Renewable Resource Scarcity and Internal Armed Conflict: A Quantitative Reassessment

Led by Ole Magnus Theisen

Jan 2005 – Aug 2006

MA Project at NTNU Trondheim
CSCW supervisor: Nils Petter Gleditsch

Numerous case-studies finds that little access to renewable resources such as clean freshwater, fertile land, fuel and other factors necessary for living healthy lives, do in fact lead to a higher risk for a country to experience civil conflicts. Popular and media belief also frequently report this as the main causes of civil conflict. One very good example for this is the reason for why Wangari Mathaai was awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize of 2004. The two main “schools” which argues that scarcity matters are represented by Thomas Homer-Dixon and his associates at Toronto and Günther Bächler and his colleagues at the Swiss Peace Research Institute. The results from case-studies on the effects of environmental degradation stands in some contrast to the very few large n empirically based projects undertaken on the same theme.

There is a need for better quantitative studies on the allegedly harmful consequences of environmental degradation with respect to domestic peace.

Since most of the conflicts investigated by case studies take place in agricultural communities in less developed countries, I will look closer at why farmers might take up weapons in the attempt to improve their living conditions. Due to this focus, I will pay special attention to factors that are important for farming, and especially the types of farming in developing countries. These are freshwater availability, access to fertile land, access to fuel, other job opportunities, population growth and migration (the list is not completed). My project will also discuss the alleged disharmony between the perspective that scarcity of renewable resources leads to conflict and the one which states that an abundance of certain commodities (mostly minerals) leads to a higher propensity for conflict. Based on a hypothesis that there is not necessarily a contradiction between these two broad categories of causes of conflict, I will try to find out whether resource-related conflicts can be divided into sub-groups - i.e. are there any important qualitative differences between the scarcity-driven and the abundance driven conflicts (other than the courses)? Due to the fact that civil conflict is costly for the rebels (as well as for the state and society), this should lead to the expectation that scarcity-driven conflicts should be of a lower intensity and possibly shorter duration than the conflicts that are mainly caused by the opportunity to loot high-value commodities. The fact that only a few studies find a relationship between resource scarcity and civil conflict might very well be due to this, as low intensity conflicts (fewer than 1000 battle deaths per year) are often left out. However, that fact that so few studies provide reliable support to the scarcity perspective might also be due to a genuine flaw in the theoretical approach, or to the measures used to capture its dynamics. As in all deprivation theories the perceived deprivation and speed of deprivation might be considered the most important aspects in explaining the incidence of conflict. If no relationship or only a one can be found between resource scarcity and civil conflict (as is quite possible) I will look closer at what effects scarcity do have in peasant societies: is both Malthus and Darwin (or rather their influence in the social sciences) right at the same time, or might it be that one of them are wrong: does scarcity lead to no innovation plus the fight for survival? Or are there other and more probable alternatives, such as innovation or non-violent passive resistance of some kind?

In the thesis I will try to make use of the advantages GIS methods of the physical geography to evaluate whether the variable of interest does exist to a significant amount in a conflict area or not. In this way, I will focus on the area in which the resource scarcity might credibly lead to a higher risk of conflict rather than treating the entire country as the unit of analysis.

The study will focus on the outbreak, incidence as well as duration of civil conflict, as I want to test whether there are any differences in the explanations of the three concepts. This must be seen in relation to the aforementioned distinction between scarcity driven and abundance driven conflicts. Societies experiencing shortages of vital renewable resources should be expected to be more prone to experience the outbreak of smaller conflicts of a relatively short duration. As for methods, I will mainly use regression analysis of cross-sectional time series.

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