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Environment, Conflict, and Cooperation

Better management of natural resources could pave a path for peace in war-torn societies, or, conversely, mismanagement could trigger a relapse back into conflict.

Date & Time

Apr. 3, 2007
3:30pm – 5:30pm ET


From Congo to Cambodia, environmental resources—water, climate, land, forests, and minerals—have played a part in some of world's worst conflicts. Better management of these resources could pave a path for peace in war-torn societies, or, conversely, mismanagement could trigger a relapse back into conflict. The Wilson Center's Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP), along with the German Embassy and the Heinrich Böll Foundation, hosted a discussion on April 3, 2007, of the links among environment, conflict, and cooperation (ECC). The University of Nairobi's Patricia Kameri-Mbote provided the African context, while Alexander Carius of Berlin's Adelphi Research discussed the European perspective and some of the challenges facing efforts to integrate ECC principles into policymaking. ECSP Director Geoff Dabelko explored ECC opportunities in the United States, explored the interactions of these issues in post-conflict settings, and touched on the ways they may apply in military interventions. The discussion was followed by the opening reception for Adelphi Research's multimedia exhibit "Environment, Conflict, and Cooperation," which was on display in the Wilson Center Memorial Hallway.

ECC in Africa: Great Lakes and Virunga Regions

Formal cooperation already exists on many different levels in Africa, noted Patricia Kameri-Mbote. Regional economic agreements (RECs) cover the continent from Cape Town to Cairo. Environmental cooperation also exists in many regions: for example, major river basin systems such as the Zambezi, Niger, Volta, and Nile rivers are jointly managed. Yet she noted that none of these efforts connect environment to conflict and cooperation: "There is a need to develop environmentally focused tools for conflict prevention and management, and explore ways of using environmental resources to build peace."

The climate is ripe, Kameri-Mbote believes, to begin incorporating ECC concepts into regional agreements. At the first International Conference on the Great Lakes Region in November 2004, heads of state from 11 countries signed the Dar-es-Salaam Declaration, which identifies the environment as an important cross-cutting issue. "The [signatory] countries agreed that environmental quality and natural resource management are preconditions for peace and security in this region," she said. "And, conversely, that peace and security are critical for environmental quality and management." The declaration also notes that democracy and good governance are necessary for sustainable environmental management; that environmental management and protection are integral to economic development and regional integration; and that armed conflicts result in increased environmental degradation and overharvesting of natural resources.

The Environment and Conflict Prevention Initiative, developed by the United Nations Environment Programme, studies efforts to encourage conflict prevention, peace, and cooperation through the protection and restoration of the environment and natural resources. The initiative chose the Virunga Conservation Area for its African case study because the park traverses conservation areas in three countries: Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda; and Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. The larger ecosystem includes the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, the habitat for the endangered mountain gorilla. "This area is under extreme pressure from population density, deforestation, human encroachment, poaching, and ongoing civil unrest," she said.

Many different interests are at play in the Virunga system. The protected areas draw international conservation agencies—such as the World Wildlife Fund and the World Conservation Union—as well as resource extraction companies in the pharmaceutical, mining, and logging industries. Additionally, the region's long history of conflict has attracted both militias and refugees to the conservation areas.

Given this varied cast of characters, Kameri-Mbote asked, "How do you focus on ECC when you have such diverse interests? How do you bring these interests together?" She called for more data, tracking, and monitoring to map the actors. This information may help expand existing agreements. An informal but functional system of patrols and wildlife management exists in the region. In addition, the three countries formally committed to transboundary natural resource management in the 2005 Tripartite Declaration, which emphasizes the shared need to protect and preserve the Virunga ecosystem. "Might this cooperation lead to the establishment of a transboundary protected area or peace park?" she asked. If so, the various actors might all benefit from the peace dividend that formal transboundary management could yield.

ECC in Europe and the Caucasus

Until recently, the issues of environment, conflict, and cooperation were not on the agenda of the European Commission or the European Union (EU). "But this has all changed," said Alexander Carius. "There is a new momentum and dynamic in Europe," focusing on four topics:

  • Bringing transparency to conflict resources;
  • Climate change and the risks to security;
  • Mainstreaming environment into the security discourse; and
  • Environmental peacemaking.

"Germans are pushing alternative energies, and putting climate in a security context," he said. In March, Germany—currently EU Council President and G8 President—hosted a conference on integrating environment, development, and conflict prevention, which brought together key officials from EU member states, the European Commission, civil society, the private sector, and the scientific community. The conference proceedings could inform the European Council's conclusions—the outgoing report by the presiding country (Germany) detailing the important issues during the previous six months. "And if not in the Council conclusions, then at least in an annex…. This is how policymaking works in Europe," he said.

The connection between climate change and security is currently a hot topic in Europe. Policymakers, Carius said, are straining to anticipate the potential outcomes of policy decisions: "Would climate change policy look different if we frame it in foreign and security policy terms? What will they look like beyond Kyoto? It will look very different, because of the alliances that may emerge." The future of relationships and cooperation with the so-called "BRIC" countries—Brazil, Russian, India, and China—is uncertain. Carius noted that it has been difficult for European policymakers to talk to them about global climate change "because they fear there will be emissions caps put on them that they fear will harm their economic development."

While the connection between environment and conflict is not yet completely clear to European policymakers, a survey of EU member states by Carius' Adelphi Research reveals that "they do recognize environment, natural resource, and conflict prevention as a cross-sectoral approach." Aid agencies have initiated efforts to mainstream environment and conflict into development programming, but they may need assistance understanding the ways that cross-sectoral strategies work on the ground. For example, the German government, assisted by conservation NGOs, created a regional environmental program for the Southern Caucasus, bringing together Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. "But during two weeks with ministers there, no one asked whether this was feasible," said Carius. When the ministries were finally asked, they said they had no interest in cooperating. The agencies had focused so heavily on nature protection that they failed to analyze the conflict situation. However, other efforts to integrate are working: The European Parliament is funding a Conflict Prevention Network that allows NGOs and think tanks to conduct and share research on conflict-sensitive programming, then share their knowledge with the European Commission.

Finally, Carius discussed environmental cooperation as a tool for confidence building in post-conflict settings. "In [war-torn] areas, environmental cooperation is often used to build trust, to create trust, create dialogue among society in an area that is normally less disputed…[The idea] is catchy among European policymakers," he said, but quickly added that there is not enough conclusive data to show whether environmental peacemaking has positive results. Evaluating the effectiveness of environmental peacebuilding programs first requires making a significant long-term commitment: "We have to conduct impact assessments to know whether this environmental peace process resulted in anything."

ECC in the U.S. Context

Congress, the military, and the development community are each beginning to confront ECC issues, said ECSP's Geoff Dabelko. The new Congress is taking steps to address climate change, and it is also considering the security implications: In late March, Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE) introduced a bill calling for a National Intelligence Estimate to assess climate change's threats to the United States, as well as vulnerable and strategically important countries. The military's recent decision to stand up a new command in Africa (AFRICOM) reveals its appreciation for Africa's complex resource issues. And under Andrew Natsios, the U.S. Agency for International Development began looking at the underlying causes and consequences of conflict.

Tremendous opportunities exist to integrate ECC further into U.S. foreign policy, Dabelko said. But while the various actors may be positioned to implement their own agendas, they may not be so well positioned to integrate their plans: "It is proving a real challenge to work across departments and agencies."

Another challenge, said Dabelko, involves the fair and appropriate treatment of environmental issues. The temptation exists, he noted, to "oversell" potential threats. There are many lessons to learn from the early- and mid-1990s: With The Coming Anarchy, Robert Kaplan put environmental security on the map, weaving a fatalistic narrative of imminent environmental conflicts. Yet Kaplan's statement that environment would be the national security issue of the 21st century was so hyperbolic that it turned off as many as it turned on. Dabelko noted a parallel in the current treatment of climate change. For example, a recent spurt of media articles claimed that climate change caused terrorism. In the absence of conclusive data, dramatizing threats is a dangerous game because the risks include losing support of key players like policymakers and funders. Climate change, he warned, will have a lot to live down if it travels the road of Kaplan's environment.

Environmental Management in Post-Conflict Settings

Research shows that one in two post-conflict countries fall back into conflict within 10 years. Environmental management, said Dabelko, can tip the scales one way or the other: "[Post-conflict] reconstruction efforts have to integrate natural resource management considerations. They are not luxury items that we leave until later; they are critical to actually sustaining peace." Even if environment was not the cause of conflict, environment tends to be a factor in resolving conflict. For example, he noted that while India and Pakistan are not fighting over water, they must agree on ways to allocate their shared water resources to move beyond their conflicts.

The best method of implementing peacebuilding programming—particularly the "who" and "how"—is subject to debate. "Is there danger of militarizing these [ECC] issues?" asked one audience member. The U.S. military's actions in Iraq provide interesting lessons to be learned about implementation, said Dabelko: "If you don't take care of the water and sanitation and basic services, then you aren't going to have long-term success with the population. And so we see the evolution of doctrine there, noting that ‘hearts and minds' goes to stomach and water and health issues." If the military is chosen to implement peacebuilding in post-conflict settings, he added, military strategy must integrate critical environment and health concerns.

Drafted by Alison Williams.


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