From The Vault: What War Hath Wrought

This time from The Vault, a prime example of my overthinking titles of my work (for another example, see my thesis). This is a final paper I wrote in 2012 for a 400 level conservation course, and talks about the difficulties of maintain conservation projects in war-torn regions, including interdisciplinary approaches and a half-baked idea for an NGO.

Sometimes called 'warfare ecology,' the topic is kind of a pet favourite of mine (one that I keep informed about but don't want to pursue). Once upon a time I wanted to rewrite this for a conservation or science journal as a non-fiction entry, but it's been so long that I would need to drastically update the sources. I hope that you enjoy it regardless; I consider it one of my best works. I consider an easy read, though it is 2000+ words. Adding images seems inappropriate given the subject matter, so I'll let the work speak for itself.

What War Hath Wrought
Conserving nature during wartime: perspectives, problems, and solutions
Kim Ferguson


         War is a term used to describe a sustained state of conflict between two or more identifiable bodies, whether it’s between nations or groups of people within a nation. Since 1945, over 160 wars have been waged around the world in some form (Dudley et al. 2002). The environmental impact of armed conflict has been studied closely and the effects are almost always detrimental in the long term (Dudley et al. 2002). Civil wars in particular are their own breed of turmoil due to the asymmetry of power and resources between combatants, as well as the geopolitical implications; international organizations and governments often keep out of civil conflict in order to appear unbiased until power is restored or redistributed (Plumptre et al. 2001). An indirect effect of war is the creation of refugee camps which have their own effect on the surrounding environment (Amstislavski 2006). Without diminishing the humanitarian purpose of refugee camps, interdisciplinary changes can made in the planning and implementation processes of refugee camps in order to reduce their impact on the environment. Finally, when it comes to international conservation efforts existing beforehand in areas of civil conflict, proactive measures can be taken to ensure that the harmful effects of war do not spread to these projects. This may also include the creation of a non-government organization that combines the scientific knowledge of conservation experts, but also the ethics and protocols present in similar organizations.

Ecological Effects of War

         Conflicts often disrupt government services, resulting in overhunting of food sources as well as trade of valuable or illegal animal and plant parts for monetary gain (Dudley et al. 2002). The idea of a ‘warfare refugium’ has often been used as a positive outcome of conflict; in times of conflict, areas of no-man’s land occur between warring factions, allowing wildlife to live in this human-free environment without disturbance (Dudley et al. 2002). This has been demonstrated in some cases, such as the Korean Demilitarized Zone; however, this has been found to be more of an exception than a rule due to the changing nature of warfare (Dudley et al. 2002; Binningsbø et al. 2007). Specific case studies highlight both the general effects of warfare as well as problems unique to certain conflicts. Poaching has a large impact on wildlife as military forces and peacekeepers alike are both the suppliers and consumers of wildlife products (Dudley et al. 2002). 

In the 1980s, reports of thousands of elephants and rhinos being slaughtered by the Angolan army for trade made international headlines (Chase & Griffin 2011). Current populations actively avoid areas with land mines due to learned behavior, altering their historical range and possibly fragmenting populations (Chase & Griffin 2011). Following the end of the war in 2002, elephant numbers are finally increasing in spite of continued poaching (Chase & Griffin 2011).

Case studies on conservation efforts during the Rwanda crisis in the 1990’s indicate that damages were felt across the country, including a 70% loss of the Akagera National Park (Plumptre et al. 2001). While relations between Rwanda and neighboring countries were maintained for gorilla protection, it did not have the same effect for other species (Martin et al. 2011). This was likely partially due to the large amount of infiltration of protected areas by both opportunistic poachers and displaced persons (Plumptre et al. 2001). 

In Sierra Leone, most conservation studies came to stop due to the conflict; universities were shut down while field sites were destroyed or abandoned (Decher et al. 2010). Development projects following the war were done so at a cost to natural areas, highlighting a need for increased conservation areas (Decher et al. 2010).

Conflicts in Asia are often typified by the use of defoliating substances such as Agent Orange in order to expose insurgents, leading to long-term effects then unknown during their hasty application (Dudley et al. 2002). The spraying of defoliants during the Vietnam War in the 1970s has been linked to large declines in carnivores, ungulates, and elephants (Dudley et al. 2002). This also led to a large invasion of alien plant species, changing the ecology and function of entire ecosystems (Dudley et al. 2002). Land mines, while not restricted to Asia, are often found intact and in large areas in Cambodia and are thus not suitable areas for endangered species, despite the area’s distance from human populations (Dudley et al. 2002). The influx of guns following the conflict in Cambodia led to an increase in poaching and violence against conservation officials and agents (Loucks et al. 2009). 

Manas National Park in northeastern India is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the site of a civil conflict between the local Bodo community and the regional government (Goswami & Ganesh 2011). The violence of the conflict caused widespread damage to the park, including extirpation of the Indian one-horned rhino and swamp deer (Goswami & Ganesh 2011). At the end of the conflict, the Park was restored through rehabilitation efforts and a well-researched management plan, with improvement in some ungulate populations  (Goswami & Ganesh 2011). 

Recent conflicts that occurred in Europe, such as the Bosnian War from 1992–1995, are not as well documented. This is despite the fact that ecologically significant areas are found in Bosnian region alone, such as the Danube, Neretva, and Sava Rivers (WWF 2011). This lack of research is noted by van Etten et al. 2008, who performed a GIS-based survey of forested areas in southeastern Turkey in order to validate claims related to the Turkish Army burning large swaths of forest. This counter-insurgency tactic was in response to the guerrilla forces of the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers Party), who were hiding in and around the villages within this forested area (van Etten et al. 2008). The result was not only detrimental to the PKK forces, but also to uninvolved civilians and wildlife of the area that were forced to flee (van Etten et al. 2008). In their conclusion, the authors offer geospatial methods of surveying as evidence of wartime atrocities, which can then be used by humanitarian and political organizations (van Etten et al. 2008).

In spite of insufficiencies in documenting conservation efforts throughout recent civil wars, a more global perspective is available and involves biodiversity hotspots. By combining species endemism and habitat loss, biodiversity hotspot classification has been gaining favor as a way to determine where conservation efforts should be based in order to save biodiversity (Hanson et al. 2009). However, recent assessments have shown that more than 90% of the major armed conflicts between 1950 and 2000 occurred within countries that contain biodiversity hotspots (Hanson et al. 2009).  More than 80% took place directly within the hotspots (Hanson et al. 2009). While this is more of a case of correlation than causation, combined with all available case study data, war is obviously a major obstacle to the success of conservation efforts worldwide.

Refugees: The Human Effect

An indirect effect of war is the creation of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). Refugees are individuals who seek refuge outside of their home country, whereas IDPs are forced away from their home territories, but are still within their home country (Amstislavski 2006). This human effect has a demonstrable impact on the local environment. Competition with local populations for resources such as water, food, and firewood are also apparent effects of refugee camps (Amstislavski 2006; Norwegian Refugee Council 2009). 

One criticism of the current way refugee camps are planned is a lack of integration of ecologically sound policies in management (Amstislavski 2006). Because refugee camps are set up quickly, ecological and local requirements of the area are overlooked (Amstislavski 2006). This impact is not felt until the camp is well established. To be responsible, camp management should address issues of sustainable and renewable resource use as well as the effect of the camp on the local community (Amstislavski 2006). 

The presence of an illegal game meat trade is an example of such effects. Environmental and humanitarian groups alike acknowledge that this situation is predictable due to the World Food Programme’s stance on providing camps with protein choices that are not culturally significant, and so this market occurs (RedOrbit 2008). This has been studied first hand in Tanzania, a country with several refugee camps sheltering populations from neighboring nations, where a policy exists that diminishes self-reliance of refugees (Jambiya et al. 2007). This policy in turn encourages game meat markets to emerge as an illegal form of self-reliance to meet the demand in camps (Jambiya et al. 2007). While international bodies are in place to monitor wildlife trade, it is only one way to address a large problem, and is not necessarily specific to refugee camps. Additionally, few scientific studies exist to show the effect of refugee camps on local wildlife. Only studies that occur after a camp has been discontinued, and these results cannot be directly linked (Jambiya et al. 2007). 

These criticisms need to be addressed in order to determine the impact of refugee camps on local wildlife and conservation efforts so that policies and efforts to reduce biodiversity loss can be effective. Recommendations have been made through agencies such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF); suggestions include placing camps at least 15 km away from ecologically significant areas and educating camp residents on game meat and its impacts (Jambiya et al. 2007). This approach is interdisciplinary, involving issues of ecology, education, sociology, and policy. A similar approach is recommended for conservation projects in area of conflict. 

A Pro-active & Interdisciplinary Approach to Conservation

While the problems caused by war can be disastrous to conservation efforts, improvements to the structure and operation of conservation efforts can be made to reduce its impact. It’s difficult to judge when a country or region can reach a state of civil turmoil, and it would also be ecologically irresponsible to entirely avoid areas that may appear to be more prone to war, so these measures need to be enacted at a far-reaching level in order to become useful. This is especially true in instances of civil war, where the political and resource asymmetry as well as the geopolitical implications of outside involvement often leads to long-lasting conflicts. While little work has been done on determining the impact of war on the effectiveness of certain conservation project structures, some of the previously mentioned case studies offer their own suggestions in retrospective. A pro-active and interdisciplinary approach is most applicable, and the lessons learned by previous methods are often the best place to start.

The largest and most cited study to do so is a survey of conservation efforts and results during the Rwanda crisis in the early 1990’s, where the lessons learned from the experience of many individuals involved is given at face value (Plumptre et al 2001). In order to have a conservation project get through a civil crisis the most important factor (at least in Rwanda) was to maintain a presence, especially of locally trained and supported individuals (Plumptre et al. 2001). Because many senior staff members were forced to flee due to the racial and cultural motivations of the civil conflict, having junior officers that were well informed and trained was necessary (Plumptre et al. 2001). Two things are required to maintain a presence: funding and committed individuals. Funding is often pulled when a war breaks out, so organizations should be prepared to have a funding model that deals with civil and national conflicts (Plumptre et al 2001). Committed individuals were not necessarily monetarily motivated, as many staff members went without pay with the belief that back pay or regular yet reduced stipends could be given (Plumptre et al. 2001). It is necessary that individuals have close ties to the areas they are caring for, and truly believe in the cause (Plumptre et al. 2001). This supports a model of employing locals who are receptive to training and care about their home. This also allows the local settlements to support conservation projects, since local individuals work there, fostering a sense of community and protection. Senior staff took up their roles from a safer location, and raised funds in order to support their junior counterparts throughout the conflict (Plumptre et al. 2001). There were costs to several projects in Rwanda, including the human cost paid by some staff members (Plumptre et al. 2001). 

Planning ahead was another recommendation to come out of Rwandan conservation efforts, and directly addresses concerns for staff safety during times of conflict (Plumptre et al. 2001). Risk management is therefore key for all projects that continue through periods of conflict, and can be used effectively to reduce losses. Plans of action for different threat levels should be determined in the planning stage of the project, and continually updated throughout the project’s existence (Plumptre et al. 2001). Additional recommendations included training junior staff, as well as keeping on senior staff in an effective way until they can return as a responsible business practice (Plumptre et al. 2001). The maintenance of neutrality in times of conflict is hopefully omnipresent in the goals of conservation projects, as retaliatory actions from either side of a conflict are an unnecessary risk to projects that take sides (Plumptre et al. 2001). The final recommendation relates to communications, both in providing up-to-date technologies for communications, as well as maintaining communication with local populations in a meaningful way to all parties (Plumptre et al. 2001). By keeping in contact with local populations and communities, conservation projects can likely depend on these communities as an ally later on should conflict occur.

These principles are reflected in the principles of some major international conservation associations. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) includes in their stated organizational values not only “integrity and ethical behavior,” but also “fair, inclusive and transparent decision making” (IUCN). They also emphasize “clear responsibilities and accountabilities for achieving the Mission, responding to stakeholders, caring for staff and conducting business with stakeholders and suppliers” (IUCN). These values touch upon the ideals that not only are local populations important, but that all members of their projects are important, and deserve to be informed. 

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has a similar discourse in their Code of Ethics, including, “a global, independent, multicultural and non-party political” approach, and “[involving] local communities and indigenous peoples in the planning and execution of […] field programmes” (WWF). These principles are necessary for impactful conservation projects, as well as the basis of an ethical approach to issues that often affect people. Projects undertaken by smaller organizations, such as academic field research or regional conservation strategies, would do well to adopt similar policies in order to be preemptive against the possible effects of war on conservation.

An additional approach to management is co-management, where the duty and responsibility of managing a natural resource (such as timber or fish) is shared by the government, industry, and local users (Leys & Vanclay 2010). The idea of co-management arose from an interdisciplinary approach found in areas that study societal structures and building trust (Leys & Vanclay 2010). This approach has allowed for a more holistic approach to conservation that reduces the imposition upon locals to adapt to conservation projects. Instead, it educates locals who are then able to still benefit from the resource under threat in a sustainable way. This in turn allows for local populations to see the value in conservation projects. Most of the principles found in the previous recommendations for conservation in war zones are present in co-management structures, but there are few studies on co-management projects subject to conflicts such as war, and so the ability to support co-management in areas of conflict is limited.

What else can be done?

Numerous groups exist to extend professional help towards conflict-related problems, one of which is suitable models of an organization that is ethically and professionally aware of its role within conflict. Engineers Without Borders (EWB) is “an international organization whose members deliver sustainable solutions to developing communities worldwide and make use of their diverse technical expertise to solve critical problems affecting the health of our planet” (EWB 2011). Respected throughout the humanitarian sector, EWB seeks only to provide aid and guidance to local populations where required. EWB in particular advocates for sustainable practices (EWB 2011). What would there be to gain from a similar organization for conservation biologists? If there was an organization, such as Conservation Biologists Without Borders, to continue the trend, it would allow conservation biologists to offer their knowledge in situations such as conservation efforts during war-time. Additionally, such an organization could inform conservation projects of best practices in problematic regions, as well as consult with humanitarian organizations on refugee camps. Adopting similar values and approaches as seen in the WWF, IUCN, and EWB, such an organization would be able to provide an apolitical, scientific, and ethical presence to the situations described previously, and perhaps prevent more damage to the world’s biodiversity and natural integrity.


 The effects of war on the environment are staggering and unlikely to diminish in the near future. This includes both direct effects such as resource use and poaching, as well as indirect effects such as the need for refugee camps. While conflict is hardly desired, it occurs, and conservation projects should be able to respond appropriately in order to diminish any harm done to the project’s goals and personnel. This includes planning for the worst with risk management in mind, as well as employing well-trained and dedicated staff with local ties. Conservation projects should endeavor to reflect the values and approaches found in international organizations. Finally, there may be need for a non-government organization dedicated to providing on-the-ground knowledge and support to areas of crisis. All things considered, conservation professionals have the ability to assist conservation efforts during times of conflicts, and only require the means to do so in a safely and ethical way.

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Word Count: 2976
Citation in the style of Conservation Biology.


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