Environmental peacebuilding must pay more attention to armed groups (commentary)

Environmental peacebuilding must pay more attention to armed groups (commentary)

  • State and non-state armed groups often play crucial roles in conflict and cooperation over natural resources.
  • Environmental peacebuilding examines how addressing resource conflict and improving governance can serve as a stepping stone for broader efforts at peace.
  • Though much research and programming of this sort speaks of governments and communities as the main conflict parties, armed parties should also be considered conflict actors in their own right.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Environmental peacebuilding is a rapidly grow field of research and practice. It examines how addressing conflicts over natural resources and improving resource governance can serve as a stepping stone for broader peacebuilding efforts. These ideas have also been applied to the domain of biodiversity conservation, building on earlier thinking around conflict-sensitive conservation.

State and non-state armed actors often play crucial roles in conflict and cooperation over natural resources. This is certainly the case in protected areas mired in armed conflict, where armed actors are involved in both illegal resource exploitation and law enforcement. However, neither the theory nor the practice of environmental peacebuilding pays explicit attention to armed actors.

As we argue in a recent report based on research in protected areas in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), this oversight is problematic. Armed actors can both hamper and reinforce environmental peacebuilding interventions in important ways. Analyzing how and why this occurs will strengthen both environmental peacebuilding’s effectiveness and its theoretical underpinnings.

Kahuzi-Biega National Park rangers stand in formation at the park in October, 2016. Photo by Thomas Nicolon for Mongabay.

Armed actors shape resource governance

In many protected areas around the world, rebel forces, government soldiers and sometimes also park rangers are involved in organizing and facilitating resource exploitation. This includes bushmeat hunting, mining, timber felling, charcoal production, and illegal fishing. Such involvement shapes the outcomes of initiatives to combat destructive resource exploitation and improve resource governance, which environmental peacebuilding theory holds can strengthen peace by improving livelihoods.

Yet the role of armed actors in resource exploitation is highly variable. Sometimes these actors fully organize the exploitation and trade themselves and reap most of the profits. In other cases, however, they merely authorize exploitation to happen, implying they prevent interference from law enforcement in exchange for “taxes”. The motivations for armed actors to get involved in resource exploitation are equally diverse and go beyond simple enrichment.

In the DRC, members of state services, including the national armed forces, are under pressure to generate additional income not only because they receive meagre salaries, but also because their hierarchy expects them to channel up a cut of these additional earnings. Some non-state armed groups facilitate resource exploitation in protected areas in part because the communities they issue from disagree with conservation measures and have limited alternative livelihoods opportunities. This has occurred, for instance, in the Nyamilima area near Virunga National Park, where community self-defense groups known as “Mai-Mai” have helped farmers violate the park’s contested boundaries by cultivating inside the park.

Armed actors’ involvement in resource exploitation also has indirect effects on resource governance. The widespread involvement of the Congolese armed forces in illegal resource exploitation in protected areas gives such exploitation a veneer of legitimacy and therefore undermines upholding conservation laws. This is especially the case where resource exploitation is highly environmentally destructive. In and around both the Okapi Wildlife Reserve and the Itombwe Nature Reserve, Congolese army units protect semi-industrial mining operations that involve the large-scale clearing of forest and the perturbation of riverine ecosystems through dredging. This undermines the credibility of the state’s commitment to biodiversity protection. Because of the bad behavior of the involved troops, it also deteriorates state-society relations, which in turn undermines the state’s resource governance capabilities.

The variations in how, why and to what extent armed actors are involved in resource exploitation should be carefully taken into account in environmental peacebuilding practice. Understanding these variations can help mitigate the resistance of armed actors to end or reform resources exploitation. It can also prevent such initiatives from having unwanted effects, such as reinforcing popular support for non-state armed groups that violate conservation regulations.

Image via ‘Young female fighters in African wars: conflict and its consequences’ by Chris Coulter, Mariam Persson and Mats Utas / Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, 2008 via Matchnox Media Collection (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
Image via ‘Young female fighters in African wars: conflict and its consequences’ by Chris Coulter, Mariam Persson and Mats Utas / Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, 2008 via Matchnox Media Collection (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Armed actors affect conflict and cooperation over natural resources

Armed actors also influence environmental peacebuilding because of their salience in resource-related conflicts. They shape these conflicts not only through their involvement in resource exploitation, but also by affecting their symbolic dimensions, which are often related to identity, and by raising their security stakes.

At the edge of the Itombwe Nature Reserve in the Hauts Plateaux area of South Kivu, armed groups have aggravated inter-community tensions that are entwined with agropastoral conflicts. Mai-Mai groups have justified raids on cattle by profiling themselves as defenders of farming communities whose fields occasionally get trampled upon by cattle, thus giving their violence a symbolic dimension. Other armed groups, which generally issue from the Banyamulenge community, have portrayed themselves as protectors of cattle. This too has a symbolic meaning, as cattle plays a crucial role in the wealth and wellbeing of the Banyamulenge. The violence committed by these different armed groups has hampered efforts to resolve the complex range of conflicts informing armed mobilization, including those pitting farmers against cattle-keepers.

Armed actors do not only undermine, but can also promote inter-group or inter-state collaboration over natural resources management and environmental issues. In the Greater Virunga Transboundary Landscape, collaboration between para-military ranger services has occasionally strengthened relations between Uganda, the DRC and Rwanda in the conservation domain. Yet as shown by the recent incursion of the rebel group M23 in Virunga National Park – which has sparked important tensions between the DRC and its neighbors, accused of supporting the rebels – the overall effects on improving inter-state relations remain limited.

Especially in tension-laden situations, the behavior of armed actors can make an important difference for whether tensions will escalate or dissipate. Moreover, where civilian governance structures are weak, which is often the case in conflict and post-conflict areas, armed actors play a prominent role in conflict regulation. Environmental peacebuilding theory and practice should take this role better into account and consider when, where and how armed actors can reinforce or undermine conflict and collaboration over natural resources.

Scientist Mathias D’haen (l) rides through Garamba National Park with a ranger. Photo by Thomas Nicolon for Mongabay.
Scientist Mathias D’haen (l) rides through Garamba National Park with a ranger. Photo by Thomas Nicolon for Mongabay.

Strengthening environmental peacebuilding theory and practice

Much environmental peacebuilding research and programming speaks about “governments” and “communities” as the main conflict parties. Yet armed actors should be considered conflict actors in their own right. In many countries, there are considerable tensions between the civilian and military branches of government. Moreover, while many armed groups claim to defend communities, they cannot be considered to represent these communities. Even when deeply embedded in society, armed organizations hold separate institutional interests and dynamics. They should therefore be analyzed separately in environmental peacebuilding research and programming.

The fact that environmental peacebuilding has generally been silent on armed actors can be explained by its tendency to address what are generally very sensitive resource-related issues in a technical and neutral manner. This approach aims to foster collaboration over these issues in a non-confrontational manner in order to enhance trust-building. However, a technical outlook leads to disregarding unequal power relations and socioeconomic structures, the transformation of which is a requirement for establishing peace in the long term. A more systematic focus on armed actors can help overcome these depoliticizing tendencies within environmental peacebuilding, which can help increase its effectiveness.

Environmental peacebuilders should also consider engaging directly with armed actors or their civilian representatives. They could ask these groups, for instance, to clarify their position on environmental matters and resource-related conflicts and outline how they shape resource governance in the areas under their control. Armed actors or their representatives could also be included in workshops, consultations, trainings, talks, and other activities. This certainly comes with a number of risks, especially where it concerns non-state armed actors. The latter could inadvertently gain legitimacy when included in such initiatives, while their inclusion may also lead to weakening or crowding out civilian voices. Where these drawbacks can be overcome, however, there could be substantial benefits.

The creation of the Itombwe Nature Reserve between 2006 and 2016 is a case in point. During this process, representatives from various Mai-Mai groups in the Itombwe Sector participated in meetings and workshops to establish the boundaries of the reserve. Representatives of one group, the Mai-Mai Aoci, even participated in a micro-zoning project in the Mwana Valley—part of the reserve—to establish areas for different types of land use such as conservation, human habitation, and livelihood activities. So far, these groups have not actively contested the outcomes of the zoning process or the reserve itself. While this cannot be uniquely ascribed to their involvement in the activities accompanying the reserve’s establishment, this involvement seems to be at least a part of the explanation.

These different examples from eastern DRC show that both state armed forces and nonstate armed groups play an important role in crucial dimensions of environmental peacebuilding processes. While the salience of armed actors in eastern DRC may be higher than elsewhere, there are numerous other contexts, such as the Central African Republic, Colombia and Myanmar, where armed groups similarly heavily shape resource governance and resource-related conflict, including in conservation areas. Analysis of experiences with armed actors in these contexts is often limited to individual case studies. There is an urgent need to gather this scattered evidence in order to analyze the role of armed actors in environmental peacebuilding in a more systematic and comparative manner and to identify a set of best practices.


Judith Verweijen is an Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations at the University of Groningen. Her work is situated at the intersection of conflict studies, political ecology and political geography. She looks at militarization, dynamics of violence and the interplay of armed and social mobilization in natural resource conflicts in areas of protracted violence. She focuses on eastern DRC, where she has conducted intermittent fieldwork since 2010.

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: A discussion about conflict over resources in one of the world’s most important tropical forest nations. Listen here:

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South Africa Today – Environment

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