Resources, Conflict and the Global Environment
Natural resources and conflict have had a longstanding relationship dating back from the days of colonial conquest to date. During the colonial times whatever was in demand in Europe dictated what commodities would be produced and therefore which natural resources were extracted from the earth. Generally, the relationships at the time between locals and those exploiting resources has been exploitative bringing about conflict ranging from civil wars to environmental destruction.
Oil and natural gas are two major resources that have been responsible the world over for conflict. Oil has been referred to as black gold in the sense that often it brings misery and hardship to the people in the communities where it is found. Other resources that have generated conflict include diamonds, timber and palm oil. UNEP (2009) points out that since 1990, there have been on average eighteen conflicts linked to natural resources. Often the conflict is over control and ownership of the natural resources. The effect on the environment has also become a fact that is considered nowadays. There is increasing evidence concerning the effect of pollution generated by humans, simplification of the ecosystem and depletion of resources as a result of extraction of natural resources.
The global population has continued to grow and with its growth there is greater demand for resources. This rise in demand brings with it great potential for more conflict over resources as well as negative consequences for changes in climate, food security, availability of water, prevalence of diseases and distribution of the population. All these changes have an impact on every citizen of the globe. Thus the responsibility for change lies with individuals, governments and corporations purely because these are the same groups who are responsible for the depletion of resources and the conflict associated with resource extraction.
Environmental factors are usually not the only cause of violent conflict. Other factors are associated in the development of conflict; these include adverse economic conditions, ethnicity, conflict in neighboring countries and low levels of international trade. The environment has often fallen victim to indirect and direct damage as the environment suffers from stresses at the time of extraction of resources or due to outbreaks of conflict and violence. This is usually combined with the collapse of institutions and the development of environmental risks that pose a threat to people’s health, security and livelihood.
The recognition that the use of resources is closely tied to their extraction from the earth means that people have to take responsibility for the consequences of extraction. Individuals are responsible for the creation of demand thus they need to be aware of the actual effects their lifestyles create. This points to the importance of increased public awareness on the causes and effects of resource wars and their role in reducing this. Thus by changing lifestyles to conserve resources, the demand on resources can be reduced and in effect reduce destruction of the environment, depletion of resources and the conflict that comes with these. Individuals also have a responsibility to air their views on government policies on exploitation of resources.
The governments and corporations also have a responsibility in managing the problems that come with exploitation of resources. Governments especially have a responsibility for ensuring that corporations follow set rules and regulations with regard to environmental exploitation. This is because government is responsible for legislation both regarding environmental law and the use of resources and also the protection of a country’s resources. Governments however have not always assumed this responsibility, especially those in developing countries. For instance the Niger Delta’s environment has largely been destroyed and people have been killed by army members who protect the interests of the corporation. Equatorial guinea is a country that receives a significant amount of money (about half a billion) from its oil reserves but has very poor development indicators (UNEP, 2007). The revenues of the pipeline in Chad and Cameroon also do not assist the people of these countries who have remained poor as their natural wealth is looted. The governments of these countries have failed to assume their responsibility in ensuring that the benefits of resource exploitation trickle down to the locals where resources are being exploited. Additionally governments are responsible for maintaining political stability, since political instability is a significant factor in exploitation of resources. Often especially in African countries, conflicting civil groups have made worse the effects of resource exploitations. This has been the case in countries like Sierra Leone, Sudan and Liberia where the few resources available have been underlying factors in a myriad of complex other issues.
Other world development agencies such as the World Bank have a role to play in regulating those governments that may not have in place their own regulations or that do not heed the international regulations. These agencies have a responsibility in that countries which are member states have empowered them to enforce regulations and place sanctions on those countries which may flout the regulations. The responsibility of the World Bank lies in its mandate to alleviate poverty and thus should also ensure that it is not only large corporations that benefit from exploitation of resources. The World Bank it has been argued has not carried out this mandate well enough as it has stood by and watched many African countries experience civil war, corruption and ever increasing poverty as corporations continue to extract resources from these countries (Tabb, 2007).
Corporations have a responsibility to ensure sustainability of resources by using measures that conserve the environment and production means that empower the local people. Since the multinational companies are the ones mostly involved in resource exploitation, they have a social responsibility towards the locals and the countries they operate in to ensure that exploitation does not result in depletion of resources and destruction of the environment. Corporations have been accused of creating artificial shortages especially of energy resources which result in further exploitation of resources without the benefits being shared in the countries where resources originate. Indeed, it has been argued that countries that have a high dependence on natural resource exports often have slow economic growth rate (Tabb, 2007). This is related to the increase risk of conflict in these countries as well as the possibility that the companies will have poor governance that large corporations take advantage of. In the case of African countries these countries also have exploitative relationships with their colonial or neocolonial overloads.
Recommendations that can help solve the conflict issues related to resource exploitation include individuals taking the responsibility for ensuring that governments remain in check. This can be done through formation of lobby groups to advocate for change in individual lifestyles that increase the demand for natural resources that are face depletion. This is likely to have the effect of more conscious efforts to conserve the few resources that are available. Even as environmental groups do this, it is necessary to have their arguments based on sound scientific evidence to ensure that they remain credible.
The government and international agencies can contribute to these efforts by being stricter in the enforcement of regulations governing exploitation of resources by corporations and the government institutions themselves. Due to the economic incentives associated with exploitation of resources, it is necessary that international agencies be more proactive in mediating peace agreements and political strife where conflict especially civil wars have arisen due to natural resources. This involves bringing to book those who have used proceeds from natural resources to fuel wars and finance conflict so that they can serve as examples to others who may have similar motives.
An improvement in the protection and oversight of natural resources by the international community is bound to minimize the use of these resources in financing conflict. International sanctions need to become the primary method of stopping trade where member states of international agencies insist on using natural resources to fuel conflict. The use of secondary sanctions is also a possible method that could be adopted to ensure that individuals who participate or aid exploitation of resources that fuels conflict are subjected to criminal prosecution (UNEP, 2007). Nationally, governments can also institute monitoring bodies that regulate various resource extraction forms such as mining and logging. Further, keeping a database of lessons learnt on worst and best practices in countries where resources have led to conflict and/or environmental degradation may also be useful.
Additional efforts by international aid agencies and governments include developing sustainable livelihoods and ensuring that the benefits of resources are shared. Failure to share benefits almost always results in relapse to conflict. To provide sustainable livelihoods, it is necessary that attention be paid to the effect of resource exploitation on the environment by developing other appropriate technologies. This creates possible alternatives to various resources that can be depleted. In some cases corporations argue that, the effects on the environment have been caused by poor people clearing lands for settling or to exploit the resources themselves. This indicates a problem of poverty alleviation which means that measures need to be put in place to provide people with the means to earn a livelihood. In addition, the people themselves need to be sensitized on the effects of their actions on the environment and future sustainability of resources. This should be done by governments and environmental agencies. Creating sustainable livelihoods also involves ensuring that while natural resources are being harnessed for economic development; other ways of improving a country’s economy are sought so that there is reduced reliance on natural resources. A diversified economy has been shown to be more effective in contributing to economic growth as opposed to an economy dependent on natural resources only (Tabb, 2007).
The development of alternative technologies is not a responsibility that can be left with the government only. It should also be embraced by corporations and individuals. Corporations are better placed as they have the resources to explore possible alternatives to energy sources other than oil, natural gas and other alternative raw material sources apart from palm oil or timber. In addition where the resources can be replaced as in the case of logging, where trees can be planted where some have been cut, it is necessary to do so to ensure continued soil cover and the effects of deforestation are reduced.
Governments are charged with the responsibility of coming up with poverty alleviation policies and policies on natural resources and planning following conflicts. The government however has higher chances of success at coming up with workable policies when they collaborate with the private sector. While the private sector may be motivated by profits, their efficiency and effectiveness may prove beneficial to them and also to others for whom sustainable livelihoods may be created.
Where conflict has already occurred, environmental resources could be used as possible tools for dialogue, building cooperation and confidence among communities. This means that communities can come to agreement by having a shared vision on how the resources that divide them can be used. This is likely to increase the capacity for resolution of conflicts as governments improve the management of these resources and hot spots for tension are identified and instead used as platforms for peace (UNEP, 2009).
It should be noted however that the resource wars against the environment will be reduced when the view that nature is a free good which can just be consumed for income. Governments, corporations, economists and individuals have largely ignored the difference between human made capital and natural capital. Fortunately many individuals have come to the recognition that a new set of policies is necessary for the preservation of natural resources. These have adopted the issues of conservation and recycling seriously and are involved in challenging the assumptions of a consumer society which ignore the limits of the biosphere and the resources of the planet (Tabb, 2007). Perhaps by challenging the values of the consumer society then changes can be brought about and the logic of capitalism also questioned.
UNEP, 2009, From Conflict to Peacebuilding, The Role of Natural Resources and the Environment available at http://www.iisd.org/pdf/2009/conflict_peacebuilding.pdf
Tabb W, 2007, Resource Wars, Monthly Review available at http://www.monthlyreview.org/0107tabb.htm