Thursday, March 13, 2008

Ecowar: The political ecology of war

So far this blogging project has been characterized by the Google News Alert I set up way back when I first got the idea and whatever inspiration I got studying for my bachelor's and master's degrees in horticulture, a natural science. But I just did a search using both regular Google (doh!) and Scholar using all fields of science not just the exact ones. There is a lot of texts out there exploring links between conflict and natural resource. A lot. Peer reviewed stuff too.

So, I'm going to seek out the best and put down a couple of notes on it. The first article I feel like mentioning is The political ecology of war: natural resources and armed conflicts by Le Billon - because the author put it on his university server as a file named "ecowar.pdf" (hope I'm not exposing some copyright violation here?). How could I not spend a link on that? On the other hand, it means you don't have to trust me - you can read the original yourself even without a subscription on Poltical Geography.

For me to do a meaningful comment on the paper is limited by the fact that it aims at the very core of my subject. Thus, no borderline discrepancies stick out immediately. So much the more important it doesn't prove me wrong, I guess. Le Billon doesn't waste time like me though: First postulate is that natural resources have motivated, financed and shaped conflicts. Next sentence the main objective is defined: examine theories of relationships between resources and armed conflicts. Within this scope the paper highlights resource dependence, globalisation and peace promotion rather than abundance, scarcity and lootability which must be themes more commonly discussed in political sciences (I don't know).

The introduction mentions a shift from natural resources playing a role in conflicts as a means of financing the conflict to simply inspiring the conflict. A significant increase in importance. Also, an interesting term is mentioned: the resource curse (hello new tag):
most empirical evidence suggests that countries economically dependent on the export of primary commodities are at a higher risk of political instability and armed conflict

Some other authors are criticized for insufficiently taking into account countries with or without resources that have developed peacefully (Norway, Japan etc) and reminds us the parts of nature we call resources are probably resources just because of our cultural ideas. An extremely obvious observation that I haven't really thought of so far - probably why I have managed to completely miss out on conflicts related to diamonds. Also, the influence of the type of resource on the type of conflict is discussed (ie. fights over extracted resources focus on territory control whereas fights over produced resources focus on trade control) - interesting because the influence verifies the link. Table 1, page 573 classifies a number of conflicts in four different categories based on the type of resource as well as it's relative location. A bit interesting how both the Iraq vs Iran and the Iraq vs Kuwait conflicts are put in the coup d'etat (proximate/point) category and are tagged 'oil' - fortunately the article is too old to be politically incorrect by including the USA vs Iraq war. The other three categories of Billon's typology are rebellion/rioting (proximate/diffuse; ie. Israel vs Palestine about freshwater), secession (distant/point; ie. Morocco vs West Sahara about phosphate) and warlordism (distant/diffuse; ie. Afghan quagmire about opium).

Billon claims the literature has had a tendency towards looking at only rebellion/rioting type conflicts as resource conflicts. While probably true it is curious how Zhang found best climate-conflict correlations when looking at rebellions only. Perhaps it's just that governments are better at "wrapping it"? (Another example of this might be the US government and the Iraq war; see Study: False Statements Preceded War.) More likely it's just that the better correlation inspires the more political theories? Scientists of non-exact fields are subject to the underlying mathematical patterns, they just don't really describe these in their texts it seems. While having zero P<0.5 observations, examples are aplenty in Billon's text.

Let me finish with a couple of important reminders from the conclusion:
While it would be an error to reduce armed conflicts to greed-driven resource wars, as political and identity factors remain key, the control of local resources influence the agendas and strategies of belligerents.

Beyond motivating or financing conflicts, the level of dependence, conflictuality, and lootability of a resource can also increase the vulnerability of societies to, and the risk of armed conflict. Yet, there is no environmentally deterministic relation at hand.

Le Billon, P. (2001). The political ecology of war: natural resources and armed conflicts. Political Geography, 20(5), 561-584. DOI: 10.1016/S0962-6298(01)00015-4

Finally, let me just mention really quick (now that Billon didn't) that Norway was invaded by Nazi Germany while Denmark was considered a stepping stone only (Norway has iron and other resources, Denmark has farmers supplying Germany) and that Japan were among the very first civilized nations to enforce environmental protection laws namely to sustain their forestry.


  1. Regarding the Iraq war I just came to think of Alan Greenspan's comments half a year ago. I blogged about it at Newsvine, not here.

    What this top US Republican said was: "I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows. The Iraq war is largely about oil."

  2. thank you for the le billon's paper. I've been looking for it so long!


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