Many of the Earth’s natural resources will not last forever. President Yudhoyono of Indonesia, speaking at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, issued this warning:

“The world’s population is already approaching 7 billion this year, and will go to 9 billion by 2045. Over half are in Asia. Imagine the pressure on food, energy, water and resources. The next economic war or conflict can be over the race for scarce resources, if we don’t manage it together.” (President Yudhoyono of Indonesia speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, 28th January 2011.)

Numerous studies by industries and environmental groups have highlighted the need for cautious and sustainable resource management and use to ensure that resource supplies are not swiftly depleted.  Forests, water, minerals, rare metals, oil and natural gas are all being consumed by humans at a rate which will leave precious little for our children and grandchildren. 

Countries which have exhausted their own resource supplies seek materials, food and energy beyond their own borders.  This has been a common practice since the days of the Roman Empire, and colonialism’s “scramble for Africa”.  The pursuit of oil resources has been identified by many, including US economist Alan Greenspan, as a driving force behind the recent Iraq war; an ulterior motive for the US-led invasion beneath a veneer of social protection and global security concerns. Nor is Iraq a unique case.  In the wake of the Cold War, conflict and warfare underwent a transformation. Wars were no longer fought between nations but intra-state. Political theorists such as Mary Kaldor[i] and Mark Duffield[ii] have termed these prevalent conflicts “new wars”. These new wars are not driven by ideological motivations but instead have their roots in economic motivations. The role of economic motivations for war (particularly a desire to control natural resources) underpins the seminal work on civil war of economists Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler[iii] (1998, 1999, 2000). They argue that today’s conflicts are caused by greed, an economic motivation, rather than grievance, a political issue.

Control over resources also provides a method of perpetuating war. Through the sale of strategic resources, such as timber and minerals, a warring faction can raise finance to purchase guns, food and other material required to sustain their armies. In the 1990s, for example, Sierra Leone witnessed violent civil war, in which the suffering of the population was drawn out for several years as the Revolutionary United Front rebels used revenues from smuggled diamonds to finance their fighting. However as Michael Ross[iv] has suggested, the type of resource in question influences its usage in this way.  Wars have certainly started over a desire to control oil supplies, yet as a commodity it is hard to steal with commercial success, so rarely finances a war once it has commenced.  By contrast, mineral resources like diamonds are easily “lootable” and can be swiftly used to raise money to finance wars[v]

Rarely however do conflicts over the control of natural resources occur without particular socio-political circumstances, which present the opportunity for fighting to begin and continue.  A certain breakdown in law and order usually accompanies the rebellions which have most benefitted from the control of natural resources.  As such it would be naïve to label any war simply as a “resource conflict”.  Yet the role of resources within many future conflicts may be the key to understanding their underlying causes and thus, ultimately, how to bring them to an end. Natural resources have far too long been a preoccupation of environmentalists, and the extractive and manufacturing industries.  It is time for an awareness of their increasing multidimensional importance within social, technological, economic and political spheres too.

Flora Tonking is an Analyst with Arup Foresight, currently completing an MSc in Development Studies.  Her specialist areas of research include the study of war and conflict in relation to international development.

This year Arup’s Foresight + Innovation team, together with an interdisciplinary range of partners and participants, launches a new programme of research and events entitled “ReMa: Resources and Materials”.  This programme aims to explore the future availability of energy, resources and materials critical to the future of the built environment, and the security of our future world.

[i] Kaldor, M. (2006) New and Old Wars: Organised Violence in a Global Era, 2nd Edition.  Cambridge: Polity Press.

[ii] Duffield, M. (2001) Global Governance and the New Wars.  London: Zed Press.

[iii] Collier, P. & Hoeffler, A. (1998) “On Economic Causes of Civil War”.  Oxford Economic Papers 50:563-573

   Collier, P. & Hoeffler, A. (1999) “Justice-Seeking and Loot-Seeking in Civil War”.  Policy Research Working Paper 28151.  Washington DC: World Bank

   Collier, P. & Hoeffler, A. (2000) “Greed and Grievance in Civil War”.  Policy Research Working Paper 2355.  Washington DC: World Bank.

[iv] Ross, M.L. (2004) “What Do We Know About Natural Resources and Civil War?”.  Journal of Peace Research 41(3):337-356.

[v] Lujala, P., Gleditsch, N.P. & Gilmore, E. (2005) “A Diamond Curse? Civil War and a Lootable Resource”.  Journal of Conflict Resolution 49(4): 538-562.

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