Professor to measure environmental impact of war

March 24, 2009

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has invited Michel A. Bouchard, a professor from the Université de Montréal's Faculty of Arts and Sciences, to help evaluate the ecological impact of the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and its neighboring countries.

Three international treaties currently prohibit environmental crimes. "However, these protocols are not restrictive and lack precision," says Bouchard. "Facing the threat of death, the protection of the environment is obviously not a priority, but it does become one as soon as the conflict is over. And if the environment is irreversibly affected, there is no sustainable solution to the crisis."

Bouchard, a geologist by training, explains the long history of environmental warfare. In the year 146 BC, the Romans destroyed the city of Carthage and salted the farmland to ensure that no crops would grow - one of the first ecological disasters deliberately provoked to weaken an enemy.

In modern times, there are many such examples: the atomic bombs dropped in Japan, Agent Orange used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, the burning of Kuwaiti oil wells and the use of cluster bombs in Lebanon.

UNEP plans on conducting 14 projects in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to evaluate transportation infrastructure, mining resources, population movements, reconstruction plans and threats to fauna.

The DRC has experienced many conflicts over who controls the mining exploration, while the wars in Sudan and Rwanda have also had an impact on the country. The fighting in the great lake region, which hosts 60 percent of the continent's biodiversity, threatens the last 700 mountain gorillas that are on the brink of extinction.

"It is very difficult to determine the exact number of gorillas because they are located in the Virunga national park, which is a trans-border zone controlled by militias," says Bouchard. "This park can only be managed in times of peace, not in times of war."

Bouchard acknowledges that conducting a civilized war is a paradox. However, he does see positive signs in certain practices used in Afghanistan that aim to reduce the damage by decontaminating their sites, by planning food and water transport and by avoiding the waste of resources.
-end-
On the Web:
About the Université de Montréal: www.umontreal.ca/english/index.htm
About the United Nations Environment Programme: http://www.unep.org
English adaptation by Marc Tulin; original French story by Daniel Baril can be consulted at http://www.nouvelles.umontreal.ca/recherche/sciences-sociales-psychologie/la-guerre-peut-elle-tre-ecologique.html.

University of Montreal

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