Conservation as Peacebuilding
By Alia Crook
January 4, 2019

The Earth’s environment is deteriorating at an alarming rate.  Over 60% of the animal population has been wiped out as a result of environmental degradation. Freshwater resources are being drained faster than they can replenish. Additionally, increasing scarcity of natural resources is contributing to violent conflict and fractures in social cohesion worldwide. As a result, the conservation of nature sits deeply at the intersection of peacebuilding and conflict resolution. Strong social cohesion depends on reliable and consistent access to fresh water, food, and energy. When there is a scarcity of these resources, there is an increased propensity for outbreaks of violent conflict. Social cohesion is greatly threatened by environmental degradation and, in this way, environmental conservation is foundational to peacebuilding efforts and should be recognized as a necessary and integral method of peacebuilding itself.

According to the UN, peacebuilding is defined as an “action to identify and support structures, which will tend to strengthen and solidify peace in order to avoid a relapse into conflict.” Environmental conservation shares many characteristics, both in method and objective, with peacebuilding. Environmental conservation can work to reconcile different communities over a universally relevant cause. Conflicting groups can be brought to reconcile through their shared need for natural resources and shared desire for environmental stability. No one benefits when air, food, and water is so polluted or so scarce that it leads to disease, famine, or further conflict, thereby providing the grounds for bonding over shared needs rather than differences.

Environmental conservation rallies people to defend and fight for stability–that begins with the environment but extends to include politics, economics, and social cohesion. Without a stable environment, scarcity and instability of resources inevitably exacerbate conflict between groups. There have been several initiatives to try and create a sense of comradery between countries.

Around the world, ecosystems are divided by political boundaries and are affected by things such as varying policy, government regimes, and cultural differences. Transboundary protected areas (TBPAs) are ecologically significant protected areas that span over two or more political boundaries. Other names for these areas are “transfrontier conservation areas” or “peace parks”. These areas preserve wildlife habitats that are necessary to sustain animal populations and sustain ecological processes. These TBPAs not only serve as a conservation effort but promote goodwill between neighboring countries. There are over 200 TBPAs worldwide.

Similarly, groups such as Conversation International (CI) have found success in their efforts in environmental peacebuilding. For example, CI has created a program in Timor-Leste to give communities the capacity to manage their natural resources and practice sustainable forest management. Over-exploitation and unsustainable harvesting of Timor-Leste’s forests have led to over one-third of forests being cleared. Deforestation has caused a loss of biodiversity and a reduction in the forests’ ability to self-regulate resulting in increased landslides, soil erosion, and sedimentation of waterways. CI is working with three conflict-affected communities to establish a co-management model to protect forests’ abundant resources. This co-management arrangement has been an effective means of fostering collaboration between stakeholders and reducing conflict.

With the rapid collapse of Earth’s ecosystems, using conservation as peacebuilding is vital to Earth’s recovery. Not only does conservation serve as peacebuilding by trying to preserve natural resources vital to peace within communities, but also serves as common ground between conflict-torn societies. Conservation International and transboundary protected areas are examples of programs that not only help maintain what’s left of our environment but serve as a bridge between communities to strengthen alliances by working towards a shared goal. Thus, environmental conservation can rightly be considered a peacebuilding method, and more practitioners should consider the value-add of environmental literacy in their programming.

The views, thoughts, and opinions in this blog belong solely to the author and are not representative of an official position or endorsement by the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD).