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Crises, conflicts over resources and the environment
Florence Gibert and François Grünewald

At a time when environmental issues are at the centre of international debates, more than ever, the relationship between natural resource scarcity and conflict, the ecological repercussions of conflict and the environmental impact of humanitarian aid should be the object of analysis and should be a major preoccupation of humanitarian actors.

 Natural resources and conflict

Conflict studies have highlighted the crucial role that access to resources plays in causing and maintaining conflicts. Recent crises are no exception to this rule. Behind modern conflicts, we often find the same causes that were behind wars centuries ago. In the Middle East, water was a factor of war in Mesopotamia and is one of the keys to the conflict over the Golan Heights (involving Syria, Israel and Jordan) and the Palestinian crisis.

In Africa, along the Sahel-Saharan fringe, from the Senegalese coast to the regions surrounding Somalia, there is a close correlation between conflict and rainfall. There is competition over land for grazing in pastoral areas and, further south, conflict between farmers and pastoral communities. The clan war in Somalia has many of the characteristics of a war over water and water points. The only difference is the recent addition of a “religious” factor. The fact that the UN has not been successful is due in large part to its lack of understanding of this central point. In Rwanda and Burundi, access to agricultural land has been a major source of conflict for a long time. The crises in these countries are primarily those of peasant farmers caught up in conflicts over land and the unequal distribution of coffee profits. Conflicts between communities in Eastern Chad are also linked to agricultural land and pasture. The casus belli in Darfur is not so much ethnic rivalry but competition for the region’s land and resources, all of which has been exploited and manipulated for political interest.

Though certain of these conflicts may have been presented from political and diplomatic angles, particularly in relation to the Cold War and international negotiations, this does not change the fact that gaining access to limited resources is sufficiently important to make people take up arms. In weakened states, parties to a conflict can also be manipulated by a third party which wants to gain access to resources. Rare minerals are among the resources which have been the source of conflict, such as coltan, which is needed to make electronic equipment (DRC), and diamonds (Sierra Leone and Liberia). And, of course, there is oil (Iraq and Kuwait). Competition to control the marketing channels for these raw materials is also a major source of international tension and conflict, as we have learned from the crises in Georgia (Abkhazia and Ossetia), Nagorny Karaback and the various crises which have brought bloodshed to Afghanistan since 1994 due to the desire to allow pipelines bring oil from the Caspian to the ports of Pakistan via the Afghan plains. The distribution of profits from these resources is highly explosive, as we have seen in Nigeria, Kurdistan, Niger and in the fragility of the ceasefire between South and North Sudan. The wars in all these countries smell very strongly of oil money.