‘Green-shoots’ of data: war and biodiversity (1)

Once there was war and there was peace – but not any longer.

For the last decade celebrated Harvard professor, Steven Pinker, has gathered annual data on war and violence, extensively using the highly respected Uppsala Conflict Data Programme which demarcates 1000 conflict deaths as a rule-of-thumb definition of ‘war’.

Pinker would seem to have left no stone unturned: from civil wars (admittedly a slight uptick in 2014 due to the Syrian crisis but the trend is down), to war between nations and killings of unarmed civilians, across to murder (homicides), violence against women and even the popularity of hunting in the United States – for all these forms of violence the figures are down.

‘Despite the headlines, and with circumscribed headlines, the world has continued its retreat from violence. We need invoke no mysterious arc of justice or end of history to explain it. As modernity widens our circle of co-operation, we come to recognise the futility of violence and apply our collective ingenuity to reducing it’, wrote Pinker recently (1).

But there is one category that he has overlooked and which stands in stark contrast to Pinker’s punditry– deaths of environmentalists and conservationists have increased, which suggests a different perspective on definitions of violence as well as questions about whether Pinker risks being too glib and taking an overly narrow perspective.

Gilberto Torres from Colombia is a typical victim of the environmental-conflict nexus: a trade unionist, Torres led protests in 2002 against plans to drill for oil in his country for which he was abducted by paramilitaries for nearly two months. Now Torres lives in exile (2).

Torres is part of a trend that has been highlighted by Global Witness who released a report that showed that between 2002-2013 908 citizens were killed protecting rights to their land and environment: to give some perspective, that is broadly compatible with British armed forces deaths in Afghanistan during the same period as well as journalists across the world (3).

Furthermore, three times as many environmentalists were killed in 2012 than 10 years before; however, Global Witness says that while the figures are probably an underestimate given the difficulties of getting data ‘the death-rate also points to a much greater level of non-lethal violence and intimidation’.

On the subjects of non-lethal violence and intimidation there is a surprising dearth of broad research, even if there are a number of organisations looking at differing aspects. However, this month (December 2015) the Small Arms Survey released a report Voicing Concern: Surveying People’s Priorities in Violent Settings based on 43 recently completed population-based surveys carried out by well regarded organisations such as the Afrobarometer, the
Americas Barometer, the Asia Foundation, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, during which respondents were asked to either identify or rank the general issues about which they felt most concerned. Although not fully representative of all recent conflicts and insecure environments, the data spans three regions: Africa (8 countries), Asia (2 countries), and Latin America and the Caribbean (16 countries) (4).

The report’s overwhelming conclusion is: ‘security issues stand out as the most pressing concern for people in a variety of settings affected by recent or ongoing conflict and armed violence. At the height of a conflict, when prospects for peace are low, people are understandably primarily concerned with security-related issues’.

So, even if we know war is on the decline thanks to the research of Professor Pinker, there would seem to be other ways of gauging violence, with less comforting results – or put another way, if war is on the decline does that automatically mean the world is more peaceful ?       Jasper Humphreys

(1): The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/11/news-isis-syria-headlines-violence-steven-pinker

(2): The Observer:

(3): Global Witness:

(4): Small Arms Survey:

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