Land use and conflict

Land systems play a critical role in conflict, as both causes of conflict and as victims of conflict. Competition for land resources is a major cause of conflict between and within nations and there can be significant impacts on land from violent conflicts. Violent activities such as bombing and forest burning can be a direct force of land degradation and land use change (Witmer, 2015), but usually occur across small spatial and temporal scales. More significant, but also more complex, is the indirect forces and impacts of land change that follow the mass movement of people and the collapse of states and economies during and after conflict. McNeely (2003) summarizes conflict as having restorative or degrading environmental impacts through the processes of: i) exclusion of activities from within conflict zones; ii) increased or inefficient natural resource use to support mass migrations during conflict, and iii) the collapse of economies and institutions during and after conflict.

More than 80% of armed conflicts since 1950 have occurred in biodiversity hotspots, particularly in tropical forest areas (Hanson et al., 2009), suggesting that conflict has had substantial impacts on tropical biodiversity. Mass migration into settlements typically increases pressure on nearby natural resources, but alleviates resource use pressure in areas people have fled to avoid violence. For example, resource use and biodiversity impacts have reduced since the establishment of the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea (Kim, 1997) because of the exclusion of people. In sub-Saharan Africa, Glew and Hudson (2007), estimate that 35,000 ha of timber was required to support refugees generated by conflict between 1990-2005; it’s unlikely this timber was harvested sustainably. Ordway (2015) demonstrate the spatially explicit nature of conflict-driven mass migration and deforestation and reforestation in Rwanda. Local conflicts and the breakdown of long-standing institutions, such as between the rural indigenous poor and recent arrival of wealthy landed elite, have been suggested as a major driver of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon (Aldrich et al., 2011).

Agricultural abandonment can be an outcome of conflict-induced migration. Land abandonment has been recorded following conflicts in Columbia (Sánchez-Cuervo and Aide, 2013), Nicaragua (Smith, 2003), Bosnia (Witmer and O'Loughlin, 2009), the Caucasus (Baumann et al., 2014), and Sri Lanka (Suthakar and Bui, 2008). In the case of the Caucuses, Baumann et al. (2014) found that about 30% of the abandoned agricultural land in the conflict zone was offset by new agricultural areas away for the conflict, and that only 17% of the abandoned land was re-cultivated after the conflict ended. They conclude that conflict can drive distant land use changes.

The dynamics of land use change from conflict and the many drivers of conflict are complicated at spatial and temporal scales, and a challenge is to synthesize the many dynamics of land abandonment, reforestation, deforestation and new agricultural land during and after conflict. Previous studies have focused predominantly on single types of land use changes (e.g. deforestation-reforestation, or agricultural land abandonment-new agricultural land), yet the processes are inter-dependent so future assessments of conflict and land use change should be integrative across multiple land uses (Baumann et al., 2014). Further work needs to assess impacts on land systems of the recent and expected future interrelated drivers of conflict, such as globalization, anthropogenic climate change and food insecurity, which are not well understood. Recent studies (Salehyan and Hendrix, 2014; Raleigh et al., 2015). report contradictory relationships between climate change impacts on environmental and resource scarcity, food production and conflict.