The Challenge of Environmental Peacemaking

Forest cleared for a palm oil plantation in the Indragiri district of Hulu in the Indonesian province of Riau. Image: Aidenvironment

Fifteen years after the release of ‘Environmental Peacemaking,’ the world is being rocked by massive displacement and increased resource stress.

By Sreya Panuganti/New Security Beat

As the 1990s drew to a close, there was a sense that much of the momentum gained at the first Earth Summit on sustainable development, a positive, affirming environmental narrative, was waning.

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 1.28.02 PMWith the end of the Cold War and subsequent increase in civil wars, there was growing concern among governments about resource scarcity contributing to violent conflict. In the academic community too, many researchers were focused primarily on the environment-conflict link. By the end of the decade, many academic debates were bogged down in methodological fights and the policy world turned to other perceived threats when resource scarcity links to conflict or state failure proved complex and uncertain.

In response, Ken Conca, then an associate professor at the University of Maryland, and Geoff Dabelko, then director of ECSP, co-edited Environmental Peacemaking (2002) in part, they said on February 22, to counter this “securitization” narrative and highlight the fact that natural resources can also be sources of cooperation.

Fifteen years after the book’s release, the international community is grappling with record levels of displacement, increased resource stress, accelerating climate change, and stubborn conflicts – and the debate over how the environment is connected to violence is hotter than ever. At the same time and with much less fanfare, the core idea of environmental peacemaking, that environmental interdependence and the need to cooperate over resources can be a motivation to build confidence and perhaps peace, is increasingly a strategy deployed by governments and non-governmental organizations in diverse settings.

The editors returned to the Wilson Center to discuss the book’s initial reception, how the field of environmental security has evolved in both research and practice, and where the research and policy agendas are going next.

Conflict or Cooperation?

The common environment-conflict paradigm was and is fairly simple, said Conca: “Resource scarcity or ecosystem disruption creates grievances, and grievances create violent conflict.”

But Conca thought that was too simple. That’s not how violent conflict works, he said, and it recasts environmental issues in security terms, which can exacerbate the unequal power structures between developed and developing countries at a time when a “North-South bargain” is needed.

Rather than focusing on the potential environmental triggers of conflict, Conca and Dabelko convened a group of authors to outline case studies that illustrate how environmental dynamics have been used to create mutually beneficial opportunities. The cases, from Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America, presented examples of managing the environment in “ways that are proactively trying to build trust, confidence, and ultimately peace,” said Dabelko.

There is a “logic of interdependence around natural resources that ignores boundaries”

Since the book’s release, the concept of environmental peacemaking has gained traction in some circles but still runs up against resistance in others. Some non-governmental organizations avoid using “peacemaking” terminology because the security context can complicate their work, as Conca predicted. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) frames its activities as “peacebuilding,” for example, reflecting its focus on the post-conflict arena.

Since environmental peacebuilding is not a traditional field of study, what has continued to plague the research side is the challenge of convincing scholars from a variety of related fields – conflict studies, environmental science, international development – that there is a “logic of interdependence around natural resources that ignores boundaries,” said Dabelko.

Expanding one-dimensional understandings of the environment and peace, traditionally seen as two separate entities, better enables scholars and practitioners to “address conflict in a proactive way together,” he explained.

States themselves must accept that they are in long-term sustained engagement over shared resources with their neighbors, said Conca, and it is in their best interests to “cooperate and keep the peace.”

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Sreya Panuganti is an intern with the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program.Follow her on Twitter at @sreya0429.