By Bijan Rohani

The United Nations has increasingly stressed the importance of protecting the environment during wars and armed conflicts as well as the fundamental role of natural resource management in preventing confrontations and reaching lasting peace. In that spirit, the organization named the 6th of November "the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict" back in 2001. The aim of this designation is to increase general awareness about the damaging effects of wars on the environment and natural resources, as well as the unjust exploitation of these resources during conflicts.

This year, on the occasion of November 6, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced that by supporting the management of natural resources in countries at war, we can prevent the environment and its resources from becoming a source of further conflicts and wars. Better management and maintenance of these resources can be channeled into rebuilding the economy and providing peace and stability in war zones.

The Relation of Wars to Natural Resources

A report by United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) indicates that at least 40% of all wars and internal conflicts in the last 60 years have been related to using and dominating natural resources. The resources in question can be highly lucrative, as in the case of diamonds, wood, petroleum and gold, or they can be scarce and essential to life, such as water and fertile lands. The abuse of the environment occurs more often in poor or less developed countries, which are more dependent on these resources.

Civil wars give the factions involved in the conflicts the opportunity to exploit natural resources and carry out their widespread destruction. It is estimated that in Somalia, which has been in a bloody civil war since the 1990s, the illicit trade and smuggling of charcoal has brought in more than $384 million for armed terrorist groups.

In that same time period, 18 destructive wars have been triggered by the race to control natural resources. In many African countries, such as Liberia, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, civil wars have been directly due to the seizure of natural resources. In Darfur and the Middle East, there have also been frequent conflicts to take over water sources and fertile soil. With the daily increase in the world population and the need for natural resources to provide food and energy, it becomes more likely that new wars and conflicts over the use of these resources will occur in the decades ahead.

International Research Programme on Wars and the Environment

Since 2008, UNEP has been working in conjunction with the Environmental Law Institute, the University of Tokyo and Canada’s McGill University to conduct a research programme to study methods of managing natural resources in war-hit regions. In this enormous project, more than 150 examples in 60 countries and war-hit regions of the world have been studied. This project is meant to find answers to the crises born out of civil or regional wars but it has also become a vehicle for information and education.

The project now includes a new website and newly published educational materials in addition to the studies conducted in war regions. More than 225 researchers have taken part in the programme so far. (View website

The United Nations has also named Environmental Peacebuilding as a solution for protecting natural resources

 in war regions. The goal of Environmental Peacebuilding is to implement natural resource management in all stages of preventing and reducing the dangers of wars, reaching ceasefire and truce as well as rebuilding the war-hit regions.

Clearing Weapons of War

Another important aspect of war in relation to the environment is the destruction of weapons left behind without causing more damage to the natural surroundings. As a case in point, Syria is currently undergoing a large-scale operation in this regard. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013, is currently in the process of eliminating all chemical weapons and their production facilities inside the country.
In addition to chemical and nuclear weapons, which have irreparable effects on humans and the environment, landmines also cause great environmental hazards.

Iran and Afghanistan are among the most land mine-ridden areas in the world. Still, 20 years after the end of the Iran-Iraq War, land mines take a human toll in the western and southern regions of Iran. Most recently, on October 18 in the town of Marivan, seven children were injured by an explosion. Despite the land mine-clearing efforts along the border regions since 1987, many other regions in Iran are still affected.

In addition to harbouring land mine clusters, Afghanistan has also lost almost half of its forests in the provinces of Nangarhar, Kunar and Nuristan during the long periods of civil wars. Based on a 2003 report by UNEP, 50% of Afghanistan's wild pistachio trees have been cut to sell their wood. About 80% of the livelihood of Afghanistan’s people is derived through natural resources. Years of war and the lack of safety, in addition to weak management and the annihilation of traditional methods of using natural resources, have all put Afghanistan in a precarious position.

Environmental Crimes and Criminal Gangs

On the occasion of November 6, a global conference was held in Nairobi, Kenya to discuss crimes related to the environment. The unlawful hunting of rare animal species, which has been classified as an environmental crime, has become a global problem. It has been estimated that armed terrorist groups earn between $15 million and $20 million a year by poaching such animals as elephants and rhinoceros, and they regularly use these resources as a source of income. Similarly, an estimated 11 million to 26 million tons of fish and other marine creatures are caught illegally each year. On many African shores, illegal fishing and trapping sites are under the protection of armed factions combating each other or the central governments. United Nations investigations reveal that criminal gangs and armed groups are behind the exploitation of natural resources in many regions in crisis.

 

 

Translated from the Persian original