• Introduction

    War is a state of organized, armed, and often prolonged conflict between different groups that can include government forces and internal opposition groups, or non- or quasi-state groups. In political terms, conflict refers to wars or struggles that involve the use of force. War is a common and constant human activity; there have been 122 armed conflicts around the world in the past 17 years, and 163 of 192 countries currently maintain armed forces (Majeed, 20004; Harbom and Wallesteen, 2007). War preparations utilise up to 15 million km2 of land, consume 6% of all raw materials and annually produce as much as 10% of global carbon emissions (Bidlack, 1996; Biswas, 2000; Majeed, 2004).

    Modern conflicts share common characteristics. First, the majority are fought within national borders rather than between nation states (McNeely, 2000). Secondly, most of these conflicts are unstructured and difficult to predict. They are often fought by multiple actors (that can include women and children) with different interests where the line between civilians and combatants is blurred (Shambaugh et al., 2001). Thirdly, modern conflicts are driven by a variety of motives with a wide range of contributory factors including ideology, access to resources, ethnicity, religion, greed, distribution of power amongst groups, countries and states and lack of leadership. Many conflicts are driven by a combination of these factors, fuelled by patronage systems and the desire of political and military elites to control and exploit natural resources (Shambaugh et al., 2001) particularly gold, oil, diamonds and timber (Plumptre et al., 2001). Natural resources are not only a victim of conflict but environmental stress and competition for natural resources can actually lead to armed conflict.

    The relationship between conflicts and their impact on the environment depends on the type, intensity and duration of the conflict, and all stages of warfare (preparation, warfare and post-conflict activities) have far reaching environmental impacts (Machlis & Hanson, 2008). The negative impacts of war on biodiversity in tropical forests result from the collective actions of large numbers of people (mostly post-adolescent males) for whom war frees normal restraints on activities that cause environmental damage (McNeely, 2003). These impacts can be direct - such as hunting and habitat destruction by armies (sometimes these impacts can be deliberate and labeled ‘ecocide‘ meaning the destruction of the environment for military purposes) - and indirect, for example through the activities of refugees or other displaced persons, and the removal of conservation staff. Conflicts, in some places, and under certain conditions, can have positive impacts on the environment; they can reduce pressure on habitat and slow or stop exploitation and loss of biodiversity (McNeely, 2000). These positive impacts however are often incidental, inadvertent, accidental (McNeely, 2003), short-term and in many cases outweighed and overwhelmed in the long run by the enormous negative impacts of war on the environment, the broader economy and society as a whole (Dudley et al., 2001). The post-conflict period in a country that emerges from long periods of civil unrest can be equally and sometimes more devastating to the environment if regulatory systems with qualified persons are not in place nor fully functional to regulate the surge of environmental exploitation that follows to meet demands for reconstruction, and economic and social development.

  • How important is this threat compared to others?

  • Why is it a threat to great apes?

  • Is war dangerous for all species in the same way?

Compiled and edited 2011 by Kay H. Farmer
Reviewed by Hjalmar Kuehl, Josephine Head and Neba Funwi-Gabga

  • References