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Update from Sierra Leone

Apologies for the long silence – I have been on mission in Sierra Leone since the 3rd, and have not had any access to the web until today.

My team is doing a two week assessment on environment, natural resources, conflict and peacebuilding as an input to a key UN planning document called the “Joint UN Vision,” where all the UN agencies come together to lay out priorities for cooperative work over next 3-4 years. Sierra Leone, famous for its diamonds and other minerals, is one of the poorest countries in the world – in fact on the 2008 UN Human Development Report, Sierra Leone ranked last.

The ten year civil conflict that raged from 1992 to 2001 killed tens of thousands displaced over 2 million of the country’s 5 million people, and wrecked infrastructure and human capacity. The continued campaign by the brutal RUF rebel group was largely funded by diamond and gold sales to Liberia in exchange for arms and ammunition. The natural environment was a serious casualty, with productive land, cash crops and valuable forest and bush areas damaged in the fighting and coping strategies that followed.

In fact, over 40% of civil conflicts in the 20th century had a link to natural resources, often as a contributing cause, by financing arms, or acting as a flashpoint for small-scale conflict that becomes embroiled in larger ethnic, political or economic conflict, which can spiral out of control. In the post-conflict period, extraction of natural resources (mining, timber, firewood forestry, fishing) is often the only livelihood option for returning displaced populations. All too often, unsustainable practices become embedded as the new norm, setting up the conditions for severe resource stress in the future.

Unfortunately, natural resources and environment are often given less attention in the immediate post-conflict period than they deserve, given their importance i. Hopefully this will change in the future as more emphasis is given to the issue.

i. UNEP has published a very good summary report on the issue:

Renard Sexton is FiveThirtyEight’s international columnist and is based in Geneva, Switzerland. He can be contacted at