Introductory Comments: The Pervasive, Persistent, and Profound Links Between Conflict and the Environment

Author:Carroll Muffett - Carl Bruch
Position:President and CEO of the non-profit Center for International Environmental Law and has held leadership positions with several environmental non-profits - Senior Attorney and Co-Director of International Programs at the Environmental Law Institute and co-chairs the IUCN Specialist Group on Armed Conflict and the Environment
by Carroll Muffett and Carl Bruch*
We are pleased to introduce this special issue of Sus-
tainable Development Law & Policy, which explores
the diverse linkages between conflict and the envi-
ronment. For the last two and a half years, we have worked
together co-editing (with Sandra S. Nichols) a volume on Gov-
ernance, Natural Resources, and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding
as part of a multi-volume series on post-conflict peacebuilding
and natural resource management being developed jointly by the
United Nations Environment Programme, the Environmental
Law Institute, the University of Tokyo, and McGill University.
The project incorporates the work of more than 230 researchers,
several of whom are represented in this issue.
As the articles in this issue demonstrate, the linkages
between conflict and natural resources are deep, complex, and
often surprising. Resource dependence is recognized as an indi-
cator of conflict risk.1 Natural resources often serve as a vital
and indispensable subsistence base for those displaced by
conflict and for those working to rebuild their lives and com-
munities when conflict has subsided. Managed improperly, how-
ever, these same resources may provide both an incentive and
a means to keep fighting for those who profit from insecurity.2
Similarly, natural resources can be both the subject and an incen-
tive for crime—from petty thievery to complex timber mafias
to corruption at every level of government, each of which, in
turn, can erode personal security and social stability.3 And while
well-managed resources can help fund reconstruction efforts
and help bring order from chaos, access to high-value resources
can reduce government accountability to people and further
feed corruption.4 Thus, accountable and effective natural
resource management is a critical component of peacebuilding
in post-conflict countries.
The environment itself can also be a casualty of conflict.5
Forests may be denuded for conflict timber, oil fields set ablaze
as a form of scorched-earth warfare, or landmines and ordnance
left behind to render large areas of the countryside unsafe for
decades after a conflict ends. Still other impacts may be less
direct, but no less significant. People displaced by conflict
can be drawn together into informal tent cities or organized
encampments numbering in the hundreds of thousands. These
settlements can become major urban areas virtually overnight,
requiring a steady supply of fresh water, sanitation facilities,
fuel wood, building supplies, and food that far exceeds local
resources. More subtly, but no less importantly, conflict has
lasting and serious impacts on the infrastructure of natural
resource governance—both in terms of physical infrastructure
and in terms of the human capacity, political will, and the reser-
voir of civil order and trust that are needed to govern resources
In internecine conflicts, control of natural resources—and
the substantial material wealth they can generate—can serve not
only as a driver of conflict, but as fuel for warring parties and,
ultimately, as a barrier to negotiating the peace.6 This is particu-
larly the case when high-value resources such as oil, timber, and
precious minerals are involved.7 Clementine Burnley reflects on
this in Natural Resources Conflict in the Democratic Republic
of the Congo: A Question of Governance? She examines the
contrasting theories of natural resource wealth, on the one hand,
and environmental scarcity, on the other, as causes of conflict
in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (“DRC”). The author
then asks why large-scale violence persists in some resource-
rich parts of the country while other areas with similar resources
and multiple ethnic groups are spared. She finds that often these
clashes are linked to socio-economic factors at the local level.
Burnley observes that natural resource management remains
a low priority for political actors in the DRC, and that the interest
that does exist is too often focused on resource control as a
means of consolidating personal power and wealth for elites.
She discusses how the continued presence of stakeholders with a
material interest in profiting from instability remains one of the
most important obstacles to effective natural resource manage-
ment and good governance in the DRC.
Burnley argues that both the context in which natural
resources are used and the way in which those resources are
managed are key to preventing and managing conflicts at all
levels. Because the nature and scale of these conflicts differ
widely, however, approaches to management must differ as well.
She outlines ways in which donor institutions have worked to
improve resource governance in the DRC—by supporting access
to alternate income opportunities for local people, distributing
revenues from extractive industries more equitably, and address-
ing local conflicts over resource access and use before they
escalate beyond control. Burnley argues that many of the most
successful initiatives emphasized active participation of affected
communities. She argues that what is now needed in the DRC is
to move beyond abstract commitments to strengthen institutions
*Carroll Muffett is President and CEO of the non-profit Center for International
Environmental Law and has held leadership positions with several environmen-
tal non-profits. Carl Bruch is a Senior Attorney and Co-Director of International
Programs at the Environmental Law Institute and co-chairs the IUCN Specialist
Group on Armed Conflict and the Environment.
5FALL 2011
and improve rule of law to more detailed specifications of
concrete, context-specific measures to improve natural resource
management. Building on the structures and processes already
in place, it will take significantly more planning, resources,
and political will to bring the needed transparency and account-
ability to all natural resource management in the DRC.
As Burnley discusses, natural resources can serve as a
resource not only for those who would build and secure the
peace, but for those who seek to destroy it. On the long road from
a fragile ceasefire to a stable peace, there are many who have
strong incentives to reverse course, and who actively seek the
means to foment that reversal. From gold to diamonds to conflict
timber, natural resources have
provided that means in promi-
nent examples, including
Sierra Leone and Liberia.8 The
problem of how to manage
these peace spoilers remains
one of the most challenging in
post-conflict natural resource
management. Philippe Le
Billon explores one possible
response to this challenge in
Bankrupting Peace Spoilers:
What Role for UN Peace-
keepers? Le Billon discusses
how reducing belligerents’ access to revenues from high-value
resources might help limit the success of peace spoilers, particu-
larly when paired with resource management reforms addressing
broader social and environmental causes of conflict and human
rights abuses associated with those resources. Specifically, Le
Billon examines the potential for the United Nations to move
beyond economic sanctions alone and empower UN peacekeep-
ers to secure control of natural resource production or transporta-
tion as a means of bankrupting prospective peace spoilers. In so
doing, he considers not only the opportunities such an approach
provides, but the challenges and issues associated with deploy-
ing peacekeepers to curtail access to conflict resources.
Natural resources can also be a source of hope after conflict,
where they can be seen as a ready source of revenue for rebuild-
ing a cash-strapped economy. Handled carelessly, however, this
can lead to the rapid liquidation of valuable resources while
further entrenching elites and risking reversion to conflict.9 In
both cases, natural resources come under profound pressure in
the wake of conflict. Päivi Lujala and Siri Aas Rustad, the editors
of the first edited book in the ELI/UNEP/University of Tokyo/
McGill University series, share some of the central lessons
from their work in High-Value Natural Resources: A Blessing
or a Curse for Peace? Drawing on the thirty different analyses
and case studies in their book, Lujala and Rustad highlight how
proper management of high-value natural resources is crucial in
the aftermath of armed conflict. They document how effective
management of such resources can be used to support a wide
range of peacebuilding objectives, including grassroots liveli-
hoods, large-scale economic recovery, good governance and
inclusive processes, and a more secure and stable peace. At the
same time, the authors caution that the risk of negative outcomes
from post-conflict resource extraction is high.
Lujala and Rustad point out that there is no one-size-fits-all
approach to natural resource management in post-conflict set-
tings. Rather, resource management must be based on a nuanced
understanding of the context in which the management takes
place. This context includes the numerous and complex link-
ages—past, current, and potential—between the resources and
conflict, international dynamics and trade patterns, institutional
capacity, the conditions that have shaped resource management
in the past, and the political will that will shape their manage-
ment into the future. It is only
with close attention to these
factors, paired with good
governance, that the resource
curse can be turned into a
In post-conflict regions,
careful management of natu-
ral resource issues can play a
critical role in ensuring a sus-
tainable peace not only within
countries but also between
them.10 In Liquid Challenges:
Contested Water in Central
Asia, Christine Bichsel examines competing claims to water in
the Syr Darya river basin, which is shared by the former Soviet
States of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and
Turkmenistan. She looks at water as a potentially contentious
issue and assesses international efforts to mitigate the potential
for violent escalation and degradation of the environment. She
concludes by arguing that conflicts over water in Central Asia
may be driven less by inter-state relations than by the particular
interests of specific domestic actors in each country.
This use of conflict, real or perceived, as a tool to advance
the economic interests of individual actors finds curious expres-
sion much closer to home in Natural Resource “Conflicts” in the
U.S. Southwest: A Story of Hype over Substance by Laura Peter-
son et al. The authors examine the putative “conflict” between
environmental protection and economic development in the
context of the U.S. Endangered Species Act (“ESA”). As the title
attests, the authors argue that the conflicts involved—between
oil exploitation and agriculture on the one hand and two candi-
date endangered species on the other—owes more to perception,
myth, and spin than to ineluctable reality. Peterson argues that
this “fear mongering”, and the attempts it has engendered to pass
species-specific legislation undermining the ESA, represent a
thinly veiled and dangerous attempt to push an industry agenda
at the expense of the public good. In this, there are faint but rec-
ognizable echoes of the high-stakes (and all too real) experience
with the peace spoilers discussed by Burnley, Le Billon, and
Lujala and Rustad.
Richard Sadowski explores this private influence on con-
flict dynamics from a much different vantage point in Cuban
natural resources can serve
as a resource not only for
those who would build and
secure the peace, but for
those who seek to destroy it
Off-Shore Drilling: Preparation and Prevention within the
Framework of the United States’ Embargo. Sadowski consid-
ers how Cuba’s plans to exploit its offshore oil wealth have
increased calls from lawmakers and the oil industry to relax the
United States’ half-century old embargo on Cuba. Proponents
of greater engagement rest their arguments both on the potential
environmental risks of offshore drilling and on the prospective
economic benefits of partnering in the exploitation. Sadowski
argues that, despite this added pressure from the oil lobby, the
purpose of the embargo has not yet been met and calls for a con-
tinuation of the policy.
Disputes over access to and allocation of critical natural
resources can serve as a flashpoint for conflict at all levels of
social organization, including at the grassroots level.11 Rutgerd
Boelens et al. explore this phenomenon in the context of water in
Threats to a Sustainable Future: Water Accumulation and Con-
flict in Latin America. Arguing that the concentration of rights to
access water and participate in decision-making on water gov-
ernance is a historical problem in Latin America, they examine
how contemporary water policies in Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru
have tended to aggravate this problem in the face of globaliza-
tion, growing water demand, and decreasing water availability
caused by ecosystem degradation and climate change. The
authors argue that the context-based and locally devised water
practices of small-holder communities and indigenous territories
are being continually overruled by government bureaucracies,
market-driven water policies, and top-down measures developed
with little respect for the realities on the ground. The result is
that water resources fundamental to survival and economic
well-being accumulate in the hands of elites, to the detriment
of marginalized populations, leading to a deepening of societal
conflicts over water and mounting reactions “from below” to
water issues.
As the articles in this issue highlight, failures of democratic
inclusion are often a hallmark of natural resource-related con-
flict, in all its forms.12 Indeed, we have found this one of the most
recurring lessons from our own work in the field. Good natural
resource governance is, ultimately, just good governance—it is
strengthened by commitments to democracy, transparency, and
accountability.13 As a result, consulting and engaging stakehold-
ers has proven time and again to be one of the most critical tools
for managing resources while minimizing conflict risk.14
Daniel Kemmis and Matthew McKinney provide three case
studies in how to do this from the ground up in Collaboration
and the Ecology of Democracy. Drawing from experience with
three stakeholder-driven resource governance efforts in the
United States, the authors highlight citizen-driven, multiparty
collaboration as an important tool in resource management and
as an “emerging species within the ‘ecology’ of democracy.
They argue that such collaborative problem-solving is a funda-
mental form of democracy in which people are working together
to shape the very conditions under which they live.
The articles in this issue demonstrate the critical importance
of situational awareness and conflict management when manag-
ing natural resources in the post-conflict (or peri-conflict) con-
text. Natural resource management is intimately interwoven with
conflict management; human security; livelihoods and recovery
at both the macroeconomic and microeconomic scales; efforts
at demobilizing, disarming, and reintegrating former combat-
ants; transitional justice; and ongoing governance. Accordingly,
those who would preserve an existing peace or build a new one
must take care to identify, understand, and respond to the natural
resource dimensions relevant to their objectives. Correspond-
ingly, those concerned with managing and protecting natural
resources in conflict-affected regions must expressly recognize
the potential conflict dimensions of their work, however remote
from conflict it may at first appear. Achieving this requires not
only recognizing how the existing context has been shaped by
conflict but how actions taken in seemingly unrelated fields can
contribute either to ameliorating and recovering from conflict or
to conflict reversion.
Endnotes: Introductory Comments: The Pervasive, Persistent,
and Profound Links between Conflict and the Environment
1 See Indra de Soysa, The Resource Curse: Are Civil Wars Driven by Rapac-
(Mats Berdal & David M. Malone eds., 2000); MICHAEL ROSS, THE NATURAL
VIOLENT CONFLICT: OPTIONS AND ACTIONS 17-18 (Ian Bannon & Paul Collier eds.,
2 See id.
3 See, e.g., Duncan Brack & Gavin Hayman, Illegal Logging and the Illegal
Trade in Forest and Timber Products, at
content/2002/timber_mafia/viewpoints/viewpoints_ brack.htm (last visited
December 18, 2011).
CONFLICT 36 (2005); De Soysa, supra note 1 at 121.
5 Id.
6 See Paul Collier, The Market for Civil War, FOREIGN POLY, May-Jun. 2003,
at 38, 41-42.
7 See de Soysa, supra note 1, at 124.
8 See, e.g., Luke A. Whittemore, Intervention and Post-Conflict Natural
Resource Governance: Lessons from Liberia, 17 MINN. J. INTL L. 387, 407
9 See Le Billon, supra note 3 at 15.
10 See id.
11 See generally, de Soysa, supra note 1; Ross, supra note 1.
12 See, e.g., Paul Collier & Anke Hoeffler, Greed and Grievance in Civil War,
56 OXFORD ECON. PAPERS 563, 576 (2004); Ross, supra note 1 at 26.
13 See Philippe Le Billon, Securing Transparency: Armed Conflicts and the
Management of Natural Resource Revenues, 62 Int’l J 93, 95 (2006-2007).
14 Id at 106.