Fueling War ; with the Cold War over, More Global Conflicts Are Being Spurred by a Scramble for Natural Resources Rather Than by Geopolitics, and Poor Countries Rich in Mineral Deposits Are the New Focal Point

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Abundant resources - such as diamonds, emeralds, lapis lazuli, timber, coltan, and oil - should be an economic blessing to a developing nation. Too often, they aren't. They fund conflicts.

More and more, "resource wars" trouble poor countries.

The pillaging of diamonds, for example, has fed civil wars in Angola and Sierra Leone. Coltan, a costly mineral used in making cellphones, helps finance bloody fighting in Congo.

Altogether, about a quarter of the roughly 50 wars and armed conflicts active in 2001 had "a strong resource dimension," says Michael Renner, a senior researcher with Worldwatch Institute in Washington. In these cases, legal or illegal exploitation of resources helped trigger or exacerbate violent conflict, or financed its continuation. Resources sometimes become a curse, with the wars inflicting a horrendous human toll.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, an estimated 2 million to 3 million people were killed after Ugandan and Rwandan troops invaded in 1998 to assist rebel groups seeking to overthrow the government of Laurent Kabila. Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Chad sent troops in support of Kabila. But, notes Mr. Renner, the opportunity to plunder the enormous resource wealth of Congo soon came to be the primary incentive.

Altogether, roughly 5 million people were killed in resource wars in the 1990s. Renner calculates that 6 million fled to neighboring nations and 11 million to 15 million were displaced inside their countries.

These wars often have gruesome consequences. Children are turned into soldiers or slaves. Limbs are hacked off in order to terrorize populations. The environment is damaged as forests are cut down and wildlife populations are decimated.

As awareness of this problem has risen among industrial nations in the last two or three years, efforts to stem such conflicts have escalated.

Next week, the World Bank and the French Development Agency are holding a "brainstorming" workshop in Paris to explore what can be done to break the connections between resources and corrupt regimes and civil war.

The session has the backing of the International Monetary Fund, the Group of Eight major industrial powers, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the larger Paris-based club of industrial nations.

"We will attempt to see what, if anything, can be done," says Paul Collier, head of research at the World Bank in Washington.

Ideas for preventing or halting resource wars will be explored further in a series of meetings in coming months, with recommendations going to the economic summit of the leaders of the G8 in June.

Pillaging replaces geopolitics

During the cold war, many conflicts in Africa and elsewhere resulted from the geopolitical struggle between the US and the Soviet Union. But that motive has faded. The political divisions are being replaced by a global scramble to obtain or tie up essential resources.

"In some places, the pillaging of oil, minerals, metals, gemstones, or timber allows wars to continue that were triggered by other factors - initially driven by grievances or ideological struggles and bankrolled by the superpowers or other external supporters," writes Renner in a Worldwatch study, "The Anatomy of Resource Wars."

Recent academic research finds that wars in poor countries with rich mineral resources often last longer than similar conflicts during the cold war.

As the world's population increases from 6.1 billion to perhaps 9 billion by 2050, the growing demand on resources may stimulate further resource wars.

"Certain commodities which nations depend on are scarce or becoming scarcer," warns Michael Klare, a professor of peace and world securities studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. He suspects national armies will redefine their primary mission as maintaining resource security. …