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Nepal has suffered a dramatic collapse since the Maoists launched their "People's War" in 1996: tens of thousands have died, and the country languishes near the bottom of the Human Development Index. The population, which has increased more than five-fold in less than a century, is "young, underemployed, undereducated, and insecure"—and increasingly concentrated in the urban areas of the southern plains. Along with population growth, flooding—facilitated by rampant deforestation for fuel—has reduced the amount of arable land, which is already in short supply.
A case study of the Koshi Tappu wetlands by Richard Matthew and Bishnu Raj Upreti reveals that even beyond the Maoist strongholds, as residents lose the natural resources they depend on, "their willingness to engage in protest and crime has increased." Even though environmental stress and population factors are not the primary causes of instability in this critical country, Matthew and Upreti find they are "important elements of what has gone wrong in Nepal, and they must be addressed before stability can be restored."
Former conflict zones, particularly in Africa, are being transformed into "peace parks": cross-border zones that seek to build peace and conserve the environment at the same time. These transboundary parks not only allow wildlife to roam freely but also break down barriers separating former combatants. Some, such as the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, will offer sophisticated safari lodging and unparalleled wildlife viewing, along with a trenchant history lesson. And some experts are proposing peace parks for currently contested zones—including the K-2 Siachen mountains between India and Pakistan, or the DMZ separating the Korean peninsula.
But will they work? A peace park in the remote rainforest shared by Peru and Ecuador helped settle an intermittently violent, decades-long dispute over the border between the two countries. But experts caution that peace parks are not an easy fix: drawing on examples from South Asia, southern Africa, and South America, an international group convened by the Wilson Center offers recommendations—and cautions—for those considering these intriguing programs.
The military may seem an unlikely venue for peacemaking, but as Rear Admiral John Sigler, USN (Ret.) explains, environmental security—particularly disaster response in the wake of the South Asian tsunami and earthquake in Pakistan—is a part of U.S. Central Command's efforts to promote stability in the Middle East. "The contributions of these relief operations to U.S. security interests cannot be overstated." Such "nontraditional activities" are key to fighting extremism: "American national values are on display, offsetting negative perceptions of the ‘hyper-power' and promoting positive views of the United States and other western nations, which could help reduce global terrorism," says Sigler.
But these efforts are not new: since the 1990s, Central Command has used environmental security to improve relationships with militaries in the critical Persian Gulf and Central Asian regions, focusing on water and energy issues, Soviet-era environmental legacies, as well as natural disasters and medical surveillance. These programs were instrumental in persuading Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to allow U.S. military to use bases during Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Liberation.
Today, military leaders from around the region are planning a permanent organization to cement this cooperation. While the new name—"disaster preparedness"—reflects the current focus on immediate problems, environmental security continues to be a useful tool—and, Sigler predicts, in the future, these programs will seek to "mitigate existing environmental damage and prevent future degradation."
While conventional wisdom claims "more people = more war," new research digs deeper to reveal a more complex relationship between conflict and population issues, such as density, age structure, gender balance, and ethnicity.
- Countering popular opinion, Henrik Urdal's statistical analysis finds that national levels of population growth, land scarcity, and urbanization do not have a great influence on patterns of war and peace. However, "using local level data—rather than national—might reveal a stronger relationship between population pressure and conflict."
- The CIA recently cited "youth bulge"—a large percentage of youth in a population—as one ingredient in a "perfect storm for internal conflict in certain regions." While this connection is commonly accepted, Sarah Staveteig proposes that measuring a population's age structure more precisely could help predict insurgent-based civil wars. By studying trends in the future "relative cohort size"—the difference in the number of young adults versus the number of older working adults—the chance of such conflicts might be reduced.
- The CIA also warned about the destabilizing effects of the pervasive "son preference" in Asian countries—notably China and India—that has produced a shortfall of an estimated 90 million women. Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer warn that gender imbalances in Asian countries (notably India and China) could lead to internal and regional strife, and reduce those countries' democratic potential: "In many ways, a society's prospects for democracy and peace are diminished in step with the devaluation of daughters."
- Ethnicity carries much of the popular blame for recent conflicts, but little research has explored exactly how demographic shifts contribute to violence. Monica Duffy Toft warns that without more—and better—data on ethnic balances, some foreign aid interventions may continue to be counterproductive or destructive.