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Regional themes > Land Last update: 2020-11-27  

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What determines violent conflicts over natural resources?
Evidence from land conflicts in South Africa and Zimbabwe

Dr. Sylvia Schweitzer

International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)

SARPN acknowledges Dr. Sylvia Schweitzer as the source of this document.
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The Research Problem

Conflicts are part and parcel of every social system. They become problematic however if they turn violent. A well established fact in international development co-operation has it that violent conflict hampers economic and social development and may reverse any kind of development success. It is therefore of utmost importance to know under which conditions conflicts turn violent. This will put decision makers in the position to counter violent conflicts in due course. Enhanced knowledge about conflict triggers is of particular interest for the African continent, which in recent years faced the highest number of high-intensity conflicts. Furthermore the current article holds lessons for Africa insofar as it draws on Zimbabwe and South Africa to make its case.

The central question addressed here is why in some cases an unequal distribution of natural resources leads to violent conflicts while in other cases it does not. To answer this question first of all a theoretical model has been deduced. Secondly, this model has been applied to a comparative case study which in a third step served to modify the model according to the empirical findings.

The model employed here meets the following requirements: Based on the assumption that the distribution of resources will only lead to conflicts if this distribution is perceived as being unequal and this inequality as being problematic, it captures a given resource distribution’s perception and assessment by relevant social groups. Additionally, political elites’ ability as well as their willingness to avoid the outbreak of violent resource conflicts is covered in the model at hand. Their respective willingness can not be regarded as self-evident but is a function of their strategy to maximise their (political) benefits. Furthermore, the model is both sufficiently simple and abstract for integrating the insights of several case studies. Being adaptable to a multitude of case studies it is a useful starting point for explaining the link between resource distribution and violent resource conflicts.

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