Recently the Department of Defense reported that the value of Afghanistan's reserves of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and other strategic minerals approached $1 trillion. Some have started calling this financially strapped nation the Saudi Arabia of lithium. Even Zimbabwe, one of the poorest countries in the world, could vault into the top ranks of the world's diamond producers, according to a U.N. announcement. It sounds so hopeful, yet in fact we see very few examples of nations where mineral wealth has led to peace and prosperity.
Instead, gold and other rare minerals in Congo have helped to finance that region's longstanding conflicts. Oil drilling in Niger has enriched politicians while creating few jobs for local people. And Sierra Leone's diamonds have funded a violent national crime syndicate.
If developing nations are looking toward natural resources as a way to help break the cycle of poverty and conflict, their hopes may not be misplaced. But they could be looking at the wrong resources.
A recent study by the Center for a New American Security examined how environmental degradation, poverty, migration, conflict, weak societal institutions and failed states form a feedback loop. It found that loss of "green" natural resources, such as forests, fresh water, fish and fertile soils, can play a significant role in driving instability and conflict. In fact, possessing green wealth may contribute more to peace and prosperity than gold, diamonds or lithium.
Environmental degradation by itself, of course, doesn't automatically lead to conflict, for the linkages are complex. But ample evidence indicates that the desperation, hopelessness and displacement of people that can come from exhausted green resources can encourage conflict and even failed states.
According to an analysis by the United Nations, at least 11 violent struggles since 1990 have been fueled in part by the degradation of forests, fish, water or soils. While these connections are usually ignored by the media, environmental decline has played a role in several conflicts critical to U.S. interests.
In one key example, the center's report describes how the lack of access to fish stocks helped turn desperate Somali fishermen into pirates, requiring an increased U.S. military presence in the region. And it makes clear how the shifting loyalties of impoverished rural Afghans become more logical when considering that soil erosion and deforestation have put 75 percent of the country's land area on the brink of becoming barren desert.
Protecting green wealth in the developing world offers far greater potential for peace and prosperity than exploiting mineral resources for three reasons. First, access to the economic benefits that environmental resources provide is far more broadly and democratically shared than that of minerals, which are typically controlled by a single company, government agency or sometimes a foreign country.
Second, protecting the environment requires cooperation, participation and openness. It's no surprise that in some of the world's most autocratic countries, many of the only open, democratic institutions are local forest councils and water boards.
And finally, mineral stocks eventually run out, encouraging a "gold rush" mentality that defeats longer term considerations. Green resources, however, can keep on giving - for many generations - if used thoughtfully and shared equitably.
It's no surprise that the handful of developing countries that decided years ago to take a development path preserving their environmental resources have experienced higher economic growth and greater social stability than their neighbors. Conservation-minded countries like Costa Rica and Botswana have also been islands of peace in regions otherwise wracked by conflict.
The new scholarship on conservation and security also contains lessons for the United States: Serious environmental degradation has the potential to undermine our security, economic and political goals in many regions of the world. The lesson is being taught to us in Afghanistan, Somalia and many other places, if we care to pay attention: It's harder to win over hearts and minds when the environment has already been lost.