Tag Archives: environment

Crimes against the environment: the silent victim of warfare

The Conversation

Steven Freeland, Western Sydney University

Acts perpetrated during the course of warfare have, through the ages, led to significant environmental destruction. These have included situations in which the natural environment has intentionally been targeted as a “victim”, or has been manipulated to serve as a “weapon”.

On Friday the United Nations marked the “International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict”.

Throughout history the environment has been a silent victim of human conflict. The problem is ongoing. It is time we properly recognised crimes against the environment and made those responsible for such crimes fully accountable.

Scorched earth tactics

In the 5th century BC, the retreating Scythians poisoned water wells in an effort to slow the advancing Persian army. Roman troops razed the city of Carthage in 146 BC, and poisoned the surrounding soil with salt to prevent its future fertilisation. The American Civil War in the 19th century saw the widespread implementation of “scorched earth” policies.

In August 1945, we witnessed the destructive capability of weapons technology, when the United States detonated atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in massive loss of life and environmental destruction.

During the Vietnam War, the United States implemented Operation Ranch Hand to devastating effect to destroy vegetation used by the enemy for cover and sustenance, through the use of chemicals such as Agent Orange. Attempts were also made to deliberately modify the environment to create floods along vital supply routes utilised by the North Vietnamese forces.

More recently still, who can forget the haunting images of more than 700 burning Kuwaiti oil well heads, which had been deliberately ignited by retreating Iraqi forces during the Gulf War in 1991 – a scene that was likened to Dante’s Inferno.

Over the following ten years, the Saddam regime built barriers and levees to drain the al-Hawizeh and al-Hammar marshes in southern Iraq, an area some believe is the site of the biblical Garden of Eden. This effectively destroyed the livelihood of the 500,000 Marsh Arabs who had inhabited the area of this unique ecosystem.

Actions such as these demonstrate how the deliberate despoliation of the environment can have catastrophic effects, not only on human populations, but also in ecological terms. For example, nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, as well as having the potential to kill many thousands of people in a single attack, have effects that may persist in the environment, in some cases indefinitely.

The devastating effects of environmental warfare can continue long after the conflict is resolved, jeopardising or destroying the lives and livelihoods of those reliant on the natural environment.

Resource wars

Moreover, access to natural resources – or the lack of access – can itself be the trigger for conflict.

Approximately five million people were killed during the 1990s in armed conflicts relating to the exploitation of natural resources such as timber, diamonds, gold and oil. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has found that, over the last 60 years, at least 40% of all internal conflicts have been linked to the exploitation of natural resources.

Recent conflicts in Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Angola were not only fought over natural resources, but the exploitation of those resources in turn funded the combating parties to acquire weapons. This has given rise to the phenomena of “conflict resources ”, where natural resources commercialise and prolong conflict. It becomes a vicious self-perpetuating cycle.

Defending the environment

Environmental degradation and exploitation can thus be both a cause and a consequence of armed conflict. The International Court of Justice has clearly recognised that damage to its environment may constitute an “essential interest” of a state. Such recognition will only increase as the world gains further insights into the broader state of the global environment, including the disastrous effects of climate change.

Despite all of the evidence, however, deliberate environmental destruction during warfare is still largely regarded, as rape once was, as an unfortunate consequence of war.

The existing rules under international humanitarian law, international environmental law and international criminal law purporting to limit deliberate environmental destruction have largely been ineffective and inappropriate. The impact of environmental destruction has paled when measured against perceived military advantages. The United Nations International Law Commission is currently looking at this issue in an attempt to establish the relevant applicable principles.

It is, of course, true that war and armed conflict are inherently destructive of the environment. But that is no reason to allow leaders to deliberately or recklessly target the environment in order to achieve their military goals. Deliberate destruction is no longer acceptable, particularly given the ongoing development of weapons capable of widespread and significant damage.

There is therefore much more that should be done. Just as international law has made great strides forward by classifying rape during armed conflict as a war crime, a crime against humanity, or even genocide in certain circumstances, we should recognise that intentional environmental destruction can also constitute an international crime. Proper modes of accountability should be incorporated into the mechanisms of international criminal justice.

“Crimes against the environment” should therefore be incorporated as a separate crime within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, in order to better protect our most cherished assets for future generations.

Steven Freeland is the author of Addressing the Intentional Destruction of the Environment during Warfare under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court published in 2015.

The ConversationSteven Freeland, Professor of International Law, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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FactCheck: are kangaroos at risk?

The Conversation

By Daniel Ramp, University of Technology, Sydney and Karl Vernes, University of New England

“Senator Rhiannon embarrasses herself by sharing conspiracy theories about kangaroo numbers being in terminal decline. She only has to drive between Winton and Longreach at night to see the plagues of roos.” Queensland Nationals Senator Barry O’Sullivan, press release, February 13, 2015.

Senator O’Sullivan’s comments, made after Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon raised concern over kangaroo populations being at risk, reflect a common view that Australia is swarming with kangaroos.

But how secure are kangaroo species? Are they in plague proportions, necessitating large-scale killing and a commercial industry, or are they in decline and at risk?

Are ‘roos at risk?

We don’t yet have clear evidence showing kangaroos are at risk of extinction. But we cannot afford to get too comfortable, given their historical decline.

The NSW Scientific Committee last year rejected a 2011 nomination that four species of kangaroos be listed as vulnerable. You can read their preliminary determinations for the four species here, here, here and here.

But despite what Senator O’Sullivan has seen on the night drive between Winton and Longreach (an area adjacent to a national park), Australia is not swarming with kangaroos. A plague is not biologically plausible because kangaroos are slow growing.

Juvenile mortality rates are high and female kangaroos tend to have only three or four joeys survive in their lifetime. Compare that to rabbits, which can produce up to 14 young in a litter. Kangaroo populations, as a whole, do not grow more than 10% in a year.

We don’t have clear evidence yet showing kangaroos are at risk. (Source: AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

While it’s true there are large kangaroo populations in some parts of Australia, in other parts they are scarce. As population numbers are reported to fluctuate a lot within a few short years, it depends on which period you are looking at.

So we should be very careful about blanket statements about “plagues” of kangaroos. They do not represent the overall picture.

Historical decline

Six species in the kangaroo family have gone extinct since European settlement, with over 60 species remaining. Some species remain endangered, like the brush-tailed rock-wallaby, which was killed in the hundreds of thousands for its fur. Others remain in substantial numbers, but human history is littered with examples of causing the extinction of populous animals.

In 1982, CSIRO researchers Short and Grigg reported that 85% of kangaroo populations had been reduced to below one per square kilometre in western Victoria. In Tasmania, the kangaroo population is at 10% of pre-European settlement numbers.

What can we infer from recent surveys?

When asked by The Conversation for data to support her concern that kangaroos are at risk, Senator Rhiannon referred to government records collected over the past 30 years from commercial harvest zones in four states, estimated from aerial surveys of transects. Animals seen from planes are multiplied by correction factors and extrapolated to entire zones.

As the graph below shows, these records showed kangaroo numbers fell between 2001 and 2011. (The federal government stopped providing national kangaroo population numbers online in 2011, although they remain reported on a state-by-state basis.)

National government data showing kangaroo population trends, 2001 to 2011. Graphic by Daniel Ramp, data by Department of the Environment

Referring to a 2011 nomination to list kangaroos as threatened, Senator Rhiannon highlighted a decline of 40% in national populations between 2001 and 2011.

However, population estimates were then reported to increase between 2011 and 2013 due to reasonable rainfalls.

Nationals Senator O’Sullivan has also said that populations in Queensland have more than doubled from about 12 million to more than 25 million over the past decade. The available data says that is true.

Can both be right?

Kangaroo populations grow slowly and decline rapidly during drought. Many localities in Queensland have recorded declines of over 50% since 2013.

Both senators appear to be looking at two different windows of population estimates, ranging between two peaks ending with the 2001 and 2014 droughts.

Senator O’Sullivan also recently said that kangaroos are “taking up to half of the pastures on some drought-stricken properties across Western Queensland”.

However, CSIRO research shows little direct impact on crops and little competition with livestock for pasture. Kangaroos do not benefit from artificial watering points, rarely drinking.

A spokesman for Senator O’Sullivan said that “heavy grazing pressures placed on properties by kangaroos across Western Queensland is anecdotal. However, we feel it is highly reliable.”

The elephant in the room is that the data isn’t really adequate to paint an accurate picture of kangaroo populations in Australia. Both Senator Rhiannon and the NSW Scientific Committee have noted frailties with the data.


We don’t yet have data showing that kangaroos are at risk, but we cannot afford to be complacent given their historical decline.

The senators are comparing apples and oranges, looking at different data sets from different time periods and extrapolating to paint a picture of either plague or near-endangerment.

There is less and less space for kangaroos: more kangaroos are killed for meat and skins than any other mammal species, they are killed for trespassing on farmland, shot illegally, hit by vehicles, caught in barbed-wire fences and persecuted by domestic dogs.

If we want kangaroos to remain a part of the Australian landscape and identity, we need better population data upon which appropriate policy can be based.


The article is based on the best available population data collected by the various states on commercially harvested kangaroo species, and the vast scientific knowledge that has been amassed on their biology and ecology.

Kangaroo populations definitely fluctuate with climate, a factor built into harvest models. For example, annual surveys since the early 1980s show dramatic declines (sometimes as high as 97%) related to several droughts from the 1980s to the 2000s, but then (albeit slower) recoveries of the populations during intervening times of better than average rainfall. However, because quotas reflect not only current population estimates but also the modelled impact of current and projected climate on numbers, quotas should protect populations from over-harvesting.

All available evidence points to the industry being sustainable; furthermore, quotas are almost never met, so even fewer kangaroos are harvested each year than sustainable quotas allow for, further buffering the populations from the possibility of over-harvesting.

The author’s comments on complacency, however, are also sensible; over-harvesting kangaroos prior to modern management did result in alarming declines, and the few studies of likely impacts of climate change on large kangaroos suggest a negative effect on these species.

Thankfully, though, and despite recent political wrangling over the issue, it is my view we currently have a carefully managed, well-run and scientifically sound kangaroo monitoring program, which informs the setting of sustainable harvest quotas, which, in turn, should safeguard kangaroo populations well into the future. – Karl Vernes

Have you ever seen a “fact” that doesn’t look quite right? The Conversation’s FactCheck asks academic experts to test claims and see how true they are. We then ask a second academic to review an anonymous copy of the article.You can request a check at checkit@theconversation.edu.au. Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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