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Conflict and Cooperation in Eastern Africa: Making the Case for Environmental Pathways to Peacebuilding

Rather than only leading to conflict, shared environmental resources also offer promising pathways to peace, says Patricia Kameri-Mbote.

Date & Time

Apr. 27, 2006
12:30pm – 2:30pm

Conflict and Cooperation in Eastern Africa: Making the Case for Environmental Pathways to Peacebuilding

Conflict is often linked to the scarcity and abundance of natural resources throughout Africa—drought exacerbates Ethiopia and Kenya's civil conflicts, forest resources propped up Liberia's Charles Taylor, and minerals helped finance rebel armies in West and Central Africa. But there is another, less well-known side to these connections: rather than only leading to conflict, shared environmental resources also offer promising pathways to peace. Patricia Kameri-Mbote, former Open Society Institute Africa Policy Scholar at the Wilson Center and chair of the Department of Private Law at the University of Nairobi, addressed the potential for environmental peacemaking in Eastern Africa at an event co-sponsored by the Environmental Change and Security Program and the Africa Program on April 27, 2006.

Linking the Two Tracks

Livelihoods in Eastern Africa—comprising the East African nations of Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda, as well as the Horn of Africa—are heavily dependent on direct use of environmental resources (e.g., water, land, minerals). The region is also home to many intra- and inter-state conflicts. But initiatives addressing peace and stability travel a separate path than those addressing environment. Although there are many environmental initiatives and peacebuilding initiatives in the region, "there is no link between the two tracks," Kameri-Mbote concluded. Even if an organization works on both peace and environment, one issue is always emphasized over the other. Kameri-Mbote believes both must be addressed together, as they are often interconnected: "Environmental quality and sustainable natural resources are preconditions for peace and security; on the other hand, peace and security [are] precondition[s] for good environmental quality. You can't have one issue without the other."

Golden Opportunity in the Great Lakes

Drawing on her work with the U.N. Environment Programme's (UNEP) Environment and Conflict Prevention Initiative, Kameri-Mbote described a recent successful effort to integrate environmental issues into a peacebuilding initiative. Spurred by the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, the U.N. Security Council and the African Union established the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region to build peace and stability in the conflict-torn area by addressing four pillars: peace and security, democracy and good governance, economic development and regional integration, and humanitarian and social issues. At the First International Conference in November 2004, heads of state from 11 countries signed the Dar-es-Salaam Declaration, affirming their commitment to promoting the four pillars and asserting that they are "fully aware of the link between peace, environment, and development." Early drafts of the declaration did not mention the environment, but discussions between UNEP, experts such as Kameri-Mbote, and government representatives led the conference to add the environment to the high-level statement.

The declaration thus identifies the environment as an important cross-cutting issue. According to Kameri-Mbote, this recognition provides a "golden opportunity" to mainstream environment into the conference themes, and she made the case for linking each of the pillars to environmental issues. Democracy and good governance, for example, cannot be achieved without environmental governance to promote the "efficient, equitable, and effective distribution of governmental goods and services."

Repurposing Existing Institutions

Dozens of initiatives, programs, forums, and groups—on the international, national, and regional levels—are committed to peace and development in Eastern Africa. But the existence of so many institutions all working on the same issue is cause for concern, according to discussant Gilbert Khadiagala, acting director of the Africa Studies Program at John Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. "What I see is the proliferation of new institutions in the region and the duplication of effort," he said. "Should we be reinventing new institutions, or should we be shaping norms around already existing institutions?" Rather, he suggested building on existing frameworks: "The debate should be about strengthening institutions rather than what appears now to be about how one creates a new secretariat."

The Case for Case Studies

Kameri-Mbote voiced her own concerns about organizational tendencies to favor general models rather than investigate and learn from real-world examples. She argued that case studies could help determine if existing forms of environmental cooperation could be transplanted to other areas. For example, Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo cooperatively manage wildlife in the Albertine Rift area. "Are there peace dividends to be reaped from sustainable management of the Albertine Rift?" she asked. Additionally, on-the-ground research could identify strategies that communities employ to manage environmental change and natural resource scarcity. By studying these methods, Kameri-Mbote said practitioners could transplant them to regions of conflict, and "create peace between communities, and between individuals."

Kameri-Mbote warned against taking a "one-size-fits-all" approach to implementation. Africa's incredible diversity requires attention to each community's distinct customs and traditions: "Mechanisms that are used should be molded to specific characteristics of local settings," she said. But even more crucial to the success of environmental peacebuilding is the empowerment of people and communities: "There has been a severance between people and resources because of the strong state control of resources," she said, concluding that the people must be given not only the right, but also the tools, to manage their resources in a sustainable way.

Drafted by Alison Williams.

Hosted By

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, including our blog Africa Up Close, 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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