"Environmental Conflict" and the Social Life of Environmental Security Discourse

By Timura, Christopher T. | Anthropological Quarterly, July 2001 | Go to article overview

"Environmental Conflict" and the Social Life of Environmental Security Discourse


Timura, Christopher T., Anthropological Quarterly


The concept "environmental conflict" has enjoyed increasing popularity within environmental discourses, both as a focal point of interdisciplinary research efforts and as a buzzword within general discussions concerning international security both in the U.S. and Europe. Though the concept has become a part the "master narrative" of environmentalism, its uncritical application to conflict settings has the potential to misdirect the attention of conflict mediators and policy makers. In this article the author traces the contours of environmental security discourse, while critiquing environmental conflict models. Highlighting a comparative study of three resource-related outbreaks of collective violence, the author finds that in none of the cases compared-neither the Zapatista Rebellion of Chiapas, Mexico, the massacre at Eldorado dos Carajas, in Para, Brazil, nor the "Guinea Fowl" War of Northern Region, Ghana-- can simple resource scarcity be implicated as a cause of violence. In contrast to current anthropological understandings of resource-related violence, environmental conflict models are unable to take into account the social and cultural nature of resource conflicts, including the roles that social histories, symbolically-mediated perception, and local political economies play in the outbreak of violence. Given both its inadequacies and policy importance, anthropologists could make useful interventions as participants in the developing environmental security discourse. [discourse, environmentalism, violence, environmental conflict, political ecology]

During a 1994 address to a joint meeting of the United States State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, then Secretary of State Warren Christopher announced that environmental security was, alongside terrorism and nuclear proliferation, one of several new areas of strategic importance to American and international security. In addition to signaling a policy and paradigm shift within U.S. understandings of national security, his statements were part of an emergent discourse currently taking shape within a larger "master narrative" (Lyotard 1993).

In this essay I develop the idea of the social life of discourse to explore the history, key players, and arguments of the environmental security debate. In the second section I highlight the findings of my own comparative project in which I critique the usefulness of "environmental conflict" as a heuristic (Timura 1997). Anthropologists have developed and refined models linking natural resource scarcity to violence, leading to a more critical actor- and perception-centered account that takes the social and cultural context of resource relations as their starting point. By discussing the ways in which land and other factors were implicated in three occurrences of communal violence, I demonstrate ways in which a particular part of the environmental master narrative has impaired social scientific analyses of resource-- related violence and discussions about conflict prevention. Anthropologists and the communities they work with stand to benefit in significant ways from their more critical engagement with environmental discourses and the uncontextualized models of their various proponents.

The Social Life of Discourse

My approach to analyzing environmental security discourse was borne out of discussions taking place at the University College London. There, anthropological faculty and students have been involved in a long-running examination of global development and environmental discourses. I suggest that the ideas that have emerged in this and allied research programs in the United Kingdom can be seen as a relatively distinct line of research in ecological anthropology. This research approach is grounded in political economic studies of the ways in which conservation, environmental science, and development discourses have been deployed in colonial and postcolonial settings, often to the detriment of local populations. …

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