Earlier today, Russian tanks attacked Georgian positions in South Ossetia
, the much-disputed Georgian territory sandwiched between Georgia and Russia. With a population of around 70,000, the region has not known peace since the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia’s actions came in response to the Georgian army’s attacks on Russian-backed separatists. Hostilities between Georgian troops and the separatists had been rising since six people died during a skirmish between the two in early July, with Russia and Georgia subsequently accusing each other of violating the ceasefire
by flying jets over South Ossetian territory.
The conflict has significant natural resource and environmental aspects. South Ossetia possesses rich stores of natural resources (including timber, manganese, iron ore, and copper and coal deposits), although it remains an economically isolated and depressed region. Also, its location is geopolitically strategic: It houses “[t]wo of the four major border crossings among the mountains separating Russia and Georgia,” along with several other critical roads, and is next to two vital oil pipelines, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and the Baku-Supsa, which run from Azerbaijan to Turkey’s Black Sea ports and provide oil for numerous European countries, as well as the United States. These pipelines, in addition to Georgia’s “pivotal role in the global energy market,” render this newest iteration of the conflict cause for international concern.
There are additional environmental concerns in this region. The long-simmering conflict in South Ossetia has left a former Russian industrial complex categorized as “still generating pollution” and a nuclear waste site both untended. With no one to secure, assess, monitor, or remove the hazardous material, regional water sources and arable land are threatened. Lack of economic opportunity in Georgia, and particularly in South Ossetia, has led to illegal logging; “[i]ncentives for illegal export of valuable timber and endemic tree species from the conflict areas…are exacerbating deforestation.”
Economic desperation—combined with a lack of natural resource monitoring—can lead to conflict as people vie for use of a limited resource. A 2004 report from the Environmental Security Initiative (a joint program of UNEP, UNDP, and OSCE) on the South Caucasus region warned that “[u]ncontrolled exploitation of forests, combined with outdated farming practices, are contributing to land degradation and desertification, threatening agricultural productivity.” Indeed, these factors did lead to further trouble for South Ossetia. When Georgia tried to clamp down on “the significant black market trade [in everything from vegetables to illegal arms] going on between South Ossetia and Russia” in 2004, violence quickly re-emerged.