Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Weakened by the Storm: Disasters and the Fighting Capacity of Armed Groups in the Philippines

From the New Security Beat (Jun 11): Weakened by the Storm: Disasters and the Fighting Capacity of Armed Groups in the Philippines (By Collin Walch)


Many studies on natural disasters and conflict have assumed that disasters make it easier for rebel groups to recruit new members by fueling grievances against the government and lowering the opportunity costs of joining an insurgency, and that this recruitment will increase conflict. But disasters may actually have the opposite effect. My study of rebel groups in the Philippines, recently published in the Journal of Peace Research, suggests that by weakening the organizational structure and supply lines of rebel groups and their ability to enlist new fighters, disasters may instead reduce the intensity of the conflict, rather than increase it.

Disasters  Change the Dynamics of Civil Conflicts

Previous research on disaster and rebel groups is based on two problematic assumptions: that natural disasters affect the warring parties similarly; and that governments will be weakened by the disaster enough for rebel groups to attack.

But disasters have different impacts on each side of a conflict. For example, rebel groups that hide in the forest in makeshift shelters are more affected by extreme weather than government forces that stay in hard-built barracks. And large-scale disasters usually bring aid from richer governments and financial institutions. Rebel groups do not have access to this international aid, or to loans and insurance, making them less able to recover from the impact of a disaster.

My study argues that disasters negatively affect rebel groups’ organizations and their recruitment efforts in two interrelated ways:
  1. Devastating disasters induce scarcity for rebel combatants and supporters, weakening the rebel group’s logistics and supply lines, as well as its capacity to recruit disaster victims.
  2. Significant state government assistance—in collaboration with the international humanitarian actors in rebel areas—leads to the loss of rebel groups’ territorial control, making recruitment activities more complicated and risky.
Together, these factors represent temporary setbacks for rebel groups, which significantly affect the dynamics of the civil conflict, particularly by increasing the government’s territorial control of rebel areas.

Typhoons and Armed Groups in the Philippines

Supertyphoons Haiyan (2013) and Bopha (2012) affected two regions of the Philippines partially controlled by the communist rebel group, the New People’s Army (NPA). Over 2013-2015, I conducted four months of field research and 50 interviews with rebel groups, Philippines armed forces, UN and NGO representatives, and members of the civil society. The vast majority of the people I interviewed agreed that natural disasters limited the NPA’s recruitment activities in the post-disaster response and recovery period (a timeframe estimated as nine months).

Due to the disasters, NPA combatants lost contact with their commanders and moved to other regions of the country to find food and shelter, thus giving up their territorial control. Recognizing this complicated the NPA’s position, the Philippine armed forces used disaster relief as a strategy to buy civilian loyalty in the regions that used to be under rebel control. The increased scarcity of food and resources, weakened communications and supply lines, and the surge of national and international actors in some rebel areas greatly reduced the NPA’s access to the affected communities and thus limited its ability to recruit aggrieved disaster victims.

Instead of increasing conflict, it seems that these two natural disasters had some pacifying effects, at least in the post-disaster recovery period that I studied. For example, the increased territorial control by the government following the two typhoons led to the capture of two of the most important leaders of the NPA in 2014. A handful of other recent studies have also found that disasters have pacifying effects, creating opportunities for peace processes to take hold.

However, my interviews suggest that it is unlikely that these natural disasters will totally weaken the NPA, as natural disasters are localized and rarely affect the entire country. These disasters weakened the rebel group for a time and in a specific region, limiting its recruitment activities. But it is unlikely that the disasters’ impacts are enough to force the insurgency to end.

The micro-level evidence provided by this article may help inform an unsettled debate on the impact of disaster on conflict. Given the ongoing exposure of the Philippines to both natural disasters and armed conflict, the country represents a “hot-spot” where a strong link between disaster and conflict should be expected. But my study suggests that the state’s physical capacity to deliver aid and to channel international assistance prevented rebel groups from taking advantage of the situation. In addition, the level of scarcity may depend on the rebels’ physical exposure to the impacts of the disaster. Therefore, the combination of the typhoons’ localized impacts and the presence of government and international humanitarian actors in the rebel group control area weakened recruitment activities in the post-disaster period.

The Importance of the State and Conflict Actors

The ways in which conflict dynamics are affected by natural disasters are mediated by a wide range of context-specific factors that vary across countries and regions. The nature of a country’s response and its interaction with international humanitarian actors shape the extent to which rebels are able to take advantage of the disaster. When the state is weak, unable or unwilling to provide relief, and reluctant to work with international actors, it leaves space for the rebel group to fill the void and recruit disaster victims. For example, Mali’s weak and biased state institutions make it easier for rebel groups to recruit new members following droughts.

Unlike previous research, this study closely examines the behaviors, opportunity, and motive of all the actors—the rebels, the civilians, the state, and the international humanitarian organizations. While natural disasters are increasingly seen by policymakers as potentially increasing armed conflict, this study shows that natural disasters do not always lead to increased recruitment and conflict.

Contextual factors—such as the strength of state institutions, military decisions, international response, and the magnitude of disaster impact—are critical to understanding under exactly which conditions disaster may lead to increased conflict. Future research should certainly continue exploring the behavior of the actors in armed conflict as they determine—to  a large extent—the resilience of communities to disasters and armed violence.

[Colin Walch is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and an assistant professor at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University. Colin Walch conducts research on the links between disasters and armed conflict, with a focus on the micro-level. He also explores ways to conduct disaster risk reduction in fragile and conflict-affected countries. His most recent work has been published in Nature, Political Geography, Climate and Development and the Journal of Peace Research. Previously, Colin  worked in various NGOs in Liberia and Colombia on peacebuilding and environmental issues.]

[Sources: Climate Change, Global Environmental Change, Journal of Peace Research
Photo Credit: Residents walk on a road littered with debris after Super Typhoon Haiyan battered Tacloban city in central Philippines, November 10, 2013. Courtesy of Mans Unides.]

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