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Building peace through environmental conservation


In recent decades debates about the relationship between the environment and peace have focused on how environmental problems like resource scarcity and climate change are likely to create or exacerbate conflict. The emerging discussion that links rising temperatures caused by climate change to increased incidences ofconflict illustrates this tendency.

The alternative theory of ecological diplomacy, on the other hand, focuses on facilitating peace through environment initiatives. Though one might argue that diplomatic mechanisms like the international climate change negotiation process, illustrated at last year’s COP15 meeting, have not accomplished anything more than the promotion of good will between countries.

Professor Saleem Ali, however, thinks that we can create a positive dynamic by using ecological diplomacy to achieve two desirable goals at the same time — conservation and peace.

Ali is Professor of Environmental Planning at the University of Vermont’s Rubinstein School of Environmental and Natural Resources.  The eloquent Pakistani-American academic spoke  at a seminar recently, hosted at the United Nations University Institute for Sustainability and Peace (UNU-ISP), about a form of ecological diplomacy that is gaining prominence — peace parks.

What are peace parks?

The Transboundary Protected Areas Network of the World Conservation Union defines peace parks as “transboundary protected areas that are formally dedicated to the protection and maintenance of biological diversity and of natural and associated cultural resources, and to the promotion of peace and cooperation”.


“What we are trying to do is to frame environmental degradation as a common aversion mechanism for parties, which can in turn lead to cooperation. Once conflicting parties realize that a deteriorating ecology is a detriment to all sides they are more likely to co-operate,” Ali says.

“The elegance of this argument is that we can also use the tools of ecological diplomacy to address conflicts, including those that have nothing to do with the environment.”

Typically, issues around territorial sovereignty can be difficult to negotiate and provide major stumbling blocks in conflicts. Ali cites peace parks as providing a space where shared sovereignty of the environment, because it is based on science and can be de-politicised, can set the scene for other forms of cooperation in trickier areas such as competition for economic resources.

Transboundary protected areas (which currently number 227 worldwide) can be developed, through negotiation processes that are led by governments or foreign donors, to bring warring parties together. In addition, as was the case for the Selous-Niassa Wildlife Corridor in Tanzania and Mozambique, local scientists and communities can initiate bottom-up negotiations with the support of donors. The key to transforming a transboundary conservation area into a peace park is the instrumental use of such a region in building cooperation and trust.

The extent to which a peace parks can help resolve or prevent potential conflicts is assessed in Ali’s book Peace Parks: Conservation and Conflict Resolution (2007) , the first publication to enquire into this issue comprehensively.


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