Resource Wars: the New Landscape of Global Conflict

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Political Geography of War:
Natural Resources and Armed Conflicts
Philippe Le Billion

Throughout the 1990s, many armed groups have relied on revenues from natural resources such as oil, timber, or gems to substitute for dwindling Cold War sponsorship. Resources not only financed, but in some cases motivated conflicts, and shaped strategies of power based on the commercialization of armed conflict and the territoriality of sovereignty around valuable resource areas and trading networks. As such, armed conflict in the post-Cold War period is increasingly characterized by a specific political ecology closely linked to the geography and political economy of natural resources. This paper examines theories of relationships between resources and armed conflicts and the historical processes in which they are embedded. It stresses the vulnerability resulting from resource dependence, rather than conventional notions of scarcity or abundance, the risks of violence linked to the conflictuality of natural resource political economies, and the opportunities for armed insurgents resulting from the lootability of resources. Violence is expressed in the subjugation of the rights of people to determine the use of their environment and the brutal patterns of resource extraction and predation. Beyond demonstrating the economic agendas of belligerents, an analysis of the linkages between natural resources and armed conflicts suggests that the criminal character of their inclusion in international primary commodity markets responds to an exclusionary form of globalization; with major implications for the promotion of peace.

This paper analyses the role of natural resources in armed conflict, through their materiality, geography and related socio-economic processes. Section 2 examines the debate over the role of scarce and abundant resource in armed conflicts and extends this approach in building a political ecological framework for the analysis of resource linked armed conflicts. A tentative typology of armed conflicts is presented in Section 3. Section 4 explores the process by which resources become linked to armed conflicts, focusing on processes of inclusion, exclusion and criminalization. Section 5 explores resource-linked barriers to transition to peace and discusses implications for peace-building initiatives. Section 6 concludes.

In Section 2, it has been discussed that the Political ecology has rarely examined the relationship between the environment and a core concern of traditional political science, namely regime security and armed conflict, focusing on social conflicts over forest resources, protected areas, agricultural regimes, or productive regions; yet neglecting large-scale violent conflicts. It has also been said that Political ecology is devised as a radical critique against the apolitical perspective and depoliticizing effects of mainstream environmental and developmental research and practice. Yet, if it specifically acknowledges the ‘growing human production of nature, and the political forces behind such production’, political ecology has nevertheless until recently contained ‘very little politics’; meaning there was no serious treatment of the means of resource control and access, nor of their definition, negotiation and contestation within political arenas It has been argued that addressing these two lacunae within a political ecological approach requires approaching resource-linked armed conflicts as historical processes of dialectic transformation of nature and social groups. Contemporary resource-linked conflicts are rooted in the history of ‘resource’ extraction successively translated by mercantilism, colonial capitalism, and state kleptocracy. The availability in nature of any resource is thus not in itself a predictive indicator of conflict. Rather, the desires sparked by this availability as well as people’s needs (or greed), and the practices shaping the political economy of any resource can prove conflictual,...
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