How Resource Wealth Fuels War

Could environmental peacebuilding be the key to stability in conflict-prone regions?

Though mired in the depths of the Cold War, the latter half of the twentieth century was a period in which the standard of living across the globe rose substantially. Many of the technological and industrial advancements during this period have been reliant on our ability to increasingly obtain, harness and capitalize upon myriad natural resources, and while these seemingly abundant natural resources have spurred growth in much of the world, they are often found in some of the world’s most fragile social, political and ecological regions. Indeed, natural resource–rich states often find themselves at the bottom of the Failed States Index. To complicate matters, from 1950-2000 over 90 percent of the major armed conflicts occurred within countries containing biodiversity hot spots—biogeographic regions with a significant reservoir of biodiversity under threat from humans—located in western and eastern Africa, along the Mediterranean, the Caucasus, Southeast Asia and in large portions of Latin America. Wars are now less often fought in Europe among competing powers, but in their natural resource–rich former colonies, where the combatants often have local needs, grievances and goals. Twentieth-century international institutions have helped guide the world through a period of unprecedented growth. However, they have unsuccessfully addressed twenty-first-century threats such as rising inequality, intrastate conflict and global warming. Natural resources can serve as an impetus for conflict or cooperation, prolong a bloody conflict and play an essential role in the postconflict process. The emergent field of environmental peacebuilding—which integrates natural-resource management in conflict prevention, mitigation, resolution and recovery to build resilience in communities affected by conflict—offers contemporary strategies that can address the problems associated with natural-resource development in conflict-prone regions.

The Role of Natural Resources in Conflict

Conflict in the developing world frequently affects poor, mainly rural populations that struggle to maintain their access to resources upon which they rely to make a living. In its Millennium Development Assessment, the United Nations (UN) highlighted the human reliance on “provisioning” ecosystem services—water, food, nutrients, energy, construction materials—which provide individuals with goods and services upon which they are dependent and that are essential to their livelihoods and well-beings. Many developing countries depend heavily on natural resources for revenues, and control over natural resources can have significant implications for local communities in what are often poorly governed states.

Natural Resources as a Contributing Factor to Conflict Feasibility

Though rarely the leading cause for raising arms on a large scale, claims from competing stakeholders on natural-resource wealth or for access to a scarce resource, amid other sociopolitical factors, can increase the feasibility and likelihood of conflict. Guatemala, Nepal, and Sierra Leone all saw inequitable access to land emerge as an underlying cause of their respective conflicts. High-value resources such as oil, gas or minerals can support secessionist movements and other nonstate groups that seek to control and develop a regional economy; natural resource–wealth sharing has been a significant grievance in the ongoing crisis in Yemen, during the South Sudanese independence movement and in the uprising in Papua New Guinea over copper revenues.

Natural Resources as Fuel for Conflict

Intrastate conflicts often involve multiple local and regional belligerents—see the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Yemen, Sudan—that all require means to purchase weaponry, pay soldiers and secure loyalties. Such revenue-raising can be implemented through “taxing” the existing industry, or by a group taking over direct control of a natural resource. Wealth from conflict-resources have had a significant impact on the conflicts in Sierra Leone (diamonds), Liberia (timber) and Afghanistan (poppy).