A resource war is a type of war caused by conflict over resources. In a resource war, there is typically a nation or group that controls the resource and an aggressor that wishes to seize control over said resource. This power dynamic between nations has been a significant underlying factor in conflicts since the late 19th century. Following the rise of industrialization, the amount of raw materials an industrialized nation uses to sustain its activities is heightened. This creates a perceived source of scarcity, which acts as a primary motivator that many academics believe to be one of the root cause of resource wars. There are many different theories and perspectives raised in academia that aim to rationalize why resource wars happen and what causes them.
One of the most prolific examples of resource war in history is the conflict over Chincha Island guano in the late 19th century. The Chincha Islands of Peru are situated off of the southern coast of Peru, where many seabirds were known to roost and prey on fish brought there by the currents of the Pacific Ocean. The guano of these seabirds is incredibly dense in nutrients and became a sought-after resource as a fertilizer. Soil that was nutrient rich allowed for higher crop yields, which subsequently translated to better sustenance of the population and overall improved economic performance. Known colloquially as "white gold", guano from the Chincha Islands began to catch the interest of Spain, Great Britain, the United States of America, and other industrial powers at the time.
This international interest for this resource resulting in a number of conflicts including the Chincha Islands War between Spain and Peru and the War of the Pacific between Chile, Bolivia, and Peru. Although the primary inciting force of the conflict originated over possession of the nutrient-rich guano, Spain also attempted to exercise prior colonial control over Peru in its aggressions during this conflict. Chincha Islands guano became a resource of imperialism with foreign nations inciting conflict and establishing dominion over it. In 1856, the United States president Franklin Pierce passed the Guano Islands Act with the exclusive purpose of addressing American scarcity over guano. Under the Guano Islands Act, any piece of uninhabited land that harbors a guano deposit could be claimed as a territory of the United States in order to extract the resource. This legislation acted as a workaround for the United States to access Peruvian seabird guano since direct trade was not an option due to a treaty between Peru and Britain.
Under the geopolitical lens for interpreting resource wars, the main rationale behind resource conflict is strategic. It assumes that control over the resource provides a particular advantage to that nation and interprets hostile attempts to take over the resource as a means to acquire that advantage for themselves. Resources that are deemed strategic shift over time and pertain to what is required for economic expansion or success at the time. Examples of this include timber during the seventeenth century for naval development or oil during the twentieth century onward for enabling military technology and transportation.
Since control over strategic resources is an integral part to the geopolitical approach to understanding resource wars, colonialism and imperialism are both commonly associated with this framework. Both colonialism and imperialism concern a sense of dominion over a particular nation, with resources being at the root of this.
Also known as the environmental scarcity or political economy, the environmental security perspective interprets resource conflict as a response to resource scarcity. A notable proponent of the environmental security perspective is Dr. Thomas Homer-Dixon, a Canadian political scientist and professor at the University of Waterloo. The work of Homer-Dixon focuses on two different phenomena regarding the effect of resources on violent conflict: resource scarcity and resource abundance. Under the environmental security perspective, resource scarcity perpetuates conflict by inciting pressures on a society that is dealing with resource deprivation. According to Homer-Dixon, populations struggling with resource scarcity are also impacted by overpopulation and inequitable resource allocation. Overpopulation and inequitable resource allocation can make resource scarcity even more pronounced, creating a cyclical instability in the society.
Conversely, countries with natural resource abundance are impacted in a different way. Countries that are wealthy in resources have been shown to have disproportionate economic growth, less democracy, and overall insufficient development outcomes. This permeates from an overdependence on their resource from an economic standpoint, where authoritarian traits may begin to take effect. This creates pressure on the citizens as a whole due to undermined governance of the nation and volatile economic state if the resource fluctuates heavily in price. This phenomenon is known as the resource curse.
The political ecology lens functions as a synthesis of the prior two perspectives. The main distinguishing element between this approach and others is that political ecology is deeply rooted in historical context. The geopolitical and environmental security perspectives are commonly criticized for the assumptions they make about human behaviour. Both perspectives interpret conflict over resources as an automatic response to either a need for strategic resources or scarcity respectively. Political ecologists generally reject this notion, and it is a fundamental belief in political ecology that social conditions and dynamics are more important when assessing conflict than the resource and its abundance or scarcity. The implications resource possession has on conflict is deeply contextualized, in contrast to the other approaches. An example of a notable political ecologist is Nancy Lee Peluso, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Her works critique existing publications from Dr. Thomas Homer-Dixon.