At the end of May, the U.N. Environment Assembly (UNEA) will convene for the second time ever in Nairobi, Kenya, to discuss the United Nations’ sustainable development goals and the environmental challenges facing today’s world. And it looks like one major theme to be addressed — one that’s a growing concern among world leaders and activists — is the link between violent conflict and an increasingly over-exploited natural world.

Just last month, representatives to the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) met to hammer out the Assembly’s agenda ahead of time, and discussions largely centered on the importance of a healthy environment to human health and security. It’s well-established that environmental crises can threaten food security, increase water stress, cause upticks in disease, undermine the economy and even displace entire populations of people. But an issue that’s starting to gain traction among scientists and policymakers alike is the connection between environmental instability and war, civil unrest or other forms of human conflict.

“I think we have, for a long time, overlooked often the root causes of conflict,” said Achim Steiner, UNEP’s executive director. “When civil strife, civil wars, internal conflicts happen, the attention is on, so to speak, the immediacy of the battle zone.”

But, he said, studies are increasingly suggesting that natural resources and the environment are often a central factor in these conflicts — and this can happen in three main ways. First, issues involving natural resources can be the direct cause of conflicts. Second, they can help prolong conflicts that already exist. And third, they can help revive conflicts that had paused or ended.

Evidence of these trends can be seen in conflicts that have occurred all over the world. In fact, a 2009 UNEP report concluded that natural resources play a role in at least 40 percent of all internal conflicts in countries.

Exploitation of natural resources can help start or revive conflicts in a variety of ways. Competition for land and water resources, for instance, can be a big source of tension between human communities, and environmental degradation — for example, deforestation, pollution or the redirecting of water resources — can increase this competition. Damaged or degraded environments also leave human populations more vulnerable to natural disasters, disease, food shortages and other crises, which can increase the odds of civil unrest or even force people to migrate to other areas.

“What is of concern to us is that we currently underestimate the speed and the scale at which these drivers will become more significant as a result of climate change,” Steiner said. Increases in droughts, floods, other extreme weather events and even famines and disease outbreaks caused by the changing climate could lead to even more forced migrations and a sharp increase in competition over resources. Already, some populations around the world have been displaced by the impacts of climate change — a Native American community in Louisiana was just last month declared the United States’ first climate refugees after losing its homeland to sea-level rise — and many more are believed to be heading in that direction.

Natural resource exploitation can also play a big role in keeping existing conflicts going — and a great deal of this likely has to do with the illegal extraction and trading of natural resources, which can be instrumental in funding wars and uprisings.

For instance, a 2015 report from Global Witness suggested that illegal timber trading has helped to fund rebel groups in the Central African Republic. And other reports from the United Nations have suggested that illegal mining operations have also helped to finance armed groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as the Taliban in Afghanistan. Indeed, research from the World Bank has found that at least 17 civil wars since 1990 have been financed in some way by the exploitation of natural resources.

While the trading of goods like timbers, gemstones and other minerals may seem like obvious ways to finance a conflict, Steiner pointed out that the illegal wildlife trade is also emerging as a significant factor in global conflicts. “Wildlife is today the fourth-largest illegal trade, after the trafficking of drugs, people and arms,” he said. “So it gives you its sense of economic significance.”

And aside from being a source of finance, issues with wildlife can also be a cause for conflict in the first place. Around the world, there’s increasing tension between farming communities and wildlife preserves, for instance. “It can create a great deal of tension between communities that have different interests,” Steiner pointed out.

Naturally, all of these issues can work in reverse as well, with human conflicts contributing to the degradation of the environment.  A 2009 paper published in Conservation Biology concluded that more than 90 percent of all major armed conflicts between 1950 and 2000 took place in countries containing biodiversity hot spots, and at least 80 percent took place within the actual hot-spot areas. The paper highlighted the need to incorporate biodiversity conservation goals into peacekeeping and humanitarian programs in conflict areas around the world.

Indeed, Steiner said, there’s a great need for the global community to begin better addressing the fundamental causes behind human conflicts. If the environmental drivers are not considered, then it’s unlikely civil conflict can be completely resolved.

So a major goal of the UNEA meeting in May will be “to actually draw the attention that sometimes the environment may in fact be a means to achieving conflict resolution and building peace,” Steiner said. “You ignore it and you do so at your own peril, because it will come back to haunt you because the root cause of the conflict has not been addressed.”  

Addressing this issue will be instrumental in tackling the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, many of which are aimed at ending poverty and hunger, protecting human health, promoting safe communities and promoting the sustainable use of natural resources. As the research has shown, a healthy environment is inextricably tied up with just about all of these issues.

“The numbers are intriguing, the implications staggering, and I think a lot more attention is needed to understand the linkages,” Steiner said. “Because they are part of driving the conflict scenarios of our time, and years into the future.”

Chris Mooney contributed to this report.

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