Blood, water, oil, tobacco

1 November 2003

Geographical dossier spreadAs stock market prices soared in the late 1990s on the back of the technology boom, an unexpected beneficiary of the massive rise in mobile phone sales was a group of Rwandan and Ugandan soldiers fighting the troops of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was a link that underlined the growing connection between risks and dangers in the developed and the developing world.

In the late 1990s, as cellphone sales soared, supplies of tantalum - a metal needed to make parts of their circuitry - became severely limited. Congo is rich in coltan, a tantalum-rich ore, and the troops were only too happy to supply Western companies with it.

In a two-year period to the end of 2000, Michael Renner, senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute estimates the troops made some $250 million from mining coltan in Congo. As the technology bubble burst, the price of tantalum fell from historic highs to sub-1980s prices almost overnight. For a while, it seemed that the soldiers would be starved of the funds they needed to continue the war.

The tragedy for Congo was that it is not just rich in coltan. Diamonds and other precious minerals are readily available. "Unfortunately, because Congo is resource rich, those forces said they would move onto something else," said Renner, perpetuating the conflict.

Although a number of resource-driven conflicts have petered out in sub-Saharan Africa recently, thanks to increased co-operation between African nations, resource conflicts are not necessarily over.

"The international trade in raw materials keeps increasing phenomenally. With increased globalisation, there is so much more opportunity for forces in developing world to say: 'If we have control over this resource we will find ways to get these into play'," said Renner. "It would not be surprised if similar patterns were to replay in other countries."

Renewed interest in Africa's oil deposits, already the cause of internal strife in Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria, could fuel conflicts elsewhere on the resource-rich continent where tensions have already been raised. Renner pointed to oil exploration in Chad and pipeline projects in Cameroon: "A lot has gone wrong. The social disruption has been immense and local communities bear the brunt."

If lessons are not learned from those experiences, there will be other flashpoints: "The tension does not necessarily come down to one group controlling a resource. It is the feeling within a community that something terrible has been wrought upon them," said Renner.

Such tensions could lead to terrorists taking control of unstable states, or key parts of them, with resources providing ready access to funds. Bruce Hoffman, vice-president for external affairs at the US thinktank RAND Corporation, said: "Terrorist groups could take over leadership of a country, on a covert basis. With a failed state, terrorists with access to money could take over and clandestinely turn it into a terrorist nation. It could be in areas that have not been associated with terrorism: such as West Africa."

James Kirkhope, research director of the US-based Terrorism Research Center, said he is more optimistic about the situation in Africa because of international co-operation, such as Nigeria's role in convincing President Charles Taylor to leave Liberia.

"In Angola and Nigeria, civil society has been building, so progress has been made," said Kirkhope. Although the US campaign in Afghanistan highlighted the danger of an entire failed state, there are areas within countries that represent potentially more serious problems. Their lawlessness attracts terrorists and other forces so they become areas of global instability. The Tri-Border zone between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay is a prime example, although there are areas of Somalia and Sudan equally at risk.

"The cracks between nations represent the biggest threat," agreed Hoffman.

Interpol has warned that terrorists can now gain access to large amounts of cash through counterfeiting networks. Those factories lie in areas such as the Tri-Border zone. "Middle Eastern groups are funding themselves through bootleg goods [in these regions], and sending the funds back to the Middle East," said Kirkhope.

Access to money and a base will provide terrorists with a base to potentially scale up their attacks, an aspect made more disturbing by the rise in large-scale suicide terrorism. Hoffman said suicide attacks are, on average, four times more lethal than traditional terrorist bombings and that modern terrorists "see themselves engaged in a total war. That brings about much higher levels of lethality".

Kirkhope said: "If they have a message, they want an attack of mass destruction, of mass disruption. That is the reason why major attacks will bubble up in the kitchens of the terrorists."

As parts of the developing world move beyond legitimate control, there are aspects of Western culture that will prove to take a disproportionate toll on life in the developing world. The Global Burden of Disease report prepared by the Harvard Disease Burden Unit and the World Health Organisation (WHO) claimed that, by 2020, tobacco will cause for just under 9% of the total disease suffered by people around the world, compared with just under 6% for heart disease caused by blocked or hardened arteries, the leading single disease. Despite its rapid rise in infection rates, deaths from acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) are still expected to be lower than those from tobacco.

Even as Western countries build more effective crumple zones and other safety systems in their cars, motor vehicle accidents continue to increase rapidly in the developing world. By 2020, according to the Harvard and WHO study, disability and death from motor vehicle accidents will be more prevalent than from tuberculosis and, at 5% of the total disease burden, not far behind heart disease.

Dr David Maunder, principal researcher at the UK Transport Research Laboratory, said there is work to reduce road accidents in developing countries. "But it is a long slow process, as we have seen in the developed world."

This feature was part of an eight-page dossier feature published in the November 2003 issue of Geographical on the dangers in the world.