Condoms are key for promoting responsible consumption

community health worker
community health worker

A community health worker talks to women in SIerra Leone (courtesy of H4+ Partnership).

At first blush, the idea that one action to reduce conspicuous consumption could bring about a sustainable future seems far-fetched. Sustainability is all-encompassing. There is no silver bullet; we need a thousand silver BBs. But not all actions are created equally. Some are so central that, without them, we cannot hope to bring about the future we want. Ensuring that all 7 billion people have the access to and education needed to properly use condoms is one such action.

Worldwide, more than 200 million women have an unmet need for contraception. This gap has startling consequences. In 2012, at least 85 million pregnancies were unintended. If every woman who wanted to avoid pregnancy could access modern contraceptives, there would be 22 million fewer unplanned births and 15 million fewer unsafe abortions each year.

The condom is perhaps the most important tool for tackling this issue. This simple piece of latex tackles a host of problems that undermine sustainability.

First, condoms help fight the scourge of HIV/AIDs and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). More than 1.5 million people died of AIDS-related diseases in 2013, while 35 million people live with HIV/AIDS. In turn, people contract nearly 350 million cases of STIs, like gonorrhea and syphilis, each year. These preventable infections make life far more challenging and can even be deadly. One such disease, HPV, is the leading cause of cervical cancer, which kills hundreds of thousands of women annually.

Second, condoms are vital for curbing population growth and addressing climate change. If contraceptive use increased by 14%, we could prevent 1 billion births by 2050. This step will be key for keeping global temperatures below 2ºC. Curbing population growth could, on its own, produce 16-29% of the emissions reductions we need to stave off dangerous climate change. This issue will be particularly important in the developed world, where each person’s carbon footprint is far larger. Here in the United States, where half of all pregnancies are unplanned, the average person uses 25 times more resources in his/her lifetime than one in a developing country. Clearly, condoms can reduce carbon emissions and tackle conspicuous consumption in tandem.

Third, ensuring that everyone can use condoms will increase our level of resiliency. Pregnant women and infants are uniquely vulnerable to a number of threats, like natural disasters and diseases. During the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, women were four times more likely to die. And, because mosquitoes are attracted to pregnant women, malaria hits them especially hard. Infection during pregnancy causes 10,000 maternal and 200,000 infant deaths every year in Africa. Reproductive health, particularly contraceptive use, needs to be a centerpiece of health and disaster management planning.

Fourth, the condom can be a key tool for women’s empowerment. Every day, millions of women are trapped by the issues related to unprotected sex. Giving them the ability to choose when and how they reproduce is essential to putting their destinies in their hands. Condoms can help reduce the amount of time a woman spends pregnant, curb postpartum depression, and slash maternal deaths. As the WHO noted, “Without fertility regulation, women’s rights are mere words. A woman who has no control over her fertility cannot complete her education, cannot maintain gainful employment…and has very few real choices open to her.”

Clearly, while the condom is not a sufficient tool for a sustainable future, it is a necessary one. Condoms help liberate men and women alike from illness, vulnerability, environmental harm, and a lack of choice.

How focusing on climate could make us miss the forest for the trees

mosul dam
mosul dam

Iraq’s Mosul Dam (courtesy of the AP).

If you haven’t read my last post on why we need to integrate climate change into disaster risk reduction, read that first. I’ll wait. And, while you’re at it, read my other post on including DRR into the sustainable development goals. 

As you’ll recall from my last post, I outlined new research arguing that we need to integrate climate change into disaster risk reduction. In this post, I want to explore Syria within this context.

Last week, PNAS released a major study linking climate change (paywalled) to the historic drought that may have contributed to the ongoing violent conflict in Syria. Unsurprisingly, the study has generated a lot of attention, garnering significant coverage from The New York TimesNational Geographic, Slate, Mother Jones, and the Huffington Post, among other outlets.

The debate over the Syria study

Given the highly contentious nature of the climate change and conflict debate (see more from me on this here and here), there has been some blowback, most prominently from Keith Kloor at Discover. In his second post on this debate, Kloor finds some dissenting voices on the study, including Edward Carr from the director of the Humanitarian Response and Development Lab (HURDL) at the University of South Carolina. Carr objected to the general view within the media that this study represents proof of the connection between climate and Syria’s violence. As he noted,

I think the translation of this drought into conflict is pretty weak. Basically, they plumb the conflict literature to support really general statements like “The conflict literature supports the idea that rapid demographic change encourages instability.” No kidding – not sure a citation was needed there. But the causal change between climate change, drought, displacement, and conflict is long and crosses several bodies of data/evidence, all of which are uncertain. The compounding uncertainty in this causal chain is never addressed, so I can’t tell if it is offsetting (that is, some parts of the causal chain address weaknesses in other parts, thereby making the connection throughout the chain stronger) or compounding. I doubt the authors know, either. Basically, I don’t understand how you can get any real understanding of the likely contribution of climate change to this conflict via this mechanism.

Some members of the media who covered the study objected to the criticisms lobbied against them. And, to be fair, both sides make fair points. The media coverage of this study has been far more measured and accurate than in the past. At the same time, the critics are also correct that this study does not prove that climate change caused the Syrian civil war and that we need to be careful when saying it did.

Because I tweet entirely too much, I waded into this debate in the form of a lengthy exchange with Kloor, Neil Bhatiya from The Century Foundation, and Brian Kahn of Climate Central. In it, Kahn asked an important question: Does discussing the role of climate change really detract from focusing on the other drivers of the conflict?

It is in this context that I want to discuss the Kelman, Gaillard, and Mercer paper. In the paper, KGM argue that the extensive focus on climate change sometimes allows it to “dominate” other drivers of vulnerability and disaster risk. Climate change can drive both hazards and vulnerabilities, two of the components in the disaster risk triad, but the question of whether climate “is a more significant or a less significant contributor than other factors…depends on the specific context,” and we should not focus on it to the detriment of other contributors. We cannot miss the forest for the trees.

What KGM means for the Syria study

Here I want to turn to another issue – the policy implications of the PNAS study. For the most part, none of the media coverage of the paper discusses what policymakers are supposed to do with this information. How should it shape their interventions in Syria? What lessons can should they glean for the future? Carr’s colleague at HURDL, Daniel Abrahams, noted the problem therein, saying “I would guess policy makers see this paper as a distraction; something that fills their inbox with people tangentially paying attention to climate issues.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question over the past week, and I would argue that it is here that the KGM study’s emphasis on placing climate change in its proper context can be particularly valuable. Let’s assume for a minute that USAID wanted to operationalize the Syria study as the basis for an intervention in the region. If the agency focused on the role that climate change played in driving the conflict, it may conclude that it should invest in projects that can provide reliable clean energy and drinking water to Syria’s crowded urban centers and irrigation water to its hard-hit farmers. What project meets all of those criteria? Why a dam, of course.

USAID actually has a track record of funding the construction of a dams in drought-affected, fragile states within the region, including Iraq’s Mosul Dam and the Kajaki Dam in southern Afghanistan. Accordingly, funding this type of project would not be out of the realm of possibility, and it would likely make sense when viewed from a climate lens. So what could go wrong wrong?

Syria’s complicated hydropolitics

Well, in a word, lots. The climate lens fails to account for the geographic and political environment in which Syria sits. Syria is the midstream party for the Euphrates River, sitting between its upstream neighbor (Turkey) and its downstream neighbor (Iraq). Additionally, the Tigris River forms the border between Syria and Turkey as it heads southeast into Iraq. Disputes over water allocations from the rivers have undermined relations among the three parties for decades.

The complicated hydropolitics within the region are often centered around the Kurds. Turkey has embarked on a massive river basin development scheme, the Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP), which will see it complete 22 dams and 19 power plants. Turkey’s Kurdish minority sees GAP as just another attempt to drown their cultural identity and weaken the Kurdish People’s Party (PKK). Turkey’s dam building has long been a point of contention for Syria and Iraq. Syria has supported the PKK as a proxy battle over water allocations, while Turkey invaded northern Iraq in 1997 to attack Kurdish rebels stationed there. Syria and Iraq have also fought among themselves over water issues, with both countries dispatching troops to the border in 1975.

Clearly, the construction of one or more dams could further exacerbating the region’s hydropolitics. Furthermore, the dam itself may become entangled in the conflict. The Taliban has launched a number of attacks on the Kajaki Dam against American and British forces. ISIS, for its part, has made Iraq’s dams major targets. Its capture of the Mosul Dam, which observers have dubbed “the moment IS ascended from a dangerous insurgent group to an existential threat to Iraq,” was among the major factors that drew the US into the conflict. Any militants who remained in Syria would likely see our hypothetical dam in this same light.

Lastly, new dam projects in the region would likely create widespread, deleterious consequences for Syrians and Iraqis living downstream. Large dams have displaced 40-80 million people worldwide and created a whole host of social and environmental problems. One need look no further than Iraq to see how dams can destroy livelihoods. Following the First Gulf War, Saddam Hussein used dams to drain the Mesopotamian Marshes in order to punish the Ma’dan people. The UN Environment Programme has called this episode “a major environmental catastrophe that will be remembered as one of humanity’s worst engineered disasters.”

While it’s true that climate change will alter conflict dynamics and act as a threat multiplier going forward, we cannot allow this risk to blind us to other the critical considerations at play.

How Afghanistan is quickly becoming a resource conflict

mineral resource map afghanistan
mineral resource map afghanistan

Map of estimated mineral reserves in Afghanistan, produced by the US Geological Survey in 2007. This map, along with another one focused on ferrous materials, have been used to project that the country has $1-3 trillion in available mineral reserves (courtesy of New Security Beat).

Why don’t people who don’t know I exist (and wouldn’t care if they did) follow advice that they had no way of knowing I’d even written?

Back in the winter/spring of 2012, I took a course on post-war peacebuilding with Dr. Charles Call, an expert who has worked with both the United Nations and US governments and penned Why Peace Fails: The Causes and Prevention of Civil War Recurrence.

In the course, Dr. Call broke the class into groups, each of which studied and analyzed a recent civil war and the subsequent international peacebuilding effort. Naturally, I ended up focusing on Afghanistan, because duh. For our final project, each group had to assess the risks of civil war recurrence for its respective country and identify the potential triggers that could foment such unrest. Being the only environmental policy student in a class full of peace and conflict resolution researchers, I was particularly concerned with the way that environmental issues may undermine Afghanistan’s extremely fragile peace (if one is willing to say that the country is actually “post-conflict”).

In the paper, I focused, in particular, on two main issues:

  1. The Afghan government’s emphasis upon harnessing the country’s water resources to expand irrigated agriculture and develop hydroelectric power could exacerbate localized conflicts over shared water resources and undermine the potential for regional cooperation, without which there remains little chance for true peace and stability within the country.
  2. That the focus on Afghanistan’s much ballyhooed mineral reserves could undermine peacebuilding initiatives, help finance rebel groups, and drive additional grievances against an already desperately weak government. To this point, I wrote:

While minerals represent a major potential source of revenue, [the Afghan government] needs to remain mindful of the risks. High-value minerals have contributed to civil conflicts around the world. The case of Papua New Guinea is of particular concern. The Australian colonial government and the national government of PNG touted the Panguna mine in Bougainville as a vital source of employment and revenue. However, the mine quickly became a major fault line due to land seizures, environmental degradation, and uneven distribution of profits. Locals used these grievances to launch a ten-year civil conflict that killed 20,000 people. As a country with limited experience with large-scale mining and serious problems with governance and corruption, encouraging major investments by multinational firms is risky. [Kabul] must tread lightly in this area. Weak land tenure and administration systems create further risks for localized conflicts within the country. Efforts to override customary land tenure systems and seize property for mining may spark violence or generate additional support for the insurgency…

While Afghan mineral reserves are potentially worth more than $1.3 trillion, this number considerably overstates their true value. Due to the lack of physical and institutional infrastructure required to facilitate extraction, the net present value is unlikely to exceed $120 billion. Relying on extractive industries also carries serious potential risks, as noted earlier. The amount of money changing hands will likely foster additional corruption. In exchange for granting the Aynak copper mine to Chinese company MCC, the former Minister of Mines took $30 million in bribes. MoM also left MCC responsible for acquiring land. Without paying close attention to these issues, Afghanistan’s mineral reserves could become another focal point for conflict.

Fast forward to the present. In 2013, persistent attacks from insurgents led to MCC significantly scaling back its investment at Aynak. According to the South China Morning Post,

With copper prices falling and the Chinese economy slowing, and security in Afghanistan deteriorating, the company has yet to begin production on the site and, according to mining industry and other sources, no longer wants to abide by the terms of the contract it signed in 2007.

The company wanted to renege on building a railway, power plant and processing factory, as stipulated in its deal to mine at Mes Aynak, site of one of the world’s biggest copper deposits, the sources said.

MCC also wanted to renege on paying the remainder of a bonus worth US$808 million to the Kabul government, having already paid US$133 million, one source close to Kabul’s ministry of mines said. It also wanted to cut the royalty payments, currently set at 19.5 per cent, about double the worldwide average.

And, as Al Jazeera America reported in June, the central government’s overwhelming desire to mine, baby, mine endangers a treasure trove of thousand-year old Buddhist artifacts. This episode represents just the latest episode in a decades-long assault on the country’s social and cultural history.

One of the legendary Buddhas of Bamiyan, prior to their destruction by the Taliban in March 2000 courtesy of

One of the legendary Buddhas of Bamiyan, prior to their destruction by the Taliban in March 2000 (courtesy of Helena Wangefelt Ström).

Moreover, just last week Foreign Policy published a piece titled “Does Afghanistan’s New Mining Law Benefit Its Mafias?” The piece drew attention to these concerns that the poor management of the country’s mineral resources and the rush to extract minerals – both by the Karzai government and its Western allies – may be endangering the long-term security and development of the country:

This battle for control [over resources] “may consign the country to a prolonged war,” Javed Noorani, formerly of IWA and an expert on the resources sector, told me recently.

With the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops scheduled for December 31, and a drastic drawdown in external development aid, Noorani believes Afghanistan is transitioning not from war to peace, but “from military conflict to resources conflict.” “The Taliban are not spectators to the sector but finance their war from revenues from the sector,” he said. He believes illegal mining will allow non-state groups like the Taliban to consolidate and emerge to threaten the governments of Afghanistan and its neighbors, telling me that: “Their footprints are already here.”

Who could have foreseen such a potential calamity? Oh, right.

It’s not as though this outcome is particularly surprising; scholars and NGOs have been warning about the potential for resources to drive ongoing conflict in Afghanistan for years. Back in 2004, Jonathan Goodhand discussed the role that minerals had played in financing both the mujahideen groups during the Afghan civil war in the book War Economies in a Regional Context: Challenges of Transformation.

While most Western actors have focused on opium, the fact remains that both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance relied on illicitly exploited resources, particularly emeralds and granite, to finance their war efforts. Resource conflict is hardly new to Afghanistan; taking such an ahistorical approach to peacebuilding was destined to fail from the start. I guess the one irony in this whole debacle is the fact that western military and political leaders have used the presence of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth to justify both an ongoing counterinsurgency operation and the rapid withdrawal of forces.

If there’s one thing that I learned from my time working on the Environmental Law Institute/UN Environment Programme environmental peacebuilding initiative, it is that natural resources can be a blessing, but they often end up as a curse for post-conflict developing states. In such settings, transparency and accountability of resource extraction is paramount. Just because the US and NATO allies are withdrawing military forces (rightfully) from Afghanistan does not mean these countries do not have an obligation to push Kabul to adhere to international principles on proper natural resource management. As a party to the Extractives Industry Transparency Initiative, the country has already recognized its obligations.

It’s time for officials in Kabul, Washington, and other Western capitals to step up on this front; the consequences of inaction are too significant to ignore.

Why peace & international engagement may threaten Burma’s fragile ecosystems

cyclone nargis damage
cyclone nargis damage

Damage to the Irrawaddy Delta following Cyclone Nargis (courtesy of ECHO).

This article is cross-posted from New Security Beat.

Political and economic changes in Burma have been as rapid as they are surprising. In just three years, the country has gone from an isolated military dictatorship to a largely open country that is at least semi-democratic and has formally adopted a market economy. Both the European Union and the United States have eased economic sanctions, and dozens of foreign firms have moved in. Foreign direct investment increased by 160 percent in 2013 alone.

But the transition to an open and free state is far from finished and continued progress far from inevitable, as the country’s tattered ecosystems show.

Conflict and conservation

Nearly from the moment of its birth as a country, Burma has been beset by violence. Since 1948, the government has faced armed rebellions from no fewer than 30 ethnic minority groups. This constant warfare directly contributed to the military coup in 1962 and has helped drive corruption, structural violence, and economic stagnation.

Yet, counterintuitively, peace can sometimes end up being worse for the environment than war. According to Jeff McNeely, warfare among pre-industrial societies has historically led to the development of large buffer zones along borders; these buffer zones, in turn, developed into refuges for biodiversity. Modern warfare can likewise foster the development of such buffer zones, benefiting biodiversity and environmental conservation, though McNeely emphasizes that any such benefits are “incidental, inadvertent, or accidental.”

Cold War-era isolation has facilitated the development of modern refuges along the border between the Koreas and in the area surrounding the former Iron Curtain. But such havens may come under threat once the fog of war lifts. Judy Oglethorpe et al. note the environment is particularly at risk in the period immediately following conflict. Private actors move in to quickly exploit newly available resources, and post-conflict governments frequently prioritize revenues over long-term natural resource management.

One need look no further than the mid-1990s see this effect in Burma. Following the country’s second military coup in 1988, the junta began buying off the leaders of armed ethnic groups with resource revenues. In particular, the regime effectively used logging concessions to secure a number of ceasefire agreements.

However, according to Karen Ballentine and Heiko Nitzschke, “securing such ceasefires through a combination of economic inducement and military threat does not guarantee a sustainable or just peace, particularly where, as in Burma, the entrepreneurs of violence and corruption are rewarded at the expense of civilian well-being.” On the contrary, conflict economies in these areas simply morphed into “ceasefire economies,” and illegal logging flourished. After the junta reached a ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army in 1994, for instance, the center of Burma’s illegal timber trade shifted to their former area of operations, along the northeast border with China.

Inequality and vulnerability

The risk of environmental damage from Burma’s modernization is not some looming threat; it is already unfolding. Current laws allow the government to seize land and distribute it to private actors without adequate compensation or informed consent. Such policies have contributed to a spike in large-scale land acquisitions or “land grabs,” with nearly 750 cases being reported in 2012-2013 alone.

Moreover, despite government attempts to curtail illegal timber exports, they have been on the rise. Burmese businesses exported more than 400,000 cubic meters of teak in 2013, double the government’s quota. The government continues to allow a handful of well-connected companies to dominate the timber industry, to the detriment of the country’s remaining forest cover – and more equitable development.

“Forestland conversion is predominately in resource-rich ethnic conflict areas – now the country’s final forest frontier – which is part of the government’s attempt at gaining greater state territorial control and access to natural resources,” wrote Forest Trends’ Kevin Woods in a report:

Many of these forestland conversion projects are promoted to local ethnic communities and elected officials as development projects to bring about peace and spur economic growth. In practice, however, these development projects have more to do with the well-connected Myanmar private company getting access to timber and land than central government and local state development goals.

Given these developments, Edward Webb et al. concluded in a January Global Environmental Change article that “recent policy developments seem poised to deeply and negatively affect remaining natural ecosystems across Myanmar.” They project that all remaining mangrove forests in the Irrawaddy Delta, one of Burma’s most densely populated regions, could disappear as early as 2019. Such an outcome would pose an existential threat to the more than 7.7 million people who live there, given the Delta’s extreme vulnerability to tropical cyclones.

After Cyclone Nargis killed more than 138,000 people in 2008, the UN Environment Program noted the loss of the mangroves and other environmental degradation played a key role in the devastation:

The cyclone’s impacts were exacerbated by earlier damage to the environment, including deforestation and degradation of mangroves, over-exploitation of natural resources such as fisheries, and soil erosion…The deterioration of the natural resource base, in effect, reduced people’s resilience against the impacts of Nargis.

Multilateral engagement could help

Peace and international engagement obviously do not doom a country to ecological catastrophe. But as it opens up, Burma is at a crossroads for environmental management the results of which will reverberate for security and development long into the future.

Engagement with environmental NGOs and international donor organizations may help. President Thein Sein has already expressed a desire to join both the European Union’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance, and Trade Program and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. Additionally, the World Conservation Society is working with the government to double the extent of protected areas in the country from 5 percent to 10 percent. These are promising signs, but the scale of the illicit timber trade, the threat of land grabbing, and the vulnerability of the Irrawaddy Delta remain huge challenges.

Recent changes represent important, positive steps towards engagement from isolation and towards peace from war. But the country needs to be proactive if it hopes to foster sustainable peace and development. If it works carefully in concert with the international community, it may be able to secure both. However, if Burma fails to learn from the failed ceasefires of the 1990s, by opting to prioritize rapid economic growth over true sustainable development, it may be doomed to repeat the past.

How oil will make Syria’s civil war even deadlier

syrian oil field worker
syrian oil field worker

Many Syrians now work in the oil fields of Deir el Zour in order to make a living (courtesy of McClatchy).

The New York Times published an article yesterday that likely raised some eyebrows.

Islamist rebels and extremist groups have seized control of most of Syria’s oil and gas resources, a rare generator of cash in the country’s war-battered economy, and are now using the proceeds to underwrite their fights against one another as well as President Bashar al-Assad, American officials say.

While the oil and gas fields are in serious decline, control of them has bolstered the fortunes of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and the Nusra Front, both of which are offshoots of Al Qaeda. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is even selling fuel to the Assad government, lending weight to allegations by opposition leaders that it is secretly working with Damascus to weaken the other rebel groups and discourage international support for their cause.

Needless to say, this is a disconcerting series of events. But the fact that does not make it surprising.

To date, there has been a lot of ink spilled on how natural resources and/or climate change may have contributed to the ongoing civil war. The Center for Climate and Security, probably the best source of information on this subject, has assembled a collection of  more than three dozen such articles. There appears to be a solid case that the combination of an historic drought (likely driven by climate change) and incredibly poor water resource management by the al-Assad regime may have helped sparked the crisis. (It would obviously be excessively reductive and deterministic to claim that climate change caused the conflict, but it likely contributed to it. Anyways, I digress.)

But helping drive the onset of violent conflict constitutes just one of the three major ways that we know natural resources contribute to conflict. Natural resources can help finance ongoing conflict and create incentives for leaders to spoil peace efforts in order to continue profiting from resource rents.

These two connections appear to be quite common facets of modern conflict. We know, for instance, that Charles Taylor funded violence in Liberia by exploiting the illegal timber trade and that both parties in the Angolan civil war financed their war efforts by selling diamonds. Moreover, the ready availability of revenues from opium production in Afghanistan and diamonds in Sierra Leone have provided incentives for warlords and rebel leaders to avoid brokering peace and to finance resumed conflict.

nr wars

This chart lists 18 recent civil conflicts which involved natural resources (courtesy of UNEP).

In fact, according to the UN Environment Programme, natural resources have helped to fuel some 40% of all civil conflicts since 1960. Given these realities, it is wholly unsurprising – though no less disconcerting – that rebel groups like ISIS and the Nusra Front have turned to oil reserves in the areas under their control.

There was one new and disturbing piece of information buried in the article, though.

A second American official said that while Mr. Assad’s government is growing ever more desperate for oil, [ISIS] is becoming increasingly independent of wealthy donors in the Persian Gulf and other funding sources. As the group has gained control of more territory, it has been able to sustain its operations through a combination of oil revenues, border tolls, extortion and granary sales, the official said.

As ISIS continues to stuff its war chest with oil rents, it no longer depends as heavily upon its Persian Gulf benefactors. This outcome risks to further exacerbate the brutal nature of the conflict, as ISIS finds itself free of any restrictions that may have previously been attached to its funding (granted, it’s unlikely that these groups would be concerned about the dictates of donors, but they may have, at least, had to deal with practical restrictions due to a lack of resources).

Beardsley & McQuinn previously explored the relationship between rebel group behavior and funding sources (paywall). They compared two rebel groups – the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in Indonesia and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka.

They found that GAM had to rely heavily upon the local population to raise revenues and recruit fighters. This process required GAM to expend a considerable amount of effort and resources; Beardsley & McQuinn note that the relatively meager funds it raised and small number of fighters in its ranks meant that GAM used low return on investment (ROI) methods to finance its rebellion. Accordingly, the group needed to remain attentive to the needs of the Acehnese people, which drove its leaders to the bargaining table after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami devastated the region.

LTTE, in contrast, was able to procure funding and recruits much more readily. The group financed its war effort through a combination of extorting payments, controlling business enterprises, and garnering donations from Tamils abroad. These tactics had a much higher ROI and did not require LTTE to consider the needs of the people in conflict-affected areas. As a result, the group was much more willing to engage in violent attacks that either directly harmed Tamils or that garnered retribution on Tamils in return. Additionally, the group saw little incentive in brokering peace after the tsunami, as it had more to gain from ongoing conflict than from international aid flows. The Sri Lankan civil war only ended in 2009 after Colombo brutally suppressed LTTE controlled areas.

So while it should come as no surprise that Syrian rebels, including al Qaeda-linked groups, would turn to oil resources for funding, it should raise red flags. The Syrian civil war isn’t going to end anytime soon, regardless of what happens in Geneva, and this new report suggests that things are only going to get much, much worse long before they improve.

Bringing Natural Resources to the Table: ELI, UNEP Launch New Environmental Peacebuilding Platform

sierra leone artisinal mining
sierra leone artisinal mining

Artisinal mining provides livelihoods for roughly 150,000-200,000 people in Sierra Leone (courtesy of UNEP).

I have a guest post up at the Wilson Center’s New Security Beat on environmental peacebuilding and the work that the UN Environment Programme and the Environmental Law Institute are doing in this area. [Full disclosure, I interned at ELI working on this program from late 2011-early 2013].

Here’s a snippet:

Moreover, UNEP found in 2009 that, although natural resources played a role in roughly 40 percent of all civil conflicts since 1960, new natural resource management schemes have been included in just one-quarter of peace agreements.

The evidence clearly indicates that if we hope to end violent conflict around the world, the environment must be a part of the process. As UNEP noted in its landmark report, From Conflict to Peacebuilding, “integrating environmental management and natural resources into peacebuilding…is no longer an option – it is a security imperative.”

Go read the rest and check out the rest of the great content housed on the blog.

Stop using the term environmental refugee

Grist had an article last week discussing the new book Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change, from UC Berkeley’s Anthony Guzman. In the book, Guzman discusses the potential socio-political consequences of 2°C warming, the threshold that the international community has set as the limit for global warming. Of course, recent research and our current emissions trajectory has us on pace to blow right past that number, but that’s for another post.

Anyways, the description of the article intrigued me, so I clicked on the link. In the post, Michael C. Osbourne from Grist describes his reading of the book:

Some of the scarier parts of the book are about the overabundance of water that’s coming our way: 2 degrees warming probably equates to about a one-meter rise in sea level this century. That’s enough to displace hundreds of thousands to millions of people in low-lying nations, and, as of now, there is no plan to deal with environmental refugees.

Cover of Andrew Guzman's new book, Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change.

Cover of Andrew Guzman’s new book, Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change.

 

And that’s where he lost me. I know that the term “environmental refugee” and its sister term, “climate refugee” have become buzzwords for environmental activists, particularly when we discuss the dire implications of climate change. In addition, they’re far from new. Essam El-Hinnawi of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) coined the term “environmental refugee” in 1985. A number of researchers and activists have bandied the term about to serve their own purposes over the years. Different reports offer a variety of wildly speculative projections on the potential number of people who will be displaced by climate change; they range from 162 million to 1 billion people displaced by 2050.

To put it succinctly, these estimates are, largely, absurd doomsday predictions that ignore the actual research on environmental migration issues. I explore the shortcomings of such projections in my previous research on climate change and national security, so I won’t go relitigate the issues here. Instead, I want to point out the inaccuracy of the term environmental refugee itself.

The word refugee has an internationally recognized legal definition, which emerged from the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugeesthe document that established the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. According to this refugee convention, a refugee is a person who:

owing to wellfounded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former
habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

People displaced by climatic disasters do not meet this definition. Now, if Guzman had argue that disasters and climate change are politically constructed phenomena and that climate change represents the single greatest environmental injustice ever enacted on the developing world by the developed world, I would be a vocal supporter. I steadfastly hold these beliefs. But that’s not the argument here.

Issues surrounding migration and displacement over environmental issues are highly complex and context-specific. Claiming that an extreme weather event will inevitably force a poor Bangladeshi to migrate to northeastern India belies evidence to the contrary and, more importantly, robs this hypothetical individual of his or her personal agency. And calling people who do flee in the face of environmental stresses a refugee strips the term of its incredibly important political and legal weight.

All of this is not to say that people are not forcibly displaced by environmental stress and/or extreme weather events. The work of the Environmental Change and Forced Migration (EACH-FOR) project demonstrates that environmentally induced migration and displacement are exceedingly pervasive throughout the Global South. According to the IFRC, roughly 5,000 new people become environmentally displaced every day. A new report from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre suggests that 32.4 million people were displaced by disaster events in 2012, and some 98% of this displacement was the result of climatic disasters.

The evidence is quite robust that environmental catastrophes displace and/or force millions of people to migrate from their homes every year. So say that. Environmentally induced migration and environmental displacement are perfectly accurate, forceful terms. I know that refugee carries a certain set of connotations and a clear mandate for action, but climate hawks cannot just claim it for their own ends. Just as people need to be aware that their actions have consequences for the environment and the habitability of our planet, we need to learn that our words have meaning and consequences.