War and biodiversity
Today National Geographic reports on how important is to study biodiversity in conflict areas. War and wildlife happen more often than expected to be found in the same places. But it’s also true that violent conflicts usually stop or at least diminish the impacts of the main drivers of biodiversity loss. It’s not a topic that actually attract a lot of scientist. Who would be likely to risk life to study biological diversity? Although I’ve been a bit far away from the related literature, some of my professors studying landscape change in my country, Colombia, have found similar patterns: there is a correlation amongst biodiversity hotspots and violence, conflict or war. I don’t claim war is good for biodiversity; it’s clearly not the case either. Here some lessons from Afghanistan:
Afghanistan Animals Not Out of the Woods
For example, satellite studies show that Nuristan’s forest cover has been greatly reduced during the past two decades, and it’s still disappearing today.
“If this continues, I think we’ll see the last of the larger animals disappear from the area,” Zahler said. “We were delighted that there is wildlife here, but its long-term survival is still very much in question.”
Some deforestation is the result of people cutting trees for fuel or building materials, but the bulk of forest loss is driven by timber industries, which are able to operate with little oversight or regulation in the politically unstable region, Zahler said. The violence has “created a lack of management,” he said. “It’s not complete lawlessness, but a lot of cultural institutions have been degraded to the point where it’s more of a free-for-all—which I think has greatly accelerated the drain on natural resources.”
And when local people sell timber rights for a pittance, Zahler added, it’s not only animals that suffer—people also lose precious resources.
“With the forest clear-cut, they lose the ability to build houses and find firewood in the winter. They lose mushrooms and pine nuts and everything that they depend on for local sale and for food,” he explained.
War and Conservation: Unlikely Partners
In places like Afghanistan, where human misery is a major concern, the environment often takes a backseat. But conservation biologist and author Thor Hanson, who was not involved in the recent study, said conservationists need to work in conflict zones, because these regions harbor some of the planet’s most important habitats. For example, Hanson has co-authored a study showing how wars are usually located in species-rich areas.
“If you look at the overlap between biological diversity and the locations of wars in the second half of the 20th century, we found that 80 percent of those major armed conflicts occurred within recognized global biodiversity hot spots,” he said.
Hanson added that this correlation means some of the world’s most important conservation work is based in dangerous areas, where most people don’t—or can’t—give environmental concerns top priority.
“The practical reality for conservation groups is that we pull out of areas when things get hot. But where groups have tried to stay engaged by supporting local people, we find that it can actually make a real difference in biodiversity outcomes over the course of a conflict,” he said.
The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Zahler agreed that keeping Afghanistan’s wildlife safe is an important way to help keep the peace.
“It’s not just about bears and leopards—it’s about natural resources that people depend on, and wildlife is just an example. Losing those resources means that communities are going to fall apart, because they won’t be able to support themselves.
“So helping them manage those resources is an important part of maintaining stability and security in a country like Afghanistan.”
It worth to follow up on Hanson work. For the interested reader, here is a couple of his papers that just got into my summer-to-read list:
Hanson et a. 2009. Warfare in Biodiversity Hotspots. Coservation Biology 23 (3):578-587
Machlis & Hanson. 2008. Warfare Ecology. BioScience 58 (8):729-736