25 Apr 2017 Story Climate change

Where conflict and the environment collide: Voices from the field

Garamba National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo, September 2012. Twenty-two elephants, from adults to babies, lie huddled together, dead, on the savannah, each shot by a single bullet to the top of the head. They’re only missing their tusks, but otherwise intact.

La Esperanza, Honduras, March 2016. At 1am, environmental campaigner, Berta Caceres, is shot dead in her own home, just a week after being threatened over her opposition to a hydroelectric project.

Northern Kenya, February 2017. Two people are killed when rival militias clash over water and pasture in a drought that has seen thousands of farmers and pastoralists competing for pasture.

What all these stories have in common is the complex relationship linking resources, conflict and the environment.

From the salt wars of old to recent civil wars, competition for precious stones, land and other resources has triggered or exacerbated conflicts across the globe. And once conflicts flare up, trust breaks down – along with traditional mechanisms for negotiating shared use of our environment. The end result can be a vicious circle of recurrent conflict and ever-dwindling natural resources.

How we distribute the costs and benefits of natural resource use can also lead to or worsen conflict. Too often, profits are captured by the powerful while vulnerable populations who rely heavily on nature for survival and livelihoods get left with polluted water, oil spills and loss of biodiversity.

Environmental crime can also drive conflict. Elephant tusks fund terrorist groups and the illegal exploitation of resources have been used to finance 18 civil wars since 1990. The illegal trade in wildlife and timber is now the fourth largest in the world, behind drugs, arms and human trafficking – and it’s growing at more than twice the pace of the global economy.

Competition and conflict over natural resources are also set to intensify due to population growth, environmental degradation and climate change.

UN Environment has worked in 30 conflict-affected countries to help governments and communities manage environmental resources. Our work includes being a first responder for environmental emergencies, providing impartial scientific assessments and fostering diplomacy. We also build capacity for environmental governance, develop international knowledge and training programmes for long-term recovery, and working with UN peacekeeping operations to reduce the environmental footprint of peacekeeping.

In all of this work, we rely on the support and expertise of local partners – the very people on the frontline of climate change and conflict.

Here are two of their stories.

Fatima: Studying the environment in Afghanistan

Fatima was born in Afghanistan’s central Bamyan province in 1979, and was only five when war forced her family to flee across the border to Iran. Despite the challenges of being a refugee, she studied hard and became a school teacher when she returned home 20 years later. Now she has also completed a law degree and joined Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency (which was set up with support from UN Environment).

She still leaves Afghanistan sometimes, but to travel to environmental meetings, not to escape war. As part of the UN Environment team at the 18th International Conservation Forum, she helped study environmental threats to more than 50 types of plants that grow in protected areas in Bamyan. 

Having grown up with war, Fatima knows all about how natural resources can fuel conflict. When talking about the harsh climate and the people’s reliance on land and water, her insights are far from academic.

“We have our own local ways to make sure everyone has fair access to land and water when they need it,” she says. “But when these systems are disrupted by conflict, nobody benefits.”

Omda: bringing farmers and pastoralists together in Sudan

As a community leader, 60-year old Omda spends a lot of time mediating disputes and defusing tensions between farmers and pastoralists before they escalate into violence.

That’s what happened in 2015, when fighting displaced farmers from six villages served by UN Environment’s Wadi El Ku water management system. The farmers were too afraid to return, so crops suffered and markets closed. The project had to be put on hold, too.

Omda knew he had to rebuild trust between the pastoralists and the farmers, who hadn’t met formally for years. Both communities seemed willing to give it a try and the government was supportive, so UN Environment, the non-governmental organization Practical Action, the University of El Fasher and community leaders set up a meeting.

Tensions relaxed and priorities were agreed. Many of the displaced farmers returned to their villages and the security situation vastly improved.

For Omda, there are important lessons to be learned. He said: “I think the meeting should be a model for how relationships can be rebuilt over natural resources – concentrating on small steps, with everybody in the picture.”