3 ways protecting nature can help resolve conflict

A man looks out over the East Nimba Nature Reserve in Liberia.

A man looks out over the East Nimba Nature Reserve in Liberia, an area rich in both forests and large deposits of iron ore and gold. CI and local partners worked with the communities to help implement conservation agreements that addressed conflicts over resources. (© Conservation International/photo by Bailey Evans)

From the murders of environmentalists to wars that threaten iconic wildlife, the links between human conflicts and natural resources are clear — and as populations grow and unsustainable development is exacerbated by climate change impacts, tension over ever-scarcer resources will only escalate.

But there’s good news: A growing body of evidence is showing that protecting nature can help promote peace — and, in some cases, resolve active conflict. Here are three examples.

1. Peace parks

The peace park concept was popularized by the Peace Parks Foundation, which was co-founded by Nelson Mandela. Also called transboundary protected areas or transfrontier conservation areas, peace parks are areas spanning two or more national borders that have been formally designated to conserve biodiversity, maintain animal migration patterns and protect natural resources required for a growing human population.

Peace parks can imply a cooperative and peaceful relationship between nations. The first peace park, Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, was established in 1932 by Canada and the United States in celebration of the peace and goodwill shared between the two countries.

In some cases, a peace park may also help calm tensions between nations. The Cordillera del Condor Peace Park between Peru and Ecuador signified the first time that a peace park was written into a treaty between nations as a means of stopping active violence.

For decades, the mountainous region between Peru and Ecuador had been contested and was subject to periodic encroachment and active conflict between the countries. In the early 1990s, Conservation International (CI) worked with the two governments and local scientists to carry out a scientific assessment that confirmed the region’s biological importance, including the role it plays in maintaining the hydrological cycle that links the Andes mountain range to the Amazon.

This independent analysis of the shared natural resources ultimately led to the signing of a peace treaty between the two countries, whereby each committed to ending hostilities and finding ways to collaborate. The agreement set a precedent for a binational vision of conserving biodiversity through cooperation.

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2. Overcoming a legacy of armed conflict

Armed conflict almost always leaves a path of environmental destruction in its wake, and those who survive are often left to rebuild their lives from scratch.

In the tiny Southeast Asian nation of Timor-Leste, which has experienced prolonged periods of war and armed conflict over several centuries, the negative impacts go beyond decimated fields and polluted waterways. By the time the country achieved independence in 2002, entire villages had been relocated, towns and landmarks had been renamed and much traditional knowledge had been lost. Thrust into new environments, the Timorese people had to re-learn rules about sustainable natural resource management — such as who has rights to coastal and forest areas — and often unwittingly overexploited the very resources they depended on to survive.


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3. Putting nature in the hands of the people

Protected areas only work when they are supported by nearby communities. Occasionally, their creation inadvertently incites conflict when conservation goals clash with the immediate needs of people.

In Liberia, forests cover nearly half of the country, providing food, medicine, building materials and fuel for hundreds of thousands of people. After two civil wars in less than two decades, by the early 2000s this forest was facing increased threats from human activities. Forest fires were rampant as land was cleared for agriculture; every year, the fires consumed hundreds of hectares. Poaching was widespread, and unsustainable harvesting of timber and non-timber products had been rising.

In 2003, the Liberian government established the East Nimba Nature Reserve as part of its commitment to conserve 30% of the country’s forests. Unfortunately, it did so with limited participation from the people living nearby and little regard for how they were using the forest. The result was conflict between management authorities and neighboring communities over claims on the reserve’s land and resources. Destructive activities continued unabated. (Learn more about the interaction between natural resource management and conflict — including tensions between men and women — in the film below.)

Nimba is also home to large deposits of iron ore and gold. To help address the conflict over the reserve, international mining company Ancellor Mittal teamed up with CI and local NGO partners to implement conservation agreements.

By offering incentives to communities in exchange for protecting the forest, conservation agreements allow residents to receive benefits such as funding for health and education services as well as investment in livelihoods. Communities in Nimba are helping maintain forest cover and monitoring for illegal activities, and in return, they receive support for pig and rice farming.

In a world of growing needs and shrinking resources, the links between conservation and human well-being are consistently tested. Scarcity can — and does — lead to conflict, but it’s time that we see nature not as something to fight over, but something whose survival requires people to come together to protect it.

Sarah Hauck is a writer for CI.

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