Growing Unrest: The links between farmed and fished resources and the risk of conflict

By Alec Crawford, Oli Brown on July 2, 2008

This paper examines the links between the risk of conflict and the production and trade of agricultural and marine commodities. It does so using a series of case studies: cocoa in Côte d'Ivoire, bananas and subsequently fisheries in Somalia, and cotton in Central Asia. Much like the traditional conflict resources (oil, diamonds, timber, minerals, etc.), there is strong evidence that fished and farmed commodities can also be (mis)used in such a way that their production and trade contribute to the onset or continuation of violent conflict.

Key findings:

  1. ‘Taxing' the trade in agricultural and marine commodities can raise funds for conflict.
    Rebel groups, along with governments, can get funding from a variety of sources, and these sources can change over time. In addition, issues of revenue transparency and accountability are not limited to the oil and minerals sector; governments and multinational companies engaging in the trade of agricultural and marine resources can be complicit in supporting conflict.

  2. The volatile prices of agricultural commodities can contribute to economic and political instability, which can, in turn, increase the likelihood of conflict.
    Countries that are highly dependent on the export of a narrow range of agricultural or marine commodities are exposed to increasingly volatile commodity prices and the decisions of international market actors.

  3. Agricultural and marine commodities, as proxies for key natural resources like water and land, can increase the risk of competition (and conflict) over scarce resources.
    Trade in agricultural and marine commodities changes the strategic importance of some basic natural resources. Looking at trade in agricultural and marine commodities can help us understand the political economy of the management of those resources.

Key recommendations:

  • The international community needs to consider how to use tools like supply management, compensatory finance mechanisms, national revenue management and market-based risk management instruments to address more effectively the threat commodity price volatility holds for farmers, fishers and countries alike.

  • The UN Security Council should impose sanctions on agricultural and marine resources, if they can be shown to have a direct link to the financing of conflict. Secondary sanctions (i.e., penalties for sanction violators) need to be systematized and made uniform so that states are aware of the penalties, and individuals and companies violating sanctions are subject to criminal prosecution, no matter where they are based.

  • When appropriate, the mandates of UN Expert Panels should be broadened to look at agricultural and marine commodities as well as more traditional conflict resources. The UN Secretariat should create a systematic database of all materials from its Expert Panels, including a subset on natural resource issues, including agricultural and marine commodities, and publish its operational guidelines for expert groups, including on evidentiary standards.

  • In countries where natural resources have played a role in conflict, the UN should ensure that peacekeeping missions have a mandate to help secure natural resources in order to mitigate conflict and to enforce sanctions where they exist. Peacekeeping missions should also have a mandate and the capacities and means to monitor the exploitation and trade in natural resources.

  • The UN should map natural resources, including agricultural and marine resources. UN departments often start peacekeeping operations with little or no idea of what natural resources exist in the country in question, nor what role they may play in fuelling conflict.

  • The UN Peacebuilding Commission, which has been set up to support peacebuilding in fragile states, should ensure they address the role of natural resources as a potential driver of renewed conflict.

  • Policy-makers should support initiatives for increased transparency in the trade of agricultural and marine commodities to restrict their possible contribution to conflict.

  • UN agencies should look for opportunities to encourage national level NGOs and grassroots groups to monitor resource exploitation.

  • Policy-makers should support consumer-based initiatives for sustainably and legally harvested agricultural and marine commodities.

  • Policy-makers should increase investments in sustainable, conflict-free agriculture and fishing projects.

  • A UN Secretary-General's report should examine the UN's experience of addressing the role of natural resources in conflict and post-conflict scenarios, the lessons that can be learned and the ways in which existing UN approaches may be strengthened. The report should clarify what constitutes a conflict resource as a basis for identifying cases that require action by the Security Council.

Report details

IISD, 2008