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Department of Sociology and Political Science Norwegian University of Science and Technology, NTNU NO-7491 Trondheim email@example.com
“Those who do not know the conditions of mountains and forests, hazardous defiles, marshes and swamps, cannot conduct the march of an army” So wrote Sun Tzu (1963) in his classic treatise The Art of War. Knowing your terrain is essential if you want success on the battlefield. The environment affects your decision when to fight, where to fight, and how to fight. And the environment certainly affects your likelihood of success.2 To fully understand the dynamics of conflicts – why they occur and how they evolve – we must always consider their geographical context. Yet, limited access to geographical data has prevented researchers from systematically studying the impact of the physical environment on the course of conflict. Rather than exploring environmental features of the actual conflict zones, studies of conflict have been confined to employing proxy variables on the country level, such as population density, forest cover, religious and ethnic fractionalization, and other factors that invariably have sub-national variation. But in order to truly assess the role of geography we need disaggregated data on the location of conflicts as well as on the distribution of conflict-promoting variables.
Paper prepared for presentation at the workshop on Geography, Conflict and Cooperation; ECPR Joint
Sessions, Edinburgh, UK, 28 March – 2 April, 2003.
It is hard to imagine how the North Vietnamese could have withstood the overwhelming military superiority of
US forces during the Vietnam War had the topographic context been radically different.
and military evaluations of areas. 2002. 2001. characteristics of a nation’s terrain are thought to be much more relevant for intrastate conflicts. 2001. There are two reasons for this... Ross. Fearon & Laitin. 1960. most analyses of interstate conflict find proximity (intercapital distance). then. 1995. and natural resource abundance (Auty. While the theoretical arguments behind these variables appear convincing. type of terrain. I shall elaborate this claim below. such as population density and dispersion. Secondly.This paper outlines ongoing work to develop a dataset on the spatial distribution of armed conflicts. Diehl. Through the aid of Geographical Information Systems. It is no wonder. The resulting conflict map can then be combined with compatible maps of relevant exogenous factors in order to perform statistical analyses of spatial relationships. Although geography without doubt affects both interstate and internal conflicts. GIS. Richardson. Collier & Hoeffler (2001) argue that forests and mountains – frequently referred to as ‘rough terrain’ – is favorable to rebels by means of providing safe havens out of reach of government forces. 1991.. Any credible military response to a regional conflict requires an in-depth understanding of the geography of that region. 2001. 2002. who propose 2 . Studies of intrastate conflict and civil war have also explored the impact of geography. Siverson & Starr. Collier & Hoeffler. and neighboring conflicts to be strong predictors of war (Bremer 1992. this paper will only draw on the latter type when presenting the conflict location project. Collier et al. as the geographic conditions may enhance or constrain the exercise of military power. each unit in the Armed Conflict 1946-2001 database (Gleditsch et al. 2002) will be mapped in accordance with the actual zones of conflict. 1996. logistics operations. II Rationale Why the Country-Level Approach Is Inappropriate Geography affects strategic and operational planning. size of country. that empirical studies of armed conflict regularly include measures of geography. number of borders. Firstly. most of today’s conflicts are internal. the empirical findings have been rather mixed. tactics. Indeed. de Soysa. direct contiguity. 2002). This proposition is expanded by Fearon & Laitin (2001). 1990). but the focus here has been on physical and demographic attributes of the country. Gleditsch. Oneal et al. I argue that the occasional contradiction between insignificant statistical estimates and evidence from selected case studies by and large stem from inadequate data and research designs.
So should the availability of (b) foreign. and natural resources are all frequently proposed causal factors that have substantial sub-national variation. poorly served by roads. one would expect rebels to operate from mountainous or forested regions regardless of whether 20% or 80% of the country is characterized as rough.” The different findings probably come as a result of the latter study using a logtransformed version of the mountain variable. contrasting Fearon & Laitin’s (2001: 17) conclusion that “mountainous terrain … are strongly related to higher numbers of civil war onsets.4 The inaptness of using country-level measures for variables that may have substantial sub-national variation is even more striking in studies of duration of conflict.” Due to lack of proper data. A quick examination of the dataset used in Buhaug et al. I argue that neither of the studies manages to test the rough terrain argument in a proper fashion.four hypotheses on how terrain and the relative location of rebel bases affect civil war. 3 . as well as a more refined research design and increased temporal span. As a consequence. yet. the proxy variables have so far only been measured on the country level. But 3 The four hypotheses are: “The presence of (a) rough terrain. whether the terrain indeed favors the insurgents. crossborder sanctuaries. What would be more interesting is determining whether rebels really tend to operate from remote areas of the countries. which is a country-level measure of proportion of country covered by mountains.3 Both papers employ Gerrard’s (2000) measure of mountainous terrain. demography. only the first of these hypotheses was tested. If the proposition holds true. ethnicity. the focus of quantitative studies should rest on the specific conflicts. (2002) shows that on average 43% of the conflict zones of territorial intrastate conflicts were covered by mountains – the corresponding figure for conflicts over state governance is 32%. In the Collier & Hoeffler study neither terrain proxy produced significant effect. For that reason. 4 In this respect. at a distance from the centers of state power should favor insurgency and civil war. since the hypothesis and investigation relate to different units of analysis. Civil conflicts are per definition sub-national events and the fighting seldom involves the entire country. the rough terrain proposition may be perfectly valid without there being a deterministic relationship between country-level statistics of type of terrain and risk of conflict. not on the conflict-ridden countries. Whichever finding is more accurate. it will certainly be fruitful to distinguish between different types of internal conflict. and if so. Collier & Hoeffler additionally include FAO’s (1999) comparable index of forest cover. Terrain. and (c) a local population that can be induced not to denounce the insurgents to government agents … (d) Having a rural base should greatly favor insurgency.
so a clear but simple definition should be sought. But how do we define a conflict zone? What is the relevant area if we are to map the geographic extent of the conflicts? This may not be a trivial task. this simplification makes it difficult to assess the true role of factors that vary across space. the quality of information varies substantially from one conflict to the next so the operationalization also should account for some level of uncertainty. The problem is. as illustrated by Figure 1. An intrastate conflict in India would thus be treated as affecting the entire country. we need data on the location of the conflicts as well as on the geographic distribution of relevant conflictpromoting factors. we must consider the spatial dimension. 4 . data on disputes and wars were only available at the nation-state level. III The Conflict Location Project Initial Steps Until most recently. Further. How can India’s average score of 19 % mountainous terrain tell us anything about the conflict in Kashmir? It is essential to collect more detailed information on the whereabouts of the conflicts.how can we assess the role of natural resources if we do not control for their location relative to the conflict? In order to truly assess the interaction between geography (in a broad sense) and intrastate conflict. Hence. Such data will then facilitate research designs that are able to account for the relative location of the selected variables.
2000) The Armed Conflict 1946-2001 dataset (Gleditsch et al. and so on.. India experienced internal strife over governance in the same period. country-level explanatory variables are unsuitable for explaining any differences between these conflicts. To assess the impact of terrain. According to the Armed Conflict dataset. population density. and Keesing’s (2003).5 What is more. these conflicts took place at distinctly different regions of the country. Through work conducted by this author. natural resources. Clearly. Main sources for determining the conflict zones were the archives of the Uppsala Conflict Data Project (UCDP). we need relevant variables with statistics representing the actual conflict zones. each conflict is assigned a circular conflict zone. 5 Only territorial intrastate conflicts are displayed in the map. 5 . Civil War in India in the 1990s Conflict data source: COW (Sarkees. In addition.Figure 1. ethnicity. 2002) is the first systematic attempt at dealing with the spatial dimension of conflicts. Tillema (1991). The conflict circle thus covers all significant battle-zones and areas controlled by the opposition force during the entire course of the conflict. India had several simultaneous conflicts during the 1990s (Figure 2). determined by a conflict center point (latitude and longitude coordinates) and a radius variable (50 km intervals). Conflicts that took place within a single spot (typically coup d'états in the capital city) receive a default conflict radius of 50 km.
Enter GIS. In this situation. Hence we still need to improve our operationalization of the conflict zones. Territorial Intrastate Conflicts in Kashmir. 6 . the geographic midpoint of the circle covering the battle-zones would be near the center of the country. Their study on the duration of armed civil conflict (Buhaug et al. these are the first attempts at accounting for the spatial dimension of armed conflicts in quantitative studies. Nevertheless. a civil war could take place mainly along the borders of a country with rebels seeking refuge in neighboring territories. Punjab. and other relevant factors. What is more. 2002) is a continuation of this work. For example. Buhaug & Gates (2002) used a preliminary version of this dataset to explore determinants of the location and scope of intrastate conflicts. Moreover. Tripura. the data give a better representation of the actual conflict zones than the customary country-level approach. 2002) The circular shape of the conflict zones is a crude approximation of the real thing. the Armed Conflict data allow the researcher to control for the location of the conflicts relative to the capital. To my knowledge. the circular operationalization of the conflict location data has obvious limitations. and Manipur Conflict data source: Armed Conflict (Gleditsch et al. the circular representation tends to exaggerate the true size of the affected area. Yet. The Armed Conflict dataset is currently the lone provider of numeric information on the sub-national location of conflicts. natural resource deposits.. Nagaland.Figure 2. Jarkhand.. an area that in fact might be virtually unaffected by the conflict (Figure 3).
presenting. Although used primarily for planning purposes. In sum. and several layers may be intersected to visualize geographic overlap and possible spatial correlation. GIS tools are capable of storing. The Center of the Conflict Circle Falls outside the Actual Zone of Conflict Conflict zone Center point of conflict circle Geographical Information Systems Geographical Information Systems (GIS) is a label for a host of computer-based mapping tools that allow spatial representation of features that have a geographic dimension. and analyzing any feature of interest that can be represented by geographic coordinates. the relationship between the layers may be analyzed more systematically using analytical software such as SpaceStat or Spatial Analyst.Figure 3. manipulating. cities. The preliminary data that are presented in this paper are generated using ArcView 3. major infrastructure. and biannual average temperatures (ESRI. Each variable is represented as a layer.2 GIS software. some GIS programs also allow statistical analyses of spatial relationships between selected themes. 7 . Simply visualizing coexistence of relevant variables may spur new hypotheses or provide support for theoretical arguments. rivers and lakes. The main advantage of introducing GIS to the study of conflict is that it allows data collection and empirical analyses to be conducted on sub-national levels. precipitation levels. ESRI. 1996). Further. Moreover. has also released digital maps of a variety of variables – or layers – such as countries of the world. GIS is well suited for social science research. The manufacturer of this software. administrative units. which has previously been impossible.
such a conflict map will not be limited to a single observation (polygon) per conflict if the conflict actually took place at several separate locations or if the shape or size of the conflict zone changed substantially during its course. In this respect. 6 A polygon is a flat closed figure (plane) made up of at least 3 lines. I have been unable to locate a single useful definition of conflict zone. A buffer is essentially identical to the radius variable of the Armed Conflict dataset. a necessary starting point is formulating a precise definition of a conflict zone. this may not come as a total surprise as it is much easier to recognize the existence of a particular feature than to locate where it begins and where it ends. and which should be excluded from our operationalization? In striking contrast to the abundance of definitions of armed conflict and war. For some conflicts. Keesing’s (2003) as well as numerous case studies of specific conflicts will play a central role and contribute to a more precise conflict map of the world.7 Information for coding the location data are collected from the comprehensive UCDP conflict archives. To develop a conflict map. Thus GIS seems to be the appropriate direction to go. The accuracy of the information on the conflict locations vary greatly from one case to the next.Points and Polygons In contrast to the conventional data structure of the Armed Conflict and comparable datasets that severely restricts the ability to include geographic data. Further. You realize it’s there. defining conflict in geographic terms is analogous to identifying a mountain or a forest. some conflicts seem best represented by rough. depending on the nature of the conflict and on the reliability of the available information. but where are the boundaries? In developing a working definition of the concept. I deliberately seek simplicity over richness. 7 8 . sizable polygons6 whereas other conflict zones would be more accurately coded by point features (defined by geographical coordinates) combined with a buffer to account for uncertainty. What do we mean when we talk about zones of conflict – which areas are relevant. an administrative region may be the most precise location. In addition. Only localities of fighting and areas under rebel control within the conflict-ridden country are considered. whereas other conflicts may be pinpointed down to specific villages. Accordingly. Even so. GIS enable the conflicts to be represented by polygons that may take on any two-dimensional shape. excluding potentially relevant regions such as rebel sanctuaries in neighbor states and regions affected by refugee flows.
some conflicts affected the entire country and for these cases country-level explanatory variables would be appropriate. Evidently. To get a better grip on their underlying causal mechanisms. In this respect. the future of the conflict location data should be bright. Figure 4. using a combination of points and polygons as operationalizations of the conflict zones. But most conflicts affected only some parts of the nation-states. Territorial and Governmental Intrastate Conflict Zones in Africa since 1946 Territorial conflicts Governmental conflicts An Alternative Approach The point and polygon data described above would imply a major step forward in terms of being able to assess spatial relationships between geography and conflict. it is imperative to consider the characteristics of the specific conflict zones. as well as understanding why they occur where they do and why some conflicts last so much longer than others. and the accuracy of these location data would certainly be far superior to the circular operationalization of the Armed Conflict dataset. 9 . But while precision is a major focus of the conflict location project.Figure 4 below shows a preliminary map of the location of African intrastate conflicts since 1946.
2003. Marcum. FNLA. The left map shows a rough polygon covering the battle zones of the colonial war in Angola until 1975. 1978). Figure 5 below illustrates the distinction between the two discussed approaches. detailed information on the whereabouts of some conflicts is virtually absent. While both methods of operationalization facilitate analyses of spatial relationships (with the aid programs like SpaceStat or Spatial Analyst). Keesings. every Provincia that is reported to have been directly affected by the war – is coded as constituting the conflict zone. 1998. making it hard to decide where to draw the boundaries of the polygons. In addition. the point/polygon conflict maps are generally incompatible with traditional panel data and require GIS software and specialized skills to make use of the data. Ideally. To ensure the desired consistency and compatibility. the latter method additionally allows conventional statistical examination using administrative regions (combined with some measure of time) as the unit of analysis. the location data should (with only minor modification) facilitate conventional statistical analyses with the familiar spreadsheet data structure.so is compatibility with other data. making the polygon operationalization actually less appropriate. These are serious arguments against selecting the point/polygon approach. and UNITA (Guimarães. equivalent to Norwegian fylker or German Länder. Why develop a dataset if it cannot be combined with other data and used for other purposes? The problem is. 10 . Any administrative region that either saw fighting or accommodated rebel bases would then be coded as belonging to the zone of conflict. While this implies that some conflict zones will be coded less precisely than by the point/polygon method. every region that is covered by the conflict polygon – or more precisely. In the right-hand map. This polygon is constructed based on news reports and cases studies of the fighting between the Portuguese and MPLA. information on many conflicts is in fact restricted to mentioning certain regions of the nation-state. all units – that is: all conflict zones – must be on the same level of observation. An appropriate such level would be first-order administrative units.
this may pose considerable trouble. even though it might not be a too tedious task considering the abundance of maps and atlases produced during the last few decades. Considering that the temporal coverage of the conflict location project is the entire post-WWII period. which might affect the accuracy of the conflict zones 11 . Two Possible Operationalizations (Angola 1966-1974) Angola Angola There are problems with selecting administrative regions as the baseline unit upon which the conflict location data will be generated. the size of the political units differs substantially from country to country. One Conflict. The same problem (albeit not as pressing) goes for the nation-state boundaries. Yet.Figure 5. Another problem with the second approach. which is a pretty constant phenomenon with relatively fixed boundaries. sub-national entities intermittently undergo dramatic changes in outline as well as name. not the historical one. though. I still have not figured out how to deal with this problem. In contrast to the nation-state. To my knowledge. Anyway. GIS maps of subnational regions are only available for the 1990s – at least on a global scale. This is of course due to GIS data intentionally being used to visualize and analyze the contemporary world. It is way beyond the scope of this project to develop GIS maps for previous periods. there exists no GIS map of the world prior to the 1990s. where Eritrea is a part of Ethiopia. and Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union are consolidated states.
or the conflict pixels may be assigned values indicating the type of conflict. However. intrastate. Vector vs. For example. extrasystemic.and Y-coordinates and whose values define what the pixels represent (analogous to the process of scanning a photography). several conflict maps will have to be generated to facilitate spatial overlaps between conflict zones. The conflict map may for example be dummy-coded. this is a challenge that I still have not dealt with. Accordingly. it is impossible (or at least complicated) to allocate more than one conflict to the same administrative unit.075. according to CIA (2002) Cote d’ Ivoire (322. I still argue that the benefits of using a fixed unit of observation for the location data greatly outweigh the cons.200 sq km) 49 Oblasts. where cells that belong to a conflict zone are assigned a value of 1 and all others are assigned a value 0 (a binary raster map). interstate. Vector data may be represented either as points. this may constitute a potential flaw. Raster Data The conflict location data – regardless of the operationalization method – will be made up of vectors. 9 The Armed Conflict dataset distinguishes between four types of conflict.460 sq km) has 58 Departments compared to Russia’s (17. 10 x 10 kilometers. Due to the relative uncertainty of the conflict zone boundaries the grids should not be smaller than e. Raster data implies that the mapped features are represented as grid cells (pixels) whose relative positions define their X.(in particular the smaller ones) in a non-random fashion. even 8 Conflicts that took place at a single location will be coded as affecting the entire administrative region. prior to the spatial regression analysis the vector data must be converted to raster format. Thirdly. and internationalized intrastate conflict. Again. This. or polygons (areas). Moreover.g. arcs (lines). Since smaller states generally have smaller administrative regions. 12 .8 Be that as it may.9 The size of the grid cells of the conflict map should be in coherence with other relevant variables. As a consequence. in turn. it might be appropriate to combine the two methods for the spatial analyses whereas the spreadsheet database will be aggregated on the administrative unit level. GIS programs are not designed to handle temporal data. causes problems when it comes to the statistical analyses of temporally varying observations.
UNEP (2002b) also released a gridded mountain dataset with global coverage. Last year. 13 .though other data may be available on a higher scale of detail. see Figure 7. and data for previous decades exist for some regions (Africa and Latin America). ESRI (1996) has released a comprehensive database that includes many relevant features. UNEP (2002a) has gathered gridded global population density data for 1990. Further. Figure 6. including major cities and infrastructure. 10 FAO’s (1999) forest data are generated using 1 sq km grid cells whereas UNEP’s (2002) mountain data are currently only available in 10 x 10 km size. Rasterization of Vector Data Source: Bernhardsen (1999) Available Variables in GIS Format Spatial data on the location of armed conflicts require compatible data on relevant geographic features if statistical assessments are to be conducted. As previously mentioned.10 Feil! Fant ikke referansekilden. In addition. gives an example of how vector data may be converted to raster format. researchers at PRIO and NTNU (Gilmore & Lujala. some data are already available. 2003) are currently working on a natural resource dataset that is closely connected to the conflict location project. and comparable forest data have previously been collected by FAO (1999). Fortunately.
IV Concluding Remarks After some forty years of systematic conflict research we still know next to nothing about the general interaction between geography and civil war. Numerous case studies. A simpler. not to mention the challenge of backdating the data. more feasible approach would be to simply catalog the largest ethnic group in each province.Figure 7. Statistics on regional mean level of development as well as demographic data beyond population density are other variables that remain desired. not to mention 14 . Among these. ethnicity is arguably the most relevant one. and a database on the geographical dispersion of ethnic and religious groups within countries is most desirable. collecting information on the size of such groups at any subnational level would be immensely time-consuming. However. Distribution of Forest Cover in Angola Forest data source: FAO (1999) While a majority of relevant geographic variables are available for research. and code whether this group represents the majority or a minority of the total population in the country. Ethnic groups in many countries are concentrated to certain regions. some of the most frequently theorized conflict-promoting variables (which have significant in-country variation) are still unavailable on a sub-national level.
the location dataset will be of modest use beyond purely spatial analyses of geographic variables. natural resource deposits. are a major source of finance for warring parties. Further. until most relevant explanatory variables for conflict research become available on a sub-national level. ethnic composition. I argue that failed empirical evidence may in part be explained by inappropriate research designs and poor data. This paper has briefly outlined ongoing work to develop digital conflict maps of the location of all intrastate conflicts since 1946. Furthermore. suggest that terrain plays a crucial role affecting both the location and duration of conflict. Hence. the data permit statistical analyses of spatial relationships and thus imply a huge step forward in the study of geography and armed conflict. we need data on the sub-national location of armed conflicts. in particular diamonds and drugs. 15 . researchers at the divisions of Geomatics and Resource Geology at NTNU have suggested developing such a program as soon as the required data are available. There is also hard evidence that natural goods. even though the direct causal effect of primary commodities on armed conflict might be debatable. Rather than studying the countries in conflict. empirical studies of conflict have been remarkably unsuccessful in linking geography – in a broad sense – with war. Even so. and terrain will certainly contribute to our understanding of why conflicts occur and how they evolve. in combination with more traditional variables including regime type and level of economic development. knowledge on how such factors affect the likelihood and characteristics of armed conflict. In order to do so. Analyzing the interaction between conflict and relevant geo-referenced variables like population distribution. the conflict location data should not be viewed as a replacement of established conflict datasets and traditional analytical methods but rather a supplement designed particularly for accounting for the spatial dimension of armed conflicts. The most imperative of these is the lack of GIS maps for most of the temporal span of the conflict data.11 There are still a few obstacles that have to be conquered before the location data are ready for systematic examination. 11 Indeed. may be used to develop interactive models that can predict future areas with increased risk of conflict. Through GIS. Moreover.classic military doctrine. we ought to focus on the conflicts and the characteristics of the actual conflict zones. most contemporary intrastate conflicts appear to be fought between groups of different ethnic origin.
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