Ancient words from Deuteronomy remind us of the relationship between conflict and the environment created by God.”If you besiege a town for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them. Although you may take food from them, you must not cut them down. Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you?” (Deuteronomy 20:19)Conflict claims human lives, maims human bodies and scars human souls – combatant and non-combatant alike. Conflict also exacts a cost on God’s creation.The United Nations General Assembly echoed these words when it declared Nov. 6 the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict.
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report, “From Conflict to Peacebuilding: The Role of Natural Resources and the Environment,” observes, “Environmental factors are rarely, if ever, the sole cause of violent conflict. Ethnicity, adverse economic conditions, low levels of international trade and conflict in neighboring countries are all significantly correlated as well.”
“The exploitation of natural resources and related environmental stresses can be implicated in all phases of the conflict cycle, from contributing to the outbreak and perpetuation of violence to undermining prospects for peace,” the report added.
War impacts the environment, particularly when parties in a conflict have deliberately targeted natural resources. For example:
- During World War I, the British sabotaged Romania’s oilfields to deny them to the Central Powers.
- From 1962 to 1971, the United States sprayed some 20 million gallons of herbicides, Agent Orange foremost among them, on rural areas of South Vietnam in an effort to deny cover and food to the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces.
- As they retreated from Kuwait in 1991, Iraqi forces blew up oil wells and set fire to oilfields.
Conflict disrupts land use, water supply, air quality and ecosystems. Conflict creates refugees whose struggle for survival may lead to depletion of resources or other stresses on ecosystems. Environmental impacts may remain long after conflict ends.
People in Japan, the United States and various Pacific islands continue to suffer the effects of the development, testing and use of nuclear weapons.
The International Campaign to Ban Landmines reminds us that “some 60 countries around the world are contaminated by landmines and thousands of people continue living with this daily threat of losing their life or limb.”
In the past, conflicts occurred between nation states. Today, conflict more often takes place within a nation state, although it may involve people from beyond national borders.
The UNEP report said, “Civil wars such as those in Liberia, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo have centered on ‘high value’ resources like timber, diamonds, gold, minerals and oil.”
The environment suffers as military exercises use fuel. The production of weapons consumes natural and financial resources that could have been used to promote human welfare and environmental protection.
International law offers one way to protect the environment in times of conflict.
However, the UNEP report concluded that “the existing international legal framework contains many provisions that either directly or indirectly protect the environment and govern the use of natural resources during armed conflict. In practice, however, these provisions have not always been effectively implemented or enforced.”
Strengthening and expanding international law in relation to environmental protection in conflict is crucial.
Klaus Toepfer, executive director of UNEP from 1998 to 2006, called for “safeguards to protect the environment” in which “using the environment as a weapon” would be “denounced as an international crime against human-kind, against nature.”
Environmental remediation provides directions for responses after conflict.
Remediation may involve rapid responses, as occurred in extinguishing the fires and cleaning the spills in Kuwait.
It may involve long-term environmental sustainability plans such as reforestation and paying careful attention to environmental concerns in post-conflict situations.
International law may reduce the environmental impacts of conflict and preparations for conflict. Environmental remediation may help in a conflict’s aftermath.
Conflict prevention remains the most effective way to protect the environment. This includes demilitarization.
Diplomatic negotiation, people power, addressing poverty, strengthening human rights and the rule of law, building democratic institutions, controlling small arms, teaching nonviolence and other strategies may help prevent intrastate conflict.
Recognizing that the human family shares one planet and has no other place to live should inspire environmentalists to become peacemakers and peacemakers to become environmentalists.
Christians are called to environmental peacemaking work. God has made all that exists; God has made us.
All people are God’s children; all people are our brothers and sisters. The earth, and all that is therein, belong to God.
God entrusts this earth to us for a time, to exercise care on behalf of the created order, our sisters and brothers, generations as yet unborn, and God.
Addressing the environmental impact of conflict is a way we live our faith.
Grace Ji-Sun Kim is a visiting researcher at Georgetown University and the author of six books and numerous articles. Jamie Yen Tan provided research assistance on this project.