Times of war can result in rapid environmental degradation as people struggle to survive and environmental management systems break down resulting in damage to critical ecosystems.
For over six decades, armed conflicts have occurred in more than two-thirds of the world’s biodiversity hotspots thus posing critical threats to conservation efforts.
In 2001, cognizant of the fact that environment has often remained the unpublicized victim of war, the UN General Assembly declared 6 November the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict.
On 27 May 2016, the United Nations Environment Assembly adopted a resolution which recognized the role of healthy ecosystems and sustainably managed resources in reducing the risk of armed conflict, and reaffirmed its strong commitment to the full implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.
On the occasion to mark the 17th anniversary since the inception of this day, here are some historical and contemporary reminders of why we need to protect biodiversity from the direct and indirect effects of wars and armed conflicts.
1. Agent Orange: For nearly a decade between 1961 and 1971, during the Vietnam war, the US military sprayed millions of litres of a range of herbicides and defoliants across vast swathes of southern Vietnam. The most widespread of the chemicals was Agent Orange and it was part of a deliberate destruction of forests to deprive Viet Cong guerillas the cover that enabled them to launch attacks against US forces.
2. Congolese civil wars: Since the mid-1990s, a series of bloody armed conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo have had a devastating effect on wildlife populations which have been a source of bushmeat for combatants, civilians struggling for survival and commercial traders. Consequently, small species such as antelopes, monkeys and rodents as well as larger ones such as apes and forest elephants have borne the brunt of the war. While there are many root causes of these conflicts—historical, ethnic and political—fighting over control, access to, and use of natural resources and their associated revenues, has been a key driver of the violence. The conflicts, and the resultant lawlessness, have also emboldened syndicates to carry out deforestation and promote harmful mining processes.
3. Iraq marshes and burning oil wells: In the early 1990s, Saddam Hussein’s troops drained the Mesopotamian marshes, the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East, situated at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in response to a Shia uprising in southern Iraq. A series of dikes and channels reduced the marshes to less than 10 per cent of their original extent and transformed the landscape into a desert with salt crusts. More recently, in 2017, Islamic State militants set ablaze oil wells in the southern city of Mosul thus releasing a toxic cocktail of chemicals into the air, water and land.
4. Afghanistan’s forests: Decades of conflict in the country have destroyed more than half the country’s forests. Afghanistan has been deforested up to 95 per cent in some areas, partially because of people’s coping strategies and the breakdown of environmental governance during decades of war. The extensive deforestation has had multiple social, environmental and economic implications for millions of Afghans including increasing vulnerability to various natural disasters such as floods, avalanches and landslides.
5. Nepal’s ecosystems: During the armed conflict between 1996 – 2006, the army, previously responsible for the protection of forests, was mobilized for counter-insurgency operations. This resulted in the irresponsible exploitation of wildlife and plant resources such as medicinal herbs including Yarsagumba (Cordyceps sinensis) and Chiraito (Swertia Chiraita) among others by insurgents and civilians in areas such as the Khaptad National Park, in the Makalu Barun Conservation area.
6. Colombia mining and logging: Decades of unregulated gold mining in the country took its environmental toll in areas controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels. Mining, coupled with illegal extraction of other natural resources such as logging, was a major source of funding for rebels. It resulted in the pollution of rivers and land with mercury, especially in the Quito river basin.
Despite the risks that war and armed conflict pose for the environment, and the role that natural resources may play in fueling or amplifying armed conflicts, there are also significant opportunities linking the environment and peacebuilding.
UN Environment has teamed up with the Environmental Law Institute, the Earth Institute at Columbia University, Duke University, and the University of California at Irvine to develop a groundbreaking open online course on Environmental Security and Sustaining Peace.
Offered on the SDG Academy platform, the course synthesizes 100,000 pages of material and 225 case studies from over 60 post-conflict countries into seven hours of dynamic video lectures. The course is based on the experiences and lessons learned of over 1,000 experts and 10 United Nations agencies.
Learn more about UN Environment’s work the environmental causes and consequences of disasters and conflicts.