Increasing pressure on resources from rising populations and consumer demand fuel the situation, say campaigners, who point to endemic corruption in many developing world governments and the complicity of international companies as further drivers of the unsustainable trades. They claim that, until recently, the international community has failed adequately to recognise the links between natural resources and conflict, and to put in place appropriate mechanisms to curtail the problem.
The illegal trade in timber has been particularly responsible for serious environmental devastation and human rights abuses across large swathes of South East Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Logging concessions have increasingly opened up previously intact forest areas, leading to ongoing social strife and rampant rights violations against local communities. The trade in timber has funded illegal arms deals and fuelled civil wars and regional instability.
UK campaign group Global Witness alerted the world to the role of timber in driving conflicts after undercover investigations in Cambodia revealed the Khmer Rouge harvesting the country’s tropical forests for logs for export to Thailand and beyond. Revenues from this looting of Cambodia’s forests were used by the regime to fund its reign of terror against the country’s people and support ongoing internal conflicts.
Following a global outcry over ‘blood timber’, pressure was brought to bear on the Thai authorities to close its borders to Cambodian timber exports, successfully cutting off a major revenue source for the Khmer Rouge.
Similar timber rackets have since been uncovered in several African countries, including Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), among others.
Most recently it emerged the Burmese authorities were directly profiting from the plunder of forests by sanctioning the export of large volumes of teak timber to Thailand and China, much of it for the manufacture of outdoor furniture and products for the marine industry (decking for luxury yachts).
On the Thai-Burmese border, the trade in timber has been responsible for continuing the cycle of armed conflict between the Burmese army and the myriad insurgent groups operating in the area. Recent EU sanctions have reportedly stemmed the flow of timber from Burma and limited the associated profits made by its brutal regime.
The mining and trade in diamonds has also fuelled a number of deadly conflicts in Africa, particularly in Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Angola, Liberia and the DRC, where civil wars and conflicts funded by the diamond trade have raged. Amnesty International estimates that as many as 3.7 million people may have died in African conflicts fuelled by diamonds.
Rebel groups in these countries have been accused of seizing control of diamond-rich areas and selling the gems for arms and war supplies. Throughout the 1990s, the diamond funded civil war in Angola claimed thousands of lives until the Un Security Council imposed sanctions on diamond sales by the UnITA rebel group, bringing the conflict to a close.
As with timber, the destination for many ‘blood diamonds’ was identified as the high streets of the US and Europe, where consumers unwittingly purchase stones linked to appalling human rights abuses and conflicts in distant countries.
Pressure groups including Amnesty and Global Witness succeeded in getting the international community to take action, resulting in the establishment of the Kimberley Process, an international mechanism designed to control and police the diamond trade and encourage a switch to conflict-free stones. The initiative is widely regarded as providing a model for other similar processes for curtailing other unsustainable trades.
Many of the countries associated with the diamond trade are rich in minerals such as cobalt, coltan, cassiterite, gold and copper. Rebel armies, insurgents, corrupt governments and foreign mining corporations have all been accused of exploiting these mineral resources and contributing to an upsurge in both internal and cross-border conflicts.
In the DRC, mining for coltan – highly sought-after for use in the manufacturer of mobile phones – has been directly linked to rebel groups that sell the mineral to purchase arms and are accused of the widespread killing of civilians, as well as a host of human rights abuses.
Oil and natural gas are also increasingly being linked to conflict, corruption, civil strife and human rights abuses in many of the world’s poorest regions.
In many cases, corrupt governments have been accused of creaming off profits from the sale of commodities such as oil at the expense of the already desperately poor general populace. foreign companies are frequently accused of complicity in refusing to disclose payments made to corrupt regimes. A major international campaign to address the issue, Publish What you Pay, has now been launched to tackle the problem.
For more information:
Global Witness www.globalwitness.org
Amnesty International www.amnesty.org
Publish What You Pay campaign www.publishwhatyoupay.org