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Book Discussion: Peace Parks: Conservation and Conflict Resolution

Peace Parks seeks to rigorously examine one way in which the environment can be harnessed to resolve disputes or build peace: transboundary peace parks.

Date & Time

Nov. 7, 2007
2:00pm – 4:00pm ET


"Obviously, peace parks alone are not going to create peace—the causes of conflict are much too complex. But they are one important tool in the toolkit for building those transboundary relations and peaceful relations between states," said Dorothy Zbicz, an international environmental policy consultant, at a meeting sponsored by the Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) on November 7, 2007, to discuss the new MIT Press book Peace Parks: Conservation and Conflict Resolution.

The Logic of Peace Parks

The University of Vermont's Saleem Ali, who edited Peace Parks, reminded the audience of the irritated reaction of some policymakers and journalists when Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmentalist, was chosen to receive the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. This year's award to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore saw the reprise of many of the same arguments that confronted Maathai's prize. Significant skepticism remains, it seems, over whether the environment can help resolve conflict or build peace.

Peace Parks seeks to rigorously examine one way in which the environment can be harnessed to build peace: transboundary peace parks. According to Ali, there are 227 transboundary protected areas in the world, but only a relatively small percentage of these are actually peace parks. For a transboundary conservation area to be considered a peace park, it must help resolve a dispute (whether environmental or not) or sustain peace between neighboring countries. The logic underlying peace parks, said Ali, is that scarcity does not inevitably lead to conflict; in fact, scarcity sometimes leads to cooperation. Neighboring countries do not have to share common interests to use transboundary conservation areas to resolve conflict or foster peace, said Ali—they must merely share common aversions to certain environmental harms, such as air or water pollution.

Ali believes that a popular mass movement—similar to the one that galvanized the international community to ban the use of anti-personnel landmines in the 1997 Ottawa Convention—could mobilize support for the passage of an international treaty on transboundary environmental management. "I think we really need to think about this issue of moving towards an international treaty on transboundary environmental management," said Ali. In addition, the next steps for peace parks could include developing cooperative systems for monitoring peace parks and measuring parks' effectiveness at improving relationships between tense neighboring communities and countries.

Lessons From the "W" International Peace Park

Juliette Biao, Benin's minister of environment and nature protection, shared insights from her experience helping manage the "W" International Peace Park, a vast network of protected areas covering approximately 1 million hectares at the junction of Benin, Burkina Faso, and Niger. A national park of Benin, the "W"-shaped park is also recognized by several international conventions and organizations, including UNESCO. Various activities—including anti-poaching efforts—"require that the three countries be engaged in a collaborative management of this park," said Biao, who contributed a chapter to Peace Parks describing her experiences helping manage the park.

For many years, said Biao, "the park was managed with a top-down approach, under the supervision of rangers and forest officers. The management method took the form of surveillance, with the stringent application of rules and regulation[s]." The local people were not included in the management process, and were not always aware of the rules that had been enacted. In the 1990s, however, Benin's government sought greater community involvement in the management of the park. This more collaborative approach has reduced activities that degrade the park's fragile ecology—such as bush fires, illegal farming, and large-scale poaching—and conflicts over the park's existence.

It took five years to achieve a truly participatory management system, said Biao, but those involved in the process have learned several valuable lessons. For instance, local communities will only become actively involved in the park if they trust the rangers and forest officers and are convinced that they will directly benefit from protecting the natural resources. "The big lesson we learned in managing this park is that it's important to build trust between [the] local population and administration in any initiative of managing natural resources," said Biao. Moreover, local communities' participation is not just a pleasantry—it is necessary to successful conservation efforts. "For many years, the forest administration has walked alone. But at the end, in spite of the financial, human, and material resources, the forestry department was not [able] to halt the degradation, and at the end, they decided to involve the population."

Currently, said Biao, the primary challenge for the "W" International Peace Park is finding sufficient long-term funding to support conservation and sustainable livelihood initiatives. Funds tend to be given in five-year increments—too short for a project to achieve meaningful results. "As minister of environment—since I took up my position—that is my fight: If you cannot support us for at least 10 years to manage our natural resources, I think it's good not to support us," said Biao. To remedy this problem and reduce the park's dependence on short-term, unreliable funding, she is trying to create a trust that will provide the park with a steady stream of funding.

Liberia's Forests: Prospects for Peace

Forests have played a significant role in the violence that has plagued Liberia for the past two decades, but they could be transformed into tools for peace, said Tyler Christie, who worked on environmental initiatives in Liberia for Conservation International (CI) for five years. Liberia's extensive forests constitute the largest remaining portions of the Upper Guinean Forest Ecosystem, a threatened biodiversity hotspot. After Charles Taylor was elected president in 1997, he granted extensive forest concessions to logging companies and used the revenue to purchase weapons. Just before Taylor fled to Nigeria in 2003, the United Nations imposed sanctions on Liberia's forest industry. In 2004, the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Forest Service, CI, and others launched the Liberia Forest Initiative (LFI) to help the Liberian government reform the sector.

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's first executive order after she took office in January 2006 was nullifying all existing forest concessions. In June 2006, under the supervision of a Liberian Land Use Planning Commission, the LFI produced a forest use map defining how Liberia's forests should be divided among conservation, commercial forestry, and community management uses. The plan forms the basis of Liberia's current national forest management strategy, which includes a proposal for a protected area network that incorporates current national parks and forests and would also create new ones.

Liberia's forests are not only optimal sites for peace parks because of their biodiversity, but also because of their strategic location. Both Taylor and the rebel groups that overthrew him invaded Liberia—and resupplied their troops—through forests in the northern region of the country that border Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Côte d'Ivoire. Peace parks in Liberia would provide "an opportunity to establish security in these areas—which is still a struggle for Liberia's government—without militarizing its borders and antagonizing its neighbors," said Christie.

Sapo National Park in central Liberia demonstrates how conservation can contribute to security. In 2005, the park was invaded by gold miners and hunters, many of whom were former combatants in Liberia's devastating 14-year civil war. The United Nations would not lift the timber sanctions until it was convinced that Liberia could manage its parks and forests, so the stakes were high for the government to regain control of this area. Unarmed park officers convinced the miners and hunters to leave the park peacefully. Park staff can also maintain this peace, Christie noted, by building relationships with local people and informing security services of potential tensions before they escalate into full-fledged conflict.
Despite the success in Sapo, small-scale illegal logging and mounting pressure to increase industrial logging continue to threaten the security of ecosystems and communities. "Countries like Liberia—those that have been in civil wars related to natural resource conflict—over 50 percent of them return to conflict within 10 years, and largely, it's the result of lack of control over natural resources," explained Christie, citing Paul Collier's research. "So while Liberia appears to be in the clear, and I'd like to believe that, there's certainly some high risk, and I'd like to think that the peace parks proposal can help them at least reduce that probability for conflict in the future."

Broader Trends

Peace parks have been established between countries with three kinds of transboundary relationships: warm, cool, or icy, said Zbicz. If countries have "warm" relations, then a peace park symbolizes their friendship. If countries have a "cool," or strained, relationship, then a peace park could improve relations. However, in this type of park, conservation is usually the primary goal and better relations are a side benefit, she observed.

Peace Parks explores the possibility of creating peace parks between countries with "icy" relations, such as the Cordillera del Cóndor Transboundary Protected Area between Peru and Ecuador, which was established in their 1995 peace agreement. Peace parks can be a way for countries with cool or icy relations to "agree to disagree" on their opposing territorial claims, said Zbicz. By establishing a peace park along a disputed border, neither side has to embarrass itself by backing down from its assertions. "We can't overemphasize the importance of saving face," she said.

Several factors influence whether a peace park will be established between countries with icy relations, but according to Zbicz's research, the most important factor was "an individual leader willing to carry the torch: that person that's willing to stick through it, up and down, setbacks, hurdles—whatever—to make sure it happens."

Although its establishment is often considered the most significant event in the life cycle of a peace park, Zbicz argued instead that "the greatest contribution…is the process that it begins—it's the process of collaboration and building networks. And while parks are a place, peace is a relationship, so we're talking about fostering those relationships that lead towards peace."

Drafted by Rachel Weisshaar and edited by Meaghan Parker.


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Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more

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