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Experts: Resources at Root of Conflicts in Africa


African peace advocates says the continent's many conflicts cannot be resolved without greater attention to the management and distribution of natural resources as well as overall environmental preservation.

Competition for natural resources, particularly fresh water, is a well-known component of the long-standing Israel-Arab conflict in a region where arable land is extremely scarce. But what of Africa, a vast continent blessed with tremendous natural bounty? There, too, fierce competition exists for life and livelihood-sustaining resources, according to activists from the region.

Patricia Kameri-Mbote teaches law at the University of Nairobi and heads the Kenyan chapter of the International Discourse on Development in the Nile River Basin. Speaking at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, she said promoters of peace in Africa would do well to consider ecological matters.

"Many of the African continent's conflicts are linked to natural resources," she noted. "Environmental resources are critical to the survival of people, both for subsistence and for economic mainstay. People eke [derive] their living from the land, and land has a link with natural resources."

News media accounts of conflicts in Africa often focus on ethnic or religious rivalries as a primary source of friction. But, according to peace activist John Murhula Katunga, ethnic tensions often mask a different reality: two or more groups competing for the same natural resource or set of resources.

"People talk about xenophobia. People talk about some civil societies being extremist," he added. "But the reason is not that the people are by nature extremist or xenophobic. It is because of the way this exploitation [of natural resources] is done: in a very exclusive and violent manner that is causing a lot of damage to people's relationships."

Mr. Katunga is involved in non-governmental efforts to resolve a central African conflict over a mineral-ore commonly known as coltan. When refined to a powder, coltan becomes tantalum, a heat-resistant substance used in manufacturing cellular phones, laptop computers and other electronics. Coltan is heavily-mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo but coveted by numerous groups and factions in the region. Conflict over control of coltan is blamed for tens of thousands of deaths in the region. It is also blamed for the devastation of wildlife preserves that are home to gorillas and other endangered species.

Mr. Katunga says the Congolese experience with coltan demonstrates that when large numbers of people all pursue a limited commodity at all costs, conflict inevitably arises and any sense of community or brotherhood disappears. The people and the environment suffer.

"The destruction of the ecosystem in one country will affect the rest of the countries in the region and beyond," he explained. "The ecology has no political boundaries. It is a global 'ubuntu-ism'. 'Ubuntu' is the African philosophy that 'you are because I am' and 'I am because you are'. You cannot live in isolation. We are all interlinked and interdependent. No lasting solution will come unless it is regionally negotiated."

But Kenyan law professor Patricia Kameri-Mbote says it is easy to forget the importance of ecological matters in conflict resolution.

"When you look at the environment, you do not see it at the forefront of conflict," she noted. "There will be the intermediate effect, such as the disruption of communities or the segmentation of populations. And, basically you have to look for the environment - even though it is such a critical factor in the region, it is not always easy to pinpoint and so it gets lost off the radar screen."

The peace activists say democratic governments are more likely to show concern for the environment and the preservation of natural resources than their autocratic counterparts, and that spread of democracy should be a primary goal for all who want peace and ecological preservation in Africa.

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