Over the past decade, significant international attention has been devoted to conducting research into the links between environmental factors and conflict. To some extent, there has been a mismatch between “northern” emphases and “southern” perspectives on the environment and security debate. Much of the early work in this field originated in northern universities or think tanks and in addressing developing world issues, focused on those aspects which were likely to affect the north – such as the possibility of large-scale movements of environmental refugees, for example. Much attention was also paid to demographic issues related to high population growth rates. Many in the developing world felt that such issues did not represent their key concerns, and that the “environmental security” concept was “a rich country agenda serving rich-country interests of access and control” (Conca 2002). More recently, and partly due to conscious efforts to bridge the gap between northern and southern debates, more consensus is emerging around some of the root causes of conflict and the links between the environment, peace and security; however, more remains to be done (EDSP undated).

Box 6: Land, water and conflict in the Senegal River basin

In the Senegal River basin during the late 1980s, plans to construct a major dam, which would change the flow of water in the region and allow for increased agricultural opportunities, had unexpected consequences. The market value of some land increased greatly and elite groups moved into the area, disenfranchising many local inhabitants, especially those with secondary user rights, in order to benefit. This legal move was accompanied by a campaign to strip many of the affected people of their citizenship. This increased tensions between two neighbouring countries, and triggered a tit-for-tat cycle of expulsions and violence.

The dam project was initiated in order to increase irrigated agriculture, generate electricity, and make the river navigable. However, the resulting land use changes indirectly contributed to massive social upheaval, inequitable land reform, and a situation of potential international conflict. Land degradation was part of the context of these events, because (in combination with a devastating drought), it made land-use changes a priority for the government. More sustainable use of land and water resources could have minimized the political and economic pressure for the dams and therefore avoided conflict.

Sources: Homer-Dixon 1994, ACTS, CISDL and UNDP 2003

In particular, an influential strand of research has built upon analysis of “war economies,” originally developed from within the humanitarian literature (Keen 1997 and Duffield 1998), and has focused on “conflict resources”. This research conceptualizes natural resources as valuable commodities, used to fund armed groups and, therefore crucial in perpetuating conflict. Nevertheless, it recognizes that conflict can be motivated by other factors, including ideological differences, but concludes that often, maintaining access to valuable natural resources can become an end in itself, rather than the means to an end. Members and clients of armed groups at all levels – but particularly at leadership levels – stand to benefit economically from the control of resources (Nitzschke 2003).

The plethora of research into natural resource conflict provides a useful lens through which to view conflicts across Africa. However the analysis, often based around detailed case studies, has not always succeeded in providing effective recommendations for moving forward, resolving conflict, and enhancing post-conflict development. For example, awareness that natural resources have fuelled conflict has often resulted in calls for embargoes on particular goods originating in conflict zones.

Unfortunately, there is sometimes insufficient recognition that trade in these resources is essential to local livelihoods, and embargoes on some resources may further undermine local people’s abilities to survive. In the words of one commentator, “the shadow economy has revitalized old markets and created new ones through demands for local goods and all types of services... the transborder networks that support organized violence in one location have encouraged autonomous and resistant processes of actually existing development in other areas” (Duffield 2002).

In addition, there is often a simplistic line drawn between “conflict resources” – which are seen as illegitimate – and resource extraction in a post-conflict scenario, which is assumed to be legitimate. There is often an emphasis on “illegal” resource exploitation, which is identified as the problem. In fact, resource extraction in some countries was unsustainable and exploitative prior to the conflict; and a return to the status quo will simply result in continued marginalization of the poor. As noted by participants at a conference on transforming war economies: “These economic relationships tend to persist after the formal resolution of active hostilities. In these settings, a main challenge for peacebuilding efforts is to address the dysfunctional elements of the shadow economy, while retaining its socially beneficial aspects” (Nitzschke 2003).

The issue is not to “legalize” trade. Instead, there is a need for an overhaul of the systems and standards in place (Global Witness 2004). A useful strategy, in areas which continue to be characterized by lack of respect for the rule of law, may be to use a combination of disincentives against the use of violence and incentives for good business practices. This approach may include punitive measures and controls on financial transactions, as well as creating avenues for integration into legal systems for those who accept reform, reject violence and are willing to become more accountable. This pragmatic approach could make some companies and networks more accountable and less violent, while avoiding marginalizing them completely and hence risking a return to conflict.

In recent years, there has been a realization that there is a need to go beyond the “resource war” concept and focus on the potentially positive aspects of the environment. It has been noted that when parties are involved in bitter violent conflict over values and visions, environmental issues can be less divisive than other issues, and can provide practical means for cooperation and local development. Environmental issues may, therefore, represent a platform for dialogue between warring parties and an opportunity for practical cooperation (Parker and others 2004). At the same time, because of the great importance of natural resources at both the local and national levels, environmental issues are the stuff of “high politics” (Conca and Dabelko 2002).

Consequently, more attention has been paid to cooperation over potentially contested resource claims – whether at local, national or sub-regional levels. There has been recognition that, in general, there have been few real efforts to identify the specific pathways through which competition over resources can be transformed into cooperation and synergy. Often, competing claims over resources are seen as “zero-sum” struggles where only one actor may win, and all others must logically lose. This is the idea of “resource capture” in which each actor endeavours to take as big a slice of the environmental “pie” as possible (Homer-Dixon 1994, Conca and Dabelko 2002). However, through reconceptualizing the nature of the resource and acknowledging the multiple uses to which it could be put, as well as the relationships between the various actors, the “zero-sum” outcome can potentially be transformed into a “plus-sum” outcome, with enhanced stakeholder confidence and regional security as a major “value-added” (Turton 2002). The diversity of cooperation models which are possible could enhance regional stability and result not in a “negative peace”, characterized by the absence of war but the also the absence of trust, but a “positive peace” which opens new doors for collaborative approaches (Ohlsson 1995, Turton 2002, and Conca and Dabelko 2002).

Another focus has been on conflicts arising in situations of abundance. Despite the great economic value of environmental resources, revenue derived from its use is not always directed towards the public good. Many countries which are rich in oil and minerals, for example, have not managed to develop equitably. This is often dubbed a “resource curse”. This is closely related to economic booms. Booms may be caused either through price increases or new discoveries of natural resources. Export booms cause major distortions in economies through their effect on structure of production and investment, domestic income, savings, government expenditure and prices in different sectors of the economy (Auty 1993). Export booms increasing foreign exchange in the sector concerned (and not others), which may lead to an appreciation in the real exchange rate. In turn, this reduces the relative prices of tradable manufactured products to non-tradable goods and services.

One study found that countries with a high dependency on oil and mineral exports tend to have high mortality rates for children under five (Ross 2003). Although local communities often do not see the benefits of these economic activities, they frequently bear the brunt of the negative environmental and social impacts of natural resource extraction. These may include land expropriation, pollution and immigration of labour from other parts of the country (Ross 2003). Changes to the local economy may be associated with increased social breakdown manifested in increases in prostitution, and drug and alcohol abuse, effectively undermining human well-being and entrenching social exclusion. In Nigeria, annual oil revenues are around US$40 000 million. Despite this, the per capita income is only about US$290 per year (Douglas and others 2003). In oil-producing areas, both environmental and human well-being are directly impacted upon. Oil spills, among other things reduce fish catches undercutting nutrition and income-earning opportunities. The flaring of gas during the extraction process, occurs with a far greater frequency in Nigeria than is generally permitted in other countries, and is a major air pollutant. Such impacts, as well as the uneven distribution of benefits, associated with inter-communal rivalry around territorial claims to oil-producing areas, such as access to employment with oil firms, have contributed to the rise of violence. Countries with high levels of inequity tend to be prone to social conflict. In Nigeria, the richest fifth of the population earns 55.7 per cent of income while the poorest fifth earns just 4.4 per cent (WRI 2003) and 70 per cent of Nigerians live on less than US$1 a day.

These patterns of conflict and inequitable development are not inevitable, and can be avoided through astute economic management. Botswana, for example, has adopted socially responsible reinvestment systems, reinvesting most of its mineral revenues in accordance with criteria explicitly aimed at sustainability and the development of physical and human capital, guided by a series of six-year National Development Plans (NDPs) and, more recently the objectives of Vision 2016. As a result, the country has accumulated a substantial portfolio of international financial assets, valued at $6 300 million, or approximately 130 per cent of GDP, at the end of 2000. This ability to transform one form of wealth – non-renewable minerals – into other forms of productive wealth is the key to successful economic development of resource-rich economies (Lange and others 2002).