Science - February 9, 2006

Preventing conflicts in remote forests

Security issues in remote forests are often overlooked, but they are now receiving increasing attention. Forest management involves much more than trees, biodiversity and parks. It is also about handling violent conflicts, says Dr David Kaimowitz.

The Director General of the Center for International Forestry Research, CIFOR in Indonesia, spoke about this theme on 7 February. The seminar organised by the Forestry Group was well attended.

‘My research institute has identified two dozen countries where there has been violent conflict in remote forested areas in the last ten years. From Colombia to Sri Lanka, often small ethnic groups are the target of violence,’ says Kaimowitz, who comes from the US.

Conflicts over resources are one cause of the violence, but there is also bad governance. One problem is harassment of local people by forest guards. ‘We see this for example in India. Forest guards may think they own the forest and try to keep out people who have been living there for a long time. It is a way to get bribes but it can lead to serious conflicts. In Mexico, the Mayan Indians have also been denied access to forests but they rebelled strongly.’

Ethnic conflicts or all-out wars about forest resources are not new. These have occurred from the beginning of time. But often there is no well thought out strategy for remote forests in developing countries. A development that Kaimowitz sees increasing is that when violent conflicts come to an end, often a small spark can ignite the violence again. He blames this on bad or absent post-war reconstruction policies.

‘A civil war can actually be good for a forest. People flee and forest exploitation comes to a halt. But when the war is over, people come back and destroy the forest blindly. This can create new conflicts. Actually we see that in forty percent of violent conflicts in forested regions, the parties are back to war in five years.’

There are many examples of refugees or former soldiers being sent into remote areas after a war, without adequate support for their means of living. ‘This happened, for example, in Nicaragua in the nineties. Former soldiers were sent into forested regions, and after five years they were fighting again.’

Another example is Cambodia. After internal violent clashes, logging companies rapidly moved in. ‘We often see unbridled activity and destruction of forests after wars. This may in turn result in violent clashes between local people and logging or mining companies. Their minds are set on short-term profits when actually they should develop a long-term strategy,’ says Kaimowitz.

Another problem is the use of forest resources to finance weapons for war and for recruiting soldiers. ‘We see this in Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge was financed with illegal timber.’ Kaimowitz does think adequate measures can be taken in such cases: sanctions can be imposed or the borders of neighbouring countries can be closed for timber from this country. In the case of Cambodia, Thailand was closed for timber from Cambodia, and this was effective.

Kaimowitz hopes that forest policies for remote areas in developing countries will pay much more attention to preventing violent conflicts. He would like to see dialogue between local people, governmental agencies, the military, forest managers and NGOs. ‘Better planning for forests is important. Do not blindly send refugees, former soldiers or logging companies into remote areas and just hope that clashes do not occur.’ Kaimowitz mentions that there are a few good examples, for example in Panama in Central America, where issues related to the rights of Indians are well addressed. It is important, for example, that when logging companies do move into forests, there are concrete agreements in place to ensure that the local people will get a share of the profits or benefit in one way or the other, or that certain areas or trees will be left intact.

Lastly, Kaimowitz does point to a growing interest in these issues. For example, the International Crisis Group, an NGO led by a former Australian minister of foreign affairs, is trying to develop a dialogue between governments, conservation agencies, the military and ethnic groups in order to prevent and resolve deadly conflicts in remote forested regions.

Hugo Bouter