Center for International Forestry Research: The Roots of Jungle Warfare: UN Study Finds Many Forested Areas Ripe For Violent Conflict

Experts urge attention to political, economic, and social issues that have made forests the flash point for many of the world’s recent wars.

ROME, ITALY (17 March 2005)– Better management of the world’s forests is crucial to reducing conflict and avoiding war, according to a new United Nations (UN) report. Released today, the report focuses sharply on problems unique to the forested regions of poor countries around the world that contribute to dozens of deaths daily. The violence that erupts over forest issues has received international attention in recent weeks as the Brazilian government dispatched 2,000 troops to bring order to the Amazon state of Para following the murder of an American nun in a long-running dispute involving forest land rights. The incident in Brazil is just one of many forest and conflict stories from countries around the world given recent media coverage (see attached summary of conflict and forest news stories).

An exploration of how current political, social and environmental conditions in forested areas routinely provide the motive and means for war is part of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) State of the World’s Forests (SOFO) report. The section of the report examining conflict looks broadly at recent major developments and key issues concerning the world’s forests, among them: why forested regions appear to be prone to conflict, what governments can do to address misguided policies and practices that provoke tensions in these areas, and the need to invest heavily in post conflict situations—a time that is especially dangerous for a forest’s environmental health.

The report was released at the FAO’s Ministerial Meeting on Forests in Rome where 50 ministers and 400 representatives of national forestry agencies, international and non-governmental organizations are meeting to discuss international cooperation on forest fires, deforestation, post-tsunami rehabilitation and the role of forests in achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

Over the last 20 years forested areas have been a central staging ground for wars in some two dozen countries, which together house over 40 percent of the world’s tropical forests. There are currently armed conflicts in the forested areas of Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Indonesia, Nepal, the Philippines, Pakistan, Ivory Coast and Uganda. In other countries that have recently come out of war, such as Cambodia, Liberia, Myanmar, Nicaragua, and Sudan, the way forested regions are governed in the future will be a crucial factor in determining whether violence breaks out again. Forest-related tensions also are a factor in the social violence that plagues areas of Bolivia, Mexico, Peru, Laos, Papua New Guinea, and Brazil.

“There is so much about forested regions today that makes them perfectly primed to play host to war,” said Hosny El-Lakany, FAO Assistant Director-General of Forestry. “It is in the forest where one often finds poor, isolated populations who are either ignored or mistreated and may need little encouragement to take up arms, and where there is usually valuable timber, minerals, oil and land that can easily be the source of tension. There is also the simple fact that forests can provide refuge, funds and food for fighters.”

According to the report, dealing with the destructive relationship between wars and forests requires attention to the issues that make them such centers of conflict. The report notes that it is in governments’ self-interest to address the political, economic, social and cultural concerns of people who live in forested regions. To avoid violence in forested areas or secure the peace after troubles have occurred, governments should bring local ethnic groups into the political system, provide them with basic services and recognize their rights over forest resources. Internationally, policies to prevent forests from fueling wars could include sanctions that block armed groups from using timber exports to finance their operations.

“When wars do break out, forest issues can offer a path to peace,” said David Kaimowitz, director-general of the Jakarta, Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and author of the chapter in the FAO report entitled “Forests and War, Forests and Peace.” “Attention to forestry problems need not wait until hostilities have ceased,” he said. “Even in the bitter Rwandan civil war both sides agreed to take steps to avoid killing endangered gorillas. When Colombia’s government negotiated with anti-government rebels several years ago, forestry and related environmental issues figured prominently in the talks.”

The link between the environment and upheaval is attracting increasing worldwide attention. Last year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Wangari Maathai was in recognition for her work with the “Green Belt Movement” which focused international attention to how deforestation contributes to instability in Africa.

According to the FAO report chapter, the precise role of forests can vary from war to war. In Aceh in Indonesia and Mindanao in the Philippines, separatist movements have successfully tapped into the political disenfranchisement of forest dwellers. (In fact the Indonesian military often refers to the Aceh separatists as “friends of the forest.”) Local discontent over forest issues also played a significant role in the recently ended conflicts in the north of Myanmar and areas of Nicaragua, among others.

Sometimes the forest contributes to violence by helping sustain and prolong war. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rogue was heavily dependent on timber sales. In Colombia, the forest environment has proven ideal for cultivating and processing illicit crops such as cocaine that help fund anti-government militias. In several other countries international agencies have imposed sanctions on timber sales to keep them from financing the purchase of arms.

As for the effect of wars on the forest themselves, Kaimowitz said that while they are almost always terrible for people, their environmental impact is decidedly mixed. Relatively unsurprising is the fact that military conflicts can result in destructive forest clearing. But what gets less attention, said Kaimowitz, is the fact that “wars can be good for forests.”

“No one is saying ‘lets start a war so we can save the forest’ but the fact remains that in many areas of conflict, forest ecosystems fair better in war time than they do in peace time,” he said. “Wars can discourage logging and other resource depleting activities. No one wants to enter a forest full of land mines or where there is a risk being kidnapped. Look at Colombia. Largely because of years of conflict it has more forest acreage than it did several decades ago.”

Ironically, the arrival of peace can be an especially destructive for forests. In a number of countries the push for rapid post-warm economic recovery has led to excessive logging. Governments routinely use forested areas as places to settle demobilized soldiers and war refugees who are likely to take up destructive farming and resource extraction practices. The international community would be wise to invest heavily in forested areas during post-conflict periods since such spending can do double duty by preventing a recurrence of fighting and protecting the forest itself.

The origins of violence in forested regions are also explored in a recent publication from the European Tropical Forest Research Network (ETFRN) a 16-country scientific consortium dedicated to tropical forest preservation. The publication, for which CIFOR served as guest editor, features some 36 articles offering a range of views on the forests and conflict and is available at Titles highlighted in bold may be of particular interest to the media.

State of the World’s Forests 2005 has the theme "realizing the economic benefits from forests" and includes main contributions on: enhancing the economic benefits from forests; economic benefits from agroforestry; the economics of wood energy; impacts of tariffs and non-tariff measures on forest products trade; and violent conflicts in forested areas. The edition also provides an update on issues related to forest resources, forest conservation and management, institutions and the international forest policy dialogue. To view the full report, please visit:

For further information, contact:

  • Ellen Wilson, Jeff Haskins, or Coimbra Sirica at Burness Communications,
  • David Kaimowitz, CIFOR,+62 81 6188 6575 or
    Hotel Sourire, Roma, Tel: +39 06 57138634,
    FAX: +39 06 57805144
  • Cheemin Gloria Kwon, FAO +39 06 5705-4464
  • Greg Clough, CIFOR +62 251 622 622, +62 8128646613