Skip to main content

Launch Event: International Affairs’ Special Issue on Environmental Peacebuilding

On January 27, 2021, the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program, with co-sponsor, Environmental Law Institute, launched a new special issue of International Affairs. Contributors illustrated the value of environmental peacebuilding both as an integrative research field and as a practice for furthering peace, sustainability, and development globally through special presentations followed by a discussion on how the field of environmental peacebuilding is evolving.

Date & Time

Jan. 27, 2021
9:30am – 11:00am ET


“For 30 years, a community of researchers, practitioners, and policymakers have been working to untangle the complex relationships between environmental change and human and national security, and find entry points for policies and programs that build on these connections to create a more resilient and sustainable peace,” said Lauren Risi, Project Director of the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change & Security Program at a recent event that featured contributors to a new special issue of International Affairs on environmental peacebuilding.

With 28 contributors and 11 articles across disciplines and representing geographically diverse perspectives, the special issue provides a real opportunity, said Geoff Dabelko, Professor and Associate Dean at the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs at Ohio University and ECSP Senior Advisor. “It’s one that I think makes a real contribution, carries us forward, and at the same time represents the best of the past waves, as we call them, and charts a path going forward.”

Integrating Community-Led Approaches

Environmental peacebuilding has been really thought about as state-building or building institutional capacity at the state level, said McKenzie F. Johnson, an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. While institutional reforms have enhanced environmental sustainability and human security, the narrow focus has come at the cost of largely ignoring community-level practice.

When examining existing environmental peacebuilding research, said Tobias Ide, Lecturer in Politics and Policy at Murdoch University, “what we recognize is there has been a strong focus on cases shaped by external actors.” Because of this, we lack knowledge on bottom-up processes for environmental peacebuilding dynamics between or within local communities that see limited external engagement. Additionally, said Ide, the exclusion of these efforts from environmental peacebuilding analysis and efforts can convey a problematic representation that local people in developing countries cannot solve environmental and conflict issues on their own.

Recognizing the role of community-led approaches in environmental peacebuilding can encourage public participation. For example, in Timor-Leste, the customary approach of tara bandu, or “hanging prohibitions,” is a process of negotiation and a ritual ceremony used to manage local environmental issues, like forest areas, water sources, and harvest restrictions. “At the very same time, tara bandu is almost always also used to address community tensions and violence,” said Ide. Ide and co-authors, Lisa Palmer and Jon Barnett, found that tara bandu can also provide an avenue for state and civil society processes. “There has been sort of a shadow of authority when formal institutions back-up the customary institutions in enforcing the tara bandu agreements,” said Ide.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned through bottom-up approaches, said Ide, but we also need to avoid romanticizing local customary institutions, which can on their own create and perpetuate new exclusions and injustices. Instead, practitioners should exercise sensitivity and conduct assessments of what works at the local level and what tensions are inherent to the processes to ensure they do not reproduce disparate power relations.

At the same time, state-led and bottom-up approaches to environmental peacebuilding are not disconnected, and recognizing their links is important for sustainable and effective peacebuilding. For example, countries like Colombia have strong rhetoric on sustainability and bottom-up participation for peace and environmental peacemaking, said Irene Vélez-Torres, a professor at Universidad del Valle in Colombia. Yet, in the field, “very little is happening in terms of change that can make lasting peace possible.”

Environmental Governance and Peacebuilding

“Natural resource conflict is thought to stem from a failure of governance or poor governance,” said Johnson. In the extractive industry, environmental governance reforms—like formalizing access and tenure rights through a licensing process and protecting social and environmental rights through environmental impact assessments—are likely to undermine peacebuilding and contribute to slow ongoing structural violence, said Johnson. In her research on conflict over tantalite in Sierra Leone, for example, Johnson found that “reforms, as they occurred in the post-conflict period, produced large-scale reassignment of land and mineral rights and mostly that benefitted multinational companies.”

Peacebuilding requires this unplanned process of what I call institutional hybridity, said Johnson, which is the melding of customary institutions or indigenous institutions with formal legal processes. By connecting these customary and legal institutions, institutional hybridity in Sierra Leone “allowed for conflict resolution actually without undermining the formal system that had been created,” said Johnson.

Peacebuilding also requires incorporating conflict sensitivity into post-conflict reconstruction efforts at all levels of decision-making. In Colombia, Vélez-Torres and her co-author, Diego Lugo-Vivas, found that after six decades of armed conflict, state-led corporate greening reforms—meant to leverage the private sector to accelerate a transition to “peaceful and legalized” territories—are actually growing the impoverishment of communities and perpetuating slow violence. Colombian peasant farmers agreed to eradicate their coca crops and stop their work in coca fields as part of the National Comprehensive Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops after the signing of the 2016 Peace Accord. However, the Peace Accord provisions have not yet been met, leaving the farmers without access to alternative livelihoods. “No land has been formalized so far, despite it [being] one of the main promises made in the peace agreement,” said Vélez-Torres, and the finances that were promised to replace the coca crops for legal agriculture projects are not yet secured.

Targeting Civilian Infrastructure

“Central to the field of environmental peacebuilding is the recognition that armed conflict damages the environment and associated infrastructures that are critical for sustaining human health, livelihoods, and security,” said Jeannie Sowers, Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department at the University of New Hampshire. The targeting of civilian infrastructure in conflict can further complicate peacebuilding processes by undermining the provision of basic services. “The environment for us is not simply a set of natural resources but is also a shared public space and the domain of public health,” she said. In this way, “infrastructure mediates the relationships between human activity and the environment.”

Sowers and co-author, Erika Weinthal, examined post-2011 wars in the Middle East to track the destruction and targeting of energy, water and sanitation, agriculture, and health systems. In the Middle East and North Africa, the lack of public services and basic infrastructure is tied not only to environmental contamination, but also deepens local and regional conflict, said Sowers. In Yemen, over 70 percent of the population still lives in rural areas, and over half is dependent on agriculture-related activities to generate income. “The attacks on agriculture and all of the economic collapse, which is leading to a decline in incomes, is fueling food insecurity.” Over half of the Yemeni population is facing acute starvation. It’s not a lack of food availability fueling this insecurity, Sowers said. “It’s a lack of entitlements and an ability to buy food, purchase food, and command food, which is driving hunger in Yemen.”

The Way Forward

While environmental challenges are increasing, there is tremendous opportunity for climate change adaptation and for communities to cooperate in managing environmental resources, said Ide. Hybrid institutions that recognize both indigenous and formal processes can create opportunities for building resilience to climate change, and climate responses can create opportunities to redefine good governance. “The international community, in general, is going to have to get much more creative about how we address issues of governance and rethinking what is good governance—is it always centered around the state? Can we kind of de-center that thinking at times and come up with different ways to bring more diverse stakeholders in and try and kind of sidestep a lot of these challenges that we know are coming?” said Johnson.

Continue the conversation on Twitter @NewSecurityBeat. Find related coverage of these issues on our blog,

Thank you for your interest in this event. Please send any feedback or questions to our Events staff.