Resource-Induced Conflicts: Introduction to the Series

By: Annabelle Vuille

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In 2001, Michael T. Klare published his ground breaking work Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict. In it, he argued that humanity’s growing dependence on a finite supply of critical resources – from oil and minerals, to water and land – at a time when demand for such resources was expected to soar, meant that our future would increasingly be characterised by what he termed ‘resource conflicts’; that is, armed conflicts or civil strife revolving ‘to a significant degree, over the pursuit or possession of critical materials.’[1] Today, this analysis seems prescient.

According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), at least 40% of all internal conflicts recorded over the past 60 years, including at least 18 violent conflicts since the 1990s have been fuelled by issues relating to the exploitation and control of either scarce or ‘high value’ commodities. With the world population expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, and the effects of climate change and environmental degradation placing increased pressure on commodity supplies, it is highly likely that the new fault line underlying world politics will be natural resources: who has them, who needs them, and which actors have the necessary means to secure them. While natural resources can foment war both between states – such as the ongoing petroleum clash between the Angolan and Congolese government in the Cabinda region, or the Spratly Islands dispute in the South China Sea – and within states – as is the case in both Iraq and Yemen, where disagreements over resource-wealth sharing have caused ethnic fragmentation and civil strife – it is the latter that will be the focus of this Strife series.

Since the turn of the century, there has been a growing body of literature dealing with the link between intrastate conflict and natural resources. The contentious issue on the matter is whether armed conflicts within a state are linked to an abundance or scarcity of resources, commonly referred to as the ‘resource curse’. Proponents argue that an abundance of natural resources leads to economic underperformance, fuels corruption, and creates socio-political ills that may lead to civil strife. Contrastingly, critics point to other countries such as Norway, Botswana and Chile, as examples of peaceful states possessing significant resource endowments. [2][3]  However, although scholars remain divided on the salience of the resource-curse theory, there is common consensus that while resources may not be the sole cause of conflict, stresses related to their exploitation can have a significant impact on civil strife. From inciting initial acts of violence, financing or sustaining conflict by providing the revenues necessary to purchase arms and secure loyalties, to undermining peace building efforts due to concerns over disenfranchisement and loss of income – natural resources can be implicated in all phases of the conflict cycle.[4]

Over the coming weeks, Strife will be featuring a five-part series on the role of natural resources in triggering, escalating, or sustaining violent conflict within states. Jasper Humphreys will start by surveying the theoretical underpinnings and debates surrounding ‘resource wars’, and subsequently offer insights into where and over which resources future violent conflict might ensue. The three subsequent pieces will provide an insight into current cases of ‘resource conflicts’. Sourojeet Chakraborty will discuss the drawbacks of fracking for shale exploration, how these effects have led to public uprisings from the U.S. and the UK to Algeria, and offer an assessment of what energy companies might do to alleviate such tensions. Siri Camilla Rustad and Cyril Obi will take a closer look at petro-violence in the Niger Delta, the evolution and causes of the conflict, and offer insights into why the Amnesty granted to the Niger Delta militants in 2009 ultimately failed. Dr. Charles Schmitz will use the case of Yemen to argue that though linking natural resource scarcity or abundance to conflict has an attractive conceptual simplicity, the roots of conflict are far more complex.  Social relations—economy, politics, social institutions—mediate the relationships between the natural environment and people and bear far more responsibility for scarcity, abundance, and conflict than simple Malthusian equations. Finally, Päivi Lujala will place ‘resource conflicts’ into the context of peacebuilding and discuss the ways in which increased transparency in contract formulation, ownership schemes, and revenue flows may prevent resource-rich states from sliding back into violence.

With soaring global population growth, and the subsequent rise in the demand for resources – from oil and gas, to water and livestock – there is significant potential that the coming decades will experience an intensification of civil strife and conflict over resources. In this five-part series Strife hopes to provide a deeper understanding of the dynamics shaping such conflicts and the means available to states and non-state actors to address their root cause and (hopefully) create a sustainable road to peace.

 

 

Annabelle Vuille is currently based in Switzerland and in her final year of the MA programme in International Relations and Contemporary War at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Having studied International Business in Rome, she is specifically interested in applying her economic background to the sphere of conflict and security. Her main research interest is the interplay between geopolitics and energy security, particularly in the maritime domain.

 

 

 

Notes:

[1] Klare, Michael (2001), Resource Wars: The Changing Landscape of Global Conflict (New York, United States: Henry Holt), p. 23.

[2] Wright, Gavin and Czelusta, Jesse (2004), ‘Why Economies Slow: The Myth of the Resource Curse’, Challenge, Vol. 47, No. 2, pp. 6-38.; Varisco, Andrea (2010), ‘A Study on the Inter-Relation between Armed Conflict and Natural Resources and its implications for Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding’, Journal of Peace, Conflict and Development, Vol. 15, pp. 38-58.

[3] Michael L. Ross, “The political economy of the Resource Curse”, World Politics 51, no.2 (1999): pp. 297-322 explains the so-called Dutch Disease effect, Indra De Soysa, “The Resource Curse: Are Civil Wars Driven by Rapacity or Paucity?”, in Greed and Grievances: Economic Agendas in Civil Wars, ed. Mats R. Berdal and David M. Malone (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Press, 2000) pp. 113-136 introduces the concept of ‘honey pots’. See also Philippe Le Billon, “The political ecology of war: Natural Resources and Armed Conflicts”, Political Geography, 20 (2001): p. 564.

[4] United Nations Environment Programme (2009), From Conflict to Peacebuilding: The Role of Natural Resources and the Environment (Nairobi, Kenya: United Nations Environment Programme).

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