From climate change to deforestation to water scarcity, environmental degradation can not only lead to conflict, but can also offer a pathway to peace, said experts at the World Conservation Congress on October 7, 2008. An international panel sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) presented evidence that managing the environment and natural resources is key to improving security, resolving conflicts, and building a sustainable peace after war.

"UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warns that rapid environmental change is undercutting the fight against poverty and could jeopardize international peace and security," said UNEP's David Jensen. "Recognizing that rising scarcity of natural resources could trigger conflict, UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner has called for the sound management of nature-based assets."

Jensen discussed lessons learned from UNEP's efforts to include environmental needs in Afghanistan's reconstruction, the subject of the report Afghanistan's Environment 2008. Environmental devastation is so severe in Afghanistan that it threatens the peacebuilding process. UNEP has learned that local partners are key to long-term success—as Jensen put it, "If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together"—so UNEP is helping build Afghanistan's National Environmental Protection Agency from the ground up.

Richard Matthew of the University of California, Irvine, urged scholars and practitioners to devote more attention to how the environment can improve peacebuilding, given that post-conflict peacebuilding has only a 50 percent success rate. According to Matthew, typical peacebuilding activities include:

  • Bringing people back to the country and their homes;
  • Building confidence in the government through elections;
  • Providing public safety through order and rule of law; and
  • Kick-starting the economy for local livelihoods and eventually foreign investment.

Environmental and natural resource management have not been systematically integrated into these processes, and Matthew argued for efforts to make them part of a more robust peacebuilding process. Peacebuilders must find ways to meet people's immediate needs while not undermining the long-term prospects of the societies—by overexploiting natural resources, for example. Matthew also urged greater cooperation and integration between the efforts of humanitarian and conservation groups, which could stand to benefit from one another's expertise.

Anne Hammill of the International Institute for Sustainable Development cautioned that without careful planning, protected areas and conservation efforts could contribute to conflict and undermine peace processes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). For instance, in and around Virunga National Park, there are conflicts between government institutions (e.g., the army and the park authorities); between different NGOs; between park authorities and local communities; between different communities surrounding the park; and within the protected-area authorities themselves. If conservation NGOs are inattentive to these tensions, their work could exacerbate some of them.

Hammill discussed her involvement with the Conserving the Peace project, which seeks to promote biodiversity conservation and livelihood security in conflict-prone areas of the Albertine Rift by encouraging conservation NGOs and programs to reduce the risk that their work will contribute to conflict. The project seeks to convince conservation NGOs that in a conflict setting, they cannot be neutral actors, and that by applying a conflict lens to their work, they can ensure they are doing no harm—even if they cannot resolve the larger conflict.

"This panel puts to rest the stereotype that conservation is just about rich people hugging trees," said chair Geoff Dabelko, director of the Wilson Center's Environmental Change and Security Program. "Instead, we have shown how natural resources are critical to rebuilding livelihoods and peace in post-conflict settings."