Consumer luxuries fuel 'resource wars', says study

Posted: 15 October 2002

The world's insatiable demand for cellular phones and other consumer luxuries is fueling violent conflict and killing millions in developing countries, reports a new study from the Worldwatch Institute.

Brutal wars over natural resources like coltan - a mineral that keeps cell phones and other electronic equipment functioning - diamonds, tropical woods, and other rare materials have killed or displaced more than 20 million people and are raising at least $12 billion a year for rebels, warlords, repressive governments, and other predatory groups around the world.

"From Colombia to Angola to Afghanistan people are dying every day because consumer societies import and use materials irrespective of where they originate," says Worldwatch Institute senior researcher, Michael Renner, author of The Anatomy of Resource Wars. "If you purchase a cell phone, for example, you may very well be paying to keep the war going in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where rival armies fight for control over deposits of coltan, a commodity that just over a decade ago had little commercial value, but is now vital for the one billion plus cell phones in use today."

"The enormous expansion in global trade, coupled with lax or corrupt customs officials, has made access to key markets relatively easy for warring groups. Companies and rich nations that benefit from cheap raw materials have long turned a blind eye to the destruction at their source, and most consumers don't know that a number of common purchases bear the invisible imprint of violence," Renner says.

Most of the violence in resource-related conflicts is directed against civilians. Grotesque practices like hacking off limbs serve to terrorize local populations into submission or flight. Young boys are often turned into child soldiers and girls into sex slaves for older fighters. Child and slave labour is used to extract the resources. More than five million people were killed in resource-driven conflicts during the 1990s. Another 5-6 million fled to neighbouring countries, and anywhere from 11 to 15 million people were displaced inside the borders of their home countries.

In addition to the human toll these wars take, many resource-related conflicts are being fought in or near areas of great environmental value, accelerating deforestation and decimating populations of gorillas, elephants, and other wildlife.

In order to curb resource wars and inform consumers about their purchases, Renner is calling for the following actions:

  • Develop strong global certification systems for diamonds, timber, and other resources in order to track the origins of commodities and screen out those produced and traded illicitly in conflict areas.

  • Improve the capacity of international organisations and governments to monitor compliance with embargoes against commodities from conflict zones and enforce sanctions, so that traffickers can no longer operate with impunity.

  • Develop corporate codes of conduct in resource extraction industries. Support NGO campaigns that "name and shame" companies into doing business in more responsible ways, and increase corporate transparency and accountability.

  • Reduce the availability of small arms, the weapons of choice in many conflicts, by establishing stricter national export criteria, regulating arms brokers, marking and tracing weapons, and improving collection of surplus arms.

  • Promote democracy, justice, greater respect for human rights and responsible government.

  • Diversify economies away from a strong dependence on primary commodities by investing in human development, creating more job opportunities, and improving health and education services.

In an effort to distribute its publications in an eco-friendly way, Worldwatch are making this publication available electronically. Click on the link below to access your own copy:The Anatomy of Resource Wars