Costly signalling and environmental scarcity as causes of the civil war in the Kivu

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2008

16 Pages, Grade: 1,5

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1. Introduction

Years after the war broke out, the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) remains mired in violent clashes between government forces and rebel groups. Some 45,000 people still die of conflict-related incidents in the Congo every month, bringing the total death toll to 5.4 million (International Rescue Committee; cited by Afrol News 2008). Could the conflict have been prevented had the government handled the bargaining process differently or addressed issues of environmental scarcity? Yet studying the links between environmental change and conflict is extraordinarily complex: cases are usually characterized by an enormous number of unknown variables and unknown causal mechanisms among these variables; by interactions, feedbacks, and nonlinear relationships; and by sensitivity to small perturbations (Homer-Dixon 1995). Thus, researchers of ecological-political systems cannot be entirely certain that everything relevant is controlled (Homer-Dixon 1995). Similarly, it is difficult to trace the dynamic of the bargaining process and the cycle of threats and counterthreats that often precede civil wars.

Nevertheless, in an attempt to throw light on the complex relationship between environmental change and conflict, and costly signalling and conflict, this paper examines the explanatory power of Homer-Dixon’s theory on environmental scarcity andöberg’s signalling theory as regards the outbreak of violent conflict in North Kivu. In particular, the paper deals with the following problematic: Is the onset of civil war in North Kivu in 1994 correlated with demand-induced scarcity, or did the exchange of costly signals between the government and rebels spiral into war?

The paper is structured as follows: It begins with an overview of the theories and specifies the causal mechanisms under investigation. The third part describes the research design and the data used for this project. The fourth part offers background information on the conflict in North Kivu. The penultimate part analyses to what extent environmental scarcity or costly signalling played a role in the onset of civil war. The paper concludes with a summary of findings.

2. Theories

2.1. Thomas F. Homer-Dixon: Environmental scarcity and violence

The first theory used for this structured-focused comparison is Homer-Dixon’s claims that environmental scarcity, i.e. scarcity of renewable resources such as cropland, forests, river water and fish stocks, is contributing to violent conflict in many countries of the developing world, albeit these conflicts appear at first sight to be related to political, ethnic or ideological factors. These violent conflicts are qualified by their usually sub-national, enduring and diffuse character (EPS 1997).

The concept of scarcity of renewable resources can be categorised into three main sources: environmental change, population growth and unequal distribution of resources. Environmental change refers to a human-induced deterioration in the quantity or quality of a renewable resource that occurs faster than it is renewed by natural processes. Population growth results in the decline of a resource’s per capita availability by dividing it among more and more people. Lastly, unequal resource distribution arises when a resource is controlled by a few people which in turn subjects the rest of the population to greater scarcity (Homer-Dixon 1994: 8-9). These terms are respectively also referred to as supply-induced, demand-induced and structural scarcity (Percival and Homer-Dixon 1995). The three sources of environmental scarcity often interact. For example, a fall in the quality or quantity of a renewable resource can encourage a group to shift the distribution of the resource in their favour. This interaction is also termed resource capture (Homer-Dixon 1994: 10).

While there is little evidence that environmental scarcity causes interstate conflict, Homer-Dixon (1994: 18-20) posits that there is a strong correlation between environmental scarcity, population movement and group-identity conflicts. Furthermore, he argues that environmental scarcity increases the level of economic deprivation and disrupts key social institutions, thereby causing deprivation conflicts such as civil war and insurgency. He notes particularly the weakening capacity and legitimacy of the state in some poor countries as a consequence of environmental scarcity (Homer-Dixon 1994: 23-24). Nevertheless, the probability of violence in these cases is higher if the aggrieved are already organised around clear social cleavages, such as ethnicity, religion or class (Homer-Dixon 1994: 27). In addition, violent collective action is more likely if the society does not possess the social and technical ingenuity to adapt to renewable resource scarcity (Homer-Dixon 1991, 1994; cited by Rønnfeldt 1997: 473).

As it is out of the scope of this paper to investigate all of the variables in complex ecological systems, the present research examines the hypothesis that demand-induced scarcity is correlated with the onset of armed conflict in North Kivu (H1).

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 1: Conceptual framework of environmental scarcity theory

2.2. Magnusöberg: Signalling theory

The second theory exlored in this paper is Magnusöberg’s explanation of the outbreak of civil war as a bargaining process. According to this theory the bargaining process fails and war breaks out because the government and the ethnic group either have asymmetric information about the outcome and costs of war or the issue of contention is indivisible (Fearon 1995; Gartzke 1999; cited byöberg 2002: 19). In other words, both parties to the conflict have private information about their value of war and incentives to bluff. Furthermore, the decisions-making processes of both actors are endogenous and strategically interdependent in this theory (öberg : 200219). “In this way, war becomes a consequence of the decisions of both parties considered jointly” (öberg 2002: 22).

öberg (2002) explains the gradual escalation of conflict or its de-escalation as a learning process by both parties. In the beginning of the bargaining process, they are uncertain about the opponent’s possible response. In order for the ethnic group to gain concessions and divert war it can threaten the government. The government, by contrast, may bluff the ethnic group to back down short of war. Thus both parties may signal toughness and their willingness to go to war through threats and provocations (öberg 2002: 21-22).

In the signalling model, the escalation process begins with the ethnic group making a demand coupled with a threat of the use of force (öberg 2002: 23). The group may feel that it has exhausted all peaceful ways of achieving its aims and therefore enters into rebellion (Zartman 1995; cited byöberg 25). The government then may take countermeasures such as cracking down on opposition activities or deploying police forces. Yet the challenger may nonetheless act on his/her threats of violence. The government again has the choice of whether to concede the issue at stake or impose its authority and effectively go to war with the challenging group (öberg 23-24). Empirical data implies that a process of gradual escalation characterised by threats, provocations, demonstrations of force, minor acts of violence or symbolic destruction of property usually precede the onset of civil wars (öberg 2002: 25-26). However, if both parties knew each other’s preferences for war, there would never be any threats, provocations, demonstrations of force or symbolic sacrifices prior to war (öberg 2002: 26-27).

In order to communicate their willingness to go to war - their resolve - and convince the other to back down, they have to make their signals costly (öberg 2002: 28). This means that they have to convince the opponent that they are not bluffing and that are prepared to incur high bargaining costs - costs associated with having challenged or stood firm (öberg 2002: 28-32).

This cycle of provocations and other interactions eventually leads to war since the parties seem unable to back down once they have passed a certain threshold. A government’s counterthreats may also convince the ethnic group that it is more interested in war than in negotiating concessions (öberg 2002: 34-35). “This may give the challenger incentives to strike first, effectively creating a security dilemma type of situation” (Melander 1999, Posen 1993, Roe 1999; cited byöberg 2002: 35).

In sum, this paper concerns itself with the hypothesis that costly signals spiral into war by way of entrapping the actors (H2).

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 2: Conceptual framework of signalling theory

3. Operationalisation/ Research design

In order to investigate the explanatory power of the afore-mentioned theories, it is assumed that background factors already exit in the chosen case. Thus the paper aims to investigate whether demand-induced scarcity or costly signalling can be classed as proximate factors of war. Furthermore, environmental scarcity is measured at the mass level, while signalling is analysed at the elite level.

Demand-induced scarcity is operationalised as population density and man-land ratio. Increased environmental scarcity is operationalised as scarcity of food, water malnutrition, deforestation and depletion of forest resources. Costly signalling is operationalised as troop and police deployments, crackdowns, curfews, arrests, impositions of martial law, assaults on state authority and destruction of property. Entrapment is operationalised as mounting provocations and other interactions such as hate propaganda. War is operationalised as the number of casualties directly resulting from one of the independent variables (demand-induced scarcity or costly signalling) and/or rebel recruitment.

A combination of qualitative and quantitative data was collected from publications and observational records of international organisations, non-governmental organisations and researchers. Qualitative data has the advantage that it captures directly the lived experience of people (Punch 1998: 61). The time frame being investigated is roughly from 1970 till the onset of armed conflict in 1994.

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Costly signalling and environmental scarcity as causes of the civil war in the Kivu
Uppsala University  (Department for Peace and Conflict Research)
Causes of War
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Costly, Kivu
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Ingeborg Friedl (Author), 2008, Costly signalling and environmental scarcity as causes of the civil war in the Kivu, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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