Conflict in the Green Heart of Africa

Tension in the air in Boga, Ituri district, eastern DRC. (More about Kevin Sites in the Hotzone)
© Kevin Sites in the Hotzone (used with kind permission)

Why abundant natural resources can also be a curse

In the Congo River Basin, conflict has been a recurring nuisance for the development of several countries. Natural resources play a significant role in feeding conflicts, many of which involve securing control and access to natural resources. Communities and forests pay the price.

Wars in the Congo River Basin involve groups of combatants that are always on the move, gaining temporary control over towns and settlements, but who are almost never able to subdue the surrounding areas.

The constant movement of militias and the unpredictability of their actions have a devastating impact on human lives.

Estimates of war-related deaths in eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) range from 3.3 million to 4.5 million. To avoid conflict, refugees and displaced rural populations avoid major roads and move into the forests and protected areas, where they are less likely to encounter soldiers and rebels.1

How natural resources fuel war

Natural resources such as timber, as well as other commodities such as diamonds, all play roles in motivating these wars because of their characteristics (accessibility, weight-to-value ratios and the ability to loot, conceal and sell them later)2.

In the DRC, rebel groups, government troops and their foreign allies have used the country’s diamonds, gold, timber, ivory, coltan and cobalt to pay for their war-related expenses.3

Perpetuating conflict…

A United Nations panel of experts on the illegal exploitation of natural resources of the DRC recently stated that "illegal exploitation remains one of the main sources of funding for groups involved in perpetuating conflict".

According to the panel, neighbouring countries such as Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and Zimbabwe have all helped themselves to the DRC's gold, diamonds, timber and coltan; systematically stripping factories, farms and banks in the process.4

What are the impacts of conflict?

  • A breakdown in the rule of law and other controls during and immediately after conflicts.
  • Mass movements of people and human rights abuses.
  • Decline in agricultural production, trade and food availability as conditions become unsafe to carry out such activities and transport is disrupted.
  • Increased dependence on wild natural resources (such as bushmeat) for survival when other livelihoods are made impossible: As refugees seek means to sustain themselves away from their home areas and hold their families together, they often invade poorly protected areas in search of housing materials, bush foods and products that they can sell.
Protected areas also often contain more wildlife than other areas and can thus provide a ready supply of meat for rebels or small armies.

Moreover, when it becomes too dangerous for the staff in protected zones to continue patrols, the frequency of illegal mining of gold and diamonds, hunting for ivory and bushmeat, felling of timber and agricultural encroachment often increases.5

In focus: Logging and war in DRC

In the early days of logging, corruption in Zaire, present-day Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), became a legitimate way of doing business. At that time, logging firms had a limited impact on the country’s forest resources.

When war broke out in 1996, this disrupted business operations and by mid-1999, rebel forces had taken control of many of the DRC’s forested areas.

When the new DRC government that had overthrown the long-term President Mobutu severed ties with the Rwandan and Ugandan armies, those forces allied themselves with other fractions who gained control of eastern and northern DRC.

Rebel groups controlled forested areas and taxed forest concessionaires to raise money for their military operations. Concession logging in northern and eastern DRC became unprofitable and impossible.
1 Thomson J., Kanaan R. 2003. Conflict Timber: Dimensions of the Problem in Asia and Africa. Volume I. Synthesis Report. Final Report Submitted to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
2 CARPE. 2001. Conservation In a Region of Civil Instability: The Need to Be Present and Assist. Congo River Basin Information Series. Issue Brief #22.
3 Global Witness. 06/07/2004. Conflict in Congo will persist unless natural resources are controlled . Press Release.
4 Lattimer, M. The Silent War. Minority Rights. Accessed 14/11/05.
5 CARPE. 2001. Conservation In a Region of Civil Instability: The Need to Be Present and Assist. Congo River Basin Information Series. Issue Brief #22.

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