The cost of peace in post-conflict countries: forest cover

REMOTE SENSING: A NASA satellite image of Nepal taken in 2002 at the height of the conflict shows extent of green cover.

The advent of peace in four countries that experienced wars hasn’t been kind to the environment, with a new study showing greater rates of deforestation during peacetime than during conflict.

The paper, published in the journal Land Use Policy, shows how Nepal, Sri Lanka, Peru and Ivory Coast experienced ‘alarming forest loss’ in the years immediately after the end of their wars. The study analysed satellite forest-cover data to show that even though the deforestation rates were not as high in Nepal as in the other three countries, there were higher levels of erosion, flooding and landslides after the war ended in 2006.

“Rates of deforestation in war zones show a dramatic increase once peace is declared, and except for Nepal, it is significantly high for the other three countries we studied,” said coauthor Nelson Grima of the University of the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources in the US.

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The nature and duration of the conflict in each country differed, from two brief civil wars fought between 2002 and 2011 in Ivory Coast, to two simultaneous conflicts in the north and south of Sri Lanka that lasted 25 years. In Nepal and Peru, communist uprisings ran for 10 and 30 years respectively.

What the four countries do share, however, is loss of forest cover. The average rate of deforestation in the five years after the end of the respective conflicts was 68% higher than in the last five years of the conflicts, according to the study. The data, based on analysis of Landsat satellite imagery, gave the global average rate of increase in deforestation as 7.2%.

“We don’t want people to think we support armed violence in any way. But our findings show that when the fighting stops, a number of factors lead to an increased rate of deforestation,” said Simron Singh, co-author and a researcher at the University of Waterloo, Canada.

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Forests are used as cover for guerrilla warfare, and as such, they become danger zones that few people are likely to enter. This often means the forests are less likely to be logged or hunted in. Once the fighting ends, the forests are no longer seen as dangerous.

Often post-war reconstruction demand resources, and forests offer the raw material to help rebuild an economy and society. The period is usually marked by political instability and weak policy implementation, allowing rampant exploitation of natural resources.

The researchers say the negative effects are derived from a mixture of reduction or suspension of conservation activities due to security concerns and diversion of international aid resources to peacekeeping. But they also note positive effects, such as release of pressure on ecosystems and on natural resources due to settlement changes, creation of buffer zones, and reduction or suppression of certain economic activities.

For Sri Lanka, which boasts the highest biodiversity density in Asia and high endemism, the post-war forest cover loss has been dramatic. Nepal's showcase success with community forestry saw a gain in canopy cover in the mountains, but pressure on forests increased in the Tarai plains where 52% of the population lives.

Nepal saw 33% post-war deforestation and Sri Lanka 32%, although the respective duration of the conflicts was 10 years and 26 years. There were also similarities in the problems experienced in the two countries: higher levels of erosion, flooding, landslides and other natural disasters post-war, due to increased deforestation.

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“The issues for all surveyed countries are similar: corruption at different scales, lack of funding for the entities in charge of forest and environmental management, inadequate policies and their poor implementation,” Grima said.

Peru’s conflict ran for more than 30 years, with the rate of deforestation in the five years after the end of major fighting in 2011 up 58% from the five years before. Ivory Coast’s post-war deforestation rate was 82% higher than in the last five years of conflict.

For all four countries, Grima said the solution is community-based forest management to get around the limitations of the central government.

The study concludes that former war zones need support for ecosystem services, which in turn could reduce the probability of areas becoming the focus of future conflict.

This article originally appeared in Mongabay