Doctors Without Borders, or Medecins Sans Frontieres, has published its top ten underreported humanitarian stories of 2004. Many are from active conflict zones such as Chechnya, Colombia, Northern Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Conflict is a recent memory and simmering threat in others like Liberia and Burundi. Still another is a disease — resurgent tuberculosis. Ethiopia and North Korea present tragic tales of malnutrition and suffering.
So where is the environment in these stories? In too many of these places … Plundering Congo’s natural resources has been one of the primary activities of the invading militaries of its neighbors. Coltan (used in our cell phones), diamonds, and timber have fueled the conflict and prolonged it as their bounty buys more weapons. John Katunga of the Nairobi Peace Initiative described in detail the coltan-conflict linkages at a November Woodrow Wilson Center presentation.
Ethiopia faces a mix of population pressures, drought, and scarcity of arable land that lays the foundation for 5 million people to face chronic food shortages, according to MSF. Sahlu Haile provides a good distillation of the population and environmental challenges in this just-published issue of the annual ECSP Report.
In Liberia, like Congo, it has been abundance, not scarcity of natural resources, that has helped fuel conflict. Former President Charles Taylor used profits from timber and diamonds to fund his kleptocracy and dysfunctional tenure. The concern now is whether the current fragile peace may actually increase the deforestation rates as it becomes safer for more people to log the forests.
In each case, behind conflict, disease, and scarcity we find environmental woes.