Understanding the link between conflict and natural resources

December, 2019

“UN, Statements by Mr. ANTÓNIO GUTERRES, Secretary-General of the UN, “Root causes of conflicts – the role of natural resources” (S/2018/901). Concretely, how are things happening? Enrichment armed groups is mainly drawn from the c…”

“The export of minerals generally increases the risk of war (…) because it allows financing
rebel groups, causes worsening corruption in the administration, awakens secessionist sentiment and weakens the indigenous population.

The DR Congo has been experiencing an armed conflict for more than 20 years which has already caused millions of deaths. Although it is not the only factor, the presence of numerous natural resources contributes to the continuation of violence. How to understand this phenomenon?


If we cannot establish an automatic causal link between the presence of resources and the emergence of conflict, the presence of the latter nevertheless tends to significantly increase the risk of tension and therefore of potential conflict.

The presence of natural resources increases the risk of conflict to the extent that they are synonymous with enrichment for the people who exploit them. The value of mineral resources on the global market, combined with their limited availability and sometimes difficult accessibility, gives them significant value. Their simple presence will therefore arouse desire and very often exacerbate tensions between the different actors who will want to control their exploitation and appropriate them in order to benefit from them.

Competition between actors can be calmly regulated by a fair distribution system, or thanks to a fair and efficient legislative system. However, as is the case for example in DR Congo, the system does not always make it possible to peacefully regulate the competitive interests between the actors present. This is where conflicts appear.

The latter can emerge for several reasons [[Hugon P. (2009), in OCP Policy Center, Policy Brief, “Natural resources and geopolitical realities of Africa”, May 2017]]:

  • Inequitable distribution of resource revenues, corruption or mismanagement; the feeling of injustice that can be fueled by these dynamics creates, fuels or exacerbates tensions between stakeholders. Furthermore, these tensions can fuel other divisions (ethnic or religious for example).
  • Border, land or maritime disputes with a neighboring country regarding sovereignty over the area where the resources are located;
  • Separatist desires for regions rich in resources; Ex: Katanga or Kasaï in DR Congo, two regions rich in minerals and which have experienced separatist episodes in the past.

The conflicts that can emerge are of different orders: they can be armed conflicts (war between countries, civil war, etc.) and/or social conflicts (social protest via the mobilization of trade union, peasant, human rights defense movements). …).

THE armed conflicts are put in place when a group wants to appropriate the financial benefits of the exploitation of resources. THE social conflicts can appear when a population is ignored during the implementation of an extractive project or when the negative impacts of exploitation lead the population to express their grievances and demand respect for their rights from the actors they deem responsible . If the population has the impression that their grievances and demands are not listened to, social protest can harden and turn into violent social conflict. These mobilizations sometimes lead to repression by the armed forces of the State or even businesses.


If the presence of resources increases the risk of the outbreak of conflicts, it also influences their intensity, duration and can contribute to the resumption of certain pacified conflicts [[United Nations Inter-Agency Group for Preventive Actions, “Practical Guide for Prevention and the management of conflicts linked to land and natural resources – Extractive industries and conflicts”, 2012]].
Actors who have control over the exploitation of resources benefit from significant revenues. This money can make it possible to purchase weapons to continue to establish their power, their authority and thus maintain control over resources.

The influence on the duration of conflicts

Financing mechanisms :
In the case of a belligerent group in a weak position, taking possession of the resources where it is located allows it to obtain new financing and equip itself. This strengthens his position and reduces the need to negotiate. This new influx of resources for the weaker group may allow it to continue hostilities and potentially make the conflict longer. Conversely, if this provision of natural resources benefits a group in a position of strength in the conflict, strengthening its means of combat can allow it a direct victory and end the conflict. Which makes conflicts potentially shorter.

Greed Mechanism :
Natural resources can provide financial motivation to combatants and encourage them to oppose peace agreements, which influences the duration of the conflict by making it longer. Indeed, enrichment takes precedence over the political and/or military objectives which may have been at the origin of the outbreak of the conflict. This mechanism is at the heart of the dynamics of the conflict currently at work in eastern DR Congo. Conversely, if peace seems more profitable to the different warring groups, it is possible that the combatants will seek to negotiate peace, making the conflict shorter.

The influence on the intensity of conflicts

The appropriation mechanism:
If the belligerents are in a logic of appropriation of resources, the more the disputed territory contains and/or the more these resources have a significant economic value, the greater the desire to appropriate them is among all the belligerents. Which tends to increase the number of victims. In the case of territories with fewer and/or less valuable resources, the negative ratio between the costs of war and what it could bring may be enough to encourage opponents to reach an agreement.

The cooperation mechanism:
It may also appear to the belligerents that cooperation for sharing the benefits of the exploitation of natural resources between them represents a lower cost than waging war (they pillage together). Cooperation tends to reduce the number of victims. As we will see later, this mechanism is also at work in the case of the conflict in eastern DR Congo.


In DR Congo the link between the exploitation of resources and the presence of conflict is particularly evident. The presence of resources fuels a silent conflict that has destabilized the Great Lakes region for many years. If access to Congolese natural resources does not appear to be the main reason for the outbreak of the conflict in 1996, it is today clearly one of the central elements on which the strategy of the actors has been based for almost 20 years. in the presence.

In eastern DR Congo, exploitation has an impact on both the duration and intensity of the conflict. Long-term impact because in fact, if the illegal trade in minerals brings in so much money, it is because it feeds on the “instability-insecurity-impunity” cocktail. The absence of control allows certain armed groups to finance themselves, but above all allows the personal enrichment of a few officers and other high-ranking individuals in the hierarchy of armed groups. There are between 70 and 120 of them operating in the east of DR Congo.

The neighboring countries of the Congolese giant, most of which are involved in trafficking, also benefit greatly from this situation. This continuous search for enrichment inevitably leads to a strategy of fueling conflicts. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) estimates that the illegal exploitation of resources in DR Congo (gold, timber, ivory and minerals) brings in up to $1.3 billion per year. Gold trafficking alone generates nearly 120 million dollars annually. These revenues do not go entirely to armed groups, but also benefit international criminal groups – notably sheltered by neighboring countries [[UN, Statements by Mr. ANTÓNIO GUTERRES, Secretary General of the UN, “Root causes of conflicts – the role of natural resources” (S/2018/901).

Concretely, how are things going?

The enrichment of armed groups is mainly derived from the marketing of minerals, rather than from artisanal exploitation as such. However, it sometimes happens that an armed group takes direct control of an artisanal mine to exploit it for a few days, either by sending its own soldiers to extract the ore in the pits, or by forcing civilians to do it for them. This practice remains isolated, however, and mainly linked to the actions of certain particularly unscrupulous units of the FARDC [[ The main armed men identified in the mines are FARDC (66% of the mining sites affected between 2016 and 2018 are by official soldiers) . Source: IPIS, [[Ibid]] “Mapping artisanal mining areas and mineral supply chains in eastern DRC. Impact of interference from armed groups and responsible sourcing initiatives”, May 2019]], because armed men are generally limited to controlling the surroundings of the sites and extorting diggers and mineral traders along the trade routes that they control (collection of taxes in minerals or in cash). The presence in mining sites no longer represents just one source of financing among others. As IPIS points out, illicit trade continues but taxation strategies have been revised. Today, revenues are mainly collected by holding roadblocks and taxing other resources (notably wood) [[On this theme see in particular: IPIS, “Everything that moves will be taxed: the political economy of road barriers in North and South Kivu”, November 2017]]. It is common for companies to pay taxes to rebel groups to be able to use the roads and transport their goods without disruption. In exchange for paying these “taxes”, the rebels or soldiers ensure the security of the company’s convoys. What about the intensity of the fighting? It is relatively low in the DRC. Commercial cooperation between different groups for mineral trafficking often takes precedence over the logic of military confrontation. Indeed, periods of direct confrontation are relatively brief – even in the east of the country – and followed by longer periods of calm, thus allowing commercial cooperation to reorganize. Furthermore, the primary reason for most attacks carried out by one armed group against another is to gain access to mines and/or mineral trade routes, rather than a real political or ideological divergence between them.

The first victims of these conflicts are the local populations who suffer from the strategies of violence and terror of armed men. The latter practice looting, murder, kidnapping and also rape to establish their domination. The displaced people number in the tens of thousands.

The strategy of chaos

Conflicts and violence (including sexual violence) are fueling widespread chaos in the region. This permanent disorder allows different belligerents to continue to enrich themselves through the exploitation of resources. Indeed, if order reigned, it would be more difficult to extract and export minerals illegally, to avoid paying taxes and this would lead to a reduction in profits. This chaos has the direct consequence of not allowing the population and the State – as an institution – to benefit from the fallout from mineral wealth. Many actors present (rebel groups, FARDC, political leaders, businessmen/women and multinationals or even neighboring countries) therefore have a major direct interest in perpetuating this crisis.

It is important to emphasize, however, that resources are often not the only explanation that can be given to conflicts. Conflicts are multifactorial. This is also observed in South Kivu where the conflict, of rare complexity, combines geostrategic, economic, but also political and ethnic issues. Furthermore, the conflict has strictly Congolese components, an important regional dimension (notably with Rwanda and Uganda), but also international (because of the numerous foreign actors present: large companies and States). The complexity of the situation makes conflict resolution difficult.


“ Studies carried out by the UN show that more than 40% of internal armed conflicts over the last 60 years have been linked to natural resources. With the growing impacts of climate change evident in all regions of the world, the risks will only increase” recently warned UN Secretary General, Mr. António Guterres [[UN, Statements by Mr. ANTÓNIO GUTERRES, UN Secretary-General, “Root causes of conflicts – the role of natural resources” (S/ 2018/901).]].

Climate change and increasing pressure on the planet’s natural resources are increasing the risks of conflict in the world. The consumption of resources in industrialized countries, particularly mining, is increasing without taking into account the realities in producing countries. Reserves of some resources are concentrated in a small number of countries, such as coltan and cobalt in DR Congo [[DR Congo has 60 to 80% of coltan reserves and 50 to 60% of global cobalt reserves.]], two minerals essential to our new technologies (smartphones, computers, etc.). Our thoughtless over-consumption of these resources will not contribute to easing tensions in DR Congo, quite the contrary. The European Union and Belgium should initiate a real reflection on their resource supply, both in terms of the long-term availability of these non-renewable resources and the socio-environmental impacts of their exploitation in producing countries. Reducing our voracious appetite for resources and supporting the DR Congo in easing conflicts in the East could be a first step on the path towards peace.


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