Protecting Nature During War Can Help Recovery

03/02/2009 06:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

(Arlington, Virginia, Feb. 24, 2009) -- An urgent call to protect nature in the midst of violence and loss of human life may seem naïve or misguided. But if you consider where most major armed conflicts take place, wartime conservation is one of the best hopes for wartime recovery.

Our recently published paper "Warfare in Biodiversity Hotspots" reveals that 80 percent of the world's major armed conflicts have occurred in some of the most biologically diverse and threatened places on Earth. Conservation activities must remain strong during such conflicts to ensure that local people will have the natural resources they need to survive and re-establish healthy communities in the post-war period.

The world's 34 biodiversity hotspots have within their borders more than three-quarters of the world's most endangered species. More than half of all plant species and at least 42 percent of all vertebrates occur within the hotspots and nowhere else. Our study shows that these areas are hotspots in other ways as well. A total of 23 experienced a significant violent conflict in which more than 1,000 people died between 1950 and 2000, and many suffered repeated episodes of violence.

We must not abandon these places. Loss of healthy functioning ecosystems makes people more vulnerable to many other threats including the spread of disease, famine and severe weather events such as massive flooding. A majority of the world's poorest people who rely on natural resources for their daily survival live in the biodiversity hotspots, which are largely concentrated in developing tropical nations. Forests and other healthy ecosystems help cleanse freshwater supplies and provide sources of food, medicines and materials for building homes. Nature is often intertwined with centuries-old traditional lifestyles and unique indigenous cultures.

Violent conflicts have various far-reaching impacts on ecosystems. In some cases, the scale and technology has led to what has been termed "ecocide." Such was the case during the Vietnam War, when poisonous Agent Orange was dumped from low flying planes, defoliating 14 percent of the country's forest cover and more than 50 percent of its coastal mangroves - with disastrous consequences since mangroves provide some of the richest fish habitat, and they shield coastal communities from severe impacts of hurricanes and tsunamis.

Beyond the battlegrounds, indirect effects of conflict have more far-reaching impacts. In Sierra Leone, Cambodia and DRC, war money came from extensive timber harvesting, and the cultivation of illicit drugs has provided financing for violent conflicts in Afghanistan, Southeast Asia and Latin America.

War has devastating impacts on wildlife and other natural resources. Refugees are in no position to consider the environmental consequences of their actions. They hunt, gather firewood or build encampments to survive. The local proliferation of small arms leads to increased hunting for wild animals, or bush meat. And all too frequently, poaching during these lawless times leads to annihilation of wildlife, such as the loss of 95 percent of the hippopotamus in DRC's Virunga National Park in 2006, and the deliberate slaughter of mountain gorillas in that same park in 2007.

Ecosystem protection must be integrated into military, reconstruction and humanitarian programs in the world's conflict zones. Conservationists must work alongside these sectors in the wartime planning stage as well as during and after conflicts.

Supporting national institutions and local staff throughout the duration of a conflict is key. Local conservationists often remain to work in conflict areas because these places are their homes. Maintaining salaries and providing safe houses and funds to rebuild homes is an ethical imperative as well as a good conservation strategy. Yet very often the response of conservation organizations and other donor agencies is to pull out as soon as conflicts begin, which only exacerbates the problem over the long term.

The pattern of violence appears to be continuing into the 21st Century. And while one must be cautious in speculating cause and effect, the fact that so many conflicts have occurred in areas of high biodiversity loss and natural resource degradation warrants much further attention.


Russell A. Mittermeier is president of the Arlington, Virginia based Conservation International.

Thor Hanson is an independent conservation biologist and author based in Washington State.