IV. Environment and Conflict in History The database of conflict and environment cases shows a broad variety if issues but at a high level of inspection

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Was the socio-economic system that developed the cause of the society success and eventual failure? “One of the most elegant solutions attributes the Maya collapse to a collapse of the environment’s carrying capacity due to population pressure in a swidden subsistence system: an expanding population leads to decreasing fallow times which in turn produce decreased yields per hectare and increased grass invasion.” 96 Some however question this theory because, with climate change, grass invasion is very short-term and the habitat quickly reverts to a forest. Second, the Mayans had a much more complicated system of economic exchange and subsistence strategies than just simple swidden techniques would suggest.97

One inevitable consequence of overpopulation and a disintegrating agricultural system would be malnutrition--and in fact, some researchers have preliminary evidence of undernourishment in children's skeletons from the late Classic period. Given all the stresses on Maya society, Culbert believes that what ultimately sent it over the edge "could have been something totally trivial--two bad hurricane seasons, say, or a crazy king. An enormously strained system like this could have been pushed over in a million ways."

Christopher Jones says that “at Tikal, the collapse appears to have occurred over many decades…Tikal was weakened by the shifting of trade from inland rivers and trails it controlled to maritime routes dominated by rivals on the coast of what is now southern Mexico. Drought, warfare, and environmental degradation may slowly have finished it off.”98

Dry conditions beginning about 760 AD are evident in the Cariaco Ti record by two large inferred rainfall minima. Over the next 40 years, there appears to have been a slight long-term drying trend. This culminated in roughly a decade of more intense aridity that, within the limits of the present chronology, began at about 810. Drought again began about 860, indicating a short but apparently severe event. Finally, low contents in the Cariaco Basin sequence indicate the onset of yet another drought at about 910.

We suggest that the rapid expansion of Maya civilization from 550 to 750 A.D. during climatically favorable (relatively wet) times resulted in a population operating at the limits of the environment's carrying capacity, leaving Maya society especially vulnerable to multiyear droughts…The control of artificial water reservoirs by Maya rulers may also have played a role in both the florescence and the collapse of Maya civilization. Noting that the scale of artificial water control seems to correlate with the degree of political power of Maya cities, it has been suggested.99

Chichen Itza (“the mouth of the Itza’s well”) was a Mayan city is located in the Yucatan region of modern Mexico. The city evolved in two stages. There was a classic Mayan period that lasted from about 400 to 850 AD. The old city was built in part because of a fresh water cavern nearby (a cenote) and the culture was based on Chaac the rain god. With the decline of the Mayan Empire this city too was gradually abandoned, although visited for religious ceremonies and burials, by its former inhabitants and their descendants. .

The city had a rebirth and was rebuilt after the invasion in 850 by the Toltec, a people from central Mexico. The Toltec introduced new technology and architecture styles and a new culture based on Kukulcan, the serpent. A second of invaders wave ruled the city in 1150, a dynasty which lasted until 1300. The city of Mayapan took over Chichen Itza and ruled until 1400 when it was abandoned.

The Pyramid of Kukulcan sits at the center of Chichen Itza. It is four sided structure each with 91 steps. A structure at the top represents a single day and the total together is of course 365 days. (The Mayan calendar has special short “month” to deal with leap years.) Certain dates such as the equinox illuminate the inner chamber of the pyramid and the serpent carved into the rock (see Figure-IV-5).

Figure IV-5

Chichen Itza and the Kukulcan Pyramid

Without the large domestic fauna in the New World, such as oxen, horses, or camels, that were abundant and domesticated in the Old World, the Mayans had no animals to provide for bulk transport. This had a crucial impact on the economics of food trade during the drought. Robert Drennan calculates that, with some overhead and profit taken into consideration it was not worthwhile to trade over distances exceeding 165 miles, using human transportation power. Assuming a round-trip basis, at that point the transporter -- a person – would need to eat most of the food that he or she carried simply to survive.100

Not only were there these longer-term changes in temperature patterns, there are also a great amount of variation in precipitation within the Yucatan regime ecotone. This created “haves” and “have nots” and a powerful push factor that led people to move to other far-off lands. “It would appear, then, that the severe drought was coincident with the final abandonment of Teotihuacan and, as we have seen, conflict, famine, and drought often go hand in hand. A severe drought, then, does not rule out the possibility that conflict may also have occurred as part of the complex of effects driven by drought.”101

State failure was not the cause for famine or the social collapse. There were several Mayan states during this period and the states were never a monolithic empire or system.102 Following Morton Kaplan’s classification, they included examples of both bipolar and multipolar systems of international relations. The causes no doubt are similar to causes for state failure in the modern era.103

Arthur Demarest was able to head a team to translate the some recovered glyphs, and he found that "Rather than being an independent actor, as previously thought, it now appears that Dos Pilas was a pawn in a much bigger battle," said Demarest. "In today's terms, Dos Pilas was the … Vietnam of the Maya world [at the time close to its collapse], used in a war that was actually between two superpowers." The two superpowers at this time were Tikal (northern Guaremala) and Calakmul (southern Mexico), separated from each other by about 60 miles. The inscriptions indicated that Dos Pilas was a “puppet” state for years.

Most experts point to the environmental aspects of the decline. Culbert believes that "the Maya were overpopulated and they overexploited their environment and millions of them died.” Scholars differ on how far one can generalize about the Mayan experience and its lessons for today. Culbert adds that “knowledge isn't going to solve the modern world situation, but it's silly to ignore it and say it has nothing to do with us.” Stephen Houston, on the other hand, says that one should be “careful of finding too many lessons in the Maya. They were a different society, and the glue that held them together was different."104

c. Conflict and Deforestation in Rwanda




Environmental Breadth


General Resources


Arable Land

In Mohenjo-Daro and the Maya cities there were wars to control arable land during times of decline. This control involved elements of internal and external power struggles. One reason was over-population and over-exploitation of the land. Relative imbalances in supply and demand invite conflict when the carrying capacity is too little or when it is too much demand put on it.

In Rwanda, over population and the decline in the quality of the soil are the results of both overuse of the land, deforestation and population growth. The resulting internecine warfare is Rwanda eerily reminiscent of what happened to the Mayas. In both instances, peoples that were from the same general ethnic group fought against one another. Is the Rwanda case the beginning of a new period or is it a continuation of what has been underway for many years?

During three months in 1994, about 500,000-800,000 people died as a result of ethnic civil war and genocide in Rwanda.105 Rwanda’s population at the time was about 7.5 million and had a population growth rate of 3.7 percent per year. At this rate the population would double every 18.9 years. It also had one of the highest population densities in Africa. Rwanda's geography and demography makes it susceptible to certain types of environmental problems.

The degradation of Rwanda's natural resource base is a direct result of the limited arable land under stress from a rapidly growing population, where 90 percent are engaged in agriculture. Environmental scarcity was just one of the many reasons for the conflict in Rwanda and a problem that extends throughout central Africa into neighboring countries of Burundi, Uganda, Congo, among others.

Rwanda's population lives and farms at elevations between 1300 and 2300 meters above sea level, which makes one think of Switzerland rather than tropical Africa. The mountain ranges and highland plateaus create the headland waters of the great Nile and Congo River basins. The land is fully used and every slope is intensively cultivated, even those with more than a 50 degree gradient.

Intensive culture is especially prevalent where farms were subdivided several times, as they pass from one generation to another.106 In many cases, inherited farm lots are too small to support a family, averaging less than 1.2 hectares on average. This situation is reminiscent of the situation of the Irish just prior to the potato famine. In the early 19th century, a similar system created smaller and smaller land holdings for each generation Reliance on the potato for sustenance became so overwhelming that the famine killed and dispossessed millions. Both Irish and Rwandan farmers attempted to compensate by growing more than one crop on the same land in very short cycles, often without adding natural fertilizers to enrich the soil.

Fragmentation of family holdings through generational transfers has led to a severe decline in agricultural production, resulting in malnutrition and soil exhaustion. Over population in Rwanda affects agricultural cycles by shortening fallow periods and an increasing intensity of soil use. With declining acreage, farms replaced ranches and the conversion of pastureland into cropland has decreased the production of animal manure, therefore decreasing soil fertility. Most land in Rwanda is already being used with exception of two sub-regions, the Nyabarngo Valley and Akagera Park, which are protected areas.

Rwanda's remaining natural forests, the Nyungwe Forest, the Gishwati Forest and the Mukara Forest have a high degree of biological diversity and contain many animals, including mountain gorillas, ruwenzori colobus monkeys and golden chimpanzees. The natural forests in Rwanda fell from approximately 30 percent of the country around 1900 to 7 percent today. Before the 1990 civil war, Rwanda was annually importing 2.3 million cubic meters of wood and 91 percent of wood consumption was for domestic use.

Rwanda's remaining natural forests have a high degree of biodiversity and rare animal species are threatened by the encroachment of refugees fleeing conflict. In the Nyungwe National Forest Reserve, where there are more than 190 species of trees, 275 species of birds, and 12 species of primates, is particularly vulnerable. Poaching has wiped out all the buffalo and most of the forest antelopes known as duikers. There are perhaps six elephants left in the Nyungwe Forest, although ironically Rwanda remains a leading exporter of elephant ivory. The difference is its role at a trans-shipment for ivory originating in other African countries.

Rwanda is unique among African nations in terms of its basic character as a nation-state. Most African states were created based on artificial boundaries that were imposed as part of colonialism and most often these limits combined rather than isolated national ethnic groups and contiguous geographic boundaries. The people of Rwanda speak a single language, Kiyarwanda, and comprise a single nationality, Banyarwanda. Among them, there are three major groups: the Hutu, Tutsi and Twa. In 1994, 90.4 percent were Hutu, 8.2 percent Tutsi, and 0.4 percent Twa. This monogenetic population is more similar to European rather than African countries.

Belgium colonized Rwanda (as well as the Congo) and under colonial rule ethnic status defined occupation. (This tactic was adopted worldwide in creating colonial systems of governance. It is similar to the roles of Tamils and Sinhalese under the British rule in Sri Lanka.) In Rwanda, the Tutsis were generally ranchers or herders and the Hutus farmers. Belgium’s policy favored the minority Tutsi’s who were taller and lighter in color than the Hutus. The minority Tutsi became the haves and the majority Hutu became the have-nots.

Resentment toward the Tutsi resulted in the Social Revolution of 1959, in which 150,000 Tutsi were either killed or fled to nearby Uganda, Burundi, Zaire, or Tanzania. The Belgians shifted support from the Tutsi ruling class to the majority Hutu at the time of Rwanda's independence in 1961. The new Hutu government installed a hierarchical administrative systems once again modeled after Rwanda's pre-independence system of government. Many of the same discriminatory practices from pre-independence were put into place against the Tutsi, including ethnic identity cards.

In an attempt to ease social tensions and legitimize Hutu supremacy, the government resettled Hutu’s into new lands during the 1960's and 1970s under a program known as the “payasannat”. This program relocated over 80,000 farmers and their families and led to a mass exodus westward into both unsettled areas and Tutsi grazing lands. The government sponsored conversion of pastures into cultivated lands, further decreasing soil fertility. Tutsi grazing lands gradually became Hutu farming lands. Hutus advocated a policy promoting agricultural production needed to cope with the rapid population pressure and social unrest.

In 1990, the Hutu controlled government of President Habryarimana was under intense pressure. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), comprised mainly of Tutsi refugees from Zaire, invaded the country from Uganda. The Rwandan government based its legitimacy on its ability to provide for the basic needs of its population. But the economic situation in the country was deteriorating. A dramatic decrease in coffee and tea prices led to a downturn in the Rwandan economy. Ninety percent of export earnings came from 7 percent of the land where coffee and tea was grown.

The state of the Rwandan economy in 1990 contributed to onset of the civil war. Rural poverty and environmental degradation were important factors in the eventual collapse of the Habryarimana regime. The regime ignored the many warning signs. Rwanda received sizeable foreign assistance, but the Habyarimana government channeled most of the aid into the northwest, the president's home region, further aggravating ethnic tensions with opposition parties mainly centered in the south.

Tropical moist forests in Central Africa, home to both people and wildlife, are disappearing at the rate of nearly 2 million hectares each year. Farmers desperate for arable land enter protected forests to farm or to hunt animals. The demand to convert more land to agriculture led to the destruction of many habitats including Rwanda's wetlands (marais). The loss of these natural “sponges” resulted in flooding, loss of wildlife habitats and over-sedimentation. Demographic pressures led to overuse of marginal land, shortened fallow periods, and conversion of pasture and natural forests into cropland.

In April 1994, President Habyarimana's plane exploded shortly after take-off, an event that plunged the country into chaos. The resulting violence killed over 1 million people and displaced over 2 million. Evidence suggests that Hutus in the government were responsible for the president's death. The Hutus feared the reforms called for in the Arusha Accords, which provided for a transitional government until scheduled elections in 1994, because they threatened the Hutu elite’s position of power within Rwanda. The death of Habaryimana was the spark that ignited the civil war. Environmental scarcity was used as a political tool to engage the rural population for violent purposes.

A decade later the war still persists. Laurent Kabila led a rebellion in east Congo, supported by the Ugandans and Rwandans. Kabila had a long history as an insurrectionist. In 1960 Kabila aligned himself with the first president of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba whose left wing government won both friends and enemies. Lumumba’s government was overthrown by an officer, Colonel Mobutu, and Lumumba was later assassinated. In 1964, Kabila led one of three groups that launched counter-insurgencies in support of restoring Lumumba. His effort was supported by an Argentine doctor called Ernesto “Che” Guevara who quickly grew disillusioned with Lumumba. They were defeated the following year by Mobutu.

More than 30 years later in 1996-97 the two old antagonists meet again. Kabila, supported by Rwanda and Uganda launched another rebellion. Kabila’s forces spread west rapidly and in a short period overthrew Mobutu. Kabila was allied with the Ugandans and Rwandans. A split among the victorious parties and a new rebellion threatened to unseat Kabila, who then allied with Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia and forced a stalemate, with perhaps the eastern one-half the country outside his control. Kabila was assassinated by a body guard and was succeeded by his son, Joseph Kabila.

That Rwandan and Congolese civil wars was combined into a single, larger struggle. Rwanda sought to eliminate the Hutu rebels (the Interhawame) who continued to operate from the Congo. Both Rwanda and Uganda sent military forces into the Congo and this led to a larger regional conflict. Part of the conflict is ethnic but part is also the access to resources. Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia have military forces in the country in support of the Congo government. “Everywhere you look, the DRC is being plundered of its natural resources. The Rwandan army seized many of the region's tantalite mines. Tantalite is used in the production of gun barrels.”107
d. Comparing and Reflecting on the Arable Land Cases
The relevant “ancient case” is that of Mohenjo-Daro and how shifting water resources led to an end of that society and how conflict was a culminating part of the process. The resources shift in turn with macro-level forces, such as climate. Similarities between the three cases are quite compelling. They illustrate situations involving healthy and growing human societies that were confronted by their own success, a threshold level of water availability, and climate changes that altered the honed economic survival equation. This is a classic model of an “overshoot” and “collapse” system models where human needs exceed the carrying capacity of the environment.

The finds at Mohenjo-Daro and other archaeological sites across Pakistan and India are part of another debate that challenges this view of history. The BJP party in India, now the ruling party, has been rewriting school textbooks to downplay the importance and even the existence of the Aryan invaders from Afghanistan. They argue that the early inhabitants and creators of the modern civilization were native to the area. Modern battles are being fought in the interpretation of the history of environment and conflict. Controlling the past controls the future.

The end of the Ice Age spurred the growth of civilization in South Asia. The Indus culture followed the traditions of other great river basin peoples such as in Egypt and Mesopotamia. The system was based on irrigation and natural, silt-bearing floods that were annual and predictable.108 Cities were a triumph of idea and humanity over nature and represented the victory of humans over nature. A relic from Mohenjo-Daro has a seal that “shows a Gilgamesh-like figure standing between two upreared tigers and another man tackling a buffalo with a barbed spear".109

Lifestyles of the Mayans today and millennia ago are quite different. In southern Mexico, an area with generally good soil, it is now more profitable to loot ancient Mayan artifacts rather than to farm. This trend is also in part due to the availability of cheap corn imports from the United States after the signing of the NAFTA agreement. A large proportion of the stolen artifacts make their way to the United States and Europe via Cancun, Mexico. It is “a huge market and very well developed. Because of television and the Internet, more people are realizing the true value of these artifacts. And looting is a lot more profitable than subsistence farming."110 The past now has more value in the present, so there is a race between progress and history. At sites such as Chichen Itza, more is to be made from selling faux artifacts to tourists than from tilling the fields.

Perhaps there was no huge collapse after all. By 930 AD, Mayan populations had fallen by an incredible 95 percent. Surely people would have begun migration from the area long before these levels of fatality were reached. New evidence shows that “drought spikes” hit the area around 810, 860 and 910 AD. However, given that this occurred over many centuries, many scholars now believe that there was no collapse of the Mayans. Rather, “they simply moved: north to Yucatan and Mexico, eastward to Belize and to highland settlements on the edges of the rain forest.”111 They may have traveled and established new cities in new places, perhaps even heading north to the relatively less populated plains.

The desire for arable land is a relative calculation, insofar as limited numbers of humans could survive in areas even where there was no arable land (assuming they could still engage in hunting and gathering). In both Mohenjo-Daro and in Mayan-ruled lands, growing populations so overwhelmed the amount of available land and conflict was a natural outcome. Given the invention of irrigation, the amount of arable land is also a function of the availability of fresh water. Irrigation was a means that humans in fact were able to exceed natural rainfall limitations on the amount of arable land and thus the natural limits to the size of population.

Controlling the flow of water was a key part of the conflict. The Mohenjo-Daro case was one in which environmental changes led to human conflict. This was not unnatural, since part of the problem was the natural meandering of the Indus River that moved water supplies away from the urban center.

The cases of Rwanda and the Mayans are instructive in a different manner: too much natural rain coupled with deforestation led to soil erosion and the decline in the fertility of the soil. In other words, the one natural advantage of the land became a disadvantage without the proper vegetative cover. In both cases, there was a domestic violence factor, which later became an international factor and thus had a type of cascading affect.

The events echo across the region as the historical ebb and flow of peoples overwhelms the relatively recent creation of national boundaries. The Rwandan civil war was the spark for not one but many conflicts. It marked a war between differing ethnic peoples that ignored boundaries. The collapsing eco-systems were not only limited to Rwanda. Environmental problems in one area exacerbated problems in other areas.
3. Forests
With population growth brought on by the Agricultural Revolution, cities grew and the demand for wood resources became enormous. Wood was not only the main building material for houses, bridges, boats and or structures, it was also the basis for creating and using tools. The clearing of forests also opened new lands for agricultural development and thus there was a positive incentive to cut the forests. The cases that follow show three differing aspects of the role of forests and conflict: the Cedars of Lebanon, Robin Hood, and the Khmer Rouge.

The role of forests in the analysis is closely tied to habitat change which is also part of the stalemate outcome. This is a sub-loop within the environmental sub-system and a feedback loop (red) that relates to tropical areas in particular, suggesting these are somewhat modern cases (see Figure IV-6). Deforestation cases are highly centralized in longer-term time durations, especially the 8-16 year period. Tropical cases of deforestation account for about 75 percent of the total. These cases are long-term stalemates with gradually building casualties and an end result where one human population wins, but does not alter the patterns of environmental degradation. There is certain inevitability with forest use. The forest needs only to be cut down once to disappear.

Figure IV-6

The Forest Causal System (the Red Loop in the Environmental Sub-System)

a. The Cedars of Lebanon and Conflict

Time Period



Environmental Breadth


Specific Resources



Ralph Solecki made a remarkable discovery in a cave near Shamidar, Iraq. Between 1953 and 1960 he found 9 Neanderthal skeletons. Not only were they buried, showing signs of culture, they were buried with flowers as part of a custom or ritual. One male individual died of a recent wound, possibly by a spear, meaning they cared for him for some time. The bones are thought to be 60,000 years old. Only casts of the bones survive in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., because the real bones disappeared somewhere in Iraq. Located in the Zagros Mountains near the borders with Iran and Turkey, it is now an area with a largely Kurdish population and a place of continuing conflict.

Shamidar is also home to some of the earliest human settlements that have been found, dating back to 10,000 BC. Over time, the general demands for resources became more specific and particular as human lifestyles and economies became more sophisticated and developed. Thus, the types of environmental conflicts and the causes for them also changed with time.

As the climate continued to change, the lush, fertile areas of the Middle East became much drier and the vegetation changed from forests to dry grasslands. As villages spread south from the Shamidar region and grew into urban centers grew along the Euphrates River, the supply of wood for warmth, for cooking and for building purposes was soon exhausted. Securing abundant and reliable sources of wood, and the transportation of them, became a key strategic interest of growing city-states.

Trees may have been the first domesticated plant and as a result, they have long been important aspects of human subsistence strategy. Trees important to human diet are often cultivated. Trees for other purposes are often taken from the wild. How cultivation began is a matter of conjecture. One theory is that some person ate a fruit or a nut and threw the seed outside the cave door that served as the tribal compost pit. Compost provided great fertilizer and when a tree grew and bore the same fruit or nut, someone made the connection.

Wild trees are not cultivated but are conquered (along with the land they sit upon). Some trees have been especially critical to national strategy and one is the cedar. The cedar is a key forest resource whose value is noted early in human history, as far back as the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, which pre-dates even the Bible. Written about 2,600 B.C., the earliest stories in the Gilgamesh tale occurred not long after the advent of the Agricultural Conjunction and the invention of writing (about 3,000 B.C.). Many historical writings, including those of Theophrastus, Homer, Pliny and Plato as well as the Old Testament of the Bible, document the (once) rich and luxuriant cedar forests of Lebanon. In fact, the cedar grew widespread throughout the region. The Epic of Gilgamesh, written on a series of tablets found in modern-day Iraq, is a story of the conflict between humans and the environment, the opening of trade, and the incorporation of these events into culture via mythology. Forest use is a long standing source of conflict.

Gilgamesh is a "modern" man by the standards of 2,600 B.C. and the King of Uruk, a city-state that existed along the Tigris-Euphrates River in the Middle East. He is a super-human (two-thirds god and one-third human), the result of gods mating with mortals. There was no person in Uruk who could match his strength and power. Gilgamesh was a cruel king who stole from and subjugated his people. He commanded, for example, that every bride have sex with him before her husband on their wedding night.

The people of Uruk cried out to the gods for relief from the harsh rule of Gilgamesh. The god Anu answers their plea by creating Gilgamesh's doppelganger, Enkidu. Anu hoped Enkidu could match both wits and strength with Gilgamesh and therefore occupy him and lessen the suffering of the people of Uruk.

Enkidu was a forest creature, but nonetheless human, living like and with animals (Tarzan may be a comparable image) with the strength of twelve men. The son of a trapper discovers him because Enkidu had been freeing the animals in the traps. The trapper’s father brings a priestess/prostitute called Shamhat from Uruk to lure Enkidu out of the forest and domesticate him. She seduces Enkidu and gradually civilizes him during six days and seven nights of lovemaking. After this period of human socialization, his animal friends will have nothing to do with him. Adam and Eve are sent out of Eden for biting into the apple and so too is Enkidu, expelled for tasting human pleasure. The forest creatures also symbolically expel him from the forest “Eden”.

Shamhat brings Enkidu to Uruk. As they enter the city, they find Gilgamesh on his way to interrupt another bride and bridegroom. Enkidu is enraged at the behavior of Gilgamesh. Enkidu confronts him and stands in the doorway of the house, blocking Gilgamesh’s path and literally standing in the way of his abuses. The two enter into a terrible battle that goes back and forth. Gilgamesh eventually gets the upper hand, but no man before dared to fight Gilgamesh and fought him to a virtual draw. Because of their match in abilities, Gilgamesh and Enkidu become great friends.

To cement their friendship the two comrades agree to challenge a formidable foe to test their friendship. They travel to the great cedar forest to the west (modern day Lebanon and Syria) to kill the protector of the cedar forest--Humbaba in Akkadian texts and Huwawa in Sumer, Hittite and Assyrian texts--and take the mighty cedars. This is, of course, a symbolic event. The defeat of the guardian of the forest may cast in mythic form an historical event, the capturing of valuable woodlands or the establishing of trade involving wood--a precious commodity almost totally lacking in the plain that constitutes Sumer (southern Iraq).112

From 2,600 B.C. to 138 A.D., Canaanites, Aegeans, Armenians and Phoenicians populated the Middle East. During this time, these peoples gradually finished the destruction of the famed Cedars of Lebanon that Gilgamesh earlier had begun. Perhaps most conspicuous in this role were the Phoenicians. To build their thallasocracy (maritime empire), the Phoenicians constructed enormous sea-faring fleets for exploration, conquest and trade. For nearly three millennia, cedar and other timbers from Lebanon served a variety of needs: fuel, ship material, building material and household usage. Through cities such as Sidon and Tyre, wood exports went to Palestine and Egypt, areas with large populations and relatively little forest cover. The result was large-scale deforestation. The scarcity of trees was so noticeable that, over time, the few remaining tall trees became objects of worship. Cedar was also the most prized wood because of geography, none more than the unsurpassed Cedars of Lebanon (see Figure III-7)

Figure IV-7 Phoenician Soldier, Photograph, Natural History Museum, Washington DC

Demand from outside Phoenicia increased the pace of cedar deforestation. By 3,000 B.C., Babylonia, along with Egypt, imported cedars and required it as a tribute of conquest. Egyptian and Mesopotamian records of military campaigns include information on "captured" timber, along with “captured” slaves and gold. However, neither was as critical as cedar wood. "Cedar was thought to be the prize which all states of the Near East coveted, and for which the empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia were prepared to fight."113

King Solomon of Israel contracted for the delivery of cedar logs from the Lebanon Mountains (as well as for some pine). The wood was for the reconstruction of the First Temple that was destroyed by the Babylonians about 2,500 years ago. David’s transaction is noted in the Bible [II Chronicles, ii.3]: "as you dealt with David my father and sent him cedar to build himself a house to dwell in, so deal with me." Solomon also sent forced laborers to Phoenicia to help cut and transport the cedar. Historian C.A. Meiggs surmises that Solomon’s effort to obtain cedar for the Temple was a show of extravagance for internal political reasons.

Ship builders revered Lebanese cedar for its strength, size, beauty and workability. For Pliny, cedar was the standard by which to measure all other timbers and Diodorus documented its relative strength and beauty. Around the time of Plato, deforestation was widespread in Greece and Athens began importing extensive amounts of Phoenician timber. Athenian timber imports thus contributed to the expansion of their city-state's naval capacity against the Persians. Both combatants in the war used wood from the cedars for building battleships. Phoenician timber was also central to the construction of the Persian fleet that battled the Greeks during the fifth century B.C. Some suggest the motive for the Phoenician invasion of Cyprus (11th century B.C.) was to preserve forest resources at home. However, shipbuilding was the primary, but not the sole use of cedar.

Fuel for producing specialty products was another use for the cedar. Theophrastus, the Greek historian, noted that cedar can burn at a sufficiently high temperature to make mortar or pitch from mined limestone. Temple builders used cedar to make lime. In Sidon and Tyre, the burning of cedar made possible bronze manufacturing. Sidon was renowned for its glass crafts, which required great quantities of wood fuel.

With the eventual loss of the cedars, the soils that lay underneath the trees washed away and there was a drop in biological richness. This led to the decline of many other native plants and animals in the ecosystem. Grazing sheep and goats destroyed ground level plants, new seedlings, and saplings. Eventually, the entire topography became to a semi-arid climate with the loss of the cedars and the entire forest eco-system.114

The demand for all products of resinous woods was relatively greater in antiquity than now. They were employed for the preservation of ship wood and all ship equipments, for coating the interior of earthenware wine jars, and for the preparation of volatile oils, salves and ointments, which were almost universally used in ancient times. Resin and tar were the chief basis for cough medicines prepared by Greek physicians, and were ingredients for salves for external use.

Civilization's struggle with nature (epitomized in Humbaba the forest monster) portrays a battle of good against evil. Humbaba lacks the civility of humans: he lives in the wild in a giant cedar house and had never been seduced. Humbaba's death, the two thought, would not only impress the gods (despite the fact that the god Enil appointed Humbaba as forest guardian, something which would later haunt the two friends), but also open the way for Gilgamesh to take the precious cedars and open trade routes. Upon reaching the forest, Gilgamesh and Enkidu eventually lure Humbaba to a confrontation with an act of environmental destruction.

Gilgamesh took the axe in his hand

[and] felled the cedar,

[When Huwawa] heard the noise

he became angry. "Who has come

and slighted the trees grown on my mountain

and has felled the cedar?"115
After felling seven cedars, and a not-so-epic battle with Humbaba, the god Shamash intervenes on the side of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Humbaba sues for peace, offering all the trees in the forest and to become the servant of Gilgamesh. Enkidu argues that Humbaba will not keep his word (he can never be civilized) and an unfinished battle cannot lead to peace. Convinced, Gilgamesh strikes Humbaba with his axe and Enkidu follows suit and eventually beheads the beast. With Humbaba dead, the taming of nature was complete and the cedar forest and its riches were for the taking. Humbaba cries out as he dies: “Of you two, may Enkidu not live the longer, may Enkidu not find any peace in this world."

The two then commence to cutting down the cedars, especially the tallest trees, and float them down the Euphrates River on cedar rafts, returning to Uruk triumphant. The people use the cedar to build a huge wooden gate to the city. Gilgamesh is a hero and the gate is his monument.

This is only the beginning of the struggle of economy, environment and culture for the city of Uruk and Gilgamesh. The goddess Ishtar, hearing of his exploits as the conqueror of Humbaba, offers to become the lover of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh rejects her entreaty, in part because of the bad habit of her previous lovers all being dead. His mistake is that he also insults her. She then has her father, who happens to be the god Anu, let loose the Bull of Heaven on the city of Uruk. Gilgamesh and Enkidu battle the giant bull and eventually slay it. This would be their last great victory. The gods eventually have their revenge and Enkidu later dies due to the “paralysis demon”. Humbaba cried bitter tears.

Gilgamesh was not alone in the practice of basing ancient construction projects on stolen resources. It also involved bribery and conscription of labor. “Esarhaddon II (680-669), king of Assyria, whose stele is seen at Nahr al-Kalb [near Beruit] to this day, undertook a vast building program. He forced the tributary kings of ancient Lebanon, including Milkiashapa of Byblos, to produce cedar and pine timber for him and to transport the logs to Nineveh.” 116

Other ancient monarchs, such as the Egyptian kings Thut-Mose III and Ramses III, as well as Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, also describe the taking of cedar as part of conquest. Nebuchadnezzar described his efforts as follows.

I cut through steep mountains, I split rocks, opened passages and [thus] constructed a straight road for the [transport of the] cedars. I made the Arahtu [the trees] float and carry to Marduk, my lord, mighty cedars, high and strong, of precious beauty and of excellent dark quality, the abundant yield of Lebanon, as [if they be] reed stalks carried by the river.117

Contemporary writers of that time recognized and rued Nebuchadnezzar's exploits as a pillager of wood and destroyer of forests. In the Old Testament of the Bible, the book of Isaiah is quite clear on the subject of Nebuchadnezzar's role in causing deforestation, noting on his death in 562 B.C. that:

The whole world has rest and is at peace,

it breaks into cries of joy,

The pines themselves and the cedars of Lebanon exult over you,

Since you have been laid low, they say,

no man comes to fell us.120

b. Conflict over Specific Resources (Wood): Robin Hood and Sherwood Forest Rights




Social Type


Source Resources



The building of Hadrian’s Wall ended the expansion of the Roman Empire. Its decayed status today belies the important role in history it played. The wall provided stability for a long period that allowed agriculture and settled communities to develop on the south side of the wall. North of the wall, the Pict or Scot tradition of herding and grazing continued to dominate. Stability led to population growth and this led to the cutting of forests for agricultural production. This system of agricultural production survived over centuries and expanded as populations grew even after the departure of the Romans.

More than one thousand years later, around 1400, substantial portions of the forests of England had been cut down. Large portions of the land were used for subsistence agriculture by peasants. The remaining resources, both flora and fauna, of the forests found their way into elite hands. The pockets of forests lay largely unused except for the royal hunts. The hunts themselves were more a type of sport and were a kind of bonding experience for the elite. The elites sought wild game, especially deer, for royal feasts.

While the elites enjoyed their fine hunts and cuisine the situation for the peasants living near the forest was quite different. Locals were forbidden to take food or wood from these forests and in times of hunger this became a bitter controversy. A dispute over environmental right to access the forest resources set the stage for conflict.

Robin Hood is remembered as a thief who stole from the rich and gave to the poor but his background, and the context of the time, is much more complex. He lived in Britain in Middle Ages around the area of Nottingham and the Sherwood Forest.118 The locale was closer to Hadrian’s Wall than it was to London. Robin did rob the elite who transported goods or traveled through the forest and probably was involved in some kidnappings.

At the heart of the dispute is the forest itself and its resources. Robin and other vagabonds lived in and hunted in the royal forest. This lifestyle was forbidden. The Sheriff of Nottingham was in charge of enforcing local royal law and thus became Robin’s antagonist. The deer of the forest became rarer as their habitat shrunk. By this time, Britain’s forest cover was mostly converted to pasture or agricultural land. This meant that deer, which lived in the forests for cover and left to browse on grasses, became rare. Sherwood Forest was a sort of medieval theme park.

The written record related to Robin Hood took place later. “Actual Robin Hood texts first appear in the fifteenth century, initially as fragments of verse, then in a handful of complete tales.”119 Robin Hood was invented out of several personas of myth and reality. He was probably an amalgamation of many Cumbrian outlaws who lived in the 1400s with elements of Celtic mythology mixed in. Robin Hood’s emergence as a myth in this time is also surely the offspring of the larger social movements and discontents of the time. The Peasant’s revolt of 1381 “held that the discontent expressed was that of the lower stratum of the gentry, petty landholders who were affected by rising labour costs and other economic changes in the fourteenth century.” 120 Robin Hood games, fetes of archery to support public causes, lasted from the 1500s to about 1600. With time, the commemorations invigorated the myth of Robin Hood. This spread to the personalities of the Sheriff of Nottingham, Maid Marion and Friar Tuck and the development of a group of disciples similar to the Bible.

Robin the poacher preceded Robin the robber and he was likely more a criminal early on a social activist later. “Interpretations of Robin Hood’s greenwood have focused heavily on the Forest Laws and royal ownership of the forest. These elements are present in the legend, yet they are ultimately a structural feature. Robin is undeniably a bold poacher of venison, and doubtless his violation of the Forest Laws colored the audience response to his adventures, yet his infringements of the royal prerogative is very rarely mentioned in the ballads. The significance thus is not legal but practical.”121 Robin demands social rights and a type of social contract. “His poaching of deer likewise impinges on royal prerogatives, and his antipathy to the Sheriff sets him at odds with the enforcement of royal policy.122

Robin’s pagan origins are clear. He wears green clothes because he is an incarnation of the Green Man, Cernunnos. Cernunnos is the god of vegetation and fertility, the Lord of the Trees (perhaps similar to Humbaba, the forest protector in the Epic of Gilgamesh). In the Celtic pagan tradition, the Green Man is the consort of the May Queen. The Green Man has a human face camouflaged by leaves and is able to blend in with the forest surroundings. He wore a perfect camouflage. In his element he became invisible to his opponents. Robin may also be a manifestation of the Celtic horned god Herne, Lord of the Deer, a being that ate only venison. It is said that Robin wears a cap to hide his horns. Robin Hood’s Merry Band was collectively known as the “Foresters” which says something about the ultimate philosophy. They were self-proclaimed stewards of the forest.

The forest itself provided a cover that allowed Robin Hood’s guerilla movement to continue and flourish. An army moving through a forest has fewer resources to draw on compared to agricultural communities and they are susceptible to ambush. This use of the forest as an element of warfare is not so different from the use of forest covers in warfare that occurred in other cases in other middle and modern eras.

In the U.S. Revolutionary War (roughly 1776-1783) Americans forces lost control of many larger coastal cities. Forces retreated inland and were able to develop systems of supply along the Appalachian Trail. The trail was originally a trading system created by Native Americans long before the arrival of Europeans and followed the eastern side an ancient mountain range in the eastern United States. The trail became vital for supply and movement of American troops.

In the Vietnam War the Ho Chi Minh Trail served a similar role. U.S. and South Vietnamese forces controlled the coastal cities and the trail was beyond the reach of these lines of control. The fact the trail had spurs that ran through the neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia complicated the extent of the conflict. The trail in part brought these countries into the conflict but like the Apppalachian Trail, was a vital transportation conduit during the conflict.

While one strategy of warfare related to environment uses trees to hide forces and movements another focuses on tree removal to avoid that threat. Mughal armies in India cut down forests around cities they were about to siege. This form of warfare emerged long after the Aryan invasions. This tactic also was used in Europe by armies who attempted to storm castles. The lines of transportation in these environments run through heavily forested areas. Abilities to destroy these supply lines are often hindered by the forest. Robin Hood used the forest as cover to raid the supply lines of the royalty.

The royal right to the forest and its resources often imposed great hardships on the people who lived in or near the areas. Robin Hood is known for his crime of stealing deer. This was only one part of his complaints. There were also bans in differing places on hunting boars and even smaller animals such as birds and rabbits. Felling of timber was also restricted in some places by locals. This would have depressed home building and energy use by the local population.

Ballads were the first way that stories of a man named “Robyn Hod” spread among the people of England. The high rate of illiteracy brought about the oral tradition of passing on stories and history. Because the wandering minstrel would sing in different areas to different audiences, the lyrics of the ballads would change to reflect the type of audience and their interests, and the story grew and changed over time. There grew a variety of myths about Robin Hood depending on the part of the country.

Robin uses a longbow as his weapon. His bow was made of the English “ewe" or “yew”, the same wood used by Otzi the Iceman many millennia earlier. It was a pliable but strong wood and the technology was well-developed. It was important to be skilled at the bow and arrow in the 13th and 14th centuries because it was the means of hunting and survival. The weapon was also a means of protection, perhaps similar to the gun in the American west of the 1800s. The legend of Zorro in California in many ways evokes the myth of Robin Hood.

Robin became a mythical legend. Similar to William Tell, he was the greatest archer of all. The bow and arrow still reigned as the dominant weapon of warfare as well as for hunting subsistence. Prowess in the skill of archery was much revered.

One story that demonstrates Robin’s archery skill is the Golden Arrow contest set up by the Sheriff to bring him out of hiding. “The myth of yeomanry is reflected symbolically in the outlaws’ choice of weapons. One of the most consistent elements in the legends is Robin’s prowess as an archer, and the practice of archery figures prominently in many of the early ballads.” 123 British excellence at archery was one of their advantages over the French in the Hundred Years War. 124

Robin Hood was a figure in society for several hundred years. The myth of Robin receded with the growth of the British Empire and the growth of Empire. It was revived during the Industrial Revolution when lives were not necessarily improving and class distinctions were at their height. At this time, some thought that taking from the rich through progressive taxation, should be state policy.

“Robin Hood the national fiction is not a simple product; like all the other versions of the outlaw, from local play-game leader to renaissance pastoral figurehead, he is contrasted in a set of interlinked sometimes contradictory maneuvers across a range of places and times. The process starts around 1800 in a context of raised socio-cultural awareness, when political and industrial revolutions are in the forefront of the minds of writers.”125

c. Khmer Rouge and Forest Resources




Environmental Breadth


Specific Resources



Forests have long had a role in conflict as a means of camouflage, defense and escape for guerilla armies. This was the case in ancient India, the American Revolution, and a host of other conflicts. Beyond a venue for conflict, wood is an object of desire and conquest in the Cedars of Lebanon case as an economic resource with high value more than 2,000 years ago. The economic value of forests has grown stronger today, through both the huge increase in human population and the huge decrease in the area of forestland. The Khmer Rouge military effort in Cambodia relied on wood exports and the granting of concessions to harvest the wood.

Wood is one of the oldest of prized commodities that used to fund conflict, but today it is one of many. The list of commodities used to support conflict today includes: diamonds (Liberia), oil (Sudan), tantalum (Congo), uranium (Libya), gold (Brazil), guano (Peru) and others. Wood however is perhaps the commodity that has one of the longest records of conflict related to it. The ancient case on the Cedars of Lebanon and the middle-era case of Robin Hood both illustrate the endurance of conflict over the use of wood and forest resources.

The Khmer Rouge, (an extreme Maoist guerrilla faction), took over control of Cambodia in the 1970s and launched a program of savagery that left 2 million dead until the Vietnamese overthrew them. The Khmer Rouge continued to fight after their fall from power. One chief means of acquiring funding was through exported timber to Thailand. Thailand banned logging in its own territory following severe flooding in 1988. The impact was to redirect demand to Cambodia for wood resources. This moratorium brought about a dispute regarding the relation between trade, environment, and politics in Cambodia.

Cambodia's forests were devastated by a decade of conflict. Funds for raising armies also came through trade in raw and finished gem exports, especially to Thailand. It was not only the Khmer Rouge that adopted this tactic. Until the ban on log exports, the three guerrilla factions (FUNCINPEC, KPNLF, and Khmer Rouge) and the Cambodian government were involved in logging to finance war.126 While the government exported mostly to Japan and Vietnam, the three guerrilla groups (mostly Khmer Rouge) sent logs over the border into Thailand from their territory in western and northern Cambodia.

For reasons of both deforestation and funding of civil insurgency, in 1992 Cambodia's provisional national council agreed to a moratorium on log exports. The moratorium was in response to intensive deforestation that led to massive flooding. The flooding that damaged the rice crop led to food shortages. The moratorium had a political goal as well: to deprive the Khmer Rouge access to funding from sales of timber. Khmer Rouge guerrillas benefited from uncontrolled deforestation.

The loss of Cambodian forest cover has had consequences and has led to more rain drainage and flooding. Cambodian floods of 1995 in the northwest killed two people and cut the country's main supply line to areas threatened by food shortages. In Battambang province, two children and 77 cows were swept away.127 Severe flooding in the west central province of Pursat killed eight people, which included seven children, devastated 421 homes, and destroyed 36,235 hectares of rice fields, and killing at least 80 farm animals.128

After the Cambodian ban, Thailand switched to wood imports from Burma and Laos. In the case of Burma, the trade was with both government and other rebel groups, creating an odd patchwork of alliances. Conflict desperation also can produce a new means of resource acquisition. In an attempt to save what remains of Thailand's devastated forests, many Thai companies (some linked to Thai military) imported wood from Cambodia by purchasing concessions from the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge controlled a huge part of the Thai-Cambodia border zone.129

The Cambodian conflict and massive logging was intended to end when four factions signed the cease-fire agreement in France. In October 1991, the Paris Agreements provided for a comprehensive political settlement of the Cambodian conflict that included: (a) establishment of a transitional authority, (b) creation of conditions for a lasting peace; and (c) the holding of free and democratic elections. The 1992 UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) recognized the Supreme National Council of Cambodia (SNC) as the legitimate governing body during the transition period.

Sale of forest resources continued to support anti-government forces that came to the knowledge of both government and non-government groups. “Global Witness's accusations and the new U.S. sanctions caused the Thai government to close most of its land border crossings to log imports by the dry season of 1996, and pushed the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok to seriously investigate the border trade. Global Witness estimated that the resulting economic squeeze on the Khmer Rouge substantially contributed to the first large-scale defection to the Cambodian government in September 1996.”130

Top grade Cambodian timber is worth $80 per one cubic meter (35 cubic feet).131 Thai officials estimate the Khmer Rouge earned about $1 million per month from both wood and precious and gems.132 The types of trees in Cambodia are pine, rosewood, and teak. Timber exports, estimated to be worth between $40-50 million a year is one of Cambodia's biggest income earner.133 “The logs are being sold off cheap – for “a mere $740,000”, according to Patrick Alley but are worth $3–10 million. What’s more, we know that the total exports were scheduled to be 100,000 cubic meters, so Military Region 1 stood to gain $3.7 million. ” Global Witness estimates that such illegal timber sales deprive the Cambodian treasury of $157–337 million per annum, compared with the annual national budget of c. $400 m.”134

One estimate put forest cover at 10.4 million hectares, including 3.5 million hectares in national parks, out of the country's total area of about 18 million hectares (data for 1992-93). Total forestation has fallen to 30-35 percent of overall area.135 “Between 1973 and 1993, 3.6 million acres of the country's forest were lost and much of the remaining area was negatively affected, says a report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).”136 King Norodom Sihanouk warned about the rate of rampant deforestation in the country and called on foreign companies to plant three trees for every one felled. King Sihanouk said that "since the 1980's until now some foreign countries and companies as well as illegal groups and individuals, have destroyed or are destroying Cambodia's forests, so vital for agriculture and the survival of the Cambodian people”.137 Further, there had been a marked increase in deforestation and at this rate the country would become a desert in the 21st century.

The Tonle Sap Lake, a huge body of water created by the Mekong River’s monsoon overloads, may turn into a vast mudflat. “The biggest threat is to Cambodia's Tonle Sap (Great Lake), which has been described as one of the richest freshwater fishing grounds in the world. Because of deforestation, the lake is silting up. Cambodian Environment Minister Mok Mareth warned that at the present rate, the lake could disappear within 25 years.” Thai loggers take advantage of a loophole in the ban by setting up sawmills in Cambodia to ship timber across the border as "processed" wood. “138 The water problem may become even more critical as China continues its plans for a system of dams to capture the upstream waters of the Mekong in Yunan province.

Even though the Khmer Rouge often violated the cease-fire agreement, in 1992 the SNC activated the moratorium on log exports. The UN Security Council then adopted the September 22 moratorium (the UN Security Council resolution 792). The UN resolution did not mandate but rather “urged” importing countries to cooperate. Under the resolution, UNTAC was to take measures to implement a moratorium on the export of logs from Cambodia and was enacted on January 1, 1993.

Despite the agreement, the Khmer Rouge earned about $20 million per year by selling timber to Thai government and military officials. The Khmer Rouge also sold sapphires and rubies mined near its stronghold in Pailin. “The Cambodian government, during the latter half of the last decade, signed secret illegal deals to allow Vietnamese loggers to fell Cambodian timber, much of which was subsequently made into garden furniture and sold across Europe under bogus 'environment-friendly' labels. The money found its way into the pockets of key military officials who were instrumental in establishing a coup d'etat in 1997.” Global Witness reported that in 1996 the Cambodian government earned $100 million per year from selling timber concessions.139

To protest the UN Security Council resolution 792, Thailand barred UN flights before the enactment of the ban. The Thai parliament's House Committee for Foreign Affairs agreed to seek measures to minimize the effect of a UN Security Council ban on oil exports to end timber imports from Khmer Rouge controlled areas in Cambodia. Illegal timber trade nonetheless continued, although there was a reduction in Cambodia log exports.

The ban made timber trade between Thailand and the Khmer Rouge illegal, but with only limited success. Illegal logging exports to Thailand also came from Royal Cambodian military, which were handed jurisdiction. Under pressure from the IMF, there was a transfer of jurisdiction regarding timber sales from the defense ministry to finance ministry.140

The Thai government occasionally cracks down on the movement of logs from Khmer Rouge to comply with provisions in the US 1997 Foreign Operations Act that prohibits aid to the military of any country which "is not acting vigorously" to stop the logging trade.141 “During 1997 and into early 1998 at least 250,000 cubic meters of Cambodian timber, all felled illegally, was exported to Vietnam. The World Bank estimates that Cambodia’s commercial forests will be soon exhausted. The timber is refined and re-exported, both as timber and sawn wood…Manufacturers use timber from adjacent countries, notably Cambodia, as the law prohibits the export of Vietnamese timber. Global Witness believes this furniture trade, worth more than $70 million annually, to be fully sanctioned by the government of Vietnam.”142

Cambodia's co-Premiers, Prince Norodom Ranarriddh and Hun Sen authorized a logging contract with a Malaysian company (Samling Corporation) in February 1995.143 The deal provides for a 60 year logging concession covering 800,000 hectares or 4 percent of the entire country. The Royal Government also approved a massive logging deal with an Indonesian timber company (Panin Banking and Property Group). The 50-year contract allowed the Indonesian company to harvest logs on 1.4 million hectares, roughly 15 percent of the Kingdom's remaining forest. Together, almost 20 percent of the future revenues from forest resources have been sold.

“The Khmer Rouge had gained control of 20% of Cambodia as a benefit of initial cooperation with the peace process, and they controlled much of the densest hardwood forest as well as its rare gem deposits.” Thai gem traders and logging companies were given access to the area and began trading an estimated $300 million annually in resources with concessionary payments to the Khmer Rouge. A logging ban was begun on January 1, 1993 by the U.N. interim government, but this had little impact…Analysts observed that Pol Pot’s ability to continue his ‘low-intensity’ guerilla operations now relied on resulting cash pouring into his Thai bank accounts.” 144

With declining forests, international sanctions, and cooption, the Khmer Rouge has largely disappeared. Pol Pot died in 1998 and with him the Khmer Rouge.
d. Comparing and Reflecting on the Forest Cases
It is evident that human populations were becoming of sufficient size and advancement to have large-scale impact on plants, just as they had on animals. Securing the necessary biomass for the population and their domesticated animals became a key aspect of the national interest. Securing wood in treeless landscapes was essential to building structures, creating military defense, and in constructing military weapons. This “push” factor was met by the “pull” of the resources in some other geographical space.

The need to secure biomass required another key ingredient -- water. Water availability in a water-stressed region also became an issue in the national interest. Most water use then and now was for crop irrigation. With the growth of populations the need for more area under crop cultivation grew and thus the need for irrigation water.

As technology grew the focus was not only on trees but on certain tree types. The yew is a favored wood for making a bow. “Why were the cedars of Lebanon so coveted by all the conquerors in the old world? Because the cedar tree provided the long beams necessary for masts for building ships and its wood did not decay.”145 This was especially important to the Phoenicians in building their ships that spread out over vast distances. Certain trees were either extinguished due to its value or standardized from mom-culture farming.

Despite the importance of the wood there was little attempt to protect it. The critical role of the cedar in ship building and naval supremacy did not go unnoticed to all. “Only one man, the Roman Emperor Hadrian, in the 2nd century of our era, made an attempt to restrict logging in the mountains of Lebanon. He however restricted the cutting of trees in the forests for use by the Roman state and considered they were the private domain of the Emperor.” 146

The commercial and military reach of Rome, like Phoenicia, was quite dependent on sea transportation for commerce and sea power for maintaining control over conquered areas. Thus, cedars were important part of its military-industrial complex. “The Roman fleet was moored off the Phoenician coast. Timber was necessary for maintenance of the fleet and building new ships. In Hadrian's time the northern mountain ranges of Lebanon were covered by cedars and other species of coniferous trees. Over a period of seven millennia not once was thought given to replanting trees which were cut down. It was only Hadrian who thought of setting up forest markers to define the boundaries of the Roman state forest reserves.” 147

After Hadrian, the cutting of cedar resumed and its territory continued to shrink. A once massive resource of importance to state-of-the-art technology in ancient times had become an isolated curiosity. “The mass cutting of cedars, pines and cypresses for trade, naval and building purposes allowed the inevitable process of erosion to set in. After Hadrian no competent measures were taken to protect the forests that remained. Today the few cedars that majestically stand at Bsharri are testimony to the ruthless exploitation through the ages by state and individual of the magnificent coniferous cedar forests of Lebanon.”

Hadrian had a perspective on conflict that was extremely environment based. He protected the cedars in Lebanon, built a huge stone wall across the north England, used the Rhine and Danube Rivers as a boundary markers, and built timber fortifications that connected the boundaries of the two rivers. He used the environment to create the boundaries and extent of the Roman Empire.

There is a clear parallel between the myth of Robin Hood and that of Humbaba from the Epic of Gilgamesh. The viewpoint on the two stories of wood and forest resources takes on opposite perspectives. Gilgamesh needs to slay Humbaba so he can take the forest resources while Robin avoids being slain by the Sheriff of Nottingham so he can also protect them. The perspectives reflect the reality of times when forests were plentiful and when they were scarce.

Within these Middle cases, there are also clear links to the cases on Hadrian’s Wall and the expansion and contraction of the Vikings. The Vikings settled in this area -- and raided it beforehand -- and added to the growth of population. Hadrian’s Wall was effective at dividing the island of England into two distinct parts with two different economic systems. The wall permitted relative security for those to the south under Roman rule and thus populations steadily grew over time. Perhaps the forests would not have been quite as depleted if not for the wall.

Owning forests and acquiring their wood was essential for the continued growth of city-states such as Uruk in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Similar to the Khmer Rouge, Gilgamesh used war to fund his economy and economic expansion. It was the basis for the building of cities.

Transport of the logs also involved the environment. “A report to the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 described Cambodian forests as ‘the lungs of Southeast Asia.’ But aerial surveys showed a 30 percent drop in forest cover in the course of only 20 years. Moreover, during 1992, an estimated 620,000 acres were deforested since the Khmer Rouge granted six Thai companies concessions to cut wide swaths of Cambodian forest.”148

Owning the forest meant owning the animals, such as deer that lived there, during the time of Robin Hood in the 1400s. In the case of the Khmer Rouge, owning the wood was useful because it could be sold and in return, weapons could be acquired in order to further their conflict. Owning forest resources have also been used to fund civil conflict movements in many species that are trafficked.

4. Water
With the growth of population, agricultural lands expanded, cities were built out of forests, and water was the key resource that allowed the places to survive in generally dry climates. With time even this resource, once so abundant, became scarce and thus a cause for conflict. Three cases describe the relations between water and conflict in three different places: the Nile River, along the Jordan River, and in the land of the Anasazi. These cases represent large, medium and small rivers and differing types of dependencies.

Water cases show up significantly in the ICE dataset, especially in relation to conflict in the Middle East. These Dry habitat cases are related to conflicts that do have definitive outcomes since the stakes are so high. These conflicts are also often based on overtly political decisions. The cases also show examples of compromise and sharing and the avoidance of conflict.

Of the water cases in the ICE database, one third of the cases fall in the duration period of 32-64 years. This phenomenon is similar to forests, where the long-term depletion of the resources gradually increases tension and conflict in the case as the resource becomes exceedingly scarce under growing demographic pressures. The data show that the water cases are inordinately concentrated in dry regions (about 80 percent) that are to be expected. Many of these cases involve large rivers that flow through the boundaries of several countries.

Water cases fall under the group called “resources” and is part of the yellow loop of the environmental sub-system (see Figure IV-8). This loop is quite different from the red loop involving territory, forests, and the stalemate outcome. The yellow loop includes the environment and the conflict links to resources and access to them. The outcome however is more definitive and results in a victory or loss (depending on perspective). They are also much shorter in duration. It may be that the loss of forest resources can be somewhat lessened by trade and the import of forest products from elsewhere. This is not the case with the loss of water.

Figure IV-8

The Forest Causal System (The Yellow Loop in the Environmental Sub-System)

a. Conflict over Specific Resources (Water): The Nile River Conflict

Time Period



Social Type





The warming climate after the end of the last Ice Age changed the nature of environments. While Europe warmed from a frozen to a cold climate, the Middle East evolved from cool forests in the time of the Neanderthal to temperate forests in the time of Nebuchadnezzar to deserts in modern day Iraq. Nebuchadnezzar lived in a place that was becoming increasingly arid. The lands further west had the desired forest resources, such as cedars. The lack of forests was the result of the lack of water, except for a few large rivers that were a prime resource for irrigation and other uses. Larger rivers also became important transportation corridors. As a result, human cities grew up along the Tigris-Euphrates and Indus Rivers. Like the Tigris-Euphrates and the Indus Rivers, the Nile River was the lifeblood of ancient and modern Egyptian civilization.

The need for water as resource is perhaps greatest in northern Africa and the Saudi Arabian Peninsula, where it is most scarce. The Saharan Desert is the largest expanse on the planet with a substantial lack of life (perhaps only comparable to Antarctica and the deepest ocean depths). This made the few oases and fresh water streams and rivers of critical importance to the survival of society and therefore something worth fighting for. The Nile River is the greatest of these prizes in the region.

The Nile River is a ribbon of life that represents a dramatic shift in ecotone. It is an enormous oasis of water and biomass within an extremely arid area. An ecotone is a transition area between adjacent environmental communities. There are peoples who live in both the arid and wet zones and their lifestyles may come into conflict in transition areas. The ecotone supports members of either group and is often a source of conflict. The likelihood of conflict is also exacerbated by smaller sub-cycles related to the flow of the river. For example, over the last five thousand years human habitation along the Nile there have been varying patterns of rainfall in the Nile River headwater areas. As the ecotone shifts, so does the area of transition and thus conflict.

Several times throughout history, ancient Egyptians attempted to unify and control the Nile River valley by conquering the Sudan, to the south. The Sudan was invaded during the reign of the Queen of Sheba by the Egyptians, under the Roman rule of Nero, and countless other times.

Egypt established a beachhead in northern Sudan and conquered the kingdom of Kush. Kush was populated by black Africans and these people came under Egyptian control and part of the empire. When the Hyksos people from Assyria conquered Egypt in 1720 BC the Kush became independent. In fact, they were the new inheritors of succession in Egypt and re-conquered upper Egypt and ruled the kingdom for 100 years. There were valuable agricultural and mineral commodities from Kush and the Nile River was the key to transportation of these commodities.

Egyptians have long feared the loss of the Nile's waters to Ethiopia. The King of Ethiopia sent a letter to the Egyptian pasha in 1704 threatening to cut off the water.149 During one particularly bad famine, the Egyptian Sultan sent ambassadors to the king of Ethiopia to plead with him not to obstruct the waters.

Figure IV-8

The Nile River

The Nile probably gets its name from "nahal" which means "river valley" in Semitic, later "neilos" in Greek and "nilus" in Latin. It is the world's longest river, originating 4,187 miles in the mountains of Burundi. The source of the river was discovered only in the middle of the 20th century.150 For centuries, the most accurate source of knowledge on the location of the source of the Nile River was the writings of Herodotus (Greek Historian, 460 BC). Herodotus believed that the Nile River’s source was a deep spring between two tall mountains (he was wrong). When Nero ordered his centurions to follow the flow of the Nile River in order to find its source, they got no further than the impenetrable valley of the Sudd in southern Sudan. John Henning Speke believed he found the source as Lake Victoria in 1862, but he was wrong. In 1937, the German explorer Bruckhart Waldekker found the true source (see Figure IV-8).151

Three tributaries, the Blue Nile, the White Nile, and the Atbara, form the Nile. The White Nile rises from its source in Burundi, passes through Lake Victoria, and flows into southern Sudan. There, near the capital city of Khartoum, the White Nile meets up with the Blue Nile that has its source in the Ethiopian highlands, near Lake Tana. Slightly over half of the Nile's waters come from the Blue Nile. The two flow together to just north of Khartoum, where the waters of the Atbara, whose source is also located in the Ethiopian highlands, join them.152

The changes in climate and the flows of the Nile produce a fragmentation effect, as the problem of water crises became localized. There was nothing the central government, at that time, could do about the change in water availability. The result was that central authority lost power.

“It is more likely that climatic changes, resulting in a decrease of the Nile's inundation, impacted the Ancient Egyptian society. As the central government was unable to cope with the results of this change, it was up to provincial governors and other local rulers to come up with a solution to best irrigate their own territory. This, along with different geographical circumstances, caused some provinces and territories to be more successful in controlling the floods than others.” 153

These historical struggles for controlling the waters of the Nile River dates back millennia and the current struggle is only a continuation of a long-standing issue. What is different about the struggle over time is the intensity of the difference between the push and pull factors. The sheer number of people totally dependent on the Nile River waters has exploded in recent times.

“The Nile River is also a shared water resource of tremendous regional importance, particularly for agriculture in Egypt and Sudan. Ninety-seven percent of Egypt's water comes from the Nile River, and more than 95 percent of the Nile's runoff originates outside of Egypt in the other eight nations of the basin. The Nile valley has sustained civilizations for more than 5 millennia, but historical evidence suggests that the populations of ancient Egypt never exceeded 1.5 million to 2.5 million people. Today, Egypt struggles to sustain a population rapidly approaching 60 million on the same limited base of natural resources. And Egypt's population grows by another million people every nine months.”154

To overcome the seasonality of the flows of the river, one of the great modern engineering achievements was the building of the Aswan Dam. Construction of the High Dam at Aswan began in 1959 and completed in 1970. Its waters created Lake Nasser, the second largest man-made lake in the world. The Aswan Dam is one of the great architectural accomplishments of the 20th century, at a cost of over $1 billion. Rebuffed by the United States and the World Bank for financing of the project, Nasser turned to the Soviet Union for help.155

Upstream of Lake Nasser, navigation of the Nile stopped in the Sudd due to the immense swamps. Strong winds and the force of the river created natural dams comprised of plants and soil, similar to those made by beavers. Britain re-conquered the Sudan in 1898, after an uprising by a religious sect (the Mahdi). The English began to clear the Nile through the Sudd in order to navigate the river. The project was abandoned due to political, economic and environmental factors, among others.

In the 1970’s, Sudan and Egypt began the joint construction of the Jonglei Canal in the Sudd, in large part funded by the World Bank, through a system of dikes and levees. Construction stopped in 1983 one hundred kilometers short of completion due to the civil war in the Sudan. The project was a great failure for both the Sudanese government and the World Bank and more than $100 million invested with no return.156

In August 1994, Egypt allegedly planned and subsequently canceled an air raid on Khartoum, in Sudan, where a dam was being built on the Nile. This act, along with tensions between Sudan and Egypt over the attempted assassination of President Mubarak in 1995, led to border clashes.157 Egypt has also acted against Ethiopian development on the Nile in the past. Egypt blocked an African Development Bank loan to Ethiopia for a project that might have reduced the flow of the Nile's water into Egypt. Due to Egypt’s rapidly growing population, the government feared the availability of water demands in the future. Egypt may experience a 16 to 30 percent water deficit by the end of the century. The gap increases as further Egyptian development projects are planned for the Nile.158

The British did not control the Ethiopian portions of the Nile, from which over 80 percent of the Nile waters originate. They signed an agreement with the Ethiopian government in 1902 in order to assure access and warned the Italians and the French not to interfere.159 Planned developments on the Nile were a disputed matter between the Egyptian and British governments. In 1929, Great Britain sponsored the Nile Water Agreement, which regulated the flow of the Nile and apportioned its use. That remains the basis for many agreements today160

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former Egyptian foreign minister and later secretary-general of the United Nations said that the “next war in our region will be over the waters of the Nile, not politics”.161 Egypt relies on Nile River waters for generating 28 percent of its electric power. As water flows have varied, the country must use oil resources to make up the gap in demand. Egypt was able to reach agreement with Sudan in 1959 that guaranteed 55.5 billion cubic meters of water annually and allowed Egypt to build the Aswan Dam.

No agreement has been reached with Ethiopia, “which is the source of 85 percent of the Nile’s headwaters.”162 Ethiopia has plans to build a new on dam the Blue Nile River. The dam will supply water to “1.5 million newly resettled peasants in the western province of Welega and to provide a steady source of hydroelectric power for the country. The facility is expected to divert 39 percent of the Blue Nile’s water.” Egypt has warned that building such a dam would be adverse to Egypt’s national security,” 163 and blocked a loan to Ethiopia in the African Development Bank that would have financed the project. Anwar Sadat allegedly told his army to prepare to invade Ethiopia in the event waters were diverted.

On the White Nile River in Sudan there is also internal conflict related to water. The Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) was able to stop construction of the Jonglei Canal co-financed by Egypt and Sudan. (The Sudanese government and the SPLA recently did sign a peace agreement on the long-standing civil war there.) The SPLA believed the project that to drain the Sudd would only export their waters to their Arab neighbors to the north. The SPLA has also regarded oil exploration in the South under the same terms.

Not all waters that Egypt uses are those that flow on the surface. Under a resettlement program to lure people from the delta in the desert, the government will provide water to the migrants. A large underground aquifer lies under Libya, Egypt, Sudan and Chad but so far only Egypt and Libya are drawing from it. ”At that rate, and without any other country tapping the water, the aquifer is expected to run dry in 40 to 60 years.”164 By then, it may be more precious than oil.

b. Water and the Disappearance of the Anasazi




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