From Conflict to Peacebuilding: The role of natural resources and the environment in peacebuilding


Whether a war-torn society can maintain peace after a conflict ceases depends on a broad range of factors, including the conditions that led to the onset of war, the characteristics of the conflict itself, the nature of the peace settlement, and the influence of external forces (i.e. global economic or political pressures).

The previous sections have shown that natural resources can be an important contributing factor in the outbreak of conflict, in financing and sustaining conflict, and in spoiling peacemaking prospects. Increasing demand for resources, population growth and environmental stresses including climate change, will likely compound these problems. At the same time, conflicts cause serious environmental impacts, which need to be addressed to protect health and livelihoods.

In peacebuilding, it is therefore critical that the environmental drivers and impacts of conflict are managed, that tensions are defused, and that natural assets are used sustainably to support stability and development in the longer term.[1] Indeed, there can be no durable peace if the natural resources that sustain livelihoods and ecosystem services are damaged, degraded or destroyed. As mentioned above, conflicts associated with natural resources are twice as likely to relapse into conflict in the first five years. Despite this, fewer than a quarter of peace negotiations aiming to resolve conflicts linked to natural resources have addressed resource management mechanisms.[2]

Furthermore, the UN has not effectively integrated environment and natural resource considerations into its peacebuilding interventions. Priorities typically lie in meeting humanitarian needs, demobilization, disarmament and reintegration, supporting elections, restoring order and the rule of law, and opening the economy to foreign investment. The environment and natural resources are often framed as issues to be addressed at a later stage.

This is a mistaken approach, which fails to take into account the changing nature of the threats to national and international security. Rather, integrating these issues into peacebuilding should be considered a security imperative, as deferred action or poor choices made early on often establish unsustainable trajectories of recovery that may undermine long-term peace and stability.

To ensure that environmental and natural resource issues are successfully integrated across the range of peacebuilding activities (see figure 2), it is critical that they are not treated in isolation, but instead form an integral part of the analysis and assessments that guide peacebuilding interventions. Indeed, it is only through a cross-cutting approach that these issues can be tackled effectively as part of peacebuilding measures to address the factors that may trigger a relapse of violence or impede the peace consolidation process. The following section provides three compelling reasons and supporting case studies to demonstrate how environment and natural resources can concretely contribute to peacebuilding:

a) Supporting economic recovery: With the crucial provision that they are properly governed and carefully managed – “high-value” resources (such as hydrocarbons, minerals, metals, stones and export timber) hold out the prospect of positive economic development, employment and budget revenue. The risk, however, is that the pressure to kick-start development and earn foreign exchange can lead to rapid uncontrolled exploitation of such resources at sub-optimal prices, without due attention to environmental sustainability and the equitable distribution of revenues. When the benefits are not shared, or when environmental degradation occurs as a consequence of exploitation, there is serious potential for conflict to resume.

b) Developing sustainable livelihoods: Durable peace fundamentally hinges on the development of sustainable livelihoods, the provision of basic services, and on the recovery and sound management of the natural resource base. Environmental damage caused by conflicts, coping strategies, and chronic environmental problems that undermine livelihoods must therefore be addressed from the outset. Minimizing vulnerability to natural hazards and climate change through the management of key natural resources and the introduction of appropriate technologies should also be addressed.

c) Contributing to dialogue, cooperation and confidencebuilding: The environment can be an effective platform or catalyst for enhancing dialogue, building confidence, exploiting shared interests and broadening cooperation between divided groups as well as within and between states.


Case study 9: The Democratic Republic of Congo

caption Coltan played a significant role in the economics of the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo © Still Pictures

Mineral resources such as copper, gold, diamonds and coltan played a significant role in the economics of the civil war that took hold of the Democratic Republic of Congo in the past decade, perpetuating the conflict, financing rebel groups and incentivising regional participation in what became known as “Africa’s World War.”[3] As DR Congo edges towards peace, it is clear that its natural resources – timber, water and minerals in particular – could play an important part in the country’s reconstruction, especially in the absence of other sources of revenue and employment. In the current context of extensive corruption, lack of government control and marginalization of local populations, however, the exploitation of the country’s resources is fraught with risks.

The forests of DR Congo are known as the “world’s second lung.” In addition to logging, they provide many livelihood opportunities, including ecotourism, conservation, agriculture and non-timber forest products such as foodstuffs, medicine or cosmetics. If logging is not carried out in a manner that is sustainable and ensures that local populations benefit from the trade, deforestation and degradation could undermine these other livelihood options, and soil erosion, increasing flood risk and declining yields could lead to competition between groups with different livelihood strategies. In addition, the risk that armed groups become involved in the timber and mineral trades, that revenues be misappropriated and that forest-dependent communities be pushed off their land also presents considerable threats to the peacebuilding process. The unrest in the Kivus, for example – the region that has been the epicenter of instability in DR Congo for a decade – has been closely linked to land and livelihood conflicts between communities.[4]

The absence of clear regulations, transparent systems and law enforcement is cited as an important reason for the lack of investment in the private forestry sector.[5] Continuing insecurity and issues of infrastructure could also hinder the development of an ecotourism industry. Some measures have already been taken by the government of DR Congo and the international community to begin reforming the forest sector. In 2002, for example, a review of the logging concessions issued in the 1990s was announced. The process began in 2005, and by 2007, 163 of 285 reviewed concessions (covering a total of 25.5 million hectares) had been rescinded. The conversion process has suffered numerous delays and other problems, however, and has yet to be completed.[6]

In addition, while a new forest code was adopted in 2002, it is not being properly implemented, and only a handful of the 42 accompanying decrees have officially been adopted. Major information gaps remain regarding the actual quality and current usage of forests (as well as other ecosystems) in the country. The authorities do not have the means or the capacity to exercise oversight of the sector, and this lack of control has left the door open to abuse, fraud and illegal exploitation. The government will hence need continued support from the international community to monitor the environment, control natural resource extraction, and build governance and enforcement capacity.


Case study 10: Rwanda

caption Tourists pay USD 500 for a permit to observe the gorillas in their natural environment in Rwanda © Associated Press

Rwanda provides a number of interesting lessons learned on generating revenue from natural resources at the national and community levels, and on regional cooperation for environmental management. With a history of violent conflict both between different ethnic groups and across borders, the country lies in one of the most densely populated regions of Africa and is experiencing rapidly growing demand for natural resources. In the late 1990s, the Rwandan government embarked on the parallel reform and rehabilitation of the National Parks Management Authority, and the development of high-value mountain gorilla tourism. Today, tourists pay some USD 500 for a single gorilla permit, in addition to a similar daily amount on luxury accommodation, meals and transportation. The funds generated from the sale of the permits are used for the management of national parks, and a percentage is shared with local communities to contribute to their development.[7]

Furthermore, recognizing that regional cooperation was needed as the gorilla population also lives in protected areas in DR Congo and Uganda, the three countries signed the “Declaration of Goma” in 2005. This cooperation agreement,[8] including joint patrols, information exchange and the sharing of revenues, represents a major achievement in the transboundary management of natural resources and demonstrates that environmental cooperation can be a useful mechanism for confidence-building.

Rwanda, however, also provides an important lesson on the need for a regional approach to natural resources management. Due to widespread deforestation, the government issued a complete ban on charcoal production in 2006.[9] While the policy may have been effectively implemented in Rwanda, the production of charcoal simply shifted to neighboring DR Congo, further increasing extractive pressures on Virunga National Park, potentially undermining the gorilla habitat upon which local communities in Rwanda now depend for tourism revenue, and creating a shadow economy of illegal charcoal smuggling. 

Supporting economic recovery

Recreating a viable economy after a prolonged period of violent conflict remains one of the most difficult challenges of peacebuilding.[10] A post-conflict state faces key policy questions on how to ensure macro-economic stability, generate employment and restore growth. It must therefore seek to immediately (re)establish systems for the management of public finances, as well as monetary and exchange rate policies. This is complicated by the fact that conflict reverses the process of development, impacting institutions, foreign investment, capital and GDP.[11]

Authorities typically need to identify quick-yielding revenue measures and priority expenditures aimed at supporting economic recovery and restoring basic infrastructure and services. In a post-conflict situation, governments are also faced with high unemployment rates that can result in social instability. Extractable natural resources are often the obvious (and only) starting point for generating rapid financial returns and employment. However, as illustrated by the cases of Sierra Leone and Liberia (case study 2), the exploitation of natural resources and the division of the ensuing revenues can also create the conditions for renewed conflict. It is therefore vital that good management structures are put in place, and that accountability and transparency are ensured. These challenges are illustrated in case study 9 on the Democratic Republic of Congo and case study 10 on Rwanda.

Developing sustainable livelihoods

The ability of the environment and resource base to support livelihoods, urban populations and economic recovery is a determining factor for lasting peace. In the aftermath of war, people struggle to acquire the clean water, sanitation, shelter, food and energy supplies on which they depend for their well-being and livelihoods. A failure to respond to the environmental and natural resource needs of the population as well as to provide basic services in water, waste and energy can complicate the task of fostering peace and stability.

Sustainable livelihoods approaches provide a framework for addressing poverty and vulnerability in all contexts. They have emerged from the growing realization of the need to put the poor and all aspects of their lives and means of living at the center of development and humanitarian work, while maintaining the sustainability of natural resources for present and future generations.

Collapse of livelihoods from environmental stresses, overuse of assets or poor governance results in three main coping strategies: innovation, migration and competition. Combined with other factors, the outcome of competition can be violent. For this reason, developing sustainable livelihoods should be at the core of any peacebuilding approach, as discussed in case study 11 on Afghanistan and case study 12 on Haiti.

 Case study 11: Afghanistan

caption Community reforestation efforts near Bamiyan have increased employment and contributed to livelihoods © UNEP

UNEP’s 2003 post-conflict environmental assessment found that after two decades of war, Afghanistan’s natural resource base had largely been destroyed. The degradation of the natural resources upon which some 80 percent of Afghans depended for their livelihoods was a critical problem across the country.[12] Together with high population growth rates, poverty was deepening and rural livelihoods were becoming increasingly vulnerable. The report contended that as part of the peacebuilding process, the creation of employment and the injection of cash were essential to support the recovery of the local economy and re-establish livelihoods.

With funding from the United States Agency for International Development, the Afghanistan Conservation Corps (ACC) was founded to generate long-term improvements in the livelihoods of the Afghan people by providing labor-intensive work opportunities that could meet the income generation needs of the poorest, while at the same time renewing and conserving the country’s natural resource base.

Since the beginning of the programme, the ACC has implemented over 300 projects with local communities in 22 provinces. More than five million trees have been planted and over 700,000 labour days generated (100,000 for women). When implementing its activities, the ACC works through local community development councils and traditional leaders, using a participatory approach to identify potential problems and opportunities to facilitate the projects’ long-term sustainability.[13]

In addition, as a complement to these efforts, UNEP has been working hand in hand with the Afghan National Environmental Protection Agency to establish and implement policies and laws for the recovery and sustainable management of natural resources, with a focus on sustainable livelihoods.[14]


 Case study 12: Haiti

caption Severe deforestation contributes to flooding and mudslides in Haiti, costing many lives each year Mapping: Yves Barthélemy

The UN currently has a force of 7,000 peacekeepers and almost 2,000 police officers stationed in Haiti, with a mandate to “stabilize” the country.[15] Although UN forces have been in Haiti since 2004 – when the latest in a series of coups, riots and clashes occurred – peace and development remain elusive. Haiti’s colonial legacy, poor leadership and history of economic disruptions have shaped the country’s plight and have contributed to the extreme environmental problems that are among the most serious obstacles to peacebuilding.

Between 1990 and 2000, Haiti lost 44 percent of its total forest cover.[16] When forests disappear, the natural shield that they form against the impacts of tropical storms in mountainous terrain is lost. Topsoil is then easily removed by the rain running down the mountainside, and is deposited in rivers, lakes and bays. As a result, farmers are progressively left with less fertile soil to raise crops. When storms are particularly severe, mudslides and floods cost many lives. Hurricane Jeanne, for example, left 2,000 dead in Haiti in 2004.[17]

The single most significant cause of deforestation in Haiti is the production of charcoal for fuel. In a country where 76 percent of the population lives under the poverty line, charcoal is an essential form of energy.[18] In addition, cutting trees and selling firewood is one of few livelihood options in this economically stagnant country. The situation is a vicious circle: deforestation undermines livelihoods, leaving few viable options for development besides further harvesting of the forest, and fewer people in a position to invest in energy sources other than firewood.

Reforestation, investment in alternative energy sources, and sustainable agricultural and forestry practices are essential elements of environmental rehabilitation in Haiti. In turn, environmental rehabilitation will be essential to promoting development, reducing Haiti’s vulnerability to the impacts of climate change, and achieving long-term stability. 

Contributing to dialogue, confidence-building and cooperation

The collapse of social cohesion and public trust in state institutions is a crippling legacy of war.[19] Irrespective of the genesis of the violence, creating the space for, and facilitating national and local dialogue in ways that rebuild the bonds of trust, confidence and cooperation between affected parties is an immediate postconflict task. Peacebuilding practitioners are currently discovering new or unseen pathways, linkages and processes to achieve these goals.

Experience and new analysis alike suggest that the environment can be an effective platform or catalyst for enhancing dialogue, building confidence, exploiting shared interests and broadening cooperation. The approach can be applied at multiple levels, including between local social groups (across ethnic or kinship lines of conflict), between elite parties or leadership in conflict factions, and at the transnational and international levels.

The premise lies in the notion that cooperative efforts to plan and manage shared natural resources can promote communication and interaction between adversaries or potential adversaries, thereby transforming insecurities and establishing mutually recognized rights and expectations. Such efforts attempt to capitalize on parties’ environmental interdependence, which can serve as an incentive to communicate across contested borders or other dividing lines of tension.

The shared management of water, land, forests, wildlife and protected areas are the most frequently cited examples of environmental cooperation for peacebuilding, but environmental protection (in the form of protected areas, for example) has also been used as a tool to resolve disputes over contested land or border areas (case studies 13 and 14). Meanwhile, constitutional processes or visioning exercises that aim to build national consensus on the parameters of a new system of governance can include environmental provisions. Issues such as the right to clean air, water and a healthy environment are often strong connecting lines between stakeholder groups with diverging interests. The need for communities to identify risks from climate change and to develop adaptation measures could also serve as an entry point. Finally, as many post-conflict states are parties to international regimes, regional political processes and multilateral environmental agreements, opportunities and support may also exist through these mechanisms.

 Case study 13: Peru and Ecuador

The Cordillera del Cóndor transboundary park © Conservation International / Cesar Vega

The common border between Peru and Ecuador was a source of tension between the two countries for over 150 years.[20] The last major conflict took place in 1942, when Peru invaded Ecuador, triggering a ten-day war that ended with the signing of the Rio de Janeiro protocol. The protocol established a new border between the two countries by granting Peru approximately 200,000 square kilometers of formerly Ecuadorian territory. The new border remained poorly defined, however, leading to further skirmishes and larger-scale hostilities – most notably in 1981 and 1995.

After a series of prolonged discussions, the Acta Presidencial de Brasilia was signed in 1998. This agreement was unique in that it recognized the potential for fostering transboundary cooperation and reducing tension between the countries while protecting biodiversity. In particular, the treaty called for Peru and Ecuador to establish Adjacent Zones of Ecological Protection on both sides of the border in the Cordillera del Cóndor. In 1999, Ecuador established the El Cóndor park, while Peru created an Ecological Protection Zone and the Santiago-Comaina Reserved Zone.

These peace parks were established as mechanisms for bilateral cooperation for conservation, as well as to promote the social, cultural and economic development of local communities in both countries. The treaty has led to subsequent binational initiatives to manage and conserve the parks such as the “Peace and Bi-national Conservation in the Cordillera del Cóndor, Ecuador-Peru” project.[21]

In addition to helping to resolve a long-term territorial dispute between the two countries, the 1998 Brasilia agreement initiated an important phase of bilateral diplomacy, cooperation and commercial relations in the post-conflict phase. Not only has the establishment of the Cordillera del Cóndor peace parks created a foundation for confidence-building and collaboration, but local communities have been building their capacity to manage the protected areas and have directly benefited from ongoing conservation efforts.

Based on the experiences of the Cordillera del Cóndor, similar parks have been proposed between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights, as well as between North and South Korea in the demilitarized zone.[22] These parks, it is hoped, could transform disputed border areas into transboundary conservation zones with flexible governance arrangements, facilitating cooperation between the countries involved.


Case study 14: Environmental cooperation in conflict-affected countries

caption Stranded boat near Kang in the Sistan Basin © UNEP

Since UNEP’s post-conflict operations began in 1999, opportunities to contribute to peacebuilding using environmental concerns and natural resource management as a platform for dialogue, confidence-building and cooperation have presented themselves in various ways. Each of the cases presented below was treated as a pilot activity to better understand how environmental needs could be addressed while simultaneously fostering cooperation and serving wider peacebuilding goals.

The need for transboundary cooperation between Afghanistan and Iran over the water resources of the Sistan Basin was one of the key recommendations of UNEP’s post-conflict assessment in 2002. Due to frequent droughts and mismanagement on both sides, the wetland lay completely dry between 2001 and 2005, devastating livelihoods and resulting in large-scale population displacement, including the migration of Afghan refugees into Iran. In 2002, the region was qualified as a humanitarian disaster zone and became a recipient of relief aid. The socio-economic problems engendered by the environmental collapse – particularly emigration, unemployment and smuggling – destabilized this sensitive border region and strained relations between the two countries. In this case, UNEP was requested to facilitate “environmental diplomacy” between the two sides by organizing technical meetings and providing an objective environmental analysis of the situation based on time-series satellite images. The meetings, which involved senior inter-ministerial delegations from key government agencies such as foreign affairs, environment, water, agriculture and local government, resulted in a commitment from the two countries to establish national advisory committees, share information on water quantity and develop joint restoration projects for international funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF). Progress has unfortunately been stalled by increasing insecurity in the region.

caption Right: The Sistan inland delta in 1987-1990. Left: The Sistan inland delta in 1999-2000 © ITC & UNEP

Following the post-conflict environmental work done by UNEP in Iraq, the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources approached UNEP in early 2004 and proposed instigating a process with Iran on transboundary waters, with UNEP acting as chair. Points of contention arose from the shared Mesopotamian marshlands. As the two countries’ relations had been severed for more than twenty years, the first meeting held in Geneva in 2004 was a major achievement and a diplomatic breakthrough. Although these workshops, which focused on information-sharing, did not set out to advocate for any larger political aims, they were instrumental in fostering cooperation and trust between ministries of both nations, until this cooperation was overtaken by political developments. The post-conflict environmental assessment (PCEA) process conducted by UNEP in Sudan during 2006 and 2007 also provided a clear opportunity to use the environment as a platform for dialogue and cooperation between the authorities in the North and South. Two major workshops, held in Khartoum and Juba respectively, brought stakeholders from both sides together to debate key environmental issues and provide information for the assessment. The lines of communication and bonds of trust that were established during these meetings allowed the PCEA to include an analysis of current politically sensitive issues between the two parties. This, in turn, facilitated inter-governmental communication and eventually led to meetings between northern and southern environment ministers to discuss substantive issues, including overlapping laws, mandates and shared waters.

caption Afghanistan-Iran Sistan Basin dialogue in Geneva, December 2005 © UNEP

In each of these cases, UNEP has acted as both a neutral broker and technical expert, bringing parties to the table and providing objective environmental information and analysis. Further research is now needed to determine how this service can be more systematically offered by the UN to Member States, as well as how stakeholder participation can be further enhanced. Although environmental issues do not always carry major political weight, it is clear that these interactions foster goodwill and understanding, and help lay the foundation for moving from confrontation to cooperation.


  1. ^ Nitzschke, H. & Studdard, K. (2005). “The legacies of war economies: Challenges and options for peacemaking and peacebuilding.” International Peacekeeping. 12(2), pp. 222-239.
  2. ^  According to preliminary findings from a retrospective analysis of post-conflict situations in the Uppsala-PRIO database (1946-2006) fewer than a quarter (26 from 137) of post-conflict countries where natural resources played a role in the conflict implemented some kind of resource management. Binningsbø, H. & Rustad, S. A. (2008). PRIO working paper: Resource conflicts, resource management and post-conflict peace. Uppsala University & International Peace Research Institute, Oslo.
  3. ^ UN Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of Congo. (2003). Report to the Security Council on the illegal exploitation of natural resources and other forms of wealth of the Democratic Republic of Congo. United Nations Security Council. New York.
  4. ^ Prunier, G. (1997). “The geopolitical situation of the Great Lakes area in light of the Kivu crisis.” Refugee Survey. 16(1), pp. 1-25.
  5. ^ For an example the depiction of the situation by a timber firm (Olam International) operating in the DRC see:
  6. ^ Debroux, L., Hart, T., Kaimowitz, D., Karsenty, A. & Topa, G. (Eds.) (2007). Forests in post-conflict Democratic Republic of Congo: Analysis of a priority agenda. World Bank, CIRAD & CIFOR. Washington, D.C.
  7. ^ International Gorilla Conservation Programme. (2008). Tourism in the realm of mountain gorillas. Retrieved July 2008 from
  8. ^ Text of the agreement is available at:
  9. ^ UN Environment Programme, Environmental Law Institute & IUCN. (2007). Managing natural resources in postconflict societies: Lessons in making the transition to peace. Meeting report: 17-18 September 2007. Geneva.
  10. ^ UN Peacebuilding Support Office. (2008). PBSO briefing paper: Measuring peace consolidation and supporting transition. UN Peacebuilding Support Office. New York.
  11. ^ Collier, P. (2007). The bottom billion. Oxford University Press. Oxford.
  12. ^ UN Environment Programme. (2003). Afghanistan post-conflict environmental assessment. UNEP. Geneva.
  13. ^ Afghanistan Conservation Corps. (2007). Strengthening local governance. Government of Afghanistan. Kabul.
  14. ^ For more information see:
  15. ^ UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti. Accessed July 2008 from
  16. ^ World Bank. (2007). Haiti: Strategy to alleviate the pressure of fuel demand on national woodfuel resources. World Bank. Washington, D.C.
  17. ^ “Haiti flood deaths may top 2,000.” (2004, September 28). BBC News.
  18. ^ International Monetary Fund. (2007). Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper for Haiti. World Bank. Washington, D.C.
  19. ^ (71) Pruitt, D.G. & Kim, S.H. (2004). Social conflict: Escalation, stalemate and settlement, 3rd edition. McGraw-Hill. New York.
  20. ^Alcalde, M., Ponce, C.F. & Curonisy, Y. (2004). Woodrow Wilson Center working paper: Peace parks in the Cordillera del Cóndor mountain range and biodiversity conservation corridor. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Washington, D.C.
  21. ^The “Peace and Bi-national Conservation in the Cordillera de Cóndor, Ecuador-Peru” project included governmental agencies, representatives from indigenous communities and domestic and international NGOs. This project was developed between 2002 and 2004, and funded by the International Tropical Timber Organization. For more information see: Alcalde, M., Ponce, C.F. & Curonisy, Y. (2004). Woodrow Wilson Center working paper: Peace parks in the Cordillera del Cóndor mountain range and biodiversity conservation corridor. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Washington, D.C.
  22. ^Carius, A. (2006). “Environmental Peacebuilding: Conditions for Success.” Environmental Change and Security Report. No. 12, pp. 59-75.

Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the United Nations Environment Programme. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the United Nations Environment Programme should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.


This is a chapter from From Conflict to Peacebuilding: The Role of Natural Resources and the Environment (report).
Previous: Impacts of conflict on natural resources and the environment  |  Table of Contents  |  Next: Conclusions and policy recommendations




Programme, U. (2009). From Conflict to Peacebuilding: The role of natural resources and the environment in peacebuilding. Retrieved from


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