"Can we get beyond the point where environment and conflict always has to be a story of tragedy with no happy ending?" asked Achim Steiner at the March 24, 2009, launch of From Conflict to Peacebuilding: The Role of Natural Resources and the Environment, a new report from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
"I think we actually can provide a critical set of building blocks that would allow us to be not just lamenters on the sidelines," but active problem-solvers, said Steiner, UNEP's executive director. UNEP would like to put "green advisers, so to speak, with blue helmets" to examine peacebuilding "from an environmental, natural resource restoration point of view" and "minimize the potential for conflicts to escalate again," said Steiner, who recently met with Alain Le Roy, UN undersecretary-general for peacekeeping operations, to discuss plans for embedding environmental advisers with UN peacekeeping troops.
Steiner was joined by Daniel Reifsnyder, deputy assistant secretary for environment at the U.S. State Department, and Andrew Morton, manager of UNEP's Disasters and Conflicts Programme, to discuss the report's findings.
Natural Resources and the Conflict Continuum
According to From Conflict to Peacebuilding:
- Forty percent of intrastate conflicts within the past 60 years have been strongly linked to natural resources.
- Such conflicts are twice as likely to relapse within the first five years of peace.
- Less than a quarter of peace agreements for these conflicts address natural-resource issues.
Environmental factors can contribute to conflict and subvert peace in three main ways:
- The inequitable distribution of resource wealth, competition for scarce or valuable resources, and environmental degradation can contribute to the outbreak of conflict.
- Natural resources can used as "a financing vehicle for conflict—sustaining conflict well beyond the point where conflict has its origin, to actually having become part of an at-war economy, a conflict economy," Steiner said.
- Unresolved environmental issues can subvert peace negotiations, especially when warring parties have a stake in lucrative resources. If we do not understand "how environment and natural resources can undermine very volatile peace agreements," Steiner warned, we can "find ourselves back where we started off from."
Conflicts involving high-value, portable resources—such as timber, oil, and minerals—and those involving scarce resources such as land and water generate "very different conflict dynamics," emphasized Morton, so it is important to distinguish between them.
Lessons Learned and the Way Forward
Natural-resource conflicts have direct impacts—like deforestation and desertification—and indirect impacts—like the disruption of livelihoods—that are devastating to communities, Morton said. They also weaken a government's capacity to manage its industry and infrastructure, like waste management and water purification, creating new environmental problems—and thus possible future conflict.
But the environment also offers opportunities, Morton emphasized. In Rwanda, for instance, "we have gorilla tourism going on within a few kilometers of what, essentially, was a war zone."
UNEP recommends that peacekeepers:
- Assess the natural-resource and environmental issues underlying conflicts.
- Monitor and address natural-resource use in conflict areas.
- Incorporate resource-sharing agreements into peace deals.
- When cooperation is not possible, use punitive measures to end resource exploitation.
"We can and must integrate these [lessons] into peacebuilding, conflict-preventing strategies," Morton pressed. Demand for environmentally sensitive conflict-prevention and peacebuilding "will increase due to climate change, population growth, and some degradation," he said. And UNEP is "tooling up to meet the challenge."
U.S.-UNEP Cooperation on Environment, Peacebuilding
According to Reifsnyder, the U.S. government frequently supports UNEP initiatives, such as the $1.8 million in U.S. funding for a UNEP reforestation and energy-efficiency program in an internally displaced persons camp in Darfur. This project grew out of the post-conflict environmental assessment that UNEP recently conducted in Sudan.
Reifsnyder praised UNEP's focus: "UNEP is uniquely positioned to play a real catalytic role within the UN system, bringing together various parts of the UN system to try to focus on the importance of natural resources and the importance of the environment in peacebuilding initiatives," he said.
Drafted by Will Rogers and edited by Rachel Weisshaar and Meaghan Parker.