Notes from the UN: "From Conflict to Peacebuilding - The Role of Natural Resources and The Environment"

Having been invited to attend a UNEP (United Nations Environmental Programme) panel titled, "From Conflict to Peacebuilding - The Role of Natural Resources and the Environment" on May 15, 2009, I was interested to see what issues this panel would address, knowing well from past experiences that humanitarian issues--including those during conflict--are in one way or another either essentially tangential to or directly linked with environmental issues.

Most people would consider themselves aware of this connection in theory; it would seem natural that as humanity interacts with the environment, there would be some way in which one affects the other. It might even be reasonable to assume that certain conflicts would result. But specific connections are sometimes less able to be drawn unless one has been amidst situations in which certain populations have been in crisis, and the connection between humanitarian issues and environmental issues becomes more pronounced.

The American public often does not, unless they happen to click on one of these reports on the UN site, or happen to see something buried in the international section of a newspaper or online resource, give the topic vast amounts of thought, at least in terms of conflicts of populations continents away. And, too, such environmental causes of conflict are often not "sexy" enough to get enough coverage, no matter how often the terms of "climate change" or "global warming" are bandied around along with their rather dramatic ramifications. When thinking of environmental issues, people instead immediately perhaps think of the image of a bearded Al Gore talking about climate change, or "do-gooder" environmentalists in Birkenstocks raising hell, or governments giving lip-service to such issues as they continue to dump waste, vote down clean energy, or get pressured by lobbyists to support business interests over proposed truths of basic ecology.

The reason for this is perhaps that these familiar images, stereotypical as they may be, occur among nations of the geo-political North—or what we consider to be "industrialized" nations, including in the West, which are definitely the "haves" of the world. Basic needs, such as access to clean water and reliable sanitation, farmable land, access to natural resources like coal, oil, and other minerals, may be an area of concern, but as much as people may be raising hell about them here in the West, while finite, for us, they’re not at the moment non-existent.

However, this is categorically not true everywhere in the world. Whereas we are the “haves”—we in industrialized society--these are truly critical issues affecting the "have nots"-- not in some theoretical future—but now—which at this moment may mean the difference between life and death among millions. Sometimes, in the midst of compassion fatigue for those whom we don't interact with every day, or those whose fate we don't necessarily see as affecting our own in the immediate future, the environmental concerns surrounding conflict a world away seem less relevant than what is happening in our own neighborhood.

This is what certain among us, whether from the environmental end, the humanitarian end, or even the international relations end in terms of each of these issues, and including international security policy in some cases, hope to address.

In the geo-politcal South, or the "developing" world, where populations may have little or no access to basic needs for reasons of past inattention to such matters--or government control (or otherwise the control of certain factions outside the government) of certain basic needs for their own uses, and not those of their people—conflict is instead logical when looking at the history of populations dealing with issues of profound scarcity. There are certain needs and resources which are non-negotiable. Food, water, and shelter are necessary for survival. Millions of people around the world do not have access to these basic needs. And when these needs are unmet, and cannot otherwise be found—refugees, for instance, walking sometimes hundreds or thousands of miles to find food, water, and shelter--desperation results. In times of desperation, conflict in many cases will inevitably arise.

This is indeed important, not just in terms of caring about people a world away, but in terms of environmental issues which we ourselves may face in the immediate future, or security issues which may suddenly knock on our doors because we are not paying attention to "have not" populations who deride the West for a lack of attention, or for other reasons of blame--convenient or not, or relevant or not--which we could never foresee. The point is, as stressed by such reports and panels as this one by UNEP, this is not just about what used to once be considered attention to common human decency; this is about basic human survival and security which has everything to do not just with areas in crisis, but with the interests and welfare of the international community itself.

The UNEP Panel

Attending this UNEP panel, moderated by Ambassador Marjatta Rasi of Finland (Under-Secretary of State for Development Cooperation and Development Policy, Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs), were Ibrahim Thiaw (Director, Division of Environmental Policy Implementation, UNEP), Pekka Haavisto (Member of Parliament and Special representative of the Finnish Foreign Minister to African Crisis Areas, former EU Special Envoy to Sudan), Erika Weinthal (Associate Professor of Environmental Policy, Duke University and Member of the UNEP Expert Advisroy Group on Environment, Conflict, and Peacebuilding), and Alexander Carius (Director, Adelphi Research and Member of the UNEP Advisory Group on Environment, Conflict, and Peacebuilding).

The basis for the panel, as is often the case at the UN, was the report generated by UNEP, titled, as was the panel, 
From Conflict to Peacebuilding - The Role of Natural Resources and the Environment (which may be found via UNEP here), with the panel going over certain critical aspects of the report for those attending, and highlighting certain key issues for which research had been done by the panelists.

In her opening remarks, and as an introduction to the report and its underlying themes and recommendations, the most poignant assertion that Ambassador Rasi of Finland made, and one which from certain anecdotal and operational evidence would seem invariably true, is that many governments, and even UN agencies, don’t consider the environment or natural resources, to be a vital part of peacekeeping. Following her assertion, there was a wave of understanding laughter among those in the room.

However, in conflict areas, there are two issues that come to the fore during Rasi’s introduction: 1) areas of scarcity—such as in the Sudan, where access to agriculturally sustainable land [for livestock grazing and food production], to clean water, and the materials necessary to build shelter are unable to be attained and 2) areas of abundance of natural resources—such as in the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo), where minerals, diamonds, gold, water (as it has rich river basins), such abundance leads to greed and jockeying for power over these resources—and inherent subsequent issues of governance. And without adequate governance, such issues, as we have seen in Africa as well as in other parts of the world, will not remain within a single country's borders. More than that, in terms of economics, industrialized countries more and more are depending upon the natural resources of the developing world not just for their own uses, but to bolster their own economies.

These issues, with a lack of equitable or cohesive governance, whether in times of scarcity or abundance, can either lead to or exacerbate conflict in these areas as the power struggles continue, both over natural resources and over the environmental concerns both within and without a country's own borders.

Following this introduction, Ibrahim Thiaw of UNEP gave a rather policy-oriented overview of the subjects the UNEP seeks to address, as pragmatically as possible, within the whole UN system when it comes to any peacebuilding mandate as handed down by the Security Council

(peacebuilding, as defined by the UN, "consists of a wide range of activities associated with capacity building, reconciliation, and societal transformation. Peacebuilding is a long-term process that occurs after violent conflict has slowed down or come to a halt. Thus, it is the phase of the peace process that takes place after peacemaking and peacekeeping") :

1) It is necessary to integrate natural resource issues into all levels of conflict management and peacebuilding

2) In the process of peacebuilding, it is also necessary to build governance capacity in resource management

3) It is necessary to initiate a new sub-program of UNEP to address issues of natural disasters and conflicts

4) It is necessary to start establishing technical partnerships in terms of natural resources, their use and their governance

5) New assessments and field operations are necessary in better maximizing research and implementation

6) A collection of “best practices” can be derived from operations during and following conflict in 60 different cases and countries

Pekka Haavisto, who has had extensive experience in terms of natural resources and the environment in Africa and the Middle East, in following Thiaw, laughed and said something it seemed most in the room could identify with: “to work for the environment was an uphill battle,” particularly during post-conflict situations.

He then continued in a more anecdotal manner than Thiaw, trying to make the issues more accessible, both to those attending as much as he had to those whom he was working with in the field. For those whom hardcore political discourse was more important than environmental concerns, he talked about needing to mention the most basic issues--such as well water--to get his point across. Post-conflict, this meant, was the water drinkable? Did conflict, including the potential contamination of ground water, cause the local populations to either be afraid of using a well? In terms of sanitation concerns, “were they afraid of using the head?” These were real, basic, visceral concerns that got his colleagues’ attention.

The “uphill battle” also included feeling the inherent need to even hide his environmental background to look more political, rather than, he said jokingly, talking about “greening” warfare.

To also illustrate a mistaken view also held by colleagues which was often a sticking point in terms of environmental considerations in any conflict and/or subsequent peace process, as one colleague in Sudan suggested, “The environment is something only the rich countries can think about.” To this, Haavisto countered, “Poor countries count more on the environment for survival [than rich countries].” This indeed, he hoped, again, getting down to basics, got the relevant point across.

Also in speaking of Sudan as an example of what he was trying to relay to both colleagues and other stakeholders, he asserted that climate change, in affecting the land, both in terms of water and grassland for farmers and nomadic tribes which need both for their grazing stock, inherently caused scarcity, again, to lead to conflict—including local violence. From one Sudanese refugee woman whom he talked to, she talked about having been forced to her land by a child with a gun. “What do I say to the 10 year old boy to keep him from killing me?”

[Here there was no mention of the Sudanese genocide, and the conflict, which often stems from issues of scarcity affecting cultural violence, the violence of which currently is crossing borders from Sudan into Chad, following fleeing refugee populations.]

In terms of Somalia, to which, he recalled, colleagues were amazed he was going, there are definitely issues of piracy which have overtaken recent news, but in terms of the environment, much less often discussed are issues of illegal fishing and dumping of hazardous waste along the coastline. This is indicative, Haavisto said, of developing countries—and especially those in conflict—not having the necessary government safeguards to address such issues.

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, there are the inherent environmental issues of occupation, such as access to aquifers, clean water, waste burning, and the inability—or unwillingness—of either side to implement outside policy recommendations to preserve the integrity of the very land over which both sides are fighting.

Next was Erika Weinthal, who focused mostly on issues of fresh, drinkable water, which, as she pointed out, is not only a scarce resource, but unlike other natural resources used for fuel, or as a “commodity of value” for trade, is a basic need necessary to live, and has no substitute. There is no substitute for fresh, drinkable water to keep people alive.

In the issue of water, Weinthal included issues of sanitation, quoting that in her research, 1.1 billion people lack access to clean water, and 2.6 billion lack access to sanitation, water and sanitation being linked in terms of wastes which affect water sources.

It is also nearly impossible to de-link issues of water to land issues. Pulling up a topographical map of Africa via PowerPoint, she showed the shared water basins among countries, which showed, categorically, that water issues are inherently international. Who owns and is responsible for water when it either acts as a natural and shared border between countries, or when rives flow from one country into one or more others?

In terms of post-conflict humanitarian challenges, access to clean water among refugees is one of the most critical difficulties—which in areas of Africa mean among refugee populations of tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of people. Often, too, water is poisoned during conflict by munitions and waste, or post-conflict, during rebuilding of urban areas in which water resources or waste are not considered in the haste to build for increasing or returning populations.

She also pointed out, in one case during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, that water can be used as a weapon, as karez, or irrigation systems, were systematically wiped out by the Soviets to kill entire communities. Post-conflict, in rebuilding, and out of ignorance rather than malice, people did not take necessary precautions in deep-well drilling, or else undermined local, pre-existing irrigation systems, which caused subsequent conflict.

However, she noted, there is also great optimism, in that because water is a necessary resource for life, it is sometimes one of the first issues addressed in treaties, and can be one of the first areas of building trust and cooperation between or among parties, including being able to be utilized as a scaffold in peacebuilding. Such was the case, she noted, in the Jordan Peace treaty, in which a Joint Water Committee was immediately established.

Alexander Carius subsequently used Weinthal’s discussion about water to segue into further discussion about the implications of climate change, first asserting that while climate change is indeed a global issue, as a regional issue, it is often more pronounced, affecting specific populations. Already, there are climate-related natural disasters, agricultural production issues, water stress, resource competition, and border concerns—and in terms of future conflicts during catastrophic instances attributable to climate change, land mass may be lost, or disappear entirely, or there may be border issues which then affect the Laws of the Sea. And these are definitely international security issues.

Further, he continued, there may be local or regional maladaptation to climate change, causing conflict among winners vs. losers, and/or perpetrators vs. victims, as has been seen in other areas of natural resource scarcity or abundance.

[When it comes to blame, the first heads on the chopping block are first local or regional culprits, but eventually, blame, as it often does among developing countries, will fall on the interests or lack thereof of industrialized nations of the West.]

As with Weinthal, he stressed the positive aspects of these discussions—because basic needs are being addressed, this can either be used to exacerbate conflict, or it can be used as a catalyst to peace; if positive strides can be made in discussing these issues, it can, as also stated by the UNEP report as one of its suggested outcomes, be used for continued, peaceful dialogue and confidence-building among parties.

The challenge, he suggested, is to “come to another logic that is different” than the usual conflict or post-conflict discourse, including the environment as an initial and necessary area of discussion.

[This is indeed hopeful; perhaps it is possible, I wrote in my notes, with the right explicit reasoning to those stakeholders with decision-making ability.]

During the question and answer period, further issues of international security, using the military as a “clean-up crew” for environmental disasters, and parties proposed to undertake vulnerability assessments were addressed, however briefly, as the UNEP's time was up in the conference room.

Indeed, there were further questions I also had, but I wanted to wait to read the report to see if they were sufficiently addressed, as no panel presentation could give adequate time to address all issues within a UN report.

The UNEP Report

In leaving the panel, I was happy to have gone and to have listened to the discourse as provided by the panelists, but I was almost happier to have read the UNEP report, which was almost stern and very specific—compared to other UN reports I have read—in terms of its policy recommendations.

Written in very plain language for the most part, and offering necessary definitions for certain terms—which most of the UN considers common knowledge, but among those approaching UN terminology or acronyms for the first time can prove unwieldy—it set out very straightforward issues and recommendations in terms of pre-, current, and post-conflict issues and subsequent action.

As an example, in summing up the entirety of the report, as stated, the conclusions of the report (and in very clear language) are:

a) Natural resources and the environment can be implicated

in all phases of the conflict cycle, contributing to the

outbreak and perpetuation of violence and undermining

prospects for peace. In post-conflict countries, they

can also contribute to conflict relapse if they are not

properly managed from the outset. The way that natural

resources and the environment are managed has a

determining influence on peace and security.

b) The environment can itself fall victim to conflict, as direct

and indirect environmental damage, coupled with the

collapse of institutions, can lead to environmental risks

that threaten health, livelihoods and security. These risks

should be addressed as a part of the recovery process.

c) Natural resources and the environment can contribute

to peacebuilding through economic development,

employment generation and sustainable livelihoods.

Cooperation over the management of natural resources

and the environment provides new opportunities for

peacebuilding that should also be pursued.

The recommendations, with these conclusions in mind, were the following:

1. Further develop UN capacities for early warning and early action.

2. Improve oversight and protection of natural resources during conflicts

3. Address natural resources and the environment as part of the peacemaking and peacekeeping process

4. Integrate natural resource and environmental issues into post-conflict planning

5. Carefully harness natural resources for economic recovery

6. Capitalize on the potential for environmental cooperation to contribute to peacebuilding

It indeed takes reading the report to get into all of the nuances; otherwise, in reading the recommendations, they would, to most reasonable readers who do give a damn about such issues, seem inherently logical.

But one thing, having once been in the thick of discussions in international relations and international security policy, what did stand out was the question of sovereignty. The United Nations is particularly touchy in terms of issues of sovereignty, and rightfully so, and unless a mandate has been set by the UN Security Council in terms of acting as an interim government for a failed state, these recommendations cannot be put into practice without the explicit agreement of the official government of whatever states in which the UN is acting as peacebuilder.

For this reason, the UNEP, even in this report, suggests by its accompanying language (which is not evident in basic repetition of its six points) that these recommendations be either suggestions for such official government bodies, recommendations that can be implemented by the UN, its agencies, or other proxies with the consent of such government bodies, or they are issues addressed by the international community, including legal mechanisms and instruments which should be put into place, sanctions if such laws are not followed, and legal prosecutions if continued illegalities are not addressed by other means.

As it stands, the UN is only usually ever authorized to monitor situations; it cannot act as law enforcement or intervene unless specifically given authority via mandate, again by the UN Security Council—something, that because of the makeup of conflicting interests in the Security Council, is not often done.

Another thing I noticed, which was actually quite refreshing to see, was that UNEP did three things in its report: 1) the report included graphic organizers, statistics, and case studies in addition to outlines and narrative to cover all information-preference bases (i.e. what in education are considered “learning styles,” of different individuals who would read such a report) 2) the report consistently addressed issues of security—both in terms of within a state’s borders and internationally, and 3) it addressed both short and long-term issues and recommendations.

In the first case, this is simply intelligent—readers of any report respond differently to different information. Any more, reports I have read have adopted this kind of method in getting ideas across—it is a pragmatic means of making sure that anyone who reads a report will have something to which he or she will respond most. This is inordinately important, as many agencies will simply do what to it, as an organization, will most respond, not often thinking explicitly—to such an extent--about those whom it hopes to convince.

In the second case, but similarly, in this case in terms of language itself and subsequent terminology, one of the common issues with environmental (and often humanitarian) proponents is that many do not often speak the language—and in the terms--of those in decision-making capacities, or speak to their primary concerns. We often see things through our own lenses of perception and what we deem most important because of what we prioritize; not what those whom we seek to convince most see as issues. In other words, sometimes in making a case, we don’t speak another side’s language. This is both a gaffe in facilitating communication and in putting the priority on common ground, if only to either make a salient case, or to more intensely convince the contingent in question.

(By addressing international and state security concerns, this is speaking the current hot-button language that todays political factions need to hear to make something a priority. It is something other environmental lobbies—and again, in my primary area of discourse—humanitarian and humanitarian media contingents—can learn from.)

In the third and last case, UNEP again did something that is essential in any pragmatic discourse—it addressed both short and long-term issues, with subsequent recommendations. This is essential—when it comes to both authoritative and convincing discourse, covering both short and long-term bases shows, again, that the UNEP is addressing both immediate concerns and those which will be issues subsequently. This is again an aspect of, part and parcel, speaking any government’s language and proving that UNEP understands current thinking.

Again, the only weakness in this is that UNEP, like the UN, cannot of its own accord execute these recommendations, or must leave such execution of recommendations to governments, their proxies, or otherwise, the international community. This is the bane of the UN system to some, and the gift of the system to others… in terms, again, of the rights which come from sovereignty within a country’s own borders.

Indeed, at the moment, in terms of what UNEP, like other UN agencies can do, the more pragmatic, thorough, security-oriented, and relevant to hardcore government concerns any contingent can make their issues, rather than stubbornly insisting on speaking its “own” language to the detriment of its cause, the more likely such governments will listen, and perhaps implement such recommendations.

In this case, with this panel and UNEP report, one can only hope considering such implementation, or at least debating it to some reasonable conclusion, is indeed the case.

Lastly, in the discussion of "haves" of the industrialized West/North vs. the "have nots" of the developing South, what was most important is that there be some kind of discourse, and where it concerns specific issues and specific crises--whether environmental or humanitarian--or some inherent combination thereof as shown by both this panel and UNEP report, in addition to other reports from myriad stakeholders outside the UN system, who similarly cannot act unless given leave by specific governments, or by a governing, international body's mandate--specific action is taken, with both the short-term and long-term in mind.

All of the reports and panels in the world mean nothing otherwise--unless such action can be taken, and more so when it matters most.


K.J. Wetherholt is a former media executive and currently a writer, producer, and Co-Founder/Board Chairman of The Humanitarian Media Foundation (HMF). Her book, The Illumination: A Novel of the Great War (2006) will be released in paperback next year and is currently being packaged as a feature film out of Europe for future production.