In spite of recent resolutions on conflict and the environment, the UN Environment Assembly is failing to make obvious connections between environmental issues and their relationship to armed conflicts. A resolution on deforestation currently being negotiated in Nairobi is a case in point. In this blog, Wim Zwijnenburg and Foeke Postma argue that until states make these connections, awareness of the environmental dimensions of armed conflicts will remain low, with implications for effective policy-making.
How conflicts and peace can cause deforestation
In the decades of discussions and research on conflict and the environment, many dimensions of how exactly wars and conflict impact the natural environment and ecology have been investigated. From the most visible direct impacts like black skies caused by burning oil wells, to the collapse of environmental governance structures, resulting in poor enforcement of the regulations in place to protect the health of citizens and the environment they live in. This research is now informing the wider topic of the protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts (PERAC). And now PERAC, which aims to strengthen the international legal framework, build awareness of the topic and develop policy measures, is finally gaining the momentum it deserves through various UN law and policy discussions.
One particular issue we want put the spotlight on, is the relationship between conflict and deforestation. Deforestation is currently under discussion at the 4th United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-4) in Nairobi. The EU has tabled a resolution on Deforestation and agricultural commodity supply chains, which addresses the many environmental, societal, and socio-economic issues associated with the disappearance of forests, and is a welcome addition to the key environmental issues that should be addressed on a global scale.
However, we feel that the resolution is missing one crucial element that is part of the debate, namely the relationship between conflict and deforestation. Considering UN Security Council Resolution 1625, which references the use of natural resources in armed conflict, and UNEA resolutions 2/15 and 3/1, there is an opportunity to use this new resolution as a means of addressing one of the root causes of deforestation.
While deforestation caused by intense fighting, and the use of timber resources for income generation to sustain conflicts are obvious examples of these links, there is also the other side of the coin: the presence of an armed conflict can protect forests. In Colombia for example, the conflict stopped the felling of trees by companies, as armed groups were operating in and controlling access to these areas and the use of their resources.
Nonetheless, these linkages show the strong relationship between armed conflict and deforestation and therefore the need to recognise and address these links. This can help deepen the understanding of these dynamics and find adequate solutions to these problems.
Destruction of forests caused by military activities
Active hostilities during armed conflicts and occupations can directly contribute to the loss of forest and woodland due to the destruction caused by shelling and wildfires sparked by military activities. For example, the targeting of Kurdish militant groups in southern Turkey, northern Iraq and western Iran has caused significant destruction of forest throughout the last decade, with recent spikes of activity from 2016 onwards, driving people from their land and resulting in the loss of forest lands in nature reservations and protected areas. Similar operations took place in the 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, which led to the burning down of thousands of acres of forest, while protests from Palestinians against Israel in 2018 also resulted in the outbreak of wildfires caused by incendiary kites, destroying acres and woodlands. Other notable cases have been the destruction of forests using defoliants, such as Agent Orange in Viet Nam by the United States, damaging forests and leaving a toxic legacy that has had severe long-term health impacts.
Deforestation during and after armed conflicts
Deforestation can also increase during armed conflicts as affected communities increase unsustainable felling for fuel, and increase after them as a result of weak environmental governance. In Somalia, the trade in charcoal shows how conflict and deforestation can be mutually reinforcing. Insecurity has allowed the illicit trade in charcoal to flourish for several decades, with the terrorist group Al Shabaab as one of the main actors in this field, using revenues from charcoal sales to fund its insurgency. As a result, millions of Acacia trees, a unique drought resistant tree have been felled and is now listed as a threatened species.
In Syria, the conflict has deprived civilians of electricity and fuel, resulting in the increased use of firewood to stay warm in the winter. The logging of forests also provides a source of income for civilians, who can earn money by operating chainsaws and transporting the lumber. In Darfur, Sudan, deforestation has increased since the conflict began disrupting the trade in commodities within Sudan. Traders, farmers, and cattle herders now use logging to earn money through selling timber, firewood or charcoal. Lack of oversight or a functional government had a severe impact on forests in Afghanistan, with a third of its woodlands lost between 1995 and 2001.
Conflict-related displacement and deforestation
The third link with deforestation and conflict is the influx of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees. According to Chatham House, roughly 64,700 acres of forest are felled each year by IDPs for use as firewood. Camp settings often have limited energy options, or poor site selection increases the potential for deforestation. Recent examples include the increase of refugees from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo to Uganda, where felling has grown exponentially with millions of trees cut down, impacting local environmental conditions and creating tensions with host communities.
In Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing the atrocities in Myanmar had to use the forests for firewood and housing, leading to massive deforestation and creating additional landslides risks from soil erosion at Cox’s Bazar. Ongoing concerns over deforestation and associated land degradation and water issues are also present in Lebanon, which is hosting over a million Syrian refugees.
How UNEA should contribute to understanding and awareness on PERAC
Reflecting on the environmental dimensions of armed conflicts and the impact that they can have can help build understanding and lead to better policies. Such an understanding should in the long-term encompass all relevant aspects of the relationship between conflict and the environment and deforestation is one of several topics at UNEA-4 that would benefit from a conflict perspective. States should include these linkages in the text of the deforestation resolution. Doing so would also help build upon the previous UNEA conflict resolutions – 2/15 and 3/1 – raises awareness on the impacts of conflicts and help ensure that deforestation concerns in areas affected by armed conflicts can be incorporated in relevant programme work by states and international organisations.
As reflected by former UN Environment expert Oli Brown, UNEA is indeed the most important environmental meeting people have never heard of. With the previous resolutions on PERAC and conflict-pollution, and the current discussion on strengthening the implementation mechanism for UNEA’s resolutions, future resolutions could provide meaningful instruments to help tackle a range of conflict-related environmental issues, bring together experts and support developing solutions for raising awareness around conflict-linked environmental damage and for the identification, monitoring and remediation of harm, its ecological impact and its risks to human security.
Wim Zwijnenburg is Project Leader Humanitarian Disarmament at PAX working on conflict and environment research with a focus on the Middle East. Foeke Postma is a Program Officer on Humanitarian Disarmament.