A green army

Natural resources,are increasingly responsible for fuelling violence across the world. Now some environmentalists want to fight back – using force if necessary.

Ranger Kalibumba stood no chance. Five bullets tore into his chest and abdomen at point-blank range as he attempted to intercept a fleeing gunman who’d just stolen a motorcycle and killed its owner. Kalibumba, a wildlife ranger based in Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), died shortly after being shot. He was 36 years old and leaves behind eight children.

Kalibumba is the latest in a long line of rangers to perish while defending the DRC’s abundant wildlife and rich ecosystems, and the latest victim of a disturbing global pattern of killings, violent attacks and persecution of those working on the frontline of environmental protection.

Previously unpublished figures reveal how hundreds of national park wardens, rangers and wildlife and forest guards have died or been seriously injured in recent years in attacks across Africa, Latin America, Asia, Europe and the United States.

The dossier, compiled by the International Ranger Federation, seeks to highlight what it describes as the ‘hidden human cost’ of environmental protection, reads with disturbing monotony: ‘…killed in fire fight with rebels’; ‘…shot by loggers’; ‘…murdered’; ‘…assassinated’; ‘…shot in armed robbery’; ‘…killed by poachers’.

The situation has become so serious it has led to a scramble by NGOs, aid organisations, law-enforcement agencies and governments to train, equip, fund and organise better those engaged in protecting wildlife and the environment. This has increasingly involved providing arms and military-style training to rangers and wardens, particularly those operating in regions already conflict-ravaged.

Such support for the use of armed force, even in a reactionary or self-defence capacity, does not sit comfortably with everyone in the environmental world, however, and some advocates have sought to distance themselves from the issue, but with endangered wildlife, habitats and natural resources all coming under unprecedented pressure, there are increasing calls from within the environmental movement for greater use of force, rather than less, including pro-active armed intervention on a military scale.

Such controversial proposals pour fuel on an already fiery debate about just how far, ethically and practically, the environmental movement, governments and international institutions can go in order to safeguard the planet and its resources. They also come as some governments and law-enforcement agencies appear to be stepping up increasingly militarised and sophisticated efforts to tackle conflicts over natural resources, and the associated trades in illicit timber, minerals, oil, gas and wildlife.

The thin green line

Park ranger Sean Willmore sold his car and remortgaged his house in Australia after hearing horror stories about what was happening to colleagues in other parts of the world. His mission: to make a documentary highlighting the dangers facing rangers and other environmental guardians globally.

‘I’d be at a convention and be told stories of rangers being buried alive in saw mill pits – that happened in Tamil Nadu [in India] – or guys would come up to me and show me horrific injuries they’d sustained in machete attacks,’ Willmore says.

His film, The Thin Green Line, took him to more than 12 countries on five continents and offers a grim insight into the perils facing those policing national parks and other ecologically important areas.

Launched in July last year, profits from the film helped establish a foundation dedicated to supporting the families of rangers killed while on duty. ‘This is the untold story in the struggle to protect wildlife,’ says Willmore, ‘the animal [slaughter] makes the headlines but the people left behind when rangers are killed do not.’

Willmore’s efforts have the backing of several global organisations, including the International Ranger Federation, which helped compile the first comprehensive figures detailing deaths, injuries and persecution of rangers and other environmental defenders across the world.

As well as covering the DRC and other African countries, the figures highlight incidents in India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, the Philippines, Brazil and Argentina, in addition to the US and several European states.

Clashes with poachers or rebel groups are among the most common causes of fatalities or serious injuries worldwide, according to the data. Many rangers are forced, because of a lack of resources and manpower, to patrol vast expanses of often remote wilderness for days at a time, making them highly vulnerable to attack. Poachers, illegal loggers and other groups are becoming increasingly well-armed and organised – frequently outgunning the often ill-equipped rangers.

In East Africa, officers from the Kenya Wildlife Service patrolling the Tana River region last year encountered a poaching gang that had crossed over from Somalia hunting for elephants and other commercially valuable wildlife.

During an intense, close-range gunfight, the poachers fired some 300 rounds using modern automatic assault weapons, killing three rangers and seriously injuring another.

Similarly, several months previously, in Wilpattu National Park, Sri Lanka, four rangers out on patrol were brutally executed in an ambush by heavily armed rebels from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

‘It’s important to remember that these figures represent a sample only,’ says Willmore. ‘There are many countries we have heard of [problems occurring in] but have been unable to get data from, including Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Eastern Europe and Russia.’

While Willmore and the International Ranger Federation acknowledge that arming and providing military-style training to rangers will not in itself solve all the problems, they believe, such are the dangers facing those working in the field, that the use of weapons has become a necessary evil.

‘It’s no longer a question of whether force can be used,’ argues Willmore, ‘but how much force.’

Armed environmentalism

It is this issue that has fuelled growing debate about just how far the environmental movement – or others – can go in protecting the planet.

Some want to expand the deployment of paramilitary-style rangers and environmental ‘police’; others want to see the creation of independent, highly equipped, rapid-reaction ‘eco armies’, fully battle-ready and comparable to units from, say, the UN or NATO.

Others argue that the UN itself, and other similar multinational forces, should have their remits extended to include a greater emphasis on environmental protection, including pro-active intervention in cases of severe natural resource depletion and habitat destruction, particularly where people and wildlife are at risk.

Recent years have seen a number of private ‘eco militias’ established in several African countries, often with the tacit support of governments that find themselves unable effectively to police their natural resources.

Bruce Hayse, a US doctor and environmental campaigner, sparked headlines after he received permission from the president of the Central African Republic (CAR) to raise a mercenary force to combat the increasing numbers of illegal poachers decimating the country’s wildlife and terrorising villagers.

Hayse, a founding member of the radical Earth First! network, set up Africa Rainforest and River Conservation (ARRC) to train and equip a 400-strong, fully-armed militia force, which, as well as patrolling the country’s borders and wilderness areas, was tasked with fixing roads, building health clinics and schools, and advising locals how to use natural resources in a sustainable manner.

The militia, comprised in part of hired guns brought up from South Africa, was given permission to shoot on sight, and engage with illegal hunters and wildlife smugglers.

Despite some initial successes – including military operations targeting a number of major elephant-poaching gangs – the practicalities of effectively maintaining a private army quickly proved problematic.

Potential funders began to get cold feet, increasingly concerned at the legalities of being linked to what amounted to a US-funded paramilitary outfit operating with virtually no accountability in a relatively lawless country.

Supporters from within the environmental movement also began to backtrack. Senior figures within established organisations, mindful of the power of their membership, feared that support for such a venture could backfire, particularly if large numbers of people – poachers or not – began to be killed.

There were still vivid memories of a similar – and highly controversial – venture previously undertaken by Frenchman Jean Laboureur, who, along with a number of hired guns, had tackled ivory poachers in the CAR head-on.

Heavily armed and taking no prisoners, Laboureur and his team attacked and reportedly killed more than 30 poachers in their early operations, burning down dozens of poachers’ camps and recovering massive stockpiles of ivory. As the operation continued, poaching was reduced and elephants began to return to the region.

Following the shooting dead of an innocent game warden, however, Laboureur was arrested and jailed for murder. Although he was eventually released, the incident cast a cloud over the venture and led to a diplomatic falling out between France and the CAR.

Despite the failure of both ventures to succeed over an extended time period, they captured the attention of the environmental movement, sparked a clutch of similar operations elsewhere, albeit on a smaller scale, and put the concept of pro-active military action firmly on the map.

Karl Ammann, a veteran Swiss conservationist turned journalist and undercover investigator, has been instrumental in carrying out several wildlife-protection and enforcement initiatives, and says that in many African countries a lack of appropriate laws, enforcement and political will means there is often little option than to use force.

‘You’re in countries where [poachers] are coming in, heavily armed, there’s no jails, no effective administration, and they’re massacring the country’s wildlife, which should be a resource for the people of that country,’ says Amman. ‘In these circumstances I agree absolutely with the use of force.’

Amman is also critical of some of the larger conservation NGOs that refuse to be drawn on the thorny issue of armed intervention. ‘They’ll frequently buy the uniforms, the boots, the tents for the soldiers [who’ll be undertaking the enforcement],’ he says, ‘but when the first poacher gets killed they don’t want to be implicated.’

Support for the concept of organised military action to combat environmental crimes now extends well beyond those working in African conservation.

Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, recently in the news for controversially confronting the Japanese whaling fleet, says the group urgently wants to see the development of an armed, highly mobile, fully international military unit that can strike quickly, both on land and at sea.

‘We want to see an Interpol-style eco police force that can operate anywhere in the world, and that’s aggressive, pro-active and equipped to hunt down [perpetrators], arrest them and bring them to trial,’ he says.

Sea Shepherd is currently engaged with the Ecuadorian authorities in a long-term programme to train and equip a dedicated environmental task force to protect the Galapagos Islands and their unique flora and fauna. The group is also providing arms.

Similarly, the International Ranger Federation is attempting to build global support for the idea of a multinational ‘green-helmet brigade’ – modelled on the UN’s famous blue-helmeted peacekeeping troops – that would have a wide-ranging remit for intervention in serious environmental crises, including where rare species are at risk.

Who guards the guards?

Large conservation organisations are fast acknowledging – somewhat reluctantly – the need for armed protection for environmental defenders.

‘What’s the option?’ asks David Sheppard, head of the protected areas programme at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). ‘It’s a reality that those doing this work face danger from heavily armed, highly organised interest groups.’

The IUCN funds and supports hundreds of wildlife- and habitat-protection initiatives globally, and although it does not directly purchase arms or other military equipment, in some countries where it is working it does collaborate with agencies that may be armed and operating under government jurisdiction.

Wildlife Direct, which enables park rangers to communicate their work and experiences directly to the outside world via a series of unique blogs (www.wildlifedirect.org), has a similar policy, providing training, facilities, uniforms and salaries to rangers in the DRC and elsewhere, but not guns or ammunition.

Paula Kahumbu, the group’s head of conservation, acknowledges the need for protection, however: ‘You look at what’s happening in the guerilla sector [of the DRC] and you’ve got rangers facing a life and death situation. Recently the roads have been mined, there’s been shelling and fighting [between militia groups]. It’s dangerous up there.’

Both groups have reservations about the formation and operation of private armies such as that set up by Hayse. ‘I’m struggling to imagine this working on a long-term basis,’ says Kahumbu. ‘These radical ideas make great headlines but don’t have a good feel on the ground. To have a long-term impact you have to overcome suspicion and distrust, and encourage people to protect their resources. I’m not sure how running around with AK47s will necessarily achieve this. The idea leaves a slight distaste in the mouth’.

Sheppard agrees: ‘Virtually all governments have agencies that protect areas of land and the people and wildlife in it. It’s important to work with sovereign governments rather than those on the radical fringes – we’d be very cautious about supporting private [militias], which may have their own agendas.’

The IUCN says it would have concerns too about the complexities of setting up and working with a dedicated ‘green-helmet brigade’ and would instead like to see a significant extension of the existing mandates of UN missions.

‘Where you have UN troops already in place you should have one element of their work focusing specifically on conservation and resources,’ says Sheppard. ‘We would welcome that.’

Some UN missions, such as that previously in place in Cambodia, have had such issues incorporated into their remits. After it was revealed that the Khmer Rouge had been funding its reign of terror through the illegal harvesting and sale of timber to neighbouring Thailand, the UN passed a motion that prevented the export of logs from the country and enabled dedicated border forces to intervene, using force as appropriate. In Liberia, where the looting of the country’s natural resources, particularly forests, bankrolled the now-deposed regime of Charles Taylor, the current UN mission, UNMIL, includes operating a dedicated environment and natural resources unit.

In the DRC, however, where the present UN mission, MONUC – the largest UN force currently deployed anywhere in the world – has been in place for almost a decade, the mandate makes no mention of wildlife, the environment or resources. The mission’s inability, or unwillingness, to become involved in environmental operations has become the subject of considerable debate among NGOs working in the DRC and beyond, particularly given the region’s rich abundance of wildlife and valuable natural resources.

During a recent outbreak of fighting in an area of the country containing some of the last mountain gorillas, NGOs and the US government lobbied, without apparent success, for the UN to agree to escort rangers into the area so they could monitor the impact of the violence and do what they could to protect the animals.

In recent years, gorilla populations in the region have been severely affected by myriad conflicts, poaching and other persecution.

‘This is a classic example of where things are going wrong, where there’s no effective enforcement over wildlife and natural resources,’ says Karl Ammann. ‘The ICCN [the body charged with policing the DRC’s national parks] has lost control of the situation: you’ve got the Lord’s Resistance Army [a major militia group] holed up in a national park and nobody prepared to do anything. If there were a human rights situation unfolding you’d probably have action. Give them an ultimatum; if they don’t accept it, send in gunships to take them out.’

Tackling root causes

Leading environmental thinkers are also beginning to consider the need for a dedicated, multilateral, military force for defending the environment and resources.

Professor Robyn Eckersley, of the University of Melbourne, courted controversy recently after producing a research paper that looked – practically as well as theoretically – at how the world could look if policies of eco-interventionism and eco-peacekeeping were adopted on a widespread, inter-governmental level. Eckersley believes that the use of armed force to intervene in environmental disputes – over water or oil reserves, for example – will increase as resources dwindle, populations expand and ‘the stakes are raised’.

‘I think it’s a reality that we’ll see, out of necessity, a body at some point – call them the ‘green berets’ – formed with the primary purpose of protecting ecological assets,’ she says. ‘Not necessarily with a shoot-on-sight policy, but very much equipped as a last stand to protect forests and species.’

Others believe the situation is more complex and requires a variety of approaches in addition to military intervention. Some campaigners say the focus should be more on recognising how the environment and natural resources are in themselves fuelling conflicts.

‘There’s certainly a viable role for the UN to play in eco-peacekeeping,’ says Patrick Alley, director of Global Witness, which works to expose the links between natural resource exploitation and conflict, ‘but there’s frequently a lack of cohesion on the issue.’

Global Witness says it would welcome the protection of natural resources, in the DRC and elsewhere, to be included in UN remits, but that there’s little point in calling for enforcement – military or otherwise – until the frequently entwined issues of governance and corruption are effectively addressed.

‘At the moment it’s not a terribly good idea to be considering [armed intervention], not least as these areas are already scarred by years of conflict,’ says Alley.

The group is trying to get natural resources as a whole recognised by the UN as a specific driver of conflict, building on earlier successes setting up the Kimberley Process that controls the international trade in conflict diamonds.

‘At present there’s no mechanism to stop anyone going to a warlord or other party and purchasing timber or other resources that’s directly feeding their military campaigns,’ says Alley.

Despite this, some governments are now beginning to recognise the role played by natural resources in both causing and facilitating conflict, and the knock-on impact that this can have for regional and international security.

Recent reports that Janjaweed militia from Sudan are massacring elephants for their ivory to help fund operations in the Darfur region shocked and alarmed many international observers. Apparent links between al-Qaeda supporters and the trade in rare wildlife in both India and Bangladesh have also emerged.

The US authorities have been credited with playing a pivotal role in getting UN Security Council approval for sanctions against Liberian timber exports, directly cutting off a major income stream for Charles Taylor’s regime, and for leading an innovative programme of capacity-building within the Liberian forestry sector.

At a recent hearing before the US House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources examining the illegal wildlife trade, proposals from a leading NGO for full-scale counter-insurgency-style operations – including cross-border surveillance, intelligence gathering, investigations and enforcement activities – to help tackle the problem, were, according to one attendee, ‘very well received’.

Claudia McMurray, Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, told the hearing that the US Administration now regards the trade in wildlife as a ‘sophisticated criminal activity’ requiring ‘effective law-enforcement.’

McMurray later confirmed: ‘We are spending a lot of time on this – although conflicts over resources are not yet widespread, it is something we are keeping an eye on.’

Although pro-active security service or military operations in the field of natural resources and wildlife crime have yet to be sanctioned on any sizable scale, the Ecologist has learnt that Africom, the new US military command for Africa, may soon have its remit extended for tackling the trades in natural resources and wildlife. At present, it is unclear to what degree this would involve pro-active military operations, but the command is already engaged in directly combating illegal pirate fishing and other maritime defence issues.

While some claim these activities are part of a smoke screen to cloud a wider reason for the mission’s establishment – gaining a foothold to monitor and strike against terrorist targets operating out of Somalia and other countries in the Horn of Africa – the move would mark an important milestone in the militarisation of environmental protection.

Robyn Eckersley and others are cautious about predicting an imminent rush by individual governments to contemplate similar action. At present, there is no word of anything comparable being undertaken by the UK or other major European governments. Elsewhere, however, including both in India and Cambodia, troops have recently been deployed to pro-actively combat poaching and to defend forests and other ecologically valuable areas.

Eckersley argues that with increasing scepticism over the merits of supposed humanitarian intervention following the doomed invasion of Iraq, it is at present unlikely that individual sovereign states could make a compelling enough case, legally or morally, for unilateral military strikes over comparable ecological issues to become the norm.

‘You can’t rule anything out, but the [case made] would need to be incredibly strong,’ she says. Far more likely, the academic argues, is an increase in multilateral actions in cases of environmental emergency, with the potential for what she describes as ‘transboundary spill-over’.

She illustrates the point by proposing a fictitious, but highly credible, scenario: ‘Suppose, for example, that a chain reaction has commenced in an outdated nuclear reactor in Ukraine that is threatening to grow beyond control, with the imminent threat of a Chernobyl-style nuclear explosion.

‘Suppose, too, that the Ukrainian government has refused international technical assistance, even though European experts warn that Ukraine lacks the technical capacity and human resources to bring the potential emergency under control. Under such circumstances, military intervention may be the only means of preventing an imminent transboundary ecological disaster.’

The academic believes military action in a case such as this would probably garner the most support, as it would satisfy all three of the key tests usually involved in political decisions over interventionist policies: legality, morality and legitimacy.

She doesn’t rule out the potential, however, for military operations to be taken – at some point – to their logical conclusion: the all-out eco-war.

‘I think the potential is there,’ she says. ‘Scarcity brings out the worst in human nature. When things break down there is the potential for people to move towards coercion.’

Citing water and fuel as potential resource hot spots, Eckersley admits: ‘I think anything is possible’.

Back in Africa, in the Virunga national park, the funeral of Ranger Kalibumba is taking place. Pictures of his coffin and funeral congregation have begun to appear on blog sites. There are lots of comments and condolences; one, by an anonymous poster, reads: ‘Within a few years there may be no gorillas left… if things continue, there’s going to be no rangers left either.’

Andrew Wasley is a journalist and producer at Ecostorm, the investigative agency specialising in environmental, human rights and animal welfare issues

This article first appeared in the Ecologist October 2008

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