The link between conflict and conservation has generally not been high on the list of priorities for environmental research. But that changed a few years ago when a study by the group Conservation International found that more than 80 percent of armed clashes in the second half of the 20th century played out in biodiversity hotspots.
Experts point out that conventional warfare has long been known to wreck landscapes and ecosystems for decades to come. But, the changing nature of conflict carries equally disastrous ecological consequences and is turning richly biodiverse regions into battlefields.
“Over the last 50, 60 or even 70 years, the preponderance of conflicts has been internal, with governments fighting some kind of rebel group that lacks infrastructure,” Thor Hanson, a conservation biologist who was involved in the initial study, told Global Ideas. “So what these groups tend to do is to seek refuge in wild lands, particularly forested areas that provide good cover.”
They include FARC guerrillas in Colombia or Boko Haram militant Islamists in Nigeria who often seek to gain a tactical advantage over their enemies by basing operations in wild places. That means internal conflicts are often fought in areas of great natural value. And, that implies inherent risks for biodiversity.
“Once you have the spatial connection, you start to see other links between natural resources and the conflict itself,” Hanson, who has carried out subsequent research in the field known as “warfare ecology,” explained. He cited encroachment into protected areas, mass-scale vegetation clearing, and the impact of large refugee communities as just some of the negative side effects on conservation areas.
Poaching a big problem
But, perhaps the biggest and most far-reaching problems, that often serve to fuel hostilities, are resource looting and poaching. High value minerals, timber and some of the world’s most beloved species of wild animal fall prey to warring factions seeking a means to fund the continuation of violence.
In recent years, instability in parts of central Africa has led to increased elephant and rhino poaching, decimating their numbers. That in turn is boosting the world’s illegal ivory trade.
Conservationists have long raised concerns that ivory sales are helping fund militant networks such as Somalia’s al-Shabaab militants. Andrea Crosta, executive director and co-founder of Elephant Action League (EAL) and Nir Kalron, founder and CEO of Maisha Consulting, spent almost two years investigating the al Qaeda-linked terrorists via a network of collaborators, sources and informers within the Somali community in Kenya.
Crosta explained how he and Kalron interviewed and secretly filmed poachers, traders, big traffickers and former warlords to compile what he describes as “strong evidence.”
“Cross-checking every piece of information, we confirmed the involvement of al-Shabaab as an important and sometimes preferred ivory buyer in the region,” he said. “We understood their modus operandi and assessed their turnover to be at least a few hundreds of thousands of dollars every month.”
Although that does not constitute al-Shabaab’s main source of income, Crosta says the group is regarded as a powerful buyer, and as such stimulates poaching and trading activity within some networks.
Staying the course
While poaching is a huge talking point in the conservation community and there is currently some debate on the pros and cons of fighting looters and poachers with firepower, the broader role of conservation groups in conflict settings has received little attention.
Yet, experience thus far has shown that it pays to have conservation workers on the ground in a conflict zone for as long as possible. Not only because it helps to safeguard against a total looting free-for- all, but because it affects the way protected areas are perceived in the aftermath. If a region has been more or less abandoned to its fate of widespread liquidation, it is less likely to be factored into any post-conflict management.
One example is that of Rwanda where international conservation groups continued funding for local staff of Nyungwe Forest Reserve and Volcanoes National Park throughout the civil war and genocide. That helped the park maintain intact boundaries and stable populations of hoofed animals and endangered mountain gorillas. And in the volatile postwar period, continued funding by NGOs helped the park restart tourism and research and avert proposed road-building and cattle-ranching projects.
Can war ever be good for biodiversity?
While there’s little doubt that war spells doom for natural ecosystems, some point out that there may be times when biodiversity can actually at times benefit from armed conflict. It’s what Thor Hanson describes as a “really hard sell.”
“This is often the most controversial issue, because no-one wants to say warfare can have a positive effect,” Hanson said. “But like political scientists, biological scientists should not shy away from any opportunity that may arise from a conflict.”
Those opportunities range from changing settlement patterns, to a suspension in certain logging or hunting activities, which in turn gives plants and animals the chance to breed and grow at their natural rate.
Hanson cites another positive example as the creation of so-called ‘peace parks’ in chronically disputed territories. One such is the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, which he describes as being “stuffed with endangered species.”
Miles wide, the coast-to-coast strip of land spans every ecosystem and elevation on the peninsula, and is a rare example of the habitats that have been degraded or lost to the population and development growth on both sides of the boundary.
“Conservationists in Korea have been making the point for years that any reconciliation between North and South should include some kind of permanent peace park for a large part of that territory,” Hanson said.