Demand for cheap resources on the part of the rich nations has done more than contribute to environmental rape and pillage in poor countries. In many cases, it has led to what have become known as "resource wars,"47 conflicts either caused by attempts to appropriate the natural riches of less powerful nations or minority groups, or begun for other reasons but financed by those natural riches. It is an old story that is still being acted out and in some instances intensified. In the 1990s, resource wars killed an estimated 5 million people, created almost 6 million international refugees, and displaced between 11 and 15 million people within nations.48
Sometimes these struggles have been over prestige resources: one of the bloodiest recent wars was fought in Sierra Leone and Liberia over diamonds. A more important resource, copper, helped to fuel a bloody civil war on Bougainville, an island province of Papua New Guinea. Thousands died, most of them civilians, in a conflict that lasted longer than a decade. The causes included environmental damage from the world's largest open-pit copper mine and disagreement over who was going to control the revenue stream from the mine, as well as a complex of other regional issues.49 As is so often the case, raw political power was brought to bear to make a profit, and in the process the environment was destroyed.
In the 1970s in the province of Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra, Indonesia, timber resources were being legally and illegally harvested by cronies of the dictator Suharto, backed by his military forces. Great environmental degradation was also being caused by the construction and operation of a huge liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant, again backed by the power of the government and a multinational corporation. These activities led to intense local resentment because people were displaced from their homes and their agricultural and aquacultural activities were disrupted. That resentment drove the Acehnese to rebellion in 1976. The revolt was swiftly put down, but a second uprising in the late 1980s resulted in an army campaign of torture and rape and the killing of more than a thousand civilians. Fighting between rebels and the government has continued, with thousands of deaths, despite intermittent truces. As recently as May 2003, a government offensive was launched with the goal of wiping out the rebels.50 The guerillas' major target is the LNG plant operated by the ExxonMobil Corporation. It has been alleged that ExxonMobil's hands have been far from clean; according to Michael Renner of the Worldwatch Institute, the company "paid the military to provide security for its operations, provided equipment to dig mass graves, and allowed its facilities to be used by the military for torture and other activities."51
These examples represent a tip of the iceberg of rebellions sparked by environmentally destructive exploitation of mineral resources by multinational corporations. Too often, the rebellions have been brutally put down by the host country's government at the instigation of the exploiting corporation. Among recent such upheavals have been protests over Royal Dutch/Shell's environmental destruction in the Ogoni region of Nigeria; disturbances in West Irian over damage, despoliation, and displacement of local people by the huge open-pit copper and gold mine of Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold; and the Occidental Petroleum Corporation's environmental impacts and resultant battles with indigenous groups in Colombia.52 Such conflicts seem likely only to increase as demand by the affluent for resources, from diamonds, copper, and gold to oil and gas, drives suppliers to seek and extract them in places not already heavily exploited, heedless of the costs to local citizens. Governments of poor countries, needing the income from such exports, too often are unable or disinclined to exert any control over the environmental consequences.
The direct human costs of resource wars are bad enough. But the added costs in environmental degradation caused by resource exploitation by the powerful in the homelands of the poor—the deforestation, the poisoning of land with mine wastes and of rivers with long-lived industrial pollutants, and so on—adds a burden that will be passed on to many future generations. Unless the international community can find a way to regulate the environment-damaging activities of the extracting industries, the far-flung wars and destruction will doubtless continue. Fortunately, a movement is growing to push multinationals into more responsible behavior, using pressure from large stockholder blocs, unfavorable publicity, lawsuits by individual communities, and increased liability insurance costs. There are some signs that it's beginning to work.53
Nevertheless, imposition of environmental costs on people in developing regions seems likely to continue. Resource exploitation by giant corporations seems necessary to maintain the overconsuming way of life of the affluent and, all too often, line the pockets of the corporations' political cronies. That burden is extended to the poor in industrial countries when politicians use the pretext of terrorism to divert attention and funds away from needed environmental and social programs and into conflicts designed to maintain profits and resource hegemony.
Recent victims of wars related to fossil fuels were, in 2001-2002, the people of Afghanistan, where natural gas was the main resource in play.54 In the case of Afghanistan, the war was incited by terrorists involved in the 9/11 attack, most of them from Saudi Arabia, who were enraged by the presence of U.S. troops in their oil-rich country. On the excuse that the instigator of the attack, Osama bin Laden, was being protected by the Taliban, George W Bush sent American troops to attack Afghanistan. About a year later, the Bush administration got an agreement for a $3.2 billion pipeline project to carry gas from Turkmenistan's rich gas fields across Afghanistan to Pakistan.55 Signing the deal for Afghanistan was President Hamid Karzai, a former consultant to Unocal Corporation, the U.S. company that had long pressed for the project56 but had been thwarted by the diplomatic isolation of the Taliban.57 Unocal will now be the lead company on the project.58
Was this article helpful?