Armed conflict has multiple, long- and short-term impacts on development, and on environmental and human well-being. The affects, even of internal conflicts, are felt at various spatial levels, within the immediate area of conflict, and often in neighbouring countries. Conflict undercuts or destroys environmental, physical, human and social capital, diminishing available opportunities for sustainable development.

Conflict impacts on human well-being, reducing quality of life, the capabilities of people to live the kinds of lives they value, and the real choices they have. It results in the loss of lives, livelihoods and opportunity, as well as of human dignity and fundamental human rights.

Livelihoods are directly affected through decreased access to land, and inadequate access to natural resources, as a result of exclusion, displacement and the loss of biodiversity. Conflict can set in motion a cycle of degradation and human vulnerability. Human vulnerability refers not only to the exposure to negative environmental change, but also to the ability to cope with such change through either adaptation or mitigation. Conflict contributes to the breakdown of social cohesion and the disruption of local governance systems; this in turn may result in established safety nets becoming unavailable. The increase in social and economic vulnerability, as result of conflict, may in the face of environmental and land degradation, trigger new tensions and conflict over critical resources, such as water or food (Homer-Dixon and Blitt 1998). The incidence of poverty may increase, not only through the loss of livelihoods but also as a result of a growing inability of people to cope with change. This loss of resilience is also directly linked to diminished access to public services, resulting in, for example, an increasing incidence of ill health, a contraction in formal employment opportunities, the destruction of subsistence livelihoods, and other entitlements failures which affect consumption and nutrition, as well as the weakening of social cohesion and heightening insecurity (Luckham and others 2001). The use of landmines, for example, has severely limited access to land, both during the conflict and in the long term. Conflict is estimated to result, on average, in production losses of 12 per cent and to undercut growth in the agricultural sector by 3 per cent per year (DfID 2001). War, therefore, by increasing the gap between food production and need, aggravates poverty and hunger, and consequently promotes continued dependence on food aid.

The full impacts of landmines on human well-being and livelihoods, and ecosystems are not well understood; and there is a need for systematic and comprehensive study of their impacts (Nachon 2004). These costs cannot be measured in only economic terms; landmines are designed to maim, and the resulting bodily harm, for example to limbs and reproductive organs, can have severe psychological impacts on those affected. For example, due to prejudice and cultural factors in some communities, injured unmarried women may have reduced opportunities to marry and have children (Swart 2003). Landmines are cheap to use but extremely expensive to decommission. A single mine can often be bought on the black market for US$3, but may cost anything between US$200-1 000 to remove, depending on where it is placed (Swart 2003).

The destruction and decay of infrastructure not only affects the provision of essential services but leads to a breakdown in communication, through the loss of roads and telecommunications. This may increase the extent of isolation already experienced by rural communities; it may further diminish their sense of citizenship and contribute to a shrinking of civil society (Luckham and others 2001). Infrastructural decay results in the loss of market and other economic opportunities. DfID reports that in the 20 years from 1980 to 2000, Africa lost over 50 per cent of its infrastructure as a result of conflict (DfID 2001). For example, in southern Sudan there is no viable road network, and Angola and DRC are entirely dependent on air transport due to the collapse of infrastructure.

Local, national and international issues are all significant in generating and perpetuating conflict, and interact in different and changing ways. At the local level, controversies over resource access can be a factor in the formation of armed groups, which are often linked to larger national or international “political” conflicts or economic interests. This may result in the militarization of the local socioeconomic space, including increasingly bloody competition over economic infrastructure and resources, extraction systems and trade networks. In some cases, this may be manifested in rent-seeking behaviour by those with access to military power, or even direct appropriation and transfer of assets (Luckham and others 2001). This militarization may limit access to markets for local people, pushing up transaction costs and effectively driving up the cost of living.

The displacement of people is a major social and economic cost of serious conflict, in the short term as well as in post-conflict periods. Typically, the casualties of modern armed conflicts are civilians. Because conflict often takes on ethnic overtones, and because modern African conflicts generally involve militias and guerrillas rather than regular troops, it is all too easy for civilians to be targeted just because they share the same ethnic or cultural identity as an “enemy group.” Since 1960, more than eight million people have died directly or indirectly as a result of war in Africa, and projections suggest that by 2020 injuries caused by war will have become the eighth most important factor placing a disease burden on society (DfID 2001). In a significant number of conflicts, violence has taken new forms, with the deliberate targeting of civilians and an increasing incidence of mutilations, violent rituals and rape (DfID 2001). Specific groups, who rely on the collection of natural resources, or farming, as many people in rural Africa do, may be targeted. Women, for example, are often specifically targeted as they collect firewood or water. This “total war” effect, as well as ruthless counter-insurgency strategies employed by some states, can lead to forced displacement and the destruction of homes, crops and food stocks, exacerbating extreme poverty and food insecurity. As a result of the targeting of civilians, large areas can become depopulated and output of agricultural or pastoral production reduced, thus affecting local livelihoods and the national economy. Northern Uganda, where almost 2 million people are displaced on a regular basis (ACTS 2005), is a case in point. One major, and often lingering effect of such violence, is damage to the social fabric, including informal networks of trust and support, undermining governance and often NRM. This hinders the resurgence of institutions, including markets and NRM institutions, in the post-conflict period.

Children are a major target of conflict and violence. In a significant number of conflicts, including in Uganda, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Angola and Mozambique there has been the forced recruitment of child soldiers through, among other things, abductions. In 2001, there were estimated to be 200 000 child soldiers in Africa (DfID 2001). Children may be killed or maimed by one group in order to undermine the morale of the other side. As a result of violent conflict, there has also been an increase in the numbers of street children (UN 1999).

Displacements impact directly on neighbouring countries, as refugees flee across international boundaries. However, impacts on neighbouring countries are not limited to these population movements and there may be multiple affects on social cohesion and economic opportunities. There are often complex cross-border links at different levels and between different actors, this includes cross-border operations of armed opposition groups, the international and local arms trade, and the sale of natural resources, narcotics, and other commodities used to sponsor conflict. Around centres of conflict, there are often extended zones of “bounded instability” which experience sporadic violence. Long-term situations of “neither peace nor war” can therefore ensue. International border zones are especially conflict-affected. Typically, these zones of friction are the most politically and economically marginalized, with weak state administrative structures. They are often also, because of their remote nature, havens of biodiversity. The influx of refugees across national borders into areas adjacent to national parks has contributed to immense pressure on these protected areas, often undermining NRM.

Displacements of people also have direct impacts on receiving communities and countries. The burden placed on local infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and sanitation facilities may be considerable and difficult to bear.

Conflict also has macro-level impacts. These include a decline in state capacity, associated with a shrinking revenue base and reduced public spending, and economic stagnation as a result of a fall in exports, hyper-inflation, exchange rate depreciation, disinvestment, and capital flight (Luckham and others 2001). The economic impacts, however, are seldom confined to the country of conflict. Countries bordering conflict zones may need to increase security expenditure in military and non-military sectors. Additionally, they may incur new costs in relation to refugees and losses from deteriorating regional trade.

Figure 2: Refugee influx adjacent to national parks A further feature of conflict is the collapse of public institutions or the inability of these institutions to cope. Conflict can lead to large areas coming under the control of non-state actors. There may be a weakening of environmental institutions and governance systems, resulting in lower managerial capacity. Environmental and other relevant agencies are handicapped through lack of funds or loss of personnel (Vanasselt 2003). Low levels of monitoring and evaluation may contribute to biodiversity loss and encourage illegal and unsustainable trade in natural resources. Natural resources in these zones may be exploited at unsustainable rates in order to purchase weapons, or simply to enrich members of the controlling forces. Foreign or multinational companies are often involved in resource exploitation in such zones, for example timber in eastern DRC.

Some of the environmental problems associated with landmines include: habitat degradation, reduced access to water points and other vital resources, species loss, alteration of the natural food chain, and additional pressure on biodiversity. When landmines are found in national parks, game reserves and other conservation areas, they undermine the tourist trade and affect the ability of managers and others to do their work. Endangered or vulnerable species can also be directly affected by landmines. In Angola, thousands of animals including antelopes and elephant fell prey to landmines, and in Mozambique, more than 100 elephants have died (Nachon 2004). In some cases, landmines have even been used by poachers, as a field of mines can kill or wound an entire herd of elephants (Nachon 2004), to obtain ivory illegally. Conflict may also have negative impacts on biodiversity in neighbouring countries. In the CAR, for example, traditional hunting of elephants using spears was transformed when small arms started to become readily available due to conflict in neighbouring Chad and Sudan. By the late 1990s, the elephant population had fallen by about 90 per cent from levels known during the 1970s, and the rhinoceros population had completely disappeared (Blom and Yamindou 2001).

In some cases, conflict can lead to “positive” outcomes for the environment – for example, some areas that become “no-man’s lands” can become havens for wildlife – but the livelihoods of the majority of people rarely, if ever, improve through conflict.