Philippe Le Billon: Wars of Plunder (Columbia University Press: 2012)

Philippe Le Billon’s Wars of Plunder takes previous research on the mathematical relationship between natural resources and conflict and combines this with qualitative understandings of power and space to create a nuanced explanation of how different natural resources relate to conflict.  Focusing initially on work done by economists such as Paul Collier and Macartan Humphreys, he unpacks the social and political spaces that exist beneath the large-N models used to relate natural resources to conflict outbreak and duration.  Through this frame, he argues that treating resources as causal factors in conflict outbreak or focusing on geopolitical drivers falls short of fully understanding the socio-politics and spatial aspects of how people relate to each other across resource endowed spaces.  To better understand these dynamics, he argues that we have to understand the ways that three different resources, oil, diamonds and timber, affect vulnerability, risk and opportunity.

As a political geographer, he treats conflict and resources as factors that exist within socio-spatial dynamics in conflict-affected countries.  Indeed, while resources affect conflict, resources are not necessarily the causal agents of conflict outbreak.  He then takes the reader through an organized process of how we have to understand conflict spatially, and thus how we have to understand resources spatially, to begin to understand how resources fit into the narrative of conflict.  Within this space he explains that there are levels of analysis and impact, and the way that resources are treated by actors within the conflict space is what helps us understand resource conflict.  Elites, multi-nationals, and local actors all relate to resource endowments differently, and these differences across space are where we see the details of resource-affected conflicts.  To make his argument, which could have become unwieldy and impossibly complex, feasible, he focuses on three resources (oil, diamonds and timber) and describes them spatially as either ‘point’ or diffuse in nature.  The diffusion or concentration of resources affect aspects of the political economy of conflict, and in turn the nature and duration of conflict.

To demonstrate these complexities, he takes space to analyze oil, diamonds and timber separately.  Using case studies and references previous econometric work on warfare and resources he explains the political and power dynamics that spawn in spaces where these resources are abundant.  For example, the fact that oil is a ‘point‘ resource that has significant geopolitical and economic value means that the conflicts fought around oil will be far more transnational and state-oriented in nature compared with conflicts in alluvial diamond mining regions where limited external infrastructure and large spatial diffusion encourage violence across communities at the trans-local level.  Interestingly, his explanation of timber conflict ends up focusing more on the politics of class and power, particularly the exploitation of indigenous peoples who live in forest regions, than the causal implications of the timber export industry on insurgency or conflict.

By creating an explanatory framework that incorporated a rich analysis of the spatial and socio-political dynamics at work in resource endowed regions, going beyond the instrumental econometric treatments of resources and conflict, Le Billon is able to draw on the history of resource management and export controls to delve into an explanation of how resources can be used to encourage peace and stability.  He discusses solutions to the problem of restarting an economy after war, noting that resources need not be a curse if care is taken in developing export mechanisms and revenue management systems early in the post-conflict phase.  Part of this also hinges on identifying predatory contracts signed during war and rapidly nullifying them, since many of the high-risk political and socio-economic dynamics that orbit resource-motivated violence are encoded into these agreements.

While the book is strong in its longitudinal treatment of three different types of resources and three different types of drivers (vulnerability, risk and opportunity) across cases, Le Billon never fully elucidates an overarching theory of resources and conflict.  Compared with the instrumental approaches favored by Weinstein, Collier, Humphreys and others, his analysis never fully settles on a generalizable framework of conflict and resource endowment.  This comes through in an analysis of the title versus the content of his argument; resources can be drivers of conflict as much as they can be an endowment that can restart an economy given proper regulatory oversight, but he never settles on an argument for one or the other.

Continuing the notion of the positive side of natural resources, while Le Billon is positive about how to create a regulatory framework for positive resource extraction and revenue generation, he is more circumspect when describing the features of the necessary security environment to ensure investors, governments and local actors will see the benefits of the extractive industry in their locality.  While he briefly discusses the positive role that peace enforcement has played in long term conflict cessation, a deeper discussion in Chapter 6 of security and regulatory enforcement mechanisms would have added to the strength of his argument about the potential benefits to peace that can come with resource industry.

Le Billon’s analysis and explanation of resource conflict takes the discussion beyond geopolitics and econometrics in a very positive way.  He does not leave these necessary discussions behind but indeed builds on them, giving readers a contextually rich set of case studies that unpack local, national and international dynamics which are at work in high-risk, resource-endowed regions.

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