with their neighbors. Water sources in the region are likely to be a critical issue, although historical data suggest that water scarcity tends to produce significantly more cooperation than conflict between groups and states. However, if political leaders are embroiled in their own internal and international negotiations, even where cooperation is more likely than conflict, human security for their populations may well come second. That is where the real risk lies.
Toward Issue-Integrated NGOs
In 1997, international organizations had left the DRC just as destitute people and armed groups were moving into the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, which sits to the southwest of Virunga. Park services were suspended shortly thereafter, and illegal mining and poaching took off. In 1999, elephants could no longer be found in Kahuzi-Biega, but, incredibly, ivory could be purchased across the border at the Kigali airport. Four of the DRC’s national parks along with the Okapi Wildlife Reserve are UNESCO World Heritage sites, and all five sites are on the organization’s danger list
. Much like the people of the DRC and its neighbors, these rich environments cannot be abandoned.
But environmentalism in conflict zones will continue to be prohibitively dangerous without advance planning and coordination with the peacebuilding and development communities. The urgency and complexity of the challenges faced requires new ways of working together. It is time for peacebuilding and environmental NGOs to coordinate their efforts more closely with each other, as well as with development NGOs, as peacebuilding and development are already often seen as overlapping.
In the past, human conflict and destruction of the environment were viewed as separate problems. Today, they must be seen as interlocking parts of the same problem. Organizations need to respond by approaching them in an integrated, unified manner. Putting a conservationist’s desk in every peacebuilding office and a conflict assessment specialist or peacebuilding program officer in every environmental NGO would make tangible progress toward the protection of people and the planet.
There are at least four objectives to be achieved by increased issue integration. First, organizations would share data and structure solutions to conflict and environmental destruction in ways that mutually reinforce both efforts. Second, they would work jointly to prevent both violence and environmental harm. Third, they would plan better for unified responses during crises as they occur. Finally, they would integrate post-violence societal and environmental rebuilding.
International collaboration for environmental protection can make violent conflict less viable. For example, by protecting forests, parks and other natural resources, we can reduce opportunities for armed groups to take advantage of these resources, either by using rich environments for cover or as a source of financing. Initial fighting in Rwanda's civil war took place inside Akagera National Park, resulting in the withdrawal of conservation staff and the use of heavy hunting to feed the troops. But, as a counterexample, Rwanda’s Nyungwe Forest Reserve remained relatively well-protected. The combination of good planning for refugee movements and international financial and administrative support for park staff appears to have safeguarded the area, while the warden and guards reportedly dissuaded soldiers and civilians from moving through the park by highlighting its conservation value.
Similarly, proper planning for refugees and IDPs can alleviate the environmental and social stresses that exacerbate crises. Camps should be small and widely dispersed so that environmental impacts are proportional to the given ecosystem's ability to absorb them. Small numbers of people collecting dead wood for fuel or even cultivating small subsistence plots need not overwhelm an entire area. This kind of management and planning is no small task when large numbers of people flee suddenly, putting the need for advance planning and collaborative emergency preparedness in sharp relief. But environmental scientists can help humanitarian agencies determine the bearable environmental impact and develop strategies that provide sustainable refuge for vulnerable people.
Collaboration and planning, however, require information. As of now, no framework exists for systematic collection of pre- and post-conflict event data on environmental impact and for generating quantitative comparisons of those impacts across scientific disciplines. We often have good records for certain species populations—gorillas and elephants, for example—but we also need soil, air and water samples; assessments of specific ecosystem sizes and diversity, such as forests, plains, deserts and marine areas; and mechanisms for continuous biomonitoring and rapid response. Furthermore, we need systems for collecting comparable data across international borders and lines of conflict. Humanitarian actors specialize in the kind of access that is needed for data collection and rapid response. Issue-integrated NGOs can combine the skill sets developed by specialized organizations in order to share information and address and solve problems in collaborative ways.
Gold and coltan mining camps in the Okapi Faunal Reserve in the DRC in the 1990s were focal points of watercourse disturbances and of poaching, and violent conflict and unregulated mineral mining continue in the DRC today. Transparent supply chain effortslike the Conflict-Free Sourcing Initiative
(CFSI), which partners with Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Apple and others,seekto deny financing to armed groups. These programs could also generate data about sourcing processes for critical natural resources. CFSI has already certified about 100 smelters worldwide as supplying conflict-free metals for the global electronics market. As its efforts increase, and as consumers engage with the Conflict Free campaign
and make deliberate purchasing decisions, financing for mining operations that fuel violence and lack environmental controls will continue to dry up. In this way, NGOs have an opportunity to mobilize two consumer groups, environmentalists and human rights supporters, and significantly raise the cost of corporate irresponsibility.
From a programming rather than an advocacy perspective, the way that solutions are designed can encourage people to respond in different ways. Like all scenarios of resource use, incentives matter in wars and crises, too. It is possible to actively reduce the environmental impact of violent conflict by avoiding incentives for exploitation. Serious environmental crimes like poaching are sometimes incorrectly attributed to refugee groups when, in reality, unscrupulous individuals are taking advantage of a crisis. Proper planning for refugee and IDP placement can reduce opportunistic behavior that exploits the chaos and confusion of a humanitarian emergency.
Similarly, accounting for livelihoods in violence-afflicted areas can raise the opportunity cost of environmental crime and align economic incentives with environmental protection. Poaching of gorillas in Kahuzi-Biega dropped off significantly when 40 known poachers were hired as park guards. A Liberian data-collection effort enlisted local hunters to monitor wildlife indicator species, capitalizing on the group that has the access, means and incentives to track population sustainability. Supporting alternative livelihoods and transitional development for farmers in poppy- and coca-producing regions can break the destructive cycle of harmful production and harmful law enforcement.
These are the kinds of programming solutions that could be standard practice in environmental, peace and development organizations if they were more integrated. In Nigeria, for example, Mercy Corps, a peace and development NGO, is aligning livelihood strategies of conflicting communities by developing cooperativelyowned microenterprises. Where farmers and pastoralists formerly fought over the use of land, they now raise bees together and harvest honey and wax for small-scale manufacturing. The environmental community should have a keen interest in economic development and conflict transformation using approaches that also advance its own causes.
Finally, controlling the firearms market is a serious challenge for all of these movements. Firearms greatly facilitate the breakdown of peaceful societies, and their mobility in modern conflict exacerbates environmental abuse. Organizations like the Small Arms Survey
and the Small Arms Data Observatory
are increasingly generating and analyzing data on the movement of small arms and light weapons, including new information about the volume of weapons being trafficked from the U.S. to Mexico and leakage from the military to the civilian ammunition market in Haiti. We already know that, in African wars, the widespread availability of firearms often leads to unsustainable poaching. As we collect better quantitative data about violence and armaments, we should no longer be so singularly anthropocentric in measuring its effects.
The idea of integrating issues into a single NGO, or coordinating across them in NGO alliances, is not entirely new. From a human security perspective and with the rise in influence of nonstate actors, we are witnessing the democratization of peace and the decentralization of power and solutions. The interconnectedness accompanying these shifts is an opportunity for civil society to respond in kind. As mentioned, peacebuilding and development economics are already seen as merging into a single, integrated effort. But the foundation of our economies still lie in natural wealth, and the opportunity for humans to live in peace is not separate from a protected, peaceful natural environment. Peacebuilding and environmentalism are no longer distinct challenges. Rather, this is a moment of convergence, in which societiesface the mutually reinforcing problems of ecological change and violence. The response must be more unified, integrated solutions.
Talia Hagerty is a peace economics consultant, based in New York City. She supports organizations in developing integrated solutions to peacebuilding, economic development and environmental challenges, especially throughout the Americas. Talia earned her master's degree at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, where her research focused on illicit markets and peacebuilding for decentralized conflicts. She can be reached via TheoryofChange.Wordpress.com.
Jurgen Brauer is a professor of economics at the Hull College of Business, Georgia Regents University, Augusta, GA, and visiting professor of economics, department of economics, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand. He is the author of "War and Nature: The Environmental Consequences of War in a Globalized World" (AltaMira, 2009) and is currently working on a forthcoming book on economic aspects of genocide and its prevention. He can be reached via StoneGardenEconomics.com.