Environmental Peacekeeping - the Future of Diplomacy?

Environmental Peacekeeping - the Future of Diplomacy?

We know that global warming is accelerating volatile weather and putting a strain on natural resources. But do we really know the true breadth of its implications? 

Environmental peacekeeping is a relatively nascent field, emerging at the start of the 21st century. It offers a new, ‘green’ lens for examining peacebuilding in conflict zones and is attracting the attention of practitioners and academics alike. This dynamic interdisciplinary field has huge practical value, exploring how environmental resources can empower and unite conflicting groups. Its exciting and inclusive approach is opening up new dialogues and fresh perspectives on conflict resolution. Although research into environmental peacekeeping still has further to go, it already implies that solving armed conflicts and the climate emergency go hand-in-hand and are by no means insurmountable. 

Extreme weather is particularly problematic in what is often referred to as the Global South. This is an appellation for some of the most economically poorer regions which were exploited by former colonial regimes and the neoliberalist systems persisting today. The countries which contribute the least to the Earth’s rising temperatures are disproportionately the most impacted by its effects. For instance, increasing drought frequency, water scarcity, illness and food insecurity; all threaten people’s livelihood and security, which in turn can cause disputes that become violent. 

Even if a conflict isn’t directly caused by the climate, it still disrupts humankind’s ability to depend on the natural world. The use of arms and weapons pollute the air, soil and water, often releasing hazardous substances. Failing to address these after-effects can aggravate human suffering for years after. During the gulf wars, Western forces used depleted uranium for their weapons. A by-product of this radioactive material was poisonous dust which, through wind, polluted agriculture and local waters. More recently it has been linked to rising cancer rates, highlighting how environmental justice is tied to human health. Meanwhile, Daesh has committed crimes against both humanity and the environment. It has targeted rural areas, including the irrigation wells of farmers. In Al-Faw, a city in Southern Iraq, many blame the water and farming problems on the felling of date trees by the military during the Iran-Iraq war. Society has to recognise the link between our environment and armed conflict, as well as how the climate emergency is increasingly influencing the nature of conflicts. Ecology is an inextricable aspect of our lives. It is not enough to alleviate the symptoms of conflict in the short-term, we need a diplomatic approach that is more durable, equitable and which tackles the root cause.

A peaceful and prosperous world can sometimes seem beyond reach. The recent failure of world leaders at COP26 to commit to keeping warming levels below 1.5C has further dampened hopes. Our survival, the future generation’s, and that of our planet are intertwined. It is dangerous for us to become complacent and dismiss the environmental challenges with which our planet is grappling. When it comes to mediating conflict, the environment isn’t usually at the top of peacebuilding agendas; instead, de-escalation, humanitarian relief, political reconciliation and economic redevelopment are prioritised. Without a shadow of a doubt, these are vital priorities. Nevertheless, conflict-resolution should additionally account for how our environment shapes our experiences and quality of life. There is a need for us to apply our understanding of the climate crisis to managing natural resources and post-conflict rebuilding. Long-lasting solutions which factor in our planet’s health can help us break cyclical patterns of violence. Enter: environmental peacekeeping. 

For example, in the Sundarbans forest, the largest mangrove forest in the world, we see nature can foster interreligious and interethnic harmony between India and Bangladesh. The two countries signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on ‘Conservation of the Sundarbans’ to streamline cooperation on the management and conservation of resources, ecotourism and sustainable socio-economic development.

In southern Africa, Peace Parks integrate natural conservation, economics and politics. These parks help manage large protected areas and migratory species, as well as producing alternative sources of income. As such, they play an important role in addressing the conflicting economic interests of local inhabitants as well as environmental conservation. Cooperation in respect to shared natural resources can forge common bonds which prevent violence, especially in climate-vulnerable and conflict-sensitive areas.

Climate change ultimately fans the flames that can ignite conflicts. When ecological degradation disrupts people’s access to the basic necessities of life, it can push people to join terrorist or armed groups for an alternative source of income and ‘stability’. Recognising the causal role of the climate in certain conflicts will enable us to tackle it more effectively. Through environment-oriented diplomacy, we can heal our relationship with the natural world. By pushing for local, national and international governments and peacekeeping bodies to develop a conflict-resolution toolkit we can save lives and livelihoods. Some of us may be extraordinarily privileged not to be directly affected by Earth’s temperature rise at the moment, yet it would be wrong to dismiss the gravity of global heating. If we don’t act, our own children may end up waging wars for water, food and other commodities. While this may make grim reading, the principles of environmental peacekeeping give us much room for hope. 

Image credit : Unsplash

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