Gathering fuel for the fires of war

IssueMay 2006
Feature by Richard Lightbown

Warfare has dramatically impacted forests throughout history. Between 2000 and 1200 BC, the ancient Assyrians burned woodlands as a military tactic, as did the Greek and Roman armies. Techniques changed little until the twentieth century, when more sophisticated and destructive technology was rapidly developed and deployed.

France pioneered the aerial bombardment of forests with incendiaries in the Rif Mountains of Morocco during the 1921-26 uprising, and napalm, supplied by the US, was inaugurated during the Greek Civil War of 1944-49 by Nationalists burning extensive areas of forest. Britain deployed the first military use of chemical defoliants against forests during the Malayan insurgency in the 1950s. In Indo-China, helicopter gunships attacked elephants to deprive the Vietcong of their use as pack animals, while B-52s carpet bombed forests. During the course of the Vietnam War, more than 10% of the total land area of South Vietnam was reduced to defoliated forest by the aerial application of herbicides. To date, no perpetrator has ever made a recorded attempt to rehabilitate a forest environment.

Marketing the forests

The increasing globalisation and consumption of tropical forest resources has heightened the influence of market forces on conflicts and resource exploitation. This increased pressure reduces the building resources and domestic energy available to local people, and creates shortages of ingredients for natural medicines and domestic products. Western consumers are usually unaware of the origin of products and their potential association with conflict or deprivation. To rectify this, rigorous forest certification and “chain of custody” certificates are urgently needed to assist peaceful control of conflicts financed by timber.

Natural resources have financed many recent military conflicts, siphoning scarce funding from sustainability and other endeavours. For example, in the 1980s defence spending in Mozambique amounted to 38% of total government expenditure, and timber revenues have helped fund wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), West Africa, Burma and Cambodia. In Burma, both the government and rebels have financed arms purchases with timber sales. Regardless of which conventions have been signed, a government heavily committed to a war is certainly less likely to commit money and effort to conservation or sustainable forest management.

Retraining and rehabilitation

Initiatives to resolve or prevent conflict need to understand underlying political economies. Conflict provides belligerents with economic and political benefits and opportunities normally unattainable in times of peace, when the power and trading opportunities of such people and groups are diminished. Militias provide prestige and an escape from grinding poverty to young men and boys. Post-conflict re-training and rehabilitation for combatants is an essential part of the successful return to peaceful conditions. Many retain their band structures and form their own societies, for example many ex-combatants in Mozambique have been trained as national park guards.

Restitution must start during hostilities, when awareness-raising among combatants is necessary to minimise their future negative impact. NGOs need to try to retain a presence in war zones, as the World Wildlife Fund staff did under extreme conditions in the DRC during the late 1990s. Often, the violent aftermath of war can be as destructive as the conflict itself. Retiring armies dump weapons into conflict zones as a cheap disposal option (like industrial polluters), and small arms proliferation encourages banditry, poaching and other conditions incompatible with eco-tourism and peacetime revenue creation. Ongoing political instability provides opportunities for warlords to thrive, and, in the ensuing mayhem, resources are plundered, traditional sustainable systems collapse, biodiversity is harmed and considerable land erosion can occur.

Ultimately, this chaos creates short term benefits for multi-national corporations, developed nations, arms suppliers and corrupt individuals. These conditions are the antithesis of sustainability and a serious source of global environmental damage and extreme poverty.

Responsible resources

After hostilities, the introduction of representative government and sustainable management needs to happen immediately. Post-war periods are times of opportunity for new structures and initiatives, but too often they become the time when the worst damage occurs. This is often erroneously described as “peacetime activity” and compared unfavourably to the damage inflicted during conflicts. In reality, post-conflict turmoil results fromthe conflict and frequently would have never occurred had peace prevailed. During the early fragile peace, investment and expertise are urgently needed. Firm control and commitment are also required to rebuild societies and confidence in the post-war chaos, and to implement responsible resource management. Resource security is dependent upon economic stability, good governance, sustainable use, and biodiversity conservation. These are compatible objectives; and agencies, organisations and governments are starting to work together more closely to develop common goals. Co-operation must continue during disaster responses, when the inclusion of long-term environmental strategies will provide the best overall use of donor resources. Removing the causes of future conflict needs sound environmentalism, economics and development.




The exploitation of the Upper Guinean forest has generated hundreds of millions of dollars, much of which has been spent on arms and equipment, fuelling a war that encroached into neighbouring Cote d'Ivoire and Sierra Leone. Until fairly recently, the largest of several timber companies in Liberia was the Oriental Timber Company (OTC), controlled by Dutch businessman, Guus van Kouwenhoven. OTC bought or acquired concessions of at least 900,000 hectares in south-east Liberia in the late 1990s under the regime of recently arrested ex president Charles Taylor. Few Liberians gained employment from the exploitation of their forest because of OTC's importation of Asian workers.

Logging sites were clearfelled in flagrant violation of Liberian law and forestry regulations, and the timber was exported unprocessed, primarily to SE Asia, France and Spain. Armed security guards excluded government officials and local residents from concession areas. Between October 1999 and January 2000, OTC built a four-lane all-year highway through a protected national forest, in the process bulldozing farms and houses without compensation or consultation.

In March 2005, Van Kouwenhoven was arrested in Rotterdam and charged with breaking the international arms embargo against Liberia and other war crimes. He is also accused of arming his timber company militias, which are alleged to have participated in civilian massacres. Global Witness, a group that investigates natural resource exploitation and human rights abuses, called Van Kouwenhoven “a key player in the regional instability in Liberia and Sierra Leone”.

For now, fragile peace prevails in Liberia, and the country is making a start on the painful road to recovery following the removal of President Charles Taylor. However, severe problems remain. The economy is on the brink of collapse, corruption is common, small arms are widespread, 95% unemployment is reported in some areas, and goods and services are very expensive. The new Liberian government, elected last November, has promised to address these issues.

The Liberian Forestry Development Authority (FDA), the group tasked with maintaining Liberia's forest and wildlife resources and monitoring timber extraction, lacks expertise and is unable to manage the forests or enforce the law. Salaries are in arrears, and the FDA is overstaffed at headquarters while understaffed in the field. Meanwhile, the United Nations Mission in Liberia has yet to take control of the huge forested areas. Because of these circumstances, many ex-combatants are engaged in pit-sawing activities and the cross-border trafficking of natural resources, while large amounts of timber revenues are uncontrolled and unaccounted for. At least one of the timber companies that operated under the previous corrupt and brutal regime is again working within the country.


War in Rwanda brought havoc to its conservation projects. In 1990, tourist numbers dropped drastically and had not fully recovered a decade later, reducing revenues used by the National Parks Department to support staff salaries. During the war, park staff was particularly vulnerable to violence and several staff members were killed. As the security situation deteriorated, all major bilateral and multilateral donors withdrew from funding forest conservation projects. With the exception of a World Conservation Society grant of $125,000, all financial support (previously amounting to approximately $5 million annually) was halted permanently. Today, little evidence remains of the large investments made by these projects. After the war, assistance was focused primarily on humanitarian relief, and finances were largely unavailable for forest conservation, despite its importance in protecting watersheds, maintaining clean water supplies and preventing land erosion.

In Rwanda, as in many cases, the worst environmental damage occurred after the official conflict's end. In 1994, while the victors were rebuilding government, chaos prevailed in much of the country. Large parts of Gishwati Forest were used as settlement camps for displaced persons, but rebel groups also settled there, resulting in military intervention by government troops and the displacement of civilian settlers to other areas, furthering forest degradation. Although the camps were later closed and 40,000 people forcibly resettled, the damage to the biodiversity of the forest was immense and irreversible. At Akagera, the resettlement of victorious exiles and their cattle within the National Park resulted in the redefining of the park to only 30% of its original area of 2800 km2.

Enormous problems also occurred in the Democratic Republic of the Congo after the Tutsi militia seized power in Rwanda and an estimated 850,000 Hutu refugees fled the country to settle in nearby Goma. With more than 500,000 arriving in one day alone, the refugees urgently needed fuel, water and food, which they sought in the nearby Virunga National Park, a 790,000-hectare plot declared a World Heritage Site in 1979 for containing the most diverse range of ecosystems and habitats in Africa.

For more than two years the Hutus remained in five camps run by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. During that time, 105 km2 of forest suffered tree cutting, extensive areas of high diversity mountain forest were badly damaged, and an estimated 410 to 770 tonnes of wood were extracted daily by the 40,000 people entering the park. The park staff, by this time unpaid for over a year, were unable to effectively patrol the park's 650 km boundary. The defecation zone of the camps also posed a serious disease transmission risk, not only to humans but also to the wildlife. The two species of gorilla that inhabit the park are closely related to humans, and therefore susceptible to many human pathogens. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation redesignated Virunga National Park as a World Heritage Site in Danger in 1994. A further 450,000 refugees settled near the neighbouring Kahuzi-Biega National Park in DRC, resulting in accelerated deforestation and increased encroachment of farmland. In 1997, when the refugees were forced to return home, the camps closed and the international aid organisations followed suit, leaving resident communities unsupported and unable to cope with high unemployment and shortages of food and basic supplies. In 1998, war in the DRC brought heavily armed militias and a new wave of intense poaching. Exploitation of construction timber and firewood increased, along with encroachment of slash-and-burn farming along the entire park border. In the period 1996 to 2000, 40% of gorillas in the park and virtually all of the elephants (more than 700) were killed.

Topics: Arms trade, Green