In 1997, internal conflicts where death tolls exceeded 1,000 ravaged 37 different countries, three times more than in 1989. Many, if not most, of them were fought in heavily forested areas. Indeed, rising evidence suggests that competition over minerals, timber, land, and other resources in forested hinterlands constitutes one of the leading causes of organized violence.
How can we conserve biodiversity in the surprisingly common situations where governments simply do not function? How can we ensure episodes of violence do not lead to the permanent destruction of our habitat and most prized species? What can humanitarian organizations do to manage refugee crisis without causing widespread environmental destruction, so that when the refugees go home they will have something to return to? ’Building Partnerships in the Face of Political and Armed Crisis’ by Annette Lanjouw of the International Gorilla Conservation Program (IGCP) examines these issues in the context of the recent wars in Rwanda and the Congo. She documents how the wars deprived the local population of vital tourist incomes, pushed people into protected areas, forced many farmers to engage in poaching to survive, and directly threatened the lives of people and gorillas. As often happens in such contexts, the refugee camps set up to house those fleeing the war put heavy pressure on the forests and wildlife as large concentrations of people temporarily housed there hunted for animals, cleared land for cultivation, and gathered fuelwood.
Humanitarian, development, and conservation NGOs flocked to the areas, but not always with the best results. Lanjouw stresses that even short-term humanitarian relief needs in a crisis situation like this needs to have a long-term perspective. Focusing on humanitarian, security, development, or environmental issues alone without taking into account the four aspects together generally leads to perverse results. Sometimes warring factions can come together around efforts to protect resources that are vital for a country’s future such as gorillas, which provide a large portion of Rwanda’s foreign exchange in the form of tourism. For NGOs to continue their work they must take extraordinary measures to ensure that all sides perceive them as neutral.
As a result of the Rwandan experience, in 1998 the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) developed a set of clear environmental guidelines for its refugee operations, with the support of the IGCP. The Commission realizes – as we all should – that violent conflict is too common to treat as an extraordinary event. Those concerned about forests and the people who depend on them must prepare for such eventualities and respond in a fashion that does not further compromise the population’s future.
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