Saturday, October 16, 2010

Nature's wealth and human nature

Last summer's BP oil disaster in the Mexican Gulf was a reminder that in our eagerness to get at the earth's natural resources, our reach often exceeds our grasp, resulting in massive environmental damage. Thousands of coal fires burn worldwide, sometimes for decades (the one in Centralia, PA has been going for about 50 years), and most often ignited as a result of human mining activity.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, while the environmental damage often remains local, the economic benefits rarely do. The Niger delta's oil industry is notorious for causing local immiseration while producing billions in income for corrupt political leaders and foreign multinationals.

Add to the mix a weak state and the availability of cheap weapons, and you have the recipe for an indefinitely sustainable local conflict combining local immiseration and insecurity, environmental degradation, and widespread human rights violations. Coltan mining in the eastern Congo is perhaps the best-known example of this, but it is hardly the only case.

The current issue of Foreign Policy magazine covers another chronic conflict of this kind, this one in India. In "Fire in the Hole," Jason Miklian and Scott Carney describe how self-identified Maoist rebels have killed thousands of people over the past decade, and driven tens of thousands more away from their homes. The cause is depressingly familiar:

"Revenues from mineral extraction in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand topped $20 billion in 2008, and more than $1 trillion in proven reserves still sit in the ground. But this geological inheritance has been managed so disastrously that many locals -- uprooted, unemployed, and living in a toxic and dangerous environment, due to the mining operations -- have thrown in their lot with the Maoists."

The consequences are no less depressingly familiar. The Maoists "are less an organized ideological movement than a loose confederation of militias, and many of their local commanders appear to be in it for the money alone." Meanwhile, the authorities have lost control, and both sides engage in human rights violations against the local population. Comments the founder of an anti-Maoist militia: "If we kill a Maoist, then how is that a violation of human rights?"

These situations cannot be allowed to fester indefinitely. But addressing them will not be easy, and will almost certainly require more international involvement than the world community currently seems to be willing to spare.

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