BLOG | Environmental Peacebuilding: recognizing its roots, progress and future challenges

Teresa Lappe-Osthege and Elaine Lan Yin Hsiao reflect on the 1st International Conference on Environmental Peacebuilding

1st International Conference on Environmental Peacebuilding

BIOSEC Fellows Teresa Lappe-Osthege and Elaine Lan Yin Hsiao recently attended the 1st International Conference on Environmental Peacebuilding at the University of California, Irvine. In this blog, they explore their experiences of the event.

Breaking from narratives that overemphasise the relationship between natural environments and violent conflict, environmental peacebuilding aims to explore and utilise cooperative mechanisms that can emerge from the environmental sphere in addressing conflicts or in post-conflict settings. These mechanisms can revolve around shared environmental challenges, such as pollution of transboundary rivers, or relate to issues surrounding equitable natural resource management and benefit-sharing. Cooperation towards identifying joint solutions can be a valuable tool for peacebuilding. It theoretically provides a more neutral platform upon which conflict parties can (re)build trust. 

But who decides what such cooperation should look like? Under what conditions is environmental cooperation likely to spill over into other areas, especially areas of tension? Does environmental cooperation work best as a community-level peacebuilding tool or can it influence the relationship between conflicting states as well? What actors are promoted or marginalised in the process? And, most importantly, does environmental peacebuilding leave sufficient room for different understandings of ‘the environment’ and ‘peace’? 

The 1st International Environmental Peacebuilding Conference (Photo credit: Elaine Hsiao)
The 1st International Environmental Peacebuilding Conference (Photo credit: Elaine Hsiao)

These are some of the questions that we explored along with more than 200 other researchers, practitioners and decision-makers at the 1st International Environmental Peacebuilding Conference in Irvine, California at the end of October 2019. Special themes of the conference focused on environmental peacebuilding in Colombia and the area of technology and innovation. Other themes ranged broadly from governance and law to conflict prevention, gender and climate change. 

 

 

What have we achieved?

As the first conference by the Environmental Peacebuilding Association (EnPAx), it gathered an enthusiastic crowd of established and young professionals who took stock of how far the field of environmental peacebuilding had come since the late 1990s and early 2000s (see for example Ken Conca and Geoffrey Dabelko’s influential work on Environmental Peacemaking) and simultaneously explored avenues for innovation to critically engage with the field’s future development.  Capacity-building opportunities were offered through workshops during the first morning, including qualitative comparative analysis, rapid environmental impact assessments, conflict-sensitive conservation and the use of open-source data. 

Rapid Environmental Impact Assessments workshop (Photo credit: Teresa Lappe-Osthege)
Rapid Environmental Impact Assessments workshop (Photo credit: Teresa Lappe-Osthege)

On the first day, a panel featuring Carl Bruch (President of the EnPAx Association), Sherri Goodman (Former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense in the US), Silja Halle (UN Environment), James Orbinski (Former President of Médecins Sans Frontières) and Ashok Swain (Uppsala University) recounted stories from the early days of environmental peacebuilding, including where the term came from and working with the US military and humanitarian organizations to put the environment on their radar. 

Considering developments in environmental peacebuilding (c.f. EnPAx’s vast collection of edited volumes), it is perhaps unsurprising that environmental security and conflict, its role as a risk factor and threat multiplier, as well as environmental protection in times of conflict emerged as key themes on the first two days of the conference. 

Here, many participants appeared to equate concerns for ‘the environment’ exclusively with concerns for the material biophysical environment, such as natural resources and climate-induced natural disasters. 

Where are we going?

There appears to be a shift in environmental peacebuilding towards a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between humans and the environment, which draws attention to social dynamics and local practices. On the second day of the conference, a panel featuring Ken Conca (American University), Anne Hammill (International Institute for Sustainable Development), Elaine (Lan Yin) Hsiao (representing the IUCN CEESP Theme on Environment and Peace) and Mark Halle (IISD) looked at Early Linkages in Environment, Conflict and Peace. In this session, Elaine reminded participants that Irvine, CA is the ancestral territory of the Acjachemen Nation and currently an ecological devastation zone. Formerly one of California’s largest wetlands, it is now paved over and fragmented into enclaves of gated communities and strip malls, representing violent conflict between humans and non-human nature. 

Elaine Hsiao speaking at the 1st International Conference on Environmental Peacebuilding (Photo credit: UCI School of Social Ecology)
Elaine Hsiao speaking at the 1st International Conference on Environmental Peacebuilding (Photo credit: Conflict & Environment Observatory)

In moving past early linkages in the field of environmental peacebuilding, Elaine proposed that we should evolve beyond just greening the military, especially considering the many critiques of coercive or militarized conservation, and enhance our understandings of local, indigenous and traditional peacebuilding practices. Environmental peacebuilding should also look beyond merely resolving social conflicts through environmental cooperation and consider how it can transform conflicts between humans and non-humans, which underlie our capacity to destroy nature for our own purposes, be it war or development. Just as international development has “big D, little d” development, Elaine suggested that environmental peacebuilding needs to look more at “little p” peacebuilding. Against this background, the manner in which environmentally responsible and socially inclusive peacebuilding endeavours could be reconciled with the security-focused interests at the policy level was a recurring point of discussion. 

Elaine Hsiao at the IUCN Task Force Meeting UCI (Photo credit: Jason Houston)
Elaine Hsiao at the IUCN Task Force Meeting at UCI (Photo credit: Jason Houston)

Although the conference was an occasion marking how far the environmental peacebuilding community had come, by the end of the three days, its shortcomings had also become obvious. Carl Bruch, the President of EnPAx, acknowledged four of what he considers the most pressing challenges in his closing speech, namely that a) the community needs to build a best practice evidence base; b) the theoretical and conceptual framework of environmental peacebuilding needs to be further developed; c) the impact of environmental peacebuilding needs to be more closely monitored and assessed; and d) the environmental peacebuilding community needs to increase efforts to identify technological innovations in the field. 

The conference did indeed aim to address some of these issues. For instance, the community’s growing awareness and critical exploration of gender issues in environmental peacebuilding research and practice demonstrated interests in diversifying and empowering different actors in environmental peacebuilding. The Women’s Leadership Lunch, opened by Sherri Goodman, underlined the importance of women championing and supporting each other, while also providing a useful opportunity to learn from the successes and challenges that other participants encountered on their professional journeys.  

However, while Carl Bruch emphasised crucial points that will shape environmental peacebuilding in the foreseeable future, there were other challenges that were not sufficiently examined, which we believe are key in addressing the shortcomings of environmental peacebuilding more reflexively and critically.

How do we get there?

For example, what can we gain from broadening our understanding of the environment beyond mere biophysical processes? Presenting as part of a panel featuring co-presenters María Paula Gonzalez Espinel (Macías Gómez & Asociados Abogados) and Peter Gleick (Pacific Institute), Teresa Lappe-Osthege spoke about the inequalities and injustices that are built into peacebuilding processes that do not recognise different dimensions of the social and biophysical environment. Her research on the European Union’s approach to peacebuilding in Kosovo demonstrated that constructing peacebuilding policies on an understanding of the environment that emphasises its commodification under the heading of ‘sustainable development’, can in fact lead to the exacerbation of socio-environmental and economic tensions in post-conflict societies, making periods of durable and equitable peace less likely. 

Teresa argued that paying more attention to the socially produced dimensions of the environment and the meanings it holds for conflict parties can make the field of environmental peacebuilding much more attuned to hidden conflict dynamics, especially in contexts of protracted territorial conflicts. Some scholars, such as Arthur Green or Tobias Ide, have begun to explore these issues. Furthermore, Teresa underlined that greater engagement with political ecology and green political economy can enable the field of environmental peacebuilding to critically address questions of power, identity and justice. This is particularly important when it involves peacebuilding with the aim of integration into a regional market economy, as is the case for Kosovo and its EU accession process. 

Honoring Nancy Peluso with the Environmental Peacebuilding Research Award was certainly a very welcome step towards greater engagement with political ecology and more socio-ecologically critical approaches. Further input to address the shortcomings of environmental peacebuilding more reflexively can be found in the works of Maja Essebo, Esther Marijnen, Judith Verweijen, and Paige West, or John Barry and Noel Castree

Nancy Peluso's keynote speech "Landscapes of Violence" (Photo credit: Teresa Lappe-Osthege)
Nancy Peluso’s keynote speech “Landscapes of Violence” (Photo credit: Teresa Lappe-Osthege)

As our contributions at the conference aimed to emphasise, through more critical environmental peacebuilding we may begin to find better nuanced answers to some of the questions raised above; such as which actors and understandings of peace environmental peacebuilding promotes and how this affects what it can offer genuine conflict transformation, peace and reconciliation in a world of seemingly increasing political hostility, environmental change and displacement.

Teresa Lappe-Osthege and Elaine Hsiao at the 1st International Environmental Peacebuilding Conference in Irvine, California (Photo credit: Teresa Lappe-Osthege)
Teresa Lappe-Osthege and Elaine Hsiao at the 1st International Environmental Peacebuilding Conference in Irvine, California (Photo credit: Philippe Le Billon)
Attendees at the 1st International Conference on Environmental Peacebuilding (Photo credit: UCI School of Social Ecology)
Attendees at the 1st International Conference on Environmental Peacebuilding (Photo credit: UCI School of Social Ecology)