‘Environmental peacebuilding is essential and complex – but it’s also exciting’

The Cordillera del Condor Park is a transboundary protected area created to settle a longstanding border dispute between Ecuador and Peru. (Credit: Andrew Neild/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Environmental peacebuilding remains a young field but is rapidly evolving. There are still many complexities in the range of issues that it encompasses in dealing with conflict that we need to understand, writes Carl Bruch, an international environmental lawyer and founding president of the Environmental Peacebuilding Association, on the last day of the International Conference on Environmental Peacebuilding.

Since 1946, at least 40 per cent of all conflicts within states have involved disputes around natural resources. Natural resource-related conflicts are more likely to relapse to conflict, and do so twice as fast. For years, peace agreements rarely included environmental provisions; this has gradually shifted and since 2005, every major peace agreement has addressed the environment, sometimes focusing on causes (such as inequitable land distribution) and sometimes focusing on livelihoods or the toxic remnants of war. Since the end of the Cold War, revenue streams from diamonds, timber, bananas, coltan, and other natural resources have been used to fund more than 35 major armed conflicts.

Environmental peacebuilding seeks to understand the relationship between conflict and the environment and to remove the environmental dimensions of conflict. Where inequitable land distribution was a driver of conflict (for example in Central America), environmental peacebuilding seeks to prevent a relapse to conflict through land reform processes. Where conflict resources have fuelled conflict, environmental peacebuilding seeks to develop alternative livelihoods and secure control of the revenue streams.

Environmental peacebuilding also seeks to build positive peace by emphasising the use of shared environmental interests to bring people together to share information and act in that shared interest. Most often, that cooperation is around water (eg, in the Middle East), but there has also been strategic cooperation around peace parks. For example, after a long-standing border war between Peru and Ecuador, part of the peace agreement saw the establishment of the Cordillera del Condor Park covering the territory that had previously been contested.

Environmental peacebuilding is also complex. Much of the complexity is due to the fact that environmental peacebuilding is a meta-framework. It integrates a wide and diverse range of themes and practices, from climate security to sustainable livelihoods to conflict resources to resource conflict to conflict-sensitive programming to environmental cooperation, among others. Each theme has its own theories of change, but it is unclear how it all fits together.

The complexity is driven by the range of disciplines, actors, and scale. People have been undertaking environmental peacebuilding out of necessity and innovation. They are in environmental, development, peacebuilding, military, and other sectors. They have degrees in law, political science, anthropology, geography, gender studies, conflict transformation, hydrology, forestry, and innumerable other fields. They work in situations of current conflict, recent conflict, latent conflict, social conflict, and fragility. They work at the local, national, and international levels.

How does it all fit together?

While we understand much about the risks, there is much less understanding regarding the solutions. We understand the risks of the resource curse but preventing it is uneven. We understand how inequitable land distribution can (and often does) drive conflict, but there is a shortage of truly successful land reform experiences.

And these are the reasons environmental peacebuilding is so exciting. It is a young field with deep roots. Today, I had the pleasure of watching international law expert Michael Bothe – who has been working on these issues (especially around the environmental impacts of war) for 50 years – talk with a group of young professionals working on environmental peacebuilding. Michael was an early champion, and now we have thousands of people working on these issues.

We have enough knowledge to know that environmental peacebuilding is both essential and complex. But we need to know more. We need to know what works under what circumstances. We need to know how the different dynamics link, and what those linkages mean. We need to understand how environmental peacebuilding in situations of armed conflict is similar to, and different from environmental peacebuilding in situations of social conflict. We need to know whether we are on track, and when we need to adjust course.

We have a lot of work ahead of us, but as the hundreds of people attending this week’s Second International Conference on Environmental Peacebuilding illustrated, we are well on our way.

Carl Bruch is the director of international programmes at the Environmental Law Institute and the founding president of the Environmental Peacebuilding Association. His work focuses on environmental peacebuilding, environmental governance, adaptation, and environmental emergencies.