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Demography, Environment, and Conflict in Indonesia and India

Panelists Henrik Urdal of the International Peace Research Institute and Steve Rhee, an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow (2007-2009), discuss the effects of environmental degradation on conflict.

Date & Time

Apr. 21, 2009
3:00pm – 5:00pm

Demography, Environment, and Conflict in Indonesia and India

"Indonesia's forest loss continues more or less unabated, despite global concern for the resource and forest-dependent people, as well as a wealth of knowledge about the problems and solutions: poor governance, corruption, perverse incentives in the industrial sector," said AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow Steve Rhee. Rhee was joined by Henrik Urdal of the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO), who also studied the effects of environmental degradation on conflict in Indonesia, for "Demography, Environment, and Conflict in Indonesia and India," an April 21, 2009, event sponsored by the Wilson Center's Environmental Change and Security Program.

Parsing the Patterns: Population, Resources, and Conflict

Urdal argued that case studies have sometimes overstated the links among population, resource scarcity, and conflict. Researchers tend to choose cases where there is conflict and then look for a population or resource dimension. If you look hard enough, "it's always possible to find some connection," said Urdal.

However, quantitative studies are also imperfect, cautioned Urdal, because most of them use national-level data, which do not capture local dynamics. In addition, they have a tendency to ignore conflicts in which the state is not involved.

Two Sub-National Studies: India and Indonesia

Urdal sought to avoid these problems by using sub-national data and including political violence and riots, as well as armed conflict, in his quantitative studies of India and Indonesia. From 1956-2002, he found that high rural population growth and density, as well as declining agricultural wages, increased the likelihood of violence in Indian states. Surprisingly, those states with high rates of urban population growth were less likely to experience conflict.

In Indonesian provinces, Urdal and his colleagues found a relationship, albeit a weak one, between population growth and non-ethnic violence between 1990-2003. They also found an increased risk of non-ethnic violence in provinces with high population growth and high levels of inequality between different religious groups. However, there was no relationship between land scarcity and conflict.

Forests, Conflict, and Participatory Mapping in Kalimantan: Unintended Consequences

Forty million Indonesians—one-fifth of the population—depend on forests for their livelihoods, said Rhee. Yet much of Indonesia's forests have never been surveyed, so the people who live there are considered squatters and receive little or no compensation from the logging and mining industries. This inequity has generated both violent and non-violent conflict between the indigenous dayaks, the government, and extractive-industry companies.

In an attempt to resolve some of this conflict, the Center for International Forestry Research initiated a participatory mapping project in 27 villages in the Malinau district of Kalimantan in 1999. Participatory mapping enables dayaks to establish land rights and negotiate compensation from companies.

Following the 1998 ousting of President Suharto, district governments, rather than the central government, began issuing timber permits. The villages in Malinau often used the maps they had created to justify their claims to the land. But the district government did not cross-check the claims, so this generated inter- and intra-village conflict—roadblocks, protests, and lock-ups of timber equipment.

Although the "cowboy logging" that characterized the late 1990s and early 2000s has largely ceased, Rhee believes it may be replaced by "carbon cowboys" seeking to capitalize on the UN Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) program, which aims to reduce carbon emissions by paying governments to preserve forests. "With climate change, and the link between climate change and forests, Indonesia is very much on the map again," said Rhee.

Drafted by Rachel Weisshaar and edited by Meaghan Parker.

Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Asia Program

The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more


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