Forestry on the Front Lines

Natural resources counterinsurgency turns out to be very much a Harry Bader concept. None of the counterinsurgency experts interviewed for this story, including some at the U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counter-insurgency Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., had ever heard the term. But Bader says “it’s been around for a while, any time you look at blood diamonds or conflict timber, or any time you discuss ecocide as a war tactic.” (The term ecocide was coined by Yale botanist Arthur Galston during the Vietnam War to describe American use of defoliants to destroy 20,000 square kilometers of forest regarded as shelter for the Vietcong.) “It’s been around,” says Bader, “since Rome salted Carthage, or Sherman marched through Georgia.”

For Bader, now 48, going back and forth between more conventional environmental work and counterinsurgency has been the pattern throughout his career. He went to El Salvador during the civil war there in the mid-1980s on a USAID project looking at land reform as a means of reducing support for the guerilla movement. In the early 1990s, he worked in Bosnia for the United Nations, using spectral imaging and other techniques to locate mass graves beneath the forest canopy. He has also served as a consultant on marshland restoration in Iraq.   

Bader grew up on a farm in Iowa and earned a combined undergraduate degree in forestry and political science at Washington State University. After getting a law degree at Harvard, he became a tenured professor at the University of Alaska (Fairbanks) School of Natural Resources. Later, he managed 40 million acres of public land for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences. One of his responsibilities there was to develop a new methodology for determining when the tundra was frozen hard enough that heavy oil industry equipment could cross it without doing damage. The tundra methodology was to be the topic of Bader’s doctoral dissertation when he came to F&ES in 1999 “to bone up on science,” according to his thesis advisor, Timothy Gregoire, Ph.D. ’85, J.P. Weyerhaeuser Jr. Professor of Forest Management. Bader completed his course work, but then counterinsurgency work interrupted his doctoral program. “He gets himself into these interesting arrangements and figures he’s doing good for humanity,” says Gregoire, who wonders if Bader really needs to add the formality of a Ph.D. to his law degree. “He’s gotten the scientific training he wanted.” (Bader calls Gregoire “patient and saintly” and resolves that he “will return to New Haven and make massive progress on my dissertation.” But first, characteristically, he plans to go to Jalalabad in January for another six-month tour.)

If the idea of resource managers as counterinsurgents is unorthodox, what Bader is doing nonetheless fits comfortably into the larger field of environmental security. The importance of natural resources in modern warfare became a hot topic in the late 1990s largely because of the role of “blood diamonds” in funding rebel movements in Angola and Sierra Leone. Diamonds and “conflict timber” also contributed to Liberia’s second civil war, and in 2003 the United Nations Security Council embargoed Liberian trade in both items. Minerals and illegal logging continue to fuel the bloody conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That other natural resource—oil—was, of course, also a critical factor in both Iraq wars.

Beyond the intensifying competition for resources, environmental security theorists have also paid increasing attention to environmental stress as a cause of conflict.

Beyond the intensifying competition for resources, environmental security theorists have also paid increasing attention to environmental stress as a cause of conflict. Though the Rwandan civil war was widely depicted as ethnic in origin, for instance, researchers have argued that it was more accurately a result of deforestation, erosion and reduced agricultural production. More recently, environmental stress has contributed to conflicts in Somalia, Darfur, Chiapas (Mexico) and Borneo.

In truth, both types of environmental factors have probably been motives for war as long as warfare itself has existed. On the side of resource grabbing, researchers have tied the expansion of the Akkadian empire in ancient Iraq 4,500 years ago to the quest for timber, copper and other resources. On the environmental stress side, a recent study in Human Ecology: An Interdisciplinary Journal compared changing climate cycles with records of 899 local wars in China between 1000 and 1911 and found “a near perfect match between high war frequencies” and cold phases when reduced agricultural production put pressure on underfed populations.      

But it’s worse now, environmental security specialists argue, on multiple counts: Environmental stress is more widespread than at any time in human history because of global deforestation and the destruction of vital watersheds. Growing human populations have pushed many Third World regions beyond the limits of local agricultural production. Climate change appears to be causing more extreme weather events, like the drought that devastated Russia’s wheat crop this year and the deluge in Pakistan. Finally, the Cold War rivalries that once put an ideological gloss on local conflicts are long gone. Back then, insurgents could generally count on one side or the other to subsidize their cause. Now, they often turn instead to illegal trade in natural resources—from strategic minerals to endangered wildlife.

In his 2001 book, Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict, security studies specialist Michael Klare predicted “the emergence of a new geography of war” in which “resource concentrations rather than political boundaries are the major defining features” driving the use of military power. Military analysts now also frequently invoke the potentially greater threat of ecological collapse.

“Environmental stress will play a pervasive role in future conflicts,” writes Amy Krakowka, a geographer for the United States Military Academy at West Point, “because the economic well-being of about one-half of the world’s population is tied directly to the land, thus making agricultural space, water, fuel and forested space critical environmental indicators, especially considering anticipated population growth and projected climate change.”

These developments can put resource managers literally on the front lines, which is exactly where they belong, according to some observers. Writing recently in the Journal of Forestry, two longtime USAID consultants issued a “call to action” for foresters and watershed managers to work in Afghanistan, using natural resource projects “to battle poverty and provide an attractive alternative to the destruction, deprivation and oppression” caused by anti-governmental elements. Co-author John Groninger, Yale College Class of 1987, now a forestry professor at Southern Illinois University, is, in effect, part of the second wave behind Harry Bader’s natural resources counterinsurgency. He does conventional development in somewhat more stable parts of northeastern Afghanistan, though still strictly under U.S. military escort. (He and Bader also frequently compare notes.)

Email This Article           Print This Article

Top of Page | Fall 2010 | environment:YALE