By Anna Lynn Spitzer
Irvien, CA, May 20th, 2013 -- On the West Coast of Africa, fronted by 300 miles of sparkling Atlantic coastline, lies Sierra Leone. Home to lush green forests, tropical grasslands, lazy lagoons, picturesque fishing villages, and a chimpanzee sanctuary, the postcard-pretty country slightly smaller than South Carolina also boasts 7700 square miles of diamond mines.
The inviting vistas, however, disguise scars from repeated military coups and a brutal, decade-long civil war that ended in 2002. Fifty thousand people were killed and hundreds of thousands fled their homes for neighboring countries. The diamond mines were – at least indirectly – responsible for much of the strife as competing interests struggled for control.
UC Irvine social ecology professor Richard Matthew led a series of United Nations-sponsored peace-building missions to post-war Sierra Leone. Under the auspices of the U.N.’s Expert Group on Environment, Conflict and Peacebuilding, Matthew and his international team of collaborators visited the country five times. They assessed its environment, infrastructure, health and employment circumstances, and recommended steps to achieve stability and protect natural resources.
Sierra Leone isn’t so different from many other countries, where natural resources lie at the heart of civil conflict. Since the mid-20th century, studies indicate, 40 percent of intrastate disturbances have been related to natural resources or environmental stress.
For the past 16 years, Matthew, who heads UCI’s Center for Unconventional Security Affairs (CUSA), has advised these struggling countries in hopes of building and maintaining a secure peace. He has participated in resource assessments and related activities around the globe, in 25 countries to date, including Nepal, Pakistan, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
He and his team assess energy supplies, resource utilization, infrastructure, agricultural practices, water availability and other factors, including citizens’ expectations. They talk to the locals in various communities to determine their priorities; they communicate with foreign companies invested in the region, and they advise government officials.
The idea is to get a “snapshot” of the area’s condition so the government and other investors can make informed decisions about rebuilding.
“We know there is a remarkable tendency for areas that are vulnerable to social instability and violent conflict to also have heightened vulnerability to environmental stress,” he says. “The coping mechanisms that people adopt under conditions of real adversity often are not sustainable.”
During these conflicts, infrastructure is destroyed, farms and plantations are abandoned and terrified citizens flee to protected forested areas. Survival often means depleting those areas of resources like firewood and vegetation. After the war, residents flood home, seeking shelter, sustenance and employment.
Reconstruction efforts, however, frequently disregard the ensuing environmental consequences. Dust chokes the air. Streams are polluted. Forests and woodlands are slashed and burned for farming or cattle grazing. And fresh water is diverted for construction. “Without a sense of the environmental situation,” Matthew says, people make decisions that “prove to be really bad choices five years later.”
He cites Rwanda, where residents, returning after civil strife, settled in swamps, on steep hillsides and in protected forests, creating a situation that now is extremely vulnerable to flooding and soil erosion.
“There’s a lot of pressure on leaders to deal with a lot of challenges. But what we’re trying to do is say that there are certain things that can be done more sustainably if you have enough information.”
The goal, of course, is to avert additional environmental and societal crises. Most of the time, governments are on board; they use the impartial recommendations to apply for funding from international development agencies.
It’s often a battle against the clock. “How do you introduce natural resource management quickly enough so you can protect areas before they become irrecoverable? How do you get in front of infectious disease before it becomes unmanageable?” Matthew asks.
“When you do it, you buy yourself a lot of time. When we fail, we see things start to fall apart pretty quickly.”
That’s what happened in Nepal. With its civil war ended, newly installed officials wanted to fulfill citizen expectations and give each a piece of land for farming. Matthew was unsuccessful in his attempt to explain that there wasn’t enough farmland and that the government should consider other options, like eco-tourism or power generation.
Ultimately, land scarcity led 3.5 million job-seekers to crowd into Katmandu, a city built for 1 million. Today, the city lacks waste management, water, energy, transportation and jobs to support its population. “Things have gotten worse and worse,” he laments.
Environmental consequences and the strife they engender are not limited to the developing world. Superpowers like the United States and Canada face contention over fracking technologies to release gas and oil from shale, clearcutting of forests, and drilling and mining operations in protected areas. In these nations, however, the conflict is not likely to lead to complete collapse.
At least not right away. Part of Matthew’s mission is to find ways to communicate effectively the long-term consequences of climate change to people on both sides of the development divide. CUSA’s Transformational Media Lab studies the use of technology to spur civic action and social change, and he hopes these efforts will encourage people to “take ownership” and begin making changes.
“It’s very frustrating for climate scientists to say, ‘There’s a train coming down the track toward your community. Here are a whole lot of fairly affordable things you can do to slow it down and you’re not even doing those. Don’t you see this train coming?’”
Unfortunately, he says, most of us don’t yet comprehend the looming dangers. “People say, ‘That train? That train is 500 miles away.’”
Matthew, who has devoted his career to these issues, sighs. “It’s almost immoral that we’re not doing at least some of the things we know we should be doing.”