From War Zones to Shopping Malls: New study reveals deadly link between consumer demand and third world resource wars

Washington, D.C.-The world's insatiable demand for cellular phones and other consumer luxuries is fueling violent conflict and killing millions in developing countries, reports a new study from the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization. Brutal wars over natural resources like coltan- a mineral that keeps cell phones and other electronic equipment functioning- diamonds, tropical woods, and other rare materials have killed or displaced more than 20 million people and are raising at least $12 billion a year for rebels, warlords, repressive governments, and other predatory groups around the world.

"From Columbia to Angola to Afghanistan people are dying every day because consumer societies import and use materials irrespective of where they originate," says Worldwatch Institute senior researcher Michael Renner, author of The Anatomy of Resource Wars. "If you purchase a cell phone, for example, you may very well be paying to keep the war going in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where rival armies fight for control over deposits of coltan, a commodity that just over a decade ago had little commercial value, but is now vital for the one billion plus cell phones in use today."

"The enormous expansion in global trade, coupled with lax or corrupt customs officials, has made access to key markets relatively easy for warring groups. Companies and rich nations that benefit from cheap raw materials have long turned a blind eye to the destruction at their source, and most consumers don't know that a number of common purchases bear the invisible imprint of violence," Renner says.

Most of the violence in resource-related conflicts is directed against civilians. Grotesque practices like hacking off limbs serve to terrorize local populations into submission or flight. Young boys are often turned into child soldiers and girls into sex slaves for older fighters. Child and slave labor is used to extract the resources. More than 5 million people were killed in resource-driven conflicts during the
1990s. Another 5-6 million fled to neighboring countries, and anywhere from 11 to 15 million people
were displaced inside the borders of their home countries.

In addition to the human toll these wars take, many resource-related conflicts are being fought in or near areas of great environmental value, accelerating deforestation and decimating populations of gorillas, elephants, and other wildlife.

Resource conflicts have revealed the limits of international peacekeeping and conflict resolution capacities. In order to curb resource wars and inform consumers about their purchases, Renner calls for the following actions:

  • Develop strong global certification systems for diamonds, timber, and other resources in order to track the origins of commodities and screen out those produced and traded illicitly in conflict areas.

  • Improve the capacity of international organizations and governments to monitor compliance with embargoes against conflict commodities and enforce sanctions, so that traffickers can no longer operate with impunity.
  • Develop corporate codes of conduct in resource extraction industries, support NGO campaigns that "name and shame" companies into doing business in more responsible ways, and increase corporate transparency and accountability (for instance, by requiring companies to disclose all taxes, fees, royalties, and other payments they make to host governments as a condition for being listed on leading stock exchanges and financial markets).

  • Reduce the availability of small arms, the weapons of choice in many conflicts, by establishing stricter national export criteria, regulating arms brokers, marking and tracing weapons, and improving collection of surplus arms.

  • Promote democratization, justice, and greater respect for human rights and reduce the impunity with which some governments and rebel groups engage in extreme violence.

  • Facilitate the diversification of the economy away from a strong dependence on primary commodities. To do so, invest in human development, improve health and education services, and provide adequate jobs and opportunities for social and economic advancement in order to reduce the risk that a country's natural resource endowment will become its undoing.

Resource-related Conflicts discussed in The Anatomy of Resource Wars

Location Conflict Period Conflict Resources
Afghanistan 1979-2001 Opium, lapis lazuli, emeralds
Angola 1975-2002 Diamonds, oil
Burma 1949-present Timber, natural gas, opium, precious stones
Cambodia 1988-1997 Timber, rubies, sapphires
Colombia 1948-present Oil, coca
Democratic Republic of the Congo 1996-present Diamonds, gold, coltan, copper, cobalt, timber, coffee, and others
Indonesia (Aceh) 1976-present Natural gas, timber
Indonesia (Kalimantan) Late 1960s-present Timber
Indonesia (West Papua) Mid-1960s-present Gold
Liberia 1989-present Diamonds, timber
Nigeria 1990s-present Oil
Papua New Guinea 1988-1998 Copper
Sierra Leone 1991-2001 Diamonds

Estimated Revenues from Conflict Resources, Selected Cases

Combatant Resource Period Estimated Revenue
Angola rebels (UNITA) Diamonds 1992-2001 $4-4.2 billion total
Sierra Leone rebels (RUF) Diamonds 1990s $25-125 million / year
Liberia government Timber Late 1990s $100-187 million / year
Sudan government Oil Since 1999 $400 million / year
Rwanda government Coltan (from Congo) 1999-2000 $250 million total
Afghanistan (Taliban, Northern Alliance) Opium, Lapis Lazuli, Emeralds Mid-1990s-2001 $90-100 million / year
Cambodia / government, Khmer Rouge Timber Mid-1990s $220-390 million / year
Burma government Timber 1990s $112 million / year
Colombia (FARC rebels) Cocaine Late 1990s $140 million / year