Study reveals war's devastating impact on nature

Posted: 16 March 2009

Author: Don Hinrichsen

Most wars that have taken place in the last 60 years have occurred in areas rich in biodiversity, with a devastating impact on wild plants and animals, according to a new study published in the scientific journal, Conservation Biology.

The Vietnam War (or the American War as the Vietnamese refer to it) saw the widespread use of deadly defoliates, such as Agent Orange, across wide areas of pristine tropical forest and mangrove swamps – areas containing a wide diversity of plants and animals. Other recent wars in Liberia, Cambodia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo were funded in part through large-scale timber harvesting.

Over 80 per cent of the major armed conflicts that raged between 1950 and 2000 took place in 34 regions of the world known as biodiversity 'hot spots' – areas that contain more than half of all plant species and some 40% of all vertebrates, with large numbers of unique, endemic species.

In all, nearly three quarters (23) of the world’s 34 biological hot spots were embroiled in conflict during the second half of the 20th Century. The study noted that more than 90 per cent of the major wars fought during the past 50 years occurred in countries that contain at least one biodiversity hot spot.

Fragile platform

According to the principal author of the study, Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International, an environmental NGO based in Washington DC, these centres of biodiversity are often found in poor countries with rapidly growing human populations, forces that put intense pressures on wildlife habitat.

“You are looking at a very fragile platform on which human and other life depends,” said Mittermeier. “Any slight perturbation for political reasons or whatever, results in stress within human populations. And very often that erupts into violent conflict.”

The study’s authors urged conservation groups to work more closely with military, reconstruction and humanitarian aid programmes in conflict zones.

Don Hinrichsen is a Contributing Editor of this website