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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Environmental Damage and Chronic Conflict

Air Date: Week of February 19, 1993

Living on Earth's Steve Curwood talks with Thomas Homer-Dixon, coordinator of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at the University of Toronto about the growing link between environmental degradation and political and ethnic violence.


NUNLEY: Here in the U.S., environmental problems are often the subject of fierce political and ideological battles, battles whose outcome can change our economy, our health and our natural heritage. But in many parts of the world, the conflicts caused by environmental change can have even more serious consequences. Increasingly, degraded and diminishing resources are leading to ethnic strife, unstable governments, even war. The relationship between environmental change and violent conflict is the subject of an article in the current issue of Scientific American magazine. Dr. Thomas Homer-Dixon is the coordinator of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at the University of Toronto, and one of the article's co-authors. He spoke recently with Living On Earth's Steve Curwood.

CURWOOD: Let me ask you first what you see as being different from now than in the past, I mean -- wars have always been fought over scarce resources, haven't they?

HOMER-DIXON: That's true, but we're starting to see conflicts arising from the scarcities of renewable resources, as opposed to non-renewable resources. Many of the conflicts in the past were fought over petroleum or minerals. Today we're seeing conflicts arising from scarcities of water, forests and good agricultural land. And also these scarcities are becoming worse very fast, and we think that's going to be driving a higher rate of conflict in the future.

CURWOOD: From your work, can you tell us if there's a certain flash-point at which the environmental problem sparks a violent conflict?

HOMER-DIXON: I think that we have to look at problems of irreversibility. When resources are degraded or become irreversibly scarce in some way, then you're going to have a higher probability of violence, because that in a sense becomes a permanent burden on the social and political system. Even if you have enlightened political and social change that reduces the degradation of the environment, because the resources are permanently damaged or permanently scarce, that becomes a burden that may continue to contribute to conflict in the area.

CURWOOD: We've been talking very theoretically here, and I'd like to get specific. What comes to mind is Haiti, and I'm wondering if much of the conflict and strife that we've seen in Haiti is related to its degradation of its sustainable resources?

HOMER-DIXON: We think the conflict is related to the degradation of Haiti's resources. The loss of good agricultural land in upland areas and the deforestation in the interior of Haiti has driven a lot of people from those areas into the cities and has contributed to a really serious economic crisis, and all of that has helped spur the migration of boat people out of the country that we've seen recently.

CURWOOD: Now what other areas in the world have environmental problems spark conflict or are likely to spark conflict?

HOMER-DIXON: We believe that land degradation in interior areas of the Philippines is contributing to the Communist-led insurgency in that area. People are moving from the rich coastal lands, because of population growth rates and because of the unequal distribution of land in those coastal areas, and they're moving into interior areas that are steep and have shallow soils and the land is very easily damaged there, when it has a high population density. As they become increasingly poorer, because they can't grow enough food, they are more receptive to joining the Communist-led insurgency in those interior areas, or they move to coastal urban areas such as Manila, and that puts a tremendous strain on the central government of the Philippines.

CURWOOD: In what other parts of the world where this likely to crop up or is going on right now?

HOMER-DIXON: We're particularly concerned about China, where we think that environmental damage of various kinds is probably costing the country about 15 percent of its GNP, which will put a tremendous strain over time on the central Chinese government. Also, there is going to be a large-scale movement of millions of people from interior areas where the land is very badly damaged to coastal areas which provide more jobs. We have identified large-scale movements of people from Bangladesh, where good agricultural land is very scarce, into the Indian states of Assam and Tripura, and this has contributed to some really brutal ethnic conflicts between Hindus and Muslims in both of those Indian states. In the Middle East, it seems that water scarcity on the West Bank of the Jordan River has significantly contributed to the decline of Palestinian agriculture on the West Bank, and has in turn contributed to the current uprising that we see on the West Bank. Also, in South Africa, the white regime concentrated large numbers of black people in homeland areas, and those homelands often had the worst land, the most easily degradable land. Those areas have become very poor, because the land has been so badly damaged, and we're seeing a huge influx of people out of the homelands into urban areas, in squatter settlements and illegal townships that are ripe for violence at the moment.

CURWOOD: Do you have much hope for these regional conflicts, or do you think that things have really gone too far in many of these places, and that this irreversible loss of renewable resources means that these regions are just doomed to conflict?

HOMER-DIXON: It's possible the countries can compensate by finding other things to employ their peoples, to generate wealth. But we feel that many of these countries that we're looking at are in some sense too far gone. What we're trying to do with our research, though, is present a warning for other regions of the world, that they shouldn't let the process go so far.

CURWOOD: Are there any strategies that can be pursued?

HOMER-DIXON: We think there are. It's critical that rich and poor countries collaborate to work on family planning and population control, because in many cases population growth is driving resource scarcity. Also it' s very important that rich and poor countries cooperate to reduce the debt burden on poor countries, because many poor countries are encouraged to use their very best agricultural lands to grow cash crops for export, so they can pay their foreign debts. And that drives people into, out of those rich agricultural areas into ecologically-degradable areas. There are many other things -- it's critical that poor countries work on redistributing their land so that people can find employment in rural areas, and rich countries can help poor countries in the development of technical expertise, so that they can more effectively manage their ecological resources, and so that they can develop their own methods for managing their environmental resources.

NUNLEY: Dr. Thomas Homer-Dixon is the co-director of the project on Environmental Change and Acute Conflict, sponsored by the University of Toronto and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He spoke with Living On Earth's Steve Curwood.



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