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Environmental peacebuilding: What is it good for?

Gemstone mining Ilakaka, Madagascar

Environmental peacebuilding in post-conflict societies

Policy interventions seeking to break the link between natural resource abundance and violent conflict aim to tackle the quality of environmental governance both in producer countries and global markets. Proponents of such peacebuilding efforts hold that effective reforms in conflict-prone natural resource sectors can enable transitional societies to mitigate conflict risks, build cooperative societal relations around environmental management and reap the benefits of their resource endowment. The rationale that better natural resource governance will reduce the risk for conflict and human rights violations has informed the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, the EU Conflict Minerals Regulation, and many other initiatives tackling natural resource governance at the global, national and local level.   

Sierra Leone: A model case?

One of the first and most prominent cases of reforms aimed at curbing the production and trade in conflict resources was in the Sierra Leonean diamond sector. During an 11-year long civil war, Sierra Leone gained sad notoriety for its trade in “blood diamonds”. Since the end of the war in 2002 the mineral sector has been thoroughly reformed. Sierra Leone was one of the first members of the Kimberley Process, which aims to regulate the global trade in rough diamonds through government-issued certificates guaranteeing that a given parcel of diamonds is “conflict free”. Sierra Leone is also a member of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which seeks to make industry payments to governments transparent, and has been declared EITI-compliant in 2014. On the regional level, the country has harmonized its export taxes with adjacent diamond producing countries in an effort to curb smuggling. Institutional changes at the national level have been extensive. They have included legal reforms; the establishment of a National Minerals Agency charged with monitoring the implementation of regulations in the diamond sector; the development of a cadastral system; and the institution of a Diamond Area Community Development Fund, channeling back a small percentage of tax income derived from diamond exports to diamond mining communities.

At first glance, the results seem to point to an extraordinary success. Diamond exports have gone up – from an export value of only 1.2 Mio USD during the war to 158,000 Mio USD in 2016. Most importantly, diamonds have not “spoiled” the peace in Sierra Leone. The armed actors that controlled the diamond market during the war have effectively disappeared, and with them the violent modes of production and trade that characterized the market.

Lack of market oversight undermines policy goals

However, a closer look shows that many of the fundamental structures of the Sierra Leonean diamond market have hardly changed. To this day, diamond production is characterized by hundreds of thousands of impoverished artisanal miners working under miserable conditions, while the benefit of industrial mining operations to the country remains highly questionable. Large parts of the production and trade remain illegal. While illegally sourced and traded diamonds are mostly channeled into the legal market, this reveals a significant lack of state capacity in the oversight of the market.

Lastly, the structures of inequality that have characterized the market for decades and have constituted one of the root causes of the civil war remain in place. Marginalized young men hoping to escape poverty gravitate towards diamond mining, but even in the unlikely case that they find valuable gems, the prevalent systems of knowledge and power thwart their chance for upward social mobility.

A superficial look at the results of natural resource sector reforms would suggest that the main causes linking diamonds to conflict in Sierra Leone have been eradicated. This is far from the truth. If environmental peacebuilding is to be successful, it must be based on an understanding of the complexities of local configurations of governance, conflict and market structures that might prove to be extremely resilient to change.  

Nina Engwicht is a post-doctoral researcher at the Peace Academy Rhineland-Palatinate in Landau, Germany. In her work she focuses on illegal markets, resource conflicts and peacebuilding after inner-state war.