“Over the past two decades, the extraction and trade of natural resources have helped incite, fuel and prolong violent conflicts,” write Alec Crawford and Oli Brown
in Growing Unrest: The links between farmed and fished resources and the risk of conflict
, a new report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development
. “The links between natural resources and conflict are established and widely accepted,” point out the authors; however, “it has become ‘received wisdom’ that these linkages only apply to a certain subset of natural resources—oil, diamonds, certain minerals (e.g., coltan), illegal narcotics and timber.” This notion is mistaken, as agriculture
are also often involved in funding and instigating conflict.
The authors highlight four case studies before making general policy recommendations. In the Côte d’Ivoire, instabilities in the cocoa market during the 1980s exacerbated social tensions, eventually leading to civil war. During this war, both sides taxed cocoa transport or production to finance their war effort.
In Somalia, where limited ports make it easy to control exports, a tax on bananas was a significant source of income for many Somali warlords during the 1990s. In present-day Somalia, many warlords have turned to the fishing market, funding local militias by issuing false fishing licenses to foreign companies for millions of dollars.
The final case examines the tensions over water-sharing agreements in Central Asia between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Water necessary for irrigating cotton, the local economic staple, has been a contentious issue for years, and resolution has not been forthcoming even as irrigation infrastructure continues to decay.
Based on these case studies, the authors report three main findings:
• By controlling the trade of agricultural or marine commodities, gangs, warlords, or sovereign nations can extract wealth and use it to support conflicts and other oppressive activities.
• When the prices of farmed and fished goods are volatile, they can lead to instability and conflict in nations without stable markets or political systems.
• Agricultural and marine goods can be seen as “proxies” for more basic commodities, such as freshwater and land — and thus part of larger conflicts over those resources.
The report offers 14 recommendations — falling into two general categories — for policymakers hoping to minimize conflict over these resources. It recommends expanding existing structures – such as extending sanctions that currently punish those who use diamonds, oil, coltan, and other natural resources to fund conflict – to include agricultural and marine commodities. It also recommends stabilizing dangerous situations, such as easing institutional tensions when faced with shortages or conflicting interests, or cracking down on opportunities for exploitation caused by price volatility.
Those interested in natural resources and conflict should expand their focus to fished and farmed resources instead of remaining trapped in a worldview in which only certain commodities are important. The authors write, “It is not the type of resource that matters, but rather how it is produced and traded, to what ends the revenues are put, and what the associated impact is on people and their environments.”
ECSP examined the challenges facing the world’s fisheries in a recent meeting series available at www.wilsoncenter.org/fish. An ongoing series looks at natural resources and conflict: www.wilsoncenter.org/newhorizons.