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Resources and Conflict: Reframing The Debate

In addition to the complex debate over natural resources’ role in violent conflict, there are many underlining sub-debates on the topic. One is centered on quantity: whether or not the abundance or scarcity of resources affects a particular outcome.

This study summarizes the two arguments as follows:

  • An increase in scarcity or decrease in access to resources can cause conflict.
  • An abundance of, or lack of control over, natural resources can lead to conflict (see: Resource Curse).

The authors suggest that although these arguments have been thoroughly debated in the academic arena, the structure and scope of past research has been inadequate in defining a solid link between conflict and natural resources.

Twenty-six different studies on the resource-conflict argument are examined: 10 on resource scarcity and conflict and 16 on resource abundance and conflict. The authors conclude there is still little to no convincing evidence supporting the connection between resource scarcity and conflict, and only slightly more evidence supporting the relationship between resource abundance and conflict. The study then suggests that when resources play a role in violent conflict it is most likely due to issues revolving around the existence or control over resources rather than their absence.

The authors suggest a complete overhaul of the way in which the resource-conflict link is studied. Most of the past research has paid little attention to how most measurable factors vary by country, region, time period and social and economic environments. Therefore, because many of these variables have been ignored in past research, it makes comparing the findings of different studies difficult.

The authors argue that attention should be paid to creating more encompassing datasets that reflect the current nature of armed conflict. Currently civil conflict and civil wars are listed in common datasets as the only applicable type of violent conflict. However, if larger pools of information are collected that include more contemporary forms of violent conflict (i.e. terrorism, non-state or institutional violence, demonstrations, riots) the information gained would be of greater value and more accurately represent the current state of global affairs.

Relevance

Studies on resource scarcity or abundance and conflict are considered outdated and inadequate for the social realities. There needs to be better awareness of the uniqueness of each conflict, and the multitude of influential factors. Analyzing conflict within its specific dynamic social context then becomes a key task for theorists and practitioners. The current body of work provides little evidence that resource scarcity causes conflict and only slightly more showing resource abundance is associated with conflict, though neither argument is clear or wholly persuasive.

Talking Points

  • There is more evidence to suggest that an excess of resources can lead to conflict, than too little resources.
  • Armed conflict is likely to increase resource dependence, since political leaders can use the profit from the resources to fund their militaries or continue oppression.
  • Every conflict needs to be examined within its own dynamic social context in order to understand the role natural resources play.

Practical Implications

This article illustrates an opportunity to expand on current research and address the resource-conflict question on a more case-by-case basis, with the social context of research studies taking a more prominent role. Practitioners and researchers should examine indicators that are specific to a single conflict, as well as recurring regional conflicts. Compiling a dataset of individual triggers and the social and political environments specific to each conflict could be valuable in identifying patterns and methods of prevention. The current datasets are insufficient in explaining all areas of violent conflict. Therefore, there would be value in constructing a new resource that encompasses contemporary forms of violence, including state and non-state aggression.

 

Key Words: civil war, resource conflict, resource scarcity, resource curse

Citation: Koubi, V., Spilker, G., Böhmelt, T., & Bernauer, T. (2014). Do natural resources matter for interstate and intrastate armed conflict? Journal of Peace Research, 51(2), 227-243.

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