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Western Consumer Demand Fuels Resource Wars in Poor Nations
Published on Saturday, October 19, 2002 by
Western Consumer Demand Fuels Resource Wars in Poor Nations
by Jim Lobe

Consumer demand in Western industrialized countries for sophisticated electronic equipment and luxury goods earned at least US$12 billion last year for rebels groups, rapacious governments, and warlords in resource-rich developing nations around the world, according to a new report released by the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C. Thursday.

The 91-page report, 'The Anatomy of Resource Wars,' found that local conflicts over control of diamonds, tropical hardwoods, and other minerals like coltan, which is used in the production of cell phones and other electronic equipment, have killed or uprooted more than 20 million people, most of them in Africa, over the past decade.

"From Colombia to Angola to Afghanistan, people are dying every day because consumer societies import and use materials irrespective of where they originate," according the author, Michael Renner.

"If you purchase a cell phone, you may very well be paying to keep the war going in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), 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."

But the biggest resource looter over the past decade, according to the report, was the UNITA rebel group in Angola which finally collapsed after its founder and long-time leader, Jonas Savimbi was killed in combat earlier this year. Between 1992 and 2001, according to the report, the insurgency sold an estimated $4-4.2 billion in diamonds mined by its forces in the northeastern part of the country.

Diamonds were also a leading source of money and arms for rebels in Sierra Leone who gained international notoriety during the latter part of the 1990s by hacking off the limbs of unarmed civilians to terrorize surrounding populations.

Such groups have benefited from economic globalization, according to Renner. "The enormous expansion in global trade, coupled with lax or corrupt customs officials, has made access to key markets relatively easy for warring groups," he said.

"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," he added.

Although rebel and government armies battle for control of the resources, most of the violence in such conflicts are directed against civilians.

In addition to the violence used to maintain control of local populations, fighting groups often forcibly recruit boys into their ranks and girls as sex slaves for older commanders. The same armies also draft civilians, including children, to extract resources without compensation.

Resource wars also tend to take place in or near areas that are of significant environmental value, according to the report, which cited conflicts over mineral and timber resources in ecologically highly sensitive forests in the DRC, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Colombia as major examples. In many cases, indigenous populations are also threatened.

While diamonds fed conflicts in Angola and Sierra Leone, control over timber has played a major role in conflicts in Liberia, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Myanmar (formerly Burma), while drugs have fueled wars in Afghanistan and Colombia. Ownership disputes over oil fields and pipelines have also contributed to conflicts in Colombia and Sudan, according to the report.

Recent media attention about resource-driven conflicts has spurred growing calls for global rules to ban goods acquired in this way from being traded on global markets. Among the most important efforts is a certification system that would track individual diamonds from their source through international commercial channels in order to assure the eventual buyer that they are not purchasing "blood diamonds."

In addition to endorsing a strong certification system, Worldwatch is calling for the adoption of corporate codes of conduct in resource extraction industries; support for activist campaigns that "name and shame" companies that profit from illicit commerce; and new regulations that would require companies to become more transparent in their dealings in resource-rich countries.

Renner also urges stronger efforts to reduce the availability of small arms, a major feature of resource conflicts, by adopting stricter export regimes, regulating arms brokers, and better marking and tracing of weapons.

More generally, the report calls for development aid to promote greater diversification of resource-rich developing economies in order to reduce their dependence on the resources which have spurred so much conflict.

Copyright © 2002


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