16 July 2009

Natural Resources & Armed Conflict

Natural resources can make conflicts more deadly. When gems or oil/gas production exist inside a conflict zone, more combat deaths tend to result. This finding comes from an analysis of 258 worldwide conflicts conducted by Paivi Lujala from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Lujala's research builds on earlier studies showing linking the presence of natural resources to the onset and likelihood of armed conflict in a given area. His analysis extends this knowledge by focusing on the impact of these resources on conflict severity. Severity was measured by the total number of combat deaths and the average rate of combat deaths (which he refers to as a measure of "intensity"). He also was able to compare effects inside vs outside of conflict zones within a given country, rather than just using the country as a single geographic unit.

The study examined three commonly occurring natural resources: (1) gemstone mining; (2) Hydrocarbon (crude oil/natrual gas) production; and (3) illicit drug cultivation (cocoa, opium poppy, & cannabis). Results are interesting and some are a bit surprising.

Think for a moment about which of these three resources - gems, hydrocarbons, or drugs - you would immediately associate with an increase in combat deaths. Here's a hint - Two of them are linked to an increase in deaths and one is associated with fewer deaths. OK - if you read the headline, you know the answer. Drug cultivation inside conflict zones is linked to fewer - yes, fewer - combat deaths and a lower battle death rate. Tony Addison and colleagues - in analyzing African conflicts - have suggested that this kind of effect may occur because combatants on both sides of a conflict spend some proportion of their time looting resources rather than just killing each other.

Gems and hydrocarbons, on the other hand, significantly raised the risk of severity. Gemstone production inside the conflict zone basically doubled the the number of conflict fatalities . Similarly, when oil and gas production existed inside the zone, more than twice as many combat deaths occurred as when that production was absent. The effect was most pronounced in secessionist conflicts. A seemingly significant mechanism in both cases is that conflicts seem to go on longer when these resources are inside the conflict zone. Longer conflicts, of course, tend to produce more deaths.

Drilling down further (no pun intended), though, oil and gas production was associated with lower severity (lower rate and fewer deaths) when it was present in the country/region, but existed outside the conflict zone. Perhaps this is because the resources are less accessible to rebel combatants, and they continue to provide a source of revenue for the government/military, which may then be able to invest more in quashing the rebellion and ending the conflict sooner (shortening the duration).

Though not the focus of this particular study, a couple of incidental severity predictors also emerged:

The comparative size/strength of state military and rebel forces affects severity. The death toll tends to be highest when both force sizes are more equal. When the rebel forces are notable weaker, the rate of overall combat deaths seems to be lower.

Conflicts tended to be more severe when they:

  • occurred during the Cold War period
  • were fought in mountainous terrain
  • were fought in more populated countries and
  • were internationalized internal conflicts
Conflicts tended to be less severe in countries that were more democratic and ethnically heterogeneous.

ResearchBlogging.orgLujala, P. (2008). Deadly Combat over Natural Resources: Gems, Petroleum, Drugs, and the Severity of Armed Civil Conflict Journal of Conflict Resolution, 53 (1), 50-71 DOI: 10.1177/0022002708327644