Book Review: Wars of plunder: Conflicts, Profits and the Politics of Resources (2012)

Philippe Le Billon, Wars of plunder: Conflicts, Profits and the Politics of Resources (2012)
288 Pages
ISBN: 9780199327546

When I was a young child in Iran, my father would always tell me that the biggest wall blocking modernization of Iran is not Islam as claimed by many dissidents, but the discovery of petroleum. The idea is not a new one. In 1993, British economist Richard Auty argued that natural assets can distort a nation’s economy to such a degree that the benefit becomes a curse, which destabilizes the economy and causes conflict—thus the term ‘resource curse.’ Several studies since then have shown a direct correlation between natural resource abundance and poor economic growth.

In Wars of Plunder, University of British Colombia’s Philippe Le Billon’s heavily footnoted book builds on his previous work by using his personal research acquired from traveling and working in countries such as Angola, Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sierra Leone. Le Billon, who received a MBA in addition to his PhD in geography, examines whether resource sectors influence the occurrence and cause of armed conflict by focusing on extractive resources such as oil, diamond, timber, and to a certain extent narcotics. The book’s three-part structure begins with a review of historical and contemporary views on resource wars, which Le Billon believes to be too oversimplified because of its focus on the scarcity of resources, or the simplistic view that soldiers are only motivated by greed. In the second part of the book, Le Billon proposes a different way of understanding resource wars influenced by oil, diamond and timber. For example he looks into why conflicts exist in some oil producing countries and not in others. In the third and final section, Le Billon considers solutions used to end hostilities and conflict prevention initiatives, which include economic sanctions, military intervention, and the use of revenue generated by the resources to buy peace.

Le Billion’s thesis departs from the simple claim that armed conflict stems exclusively from resource abundance or scarcity. He believes that resources contribute to the shaping of social relations and influence the likelihood of armed conflict by turning assets into liabilities. He states that resources “should not be considered as simply raw materials that come out from nature, but as complex objects produced by socio-natural processes.” He argues that: (1) Economic dependence on a resource increases vulnerability to armed conflict, but that its abundance or generated revenue could mitigate such affects; (2) Some resource sectors are more prone to conflict than others; and (3) Opportunities for armed insurgencies are more closely associated with characteristics of particular resources. For example, it’s much easier to loot diamonds than oil.

Le Billon’s comparative examination of different resource sectors helps us understand the complexity of resource conflicts. For example, onshore (as compared to off-shore) oil wealth increases the likelihood of civil war, while contraband goods such as gemstones and narcotics do not increase the likelihood of conflict but do prolong conflicts. Quantitative testing has not shown a common relationship between timber, which is a source of finance, and insurgence that frequents forests for hideouts. These facts point to the importance of location and the type of resource, which has been ignored by many previous writings on the subject. Le Billon disagrees with economist Paul Collier’s argument that youth in poor countries often fight with hope of gaining access to resource revenues, and he states that, although the prospect of loot has always been used to recruit fighters, many contemporary groups forcibly recruit fighters—especially children. For example, the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone mainly uses social justice issues as motivational factors, because individual rewards of “conflict diamonds” are out of reach of the foot soldiers.

One important weakness of Wars of Plunder is that Le Billon intentionally fails to analyze in detail other non-extractable resource sectors that contribute to global armed conflicts. This includes production of opium in Afghanistan, or conflict over access to water, fisheries, or agricultural production in many other parts of the world. Therefore, the book cannot imply that the same correlation exists between extractable and non-extractable resources, leaving a gap that needs to be addressed. Much of the empirical evidence used in the book reflects the focus of advocacy groups and agencies that Le Billon has collaborated with. Le Billon left the bio-med research field for Cambodia to help start the Ministry of Environment under the transitional authority of the United Nations (UN) after the Khmer Rouge, which resulted in establishment of national parks designating 19% of the country as protected areas. Since then, he has worked for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, UN peacekeeping missions, and organizations such as Global Witness. Le Billon is open about how his background has affected his research, resulting in possible personal biases. However, he tries to mitigate their influence on his research by using a wider set of works by economists and scientist who he claims to not have suffered “from the same aversion to quantitative studies that the field of political geography currently suffers.”

In the final analysis, Wars of Plunder clearly, and with much detail, using many case studies, illustrates the relationship, or lack thereof, between armed conflict and several of the abovementioned extractive resources. Overall, it is a very well organized read both for the average reader and the scholar of international resource conflicts.

[1] For example Jeffrey Sachs and Andrew Warner’s 1995 paper, Natural Resource Abundance and Economic Growth, showed that from 1965 to 1998, in the OPEC countries, gross national product per capita growth decreased while the rest of developing world had an increase.

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