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Richest biological regions found to suffer most wars

Feb. 21, 2009
Courtesy Conservation International
and World Science staff

More than four in five wars from 1950 to 2000 oc­curred in re­gions iden­ti­fied as Earth’s most bi­o­log­ic­ally di­verse and threat­ened, a study has found.

The re­search by con­serva­t­ion sci­en­tists com­pared a list of ma­jor con­flict zones with that of Earth’s 34 bio­divers­ity hotspots iden­ti­fied by Ar­ling­ton, Va.-based en­vi­ron­men­tal group Con­serva­t­ion In­terna­t­ional. 

The hotspots are con­sid­ered con­serva­t­ion pri­or­i­ties be­cause they con­tain the whole popula­t­ions of more than half of all plant spe­cies and at least 42 per­cent of all ver­te­brates, and are highly threat­ened.

“This as­tound­ing con­clu­sion – that the rich­est store­hous­es of life on Earth are al­so the re­gions of the most hu­man con­flict – tells us that these ar­eas are es­sen­tial for both bio­divers­ity con­serva­t­ion and hu­man well-being,” said Rus­sell A. Mit­ter­meier, pres­ident of Con­serva­t­ion In­terna­t­ional and an au­thor of the stu­dy. 

“Mil­lions of the world’s poor­est peo­ple live in hotspots and de­pend on healthy ecosys­tems for their sur­viv­al, so there is a mor­al obliga­t­ion – as well as po­lit­i­cal and so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity – to pro­tect these places and all the re­sources and ser­vic­es they pro­vide.”

The study found that more than 90 per­cent of ma­jor armed con­flicts – de­fined as those re­sult­ing in more than 1,000 deaths – oc­curred in coun­tries that con­tain one of the hotspots, while 81 per­cent took place with­in spe­cif­ic hotspots. A to­tal of 23 hotspots ex­pe­ri­enced war­fare over the half-cen­tu­ry stud­ied.

Ex­am­ples of the nature-con­flict con­nec­tion in­clude the Vi­et­nam War, when poi­son­ous Agent Or­ange de­stroyed for­est co­ver and coast­al man­groves, and tim­ber har­vest­ing that funded war chests in Li­be­ria, Cam­bo­dia and Con­go, re­search­ers said. In those and oth­er cases, war’s col­lat­er­al dam­age harmed both the bi­o­log­ical wealth of the re­gion and the abil­ity of peo­ple to live off of it.

In ad­di­tion, war refugees must hunt, gath­er fire­wood or build en­camp­ments, adding pres­sure on lo­cal re­sources, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors not­ed. More weapons means in­creased hunt­ing for bush meat and wide­spread poach­ing that can dec­i­mate wild­life popula­t­ions – such as 95 per­cent of the hip­po­pot­a­mus slaugh­tered in Con­go’s Virunga Na­tional Park.

“The con­se­quenc­es ex­tend far be­yond the ac­tu­al fight­ing,” said lead au­thor Thor Han­son of the Uni­ver­s­ity of Ida­ho. “War prepara­t­ions and lin­ger­ing post-con­flict ac­ti­vi­ties al­so have im­por­tant im­plica­t­ions for bio­divers­ity hotspots and the peo­ple who live there.”

In to­tal, the hotspots are home to a ma­jor­ity of the world’s 1.2 bil­lion poor­est peo­ple who rely on the re­sources and ser­vic­es pro­vid­ed by nat­u­ral ecosys­tems for their daily sur­viv­al, ac­cord­ing to Con­serva­t­ion In­terna­t­ional. En­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns tend to fade in times of so­cial dis­rup­tion, and con­serva­t­ion ac­ti­vi­ties of­ten get sus­pended dur­ing ac­tive con­flicts. Yet war al­so pro­vides oc­ca­sion­al con­serva­t­ion op­por­tun­i­ties, such as the crea­t­ion of “Peace Parks” along con­tested bor­ders.

“The fact that so many con­flicts have oc­curred in ar­eas of high bio­divers­ity loss and nat­u­ral re­source de­grada­t­ion war­rants much fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­t­ion as to the un­der­ly­ing caus­es,” Mit­ter­meier said.

The study con­clud­ed that the in­terna­t­ional com­mun­ity must de­vel­op and main­tain pro­grams in war-torn re­gions if they are to ef­fec­tively con­serve bio­divers­ity and keep ecosys­tems healthy. Pub­lished in the re­search jour­nal Con­serva­t­ion Bi­ol­o­gy, the study al­so called for in­te­grat­ing con­serva­t­ion strate­gies and prin­ci­ples in­to mil­i­tary, re­con­struc­tion and hu­manitarian pro­grams in con­flict zones.


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More than 80 percent of the world’s wars from 1950 to 2000 occurred in regions identified as Earth’s most biologically diverse and threatened, a study has found. The research by conservation scientists compared a list of major conflict zones with that of Earth’s 34 biodiversity hotspots identified by the Arlington, Va.-based environmental group Conservation International. The hotspots are considered conservation priorities because they contain the whole populations of more than half of all plant species and at least 42 percent of all vertebrates, and are highly threatened. “This astounding conclusion – that the richest storehouses of life on Earth are also the regions of the most human conflict – tells us that these areas are essential for both biodiversity conservation and human well-being,” said Russell A. Mittermeier, president of Conservation International and an author of the study. “Millions of the world’s poorest people live in hotspots and depend on healthy ecosystems for their survival, so there is a moral obligation – as well as political and social responsibility – to protect these places and all the resources and services they provide.” The study found that more than 90 percent of major armed conflicts – defined as those resulting in more than 1,000 deaths – occurred in countries that contain one of the 34 biodiversity hotspots, while 81 percent took place within specific hotspots. A total of 23 hotspots experienced warfare over the half-century studied. Examples of the nature-conflict connection include the Vietnam War, when poisonous Agent Orange destroyed forest cover and coastal mangroves, and timber harvesting that funded war chests in Liberia, Cambodia and Congo, researchers said. In those and other cases, war’s collateral damage harmed both the biological wealth of the region and the ability of people to live off of it. In addition, war refugees must hunt, gather firewood or build encampments, adding pressure on local resources, the investigators noted. More weapons means increased hunting for bush meat and widespread poaching that can decimate wildlife populations – such as 95 percent of the hippopotamus slaughtered in Congo’s Virunga National Park. “The consequences extend far beyond the actual fighting,” said lead author Thor Hanson of the University of Idaho. “War preparations and lingering post-conflict activities also have important implications for biodiversity hotspots and the people who live there.” In total, the hotspots are home to a majority of the world’s 1.2 billion poorest people who rely on the resources and services provided by natural ecosystems for their daily survival, according to Conservation International. Environmental concerns tend to fade in times of social disruption, and conservation activities often get suspended during active conflicts. Yet war also provides occasional conservation opportunities, such as the creation of “Peace Parks” along contested borders. “The fact that so many conflicts have occurred in areas of high biodiversity loss and natural resource degradation warrants much further investigation as to the underlying causes,” Mittermeier said. The study concluded that the international community must develop and maintain programs in war-torn regions if they are to effectively conserve biodiversity and keep ecosystems healthy. Published in the research journal Conservation Biology, the study also called for integrating conservation strategies and principles into military, reconstruction and humanitarian programs in conflict zones.