If diamonds are a guerrilla’s best friend (as Paul Collier says in his book The Bottom Billion), then forests must come a close second. Forests have long provided armed groups with hiding places and lucrative funding sources, and ‘conflict’ timber has helped support many war machines worldwide.
However, we must look at forest conflict from a broader angle, exploring those situations that, while causing real disruption to local livelihoods and threatening biodiversity, rarely make the headlines.
We need to look at the impact and implications of forest-based conflicts between resident communities and refugees, between different forest-dependent groups, and between local people and powerful outside actors.
We also need to explore the question of how conflict interacts with the sustainable management of forest resources. Given that conflict is such an effective ‘poverty creating’ mechanism, forests become even more vital for the livelihoods and wellbeing of forest communities, providing timber for temporary housing, bushmeat and other non-timber forest products for basic rations.
However, these forest resources may often be exposed to severe overexploitation as day-to-day survival takes priority over a longer-term view, and the social cohesion necessary for sustainable resource use is lost in the conflict.
Turning this situation around will require close collaboration with locally-respected and non-partisan organizations capable of understanding the historical antecedents of the problems at hand to ensure that the sustainable use of forest resources is seen as part of the solution, and not as an added constraint or unaffordable luxury.
With this in mind conservation organizations have to remain engaged with stakeholders in conflict zones, even if conservation progress seems impossible. These partners will be even more important once peace returns, as post-conflict situations can bring a whole new set of challenges.