Most security experts focus on large-scale, organized violence, but Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) Director Geoff Dabelko argues that we should not miss the quieter—yet often more lethal—conflicts. In the latest ECSP Report, he points out that while Ethiopian troops fighting the Islamic Courts in Somalia grab our attention, the Horn of Africa is beset by local conflicts for shrinking resources, which are increasingly depleted by population growth, environmental degradation, poverty, and over-consumption.

Such local conflicts may have larger "neighborhood" effects, contributing to wars and humanitarian disasters, as in Sudan's Darfur region. In addition, the lack of sustainable livelihoods produces plenty of casualties without even a single shot. But efforts to promote sustainability—and use natural resources as peacebuilding tools—could help turn deadly environments into safe, sustainable neighborhoods.

In a special Report From Africa, eight African leaders and scholars describe their continent's struggle with conflict over resources—and the possibilities for peace that population and environment initiatives may hold:

  • Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai says that poor governance and mismanagement of resources spur the violence that plagues many countries in Africa: "Below the thin layer of racial and ethnic chauvinism, religion, and politics, the real reason for many conflicts is the struggle for the access to and control of the limited resources on our planet." But she sees hope: "When we manage our resources sustainably and practice good governance we deliberately and consciously promote cultures of peace."
  • Another African leader, President Marc Ravalomanana of Madagascar, saw the devastation wrought by poverty and unsustainable population growth in his country, and dreamed of a different path: "We can build a strong economy, invest in our people, and maintain the nation's precious natural treasures. Family planning lies at the heart of all of these efforts." Innovative programs like USAID's "champion communities" help lay the foundation for economic growth and stability in Madagascar's rural villages by integrating reproductive health services and sound environmental management—and decreasing the average number of children per woman to one of the lowest levels in Africa.
  • The devastating civil conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—"Africa's world war"—was fueled by global demand for the country's enormous stores of valuable minerals and extensive forests. Instead of being engines of growth, these resources "have largely been to blame for most of the past and current misfortunes visited on the Congolese people," says John Katunga, who warns that unless the United States and others help the DRC develop stable institutions, governance structures, and regulations to control natural resources, "the country's forests and minerals will once again be prey for deadly predators, and the people of the DRC will be doomed to repeat their tragic cycle."
  • Rapid population growth is taking a toll on Tanzania, where migration, urbanization, and increasing demand have intensified local conflicts over water in the already-stressed Pangani River basin. Milline Mbonile argues that resolving these conflicts requires understanding the socio-cultural context of the local communities—particularly the relationship between herders and farmers—and increasing community involvement in water management.
  • Across sub-Saharan Africa, HIV/AIDS poses unique challenges to political stability, as Nana Poku reports: "The net effect of HIV/AIDS on the African state may be institutional fragility, thus compromising its overall capacity to deal effectively with national emergencies, while increasing political instability." In the face of this devastating disease—the worst of which is yet to come—how can African states remain functional and stable? Poku recommends that national governments and international organizations work together to increase access to antiretroviral treatment and proactively respond to the changes facing labor markets and human resources.
  • Anthony Nyong's study of the Nigeria's semi-arid northern region finds that as recurring droughts have become more intense and more destructive, "the line separating land that traditionally served the pastoralists and the sedentary farmers is no longer clear," leading to conflicts between these groups. He warns that global climate change may further change rainfall distribution and availability, thus "potentially further exacerbating conflict." As traditional methods of conflict resolution have been pushed aside in favor of the police and courts, conflicts have deepened. Nyong argues that indigenous methods of conflict resolution may offer contemporary policymakers "a bottom-up approach to conflict resolution and management."
  • The Nigerian oil industry's history of spills, lax environmental regulations, and government complicity has severely degraded the rich Niger Delta. Kenneth Omeje sees the residents' "formidable struggle of unrelenting violent protests, including oil theft, pipeline sabotage, and kidnappings" as an attempt to capture the spoils from corrupt elites. To stop the violence, he calls for international efforts to hold the oil industry to standards of social and environmental responsibility; and disarm and demobilize all Niger Delta militias and anti-oil combatants.
  • Patricia Kameri-Mbote ends our report from Africa on a hopeful note. The Great Lakes Region—Burundi, the DRC, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia —has been torn apart by decades of war exacerbated by resource and population pressures. However, she says that these same resources "should be considered vehicles for peacebuilding, rather than solely sources of conflict." She proposes that the Great Lakes' region-wide peace process and its wealth of transboundary ecosystems make it a promising model for a "future worldwide initiative in environmental peacemaking."

In the article "Environmental Peacemaking," Alexander Carius asks: What are the conditions for a successful environmental peacemaking initiative? We know relatively little about how environmental cooperation could contribute to peacebuilding, he argues. Based on his analysis of cases in southern Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and Central Asia, he pinpoints lessons learned, as well as shortcomings, and highlights areas for action and recommendations for development agencies. "To move forward, we need systematic assessments and a constructive dialogue with poliycmakers to make environmental peacemaking projects more effective."

In a graphic illustration of the links between population and conflict, Richard Cincotta and Elizabeth Leahy chart what they dub the "60-percent-under-30" benchmark: about 86 percent of all countries that experienced a new outbreak of civil conflict had age structures with 60 percent or more of the population younger than 30 years of age. They conclude that this benchmark could "serve as a means to identify and track a state's demographic risks of civil conflict." Policymakers could thus reduce future risks "by supporting programs and policies that promote advancement along the path of the demographic transition in countries with young age structures."

Young age structures were also the focus of a meeting series on population, health, and fragility convened by ECSP for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Jack Goldstone urged Western development professionals to help countries achieve their "security demographic." Speakers from RAND revealed the results of their study of post-conflict reconstruction in seven countries, arguing that nation-building cannot succeed without at least partial success in building public health. But this success requires investment: Reviewing best practices, Ronald Waldman noted that unless funding levels are increased, health systems will not help stabilize fragile environments. Speaking of recent programs in Afghanistan, Sallie Craig Huber observed that progress made in the health sector will help foster stability and strengthen the relationship between Afghanis and their government: "They'll feel that the government is working for them and that they have hope for their future and their children's future." Frederick "Skip" Burkle, the final speaker in the series, drew on his decades of experience in public health in fragile states to call for better ways to measure the true human cost of war, so that the lives lost through indirect causes will not "remain unseen, uncounted, and unnoticed."

As always, the ECSP Report includes reviews of recent publications on population, environment, and security; as well as a dotPop section, which this year gathers recent reports and data sources on the world's water crisis. Formerly a monthly feature in our e-newsletter ECSP News, dotPop now appears in our new blog, The New Security Beat, where you will also find frequently updated links to the latest news and reports on environmental security.