Why resource extraction and nature conservation lead to increasing conflict and violence

Author: Bente Meindertsma for Vice Versa

We seem to have entered a new phase in the relation between violence and environment. Increasing violence against wildlife and communities living in protected areas and conflicts over access to natural resources have led scientists in the field of political ecology to discuss the causes and impacts of these dynamics at the PE-3C conference in Wageningen.

2015 was the deadliest year ever for environmental activists, according to a recent report by human rights NGO Global Witness. 185 people were killed, an increase of 59% compared to the previous year. The report shows how deeply environmental issues are intertwined with political struggle, conflict and the uneven distribution of power. The scientific field of political ecology focusses on just that, by studying how different interests, forms of power and politics influence and frame our relationship to environmental issues and access to natural resources. At the recent Political Ecology conference in Wageningen (PE-3C), more than 350 scientists and activists came together to discuss the political ecologies of conflict, capitalism and contestation.

The planet doesn’t need saving

The current neoliberal capitalist world system, with its strong negative impacts on the climate, ecosystems and natural resources has reached its limits, many of the researchers point out. Growing inequality, uneven distribution of power  and increasing extraction of natural resources have led to a significant rise of conflicts over natural resources and nature conservation. They will only increase in the future, as competition for resources will become fiercer and the effects of climate change will be felt ever stronger. ‘Humans use natural resources at an unprecedented scale, but also at an unprecedented pace’, says Philippe Le Billon, professor at the University of British Columbia. ‘The main reason for this is that the business model of the now dominant Asian companies is faster. They don’t take time to consider the situation, but go ahead as soon as they get legal authority.’

‘The climate crisis is not an environmental issue, but a problem of humanity’, says Kumi Naidoo, the charismatic former director of Greenpeace International. During his time at Greenpeace, he advocated for a people centred approach to nature conservation. ‘The planet doesn’t need saving’, he says. ‘If the earth continues to warm up in the current pace, the human race will soon go extinct and oceans and forests will be restored soon enough. It’s us, who need to learn to co-exist with nature. If people are the problem, they should also become the critical part of the solution.’

In the dominant narrative of economic growth, environment is defined as an economic resource that can be used to accumulate capital. In a recent blog for Vice Versa, Wageningen based professor Bram Büscher argues that framing natural resources like clean water and air as natural capital is a dangerous myth. The value of nature is far more complex than a form of capital in our economic system, he points out. Moreover, ecosystems cannot be easily converted into economic currency. Therefore, the concept of Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES), whereby users of natural resources (like governments or companies) ‘buy’ the service of nature conservation from mostly local communities, is also fundamentally flawed, argue researchers like Vijay Kolinjivadi. But aren’t PES projects a convenient way to involve communities into nature conservation, like environmental NGO’s such as the WWF and IUCN are claiming? We will look into this discussion in one of the next articles.

Green wars

Environmental issues are also increasingly framed as security problems, leading to more securited and often violent responses by companies, governments and even environmental NGO’s. The availability of new technologies, often derived from the military, poses complex ethical dilemmas. A presentation entitled ‘Left photo, right bomb’ by James L. Merron and Luregn Lenggenhager shows how during the Namibian Border War (1970) militaries and conservationists used the same military plane to map a contested area. In the cockpit, there were two buttons: The left one for taking photos, the right one for dropping a bomb. Information derived from the photos was both used for military and nature conservation purposes. It’s just one example of how deeply military intelligence and nature conservation have been intertwined in the management of protected areas in (Southern) Africa.

The current intensification of the connections between security, environment and violence leads some commentators to speak of new ‘green wars’, for example in relation to the perception that local communities living in protected areas are a threat to security. As argued by SOAS professor Rosaleen Duffy, the powerful but false narrative of the poacher-as-terrorist is negatively impacting both local communities and the protection of endangered animal species. Next week, we will try to find out how this idea of the poacher-as-terrorist emerged and how it leads to different forms of violence against nature and local communities.

Looking through another lens

News media often oversimplify the underlying causes of nature conservation and resource conflicts and tend to favour the dominant neoliberal perspective, Philippe le Billon points out. He advocates for a ‘complication’ in the understanding of environmental conflicts. Concepts or definitions are never neutral and often represent the agenda of leading political groups in a region. If companies, governments and NGO’s would better understand the local context and political dimensions before starting up environmental projects, many conflicts could be avoided.

‘Companies often mistake to see a bare mountain with valuable gold resources, but instead it turns out to be a place with many religious and cultural meanings’, says Le Billon. Research by Marlous van den Akker shows how a layered conflict on Mount Kenya got muffled away through one single park ranger’s efforts to gain precedence over another government institute claiming rights in the area, employing UNESCO to further his agenda. We will look into this dynamic further in a forthcoming article about the layeredness of resource conflicts.

Like the global news media tend to narrow their focus by looking through the dominant neoliberal lens, most political ecologists also have a somewhat limited view by predominantly focusing on marginalized communities and local resource users as victims suffering from and fighting mostly external capitalism.

Being maladjusted

Besides scientists, many political ecologists also proudly call themselves activists who want to contribute to a shift in behaviour and consumption by researching the flaws of the neoliberal system. ‘With our work, we support people in the field like the murdered Honduran human rights activist Berta Cáceres’, Le Billon points out in his opening speech. ‘The tradition of political ecology started with ethnographic research’, he says. ‘We don’t study communities or ecosystems as fixed entities however, we study how concepts are formed and develop over time. We believe that change is possible and want to contribute to this.’

Kumi Naidoo, who fought in the struggle against apartheid in his home country South Africa, calls on the scientists to counter the media coverage that is stacked against the agendas of activists. ‘It requires creativity, innovation and courage to break the power of those who are controlling the dominant narrative,’ he says.

According to Naidoo, the sequence of economic, political and environmental crises the world is experiencing also provides us with an opportunity to achieve real change. ‘Never waste a good crisis’, is his advice. ‘It will make people understand change is needed.’ Like in the liberation struggle, that is only possible if sufficient people believe in it. ‘In the challenge against climate change we have not yet reached that point, where sufficient people believe we should leave behind the polluting, fossil fuel based economy. To reach this point, we have to build the broadest possible alliance.’ He calls on the scientific community to have the courage to be idealistic and maladjusted. ‘By turning awareness into consciousness and continuously combating the flawed capitalist narrative, we can still avert the ultimate crisis of climate change.’


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