More than 80 percent of the world’s major armed conflicts during the last half century have taken place in some of the most biologically diverse and threatened places on Earth
, according to a study published by the scientific journal Conservation Biology
The new paper entitled “Warfare in Biodiversity Hotspots” calls for conservation activities to remain strong during conflicts to ensure that local people will have the natural resources they need to survive and rebuild healthy communities post war.
The hotspots are home to a majority of the world’s poorest people who rely on natural resources for their daily survival. Forests and other healthy ecosystems help cleanse freshwater and provide sources of food, medicines and materials for building homes. They are often intertwined with centuries-old traditional lifestyles and unique indigenous cultures.
Committing to Conservation
“We can’t abandon these places. Loss of biodiversity and healthy functioning ecosystems makes people more vulnerable,” says Russell A. Mittermeier, president of Conservation International (CI) and one of the authors of the report. “Working alongside partners in these regions, conservation groups can help prevent some of the long-term, life-altering impacts of war on people, wildlife and natural landscapes.”
ON THE GROUND: Scientists share their experiences in conflict regions.
The world’s 34 biodiversity hotspots are by far the most threatened terrestrial areas, and have within their borders more than three-quarters of all amphibians, birds and mammals listed as Critically Endangered or Endangered on the IUCN Red List.
What is more, more than half of all plant species and at least 42 percent of all vertebrates occur only within the hotspots and nowhere else.
OP-ED: Protecting Nature during War Can Help Recovery
The current study shows that they are hotspots in other ways as well. A total of 23 biodiversity hotspots experienced significant violent conflict in which more than 1,000 people died between 1950 and 2000, and many suffered repeated episodes of violence.
A Violent Impact on Nature
Violent conflicts have various far-reaching impacts on ecosystems. In some cases, scale and technology have led to what has been termed “ecocide.” Such was the case during the Vietnam War, when poisonous Agent Orange was dumped from low flying planes, defoliating 14 percent of the country’s forest cover and more than 50 percent of its coastal mangroves.
The consequences were disastrous, as mangroves provide some of the richest fish habitat and shield coastal communities from the severe impacts of hurricanes and tsunamis.
READ MORE: Restoring Mangroves and Livelihoods in Indonesia
Beyond the battlegrounds, indirect effects of conflict have more far-reaching impacts. In Sierra Leone, Cambodia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), war money came from extensive timber harvesting, and the cultivation of illicit drugs has provided financing for violent conflicts in Afghanistan, Southeast Asia and Latin America.
War has devastating impacts on wildlife and other natural resources. Refugees are in no position to consider the environmental consequences of their actions. They hunt, gather firewood or build encampments to survive.
The local proliferation of small arms leads to increased hunting for wild animals, or bush meat. And all too frequently, poaching during these lawless times leads to annihilation of wildlife, such as with 95 percent of the hippopotamus slaughtered in DRC’s Virunga National Park in 2006 and the wanton slaughter of mountain gorillas in that same park in 2007.
IN THE NEWS: Read about the 2007 slaughter of mountain gorillas in Virunga
“Ecosystem protection must be integrated into military, reconstruction and humanitarian programs in the world’s conflict zones,” notes Mittermeier. “We must work alongside these sectors in the wartime planning stage as well as during and after conflicts.”
Staying the Course in Wartime
Supporting national institutions and local staff throughout the duration of a conflict is key. Local conservationists often remain to work in conflict areas because these places are their homes. Maintaining salaries and providing safe houses and funds to rebuild homes is an ethical imperative as well as a good conservation strategy.
Yet very often the response of conservation organizations and aid agencies is to pull out as soon as conflicts begin, which only exacerbates the problem over the long term.
In post-war scenarios, creation of “peace parks” along disputed areas has been successful, such as with the Cordillera del Condor between Ecuador and Peru, and in multiple locations in Southern Africa. Military base closings sometimes offer a conservation opportunity because they often leave behind important wildlife habitat.
A current example from the Japan hotspot is Okinawa, a site identified by the Alliance for Zero Extinction as a top conservation priority, and from where the US military presence is currently being reduced.
Existing bases can also serve a conservation function, such as Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base in southern California, where excellent conservation programs protect a number of the state's federally listed Endangered or threatened species.
“The prevalence of conflict in biodiversity hotspots is a wake-up call,” says Thor Hanson, lead author of the study. “It underscores the importance of what we call ‘warfare ecology,’ the far-reaching environmental and human impacts of war preparations, wars and their lingering after-effects.”
Protecting nature in the midst of violence and loss of human life may sound odd. But it is one of the best hopes for people who endure these conflicts to be able to maintain healthy environments where they can later rebuild their lives.
“What is more,” adds Mittermeier, “although one must be cautious in determining cause and effect, the fact that so many conflicts have occurred in areas of high biodiversity loss and natural resource degradation warrants much further attention.”
LEARN MORE: CI works with communities to their strengthen livelihoods.