With the cold war over, more global conflicts are being spurred by a scramble for natural resources rather than by geopolitics, and poor countries rich in mineral deposits are the new focal point.
Abundant resources - such as diamonds, emeralds, lapis lazuli, timber, coltan, and oil - should be an economic blessing to a developing nation. Too often, they aren't. They fund conflicts. More and more, "resource wars" trouble poor countries.
The pillaging of diamonds, for example, has fed civil wars in Angola and Sierra Leone. Coltan, a costly mineral used in making cellphones, helps finance bloody fighting in Congo.
Altogether, about a quarter of the roughly 50 wars and armed conflicts active in 2001 had "a strong resource dimension," says Michael Renner, a senior researcher with Worldwatch Institute in Washington. In these cases, legal or illegal exploitation of resources helped trigger or exacerbate violent conflict, or financed its continuation. Resources sometimes become a curse, with the wars inflicting a horrendous human toll.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, an estimated 2 million to 3 million people were killed after Ugandan and Rwandan troops invaded in 1998 to assist rebel groups seeking to overthrow the government of Laurent Kabila. Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Chad sent troops in support of Kabila. But, notes Mr. Renner, the opportunity to plunder the enormous resource wealth of Congo soon came to be the primary incentive.
Altogether, roughly 5 million people were killed in resource wars in the 1990s. Renner calculates that 6 million fled to neighboring nations and 11 million to 15 million were displaced inside their countries.
These wars often have gruesome consequences. Children are turned into soldiers or slaves. Limbs are hacked off in order to terrorize populations. The environment is damaged as forests are cut down and wildlife populations are decimated.
As awareness of this problem has risen among industrial nations in the last two or three years, efforts to stem such conflicts have escalated.
Next week, the World Bank and the French Development Agency are holding a "brainstorming" workshop in Paris to explore what can be done to break the connections between resources and corrupt regimes and civil war.
The session has the backing of the International Monetary Fund, the Group of Eight major industrial powers, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the larger Paris-based club of industrial nations.
"We will attempt to see what, if anything, can be done," says Paul Collier, head of research at the World Bank in Washington.
Ideas for preventing or halting resource wars will be explored further in a series of meetings in coming months, with recommendations going to the economic summit of the leaders of the G8 in June.
Pillaging replaces geopolitics
During the cold war, many conflicts in Africa and elsewhere resulted from the geopolitical struggle between the US and the Soviet Union. But that motive has faded. The political divisions are being replaced by a global scramble to obtain or tie up essential resources.
"In some places, the pillaging of oil, minerals, metals, gemstones, or timber allows wars to continue that were triggered by other factors - initially driven by grievances or ideological struggles and bankrolled by the superpowers or other external supporters," writes Renner in a Worldwatch study, "The Anatomy of Resource Wars."
Recent academic research finds that wars in poor countries with rich mineral resources often last longer than similar conflicts during the cold war.
As the world's population increases from 6.1 billion to perhaps 9 billion by 2050, the growing demand on resources may stimulate further resource wars.
"Certain commodities which nations depend on are scarce or becoming scarcer," warns Michael Klare, a professor of peace and world securities studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. He suspects national armies will redefine their primary mission as maintaining resource security.
Climate change could accentuate resource shortages, especially of water. Disputes over water supplies are multiplying, though not yet to the level of actual war.
But Israel has threatened to take action against Lebanon if it restrains the flow of the Jordan River. Egypt has warned Ethiopia and Sudan it will bomb any dam they build on the Nile.
Thirst for oil shades US agenda
Oil is another scarce resource, at least in the long run.
Some suspect that oil plays a role in the Bush administration's threat to change regimes in Iraq by war if it does not come clean on weapons of mass destruction.
"It is in part a resource war, but it is also about the balance of power in the Middle East," says Professor Klare, author of "Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict."
The president's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, has said that the only interest of the US in the Middle East is "furthering the case of peace and stability, not [Iraq's] ability to generate oil."
Renner says: "Given US addiction to oil and Washington's long history of intervention in the region, this is a disingenuous, if not downright deceptive, statement."
By 2020, the Department of Energy calculates, the US will need to import 17 million barrels of oil per day - 6 million more than it does now.
By 2020, China's oil consumption will match that of the US.
"You are going to see greater competition over what oil is left," cautions Klare.
The US, China, Europe, and Japan will be struggling to assure that their oil companies will have access to oil in the Caspian Sea basin, Russia, Africa, Latin America, as well as the Middle East.
The US military and other security agencies have a growing interest in the issue of resource wars. Klare spoke on the topic to the National Defense University last month. The CIA and National Intelligence Council have studies on the issue. More Washington think tanks are exploring it. The House Committee on International Relations held hearings on imported oil last summer.
But at present, it is resources other than oil that are involved in many civil conflicts. Renner estimates that rebels, warlords, repressive governments, and other predatory groups have taken resources worth $12 billion to $15 billion in just the 1990s from a selected number of nations (see chart, left).
Some of that money went to buy weapons, especially small arms from Eastern Europe or elsewhere. Ukraine alone has shipped $30 billion in arms around the world, one report says, mostly taken from stocks that belonged to the former Soviet Union.
An unknown portion of resource money has ended up in secret bank accounts or otherwise fattened the pocket books of thugs and crooks passing for government and rebel leaders.
Solutions on the drawing board
To prevent or end resource wars, several solutions are being implemented or explored. One, the certification of diamonds in an attempt to prevent the sale of those "blood diamonds" coming from areas of conflict, may already have helped in Sierra Leone and Angola, says Collier of the World Bank. Bush officials suspect that some illicit diamond money helped finance Al Qaeda.
Another initiative calls on multinational companies investing in developing countries to make public how much they are paying for access to resources. Often that amount is not known, making it easier for leaders in poor nations to divert payments for oil or other resources from constructive nation-building activities to financing war or for European vacations and mansions.
Global Witness, a London-based advocacy group, has been investigating the exploitation of resources in Angola, Cambodia, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It urges companies to "publish what you pay" for resources.
BP (British Petroleum) did this in Angola last year. But more than 30 other oil companies active in the nation have not, after the Angolan government objected.
Last summer, British Prime Minister Tony Blair proposed such "transparency" rules for companies at a UN conference in Johannesburg. That idea will be explored at a World Bank workshop in the New Year.
One suggestion is that stock exchanges deny listing to corporations engaged in resource extraction that refuse to make public the taxes, fees, royalties, and other payments they make to host governments. Renner figures this would help nongovernmental organizations that have campaigns to "name and shame" multinationals.
Other potential "sticks" are international sanctions and embargoes, gem and timber certification to screen out illicit materials, and judicial action. Another goal is to reduce the traffic in small arms - weapons of choice in these conflicts.
On the "carrot" side, industrial nations could offer other countries help in attracting reputable companies to invest in their resources if they go about it in an ethical way. That might include short-term "risk insurance" to pay compensation if a commodity's price dives.
David R. Francis Christian Science Monitor
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