Environmental pathways to peace can emerge at the unlikeliest of times, even during conflict, when managing shared environmental resources can be an important lifeline connecting combatants when hostilities shut down other avenues for dialogue. In May, I traveled to Tehran for a conference designed to act as such a lifeline connecting Iran to the world's environmental community. "Environment, Peace, and the Dialogue Among Civilizations and Cultures," sponsored by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and Iran's Department of Environment, built on Iranian President Mohammed Khatami's initiative to engage in dialogue across borders and civilizations.

Seven hundred guests from around the world listened to President Khatami's energetic opening speech, which called for new dialogue frameworks that would help build international trust and understanding. He tied environmental decline to growing poverty and injustice, while stressing that environmental cooperation can increase peace and stability.

Approximately 70 international politicians and experts from more than 30 countries, joined by at least as many Iranian attendees, debated topics such as environmental damage in wartime, environmental scarcity's contributions to conflict, and environmental cooperation as a peacebuilding tool at the two-day conference. Using the environment as a pathway to peace was not only dissected in panel discussions, but also practiced in the hallways among the international crowd of scholars and policymakers.

UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer stressed this theme, noting that "although environmental degradation and competition for scarce resources are potential flashpoints for conflict, history has repeatedly shown that they are more often catalysts for cooperation." Iranian Vice President and Head of the Department of Environment Massoumeh Ebtekar, the real driving force behind the conference, echoed this call: "We need to seek new and viable solutions at the national and global levels, for dialogue and for the future of life on earth."

My conference paper, "From Threat to Opportunity: Exploiting Environmental Pathways to Peace," examined types and examples of environmental pathways to peace, which can emerge before, during, and after conflict. At its most fundamental level, environmental peacemaking uses cooperative efforts to manage environmental resources as a way to transform insecurities and create more peaceful relations between parties in dispute. Environmental management may help overcome political tensions by promoting interaction, confidence building, and technical cooperation.

After the Iranian presidential elections on June 17th, reform-minded President Khatami will leave office, potentially taking his "dialogue of civilizations" with him. Will his successor pick up this environmental lifeline? Perhaps most likely to succeed are targeted programs, such as the UNEP-facilitated meetings between Iranian and Iraqi scientists—the first in 29 years!—to restore the transboundary Mesopotamian Marshlands.

While the conference, or environmental peacemaking in general, will never single-handedly resolve conflicts in the Middle East, it may be, as Ebtekar declared, "the end of the beginning." In many places, the environment and natural resources are contributing to conflict and insecurity, whether from their scarcity or their abundance. But practitioners must try to better utilize environmental pathways to peace rather than ignore this tool. Without systematic efforts to capitalize on these peacemaking opportunities (and better analysis of existing programs), states and societies may deny themselves a valuable tactic—and a lasting peace.

By Geoffrey Dabelko

Related Links