Patrick Woolsey is a Research Associate at the Environmental Law Institute.
Natural resources are one of a country’s most critical assets for peacebuilding and post-conflict recovery. Land, forests, minerals, oil, water, and other resources are the foundations for rebuilding livelihoods and national economies. Typically, 50 to 80 percent of a developing country’s export revenues come from natural resources. Natural resources are also essential to livelihoods and food security, particularly in rural areas where 80 percent of the population on average rely directly on natural resources. The many critical linkages between natural resources and post-conflict peacebuilding have been dubbed “environmental peacebuilding.”
While natural resources are integral to peacebuilding efforts, they can also trigger, fuel, and sustain armed conflict, undermining peace and sustainable development. Grievances over management of natural resources and their revenues can contribute to the onset of conflict, revenues from natural resources are often used to finance conflict, and combatants frequently target natural resources and the environment. From 1989 to 2013, at least 18 conflicts were financed in part by revenues from minerals, timber, ivory, and other natural resources. Over the last sixty years, at least 40 percent of all internal armed conflicts have had a link to natural resources, and research shows that conflicts linked to natural resources face a higher likelihood of conflict relapse within the first five years of a peace agreement, and will relapse twice as quickly.
Post-conflict countries face the challenge of utilizing their natural resources in ways that generate revenues, sustain livelihoods, and contribute to economic recovery and reconciliation without creating new forms of conflict, corruption, or major environmental degradation. However, many fragile post-conflict countries lack the capacity to manage their natural resources effectively, making them more vulnerable to resource-fueled conflicts. Paradoxically, developing countries rich in natural resources often experience less effective governance, less economic growth and stability, and less equitable development outcomes compared to countries that are less reliant on natural resources—a phenomenon known as the “resource curse.”
To avoid the pathologies of the resource curse, post-conflict countries in fragile situations need to adopt policies and safeguards to utilize natural resources while protecting their resource endowments from plunder. Three key approaches are: (1) mechanisms for peacefully resolving disputes over natural resources before the disputes escalate; (2) promotion of transparency in natural resource concessions and operations; and (3) equitable distribution of benefits from natural resource extraction. Since 2008, the Environmental Law Institute (ELI), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), University of Tokyo, and McGill University have led a global initiative to analyze experiences with the aim of determining how natural resources can contribute to peacebuilding and post-conflict recovery while mitigating economic, social, and environmental risks.
- This global initiative has identified many lessons and recommendations for conflict-affected countries and the international community regarding how to best leverage natural resources for a durable peace. Following are a few key recommendations: Include environmental and natural resource experts from the beginning of the peacebuilding process, incorporating them into post-conflict needs assessment and program design.
- Recognize that while a wide range of natural resources are relevant, some are more important to peacebuilding processes than others, and some resources are more important to specific objectives (e.g., reintegrating former combatants and restoring livelihoods) than others. Management strategies for the range of natural resources have some commonalities, but different resources require distinct approaches.
- Regulate resource flows and regain control of illegal, illicit, and gray markets in natural resources, especially those that could be used to finance conflict.
- Focus on resources that support livelihoods and food security and thus provide immediate peace dividends, such as agricultural land and fisheries, and not just on high-value resources such as oil and minerals.
- Understand that successful legal and institutional reforms take a long time to reach fruition—often a decade or more—and are likely to be problematic if they are rushed. Pursue careful, deliberate reform through transparent and participatory processes.
For more detailed, resource-specific recommendations on topics including restoration of the resource base, ensuring transparent revenue flows, and resolution of disputes over land and resources, please see our series of policy briefs at www.environmentalpeacebuilding.org/publications/policy-briefs/.