March 19th, 2012

A Sustainable Peace: From Militarized Borders to Transnational Resource Collaboration

By Randall Amster


In a very cohesive and convincing argument, Randall Amster asks us to look at the other side of the well-worn coin that links environmental degradation and resource despoliation to conflict and war.  Instead, argues Amster, conflict zones have been shown to be appropriate sites for the creation of peace parks and other similar initiatives, where they can be turned into regions of enhanced sustainability—in every sense of the word, including environmental, social, and economic.

Abstract: This article explores the relationship between sustainability and peace, principally through examination of a range of cross-border conflict resolution efforts, international peace parks, and examples of resource cooperation across national borders – including in places where nations are or have been at war. A central notion developed through these examples is that warfare and militarization not only exacerbate rifts between peoples and cultures, but also severely degrade the environment and undermine movements toward sustainability. In contrast, collaborative, transnational, and cross-border peace initiatives often include an environmental component in which people can work to resolve conflicts, build trust, and sustain the ecological bases of their lives at the same time. In considering these issues, pervasive binaries long evident in global discourse – including North/South, Nature/Culture, and Traditional/Modern – illuminate the analysis by providing an implicit basis for exploring the efficacy of peacebuilding projects. Among other “hotspots” around the world, the U.S.-Mexico border in particular contains a number of potential transborder sustainability issues and conflict resolution processes that are emblematic of an emerging “sustainable peace” paradigm. The article concludes with an assessment of these synergies.

Sustaining Peace

In an effort to address the myriad and interlinked crises in our midst, some have begun to seek synergistic solutions that weave together strands of social and ecological justice. One such attempt considers the relationship between peace and the environment, oftentimes looking at the inverse by analyzing the devastating ecological impacts of warfare and militarism, and likewise by unpacking the drivers of violence and conflict that arise from patterns of environmental degradation. These relationships have been well explored in the literature, and it is by now widely accepted that ecological factors such as resource acquisition, droughts and other forms of scarcity, and the ravages of climate change are intimately connected with the impetus toward conflict if not outright war. Indeed, it is generally presumed by many scholars and policymakers alike that the world will be wracked by competition and conflict over scarce and dwindling resources, increasingly exacerbated by the environmental challenges in our midst. The resultant “resource wars,” as Michael Klare (2002) surmises, will be fought over the possession and control of vital economic goods, especially those resources most needed for the functioning of modern industrial societies. By most accounts, environmentally induced wars will continue to be a dominant feature of the global landscape

On the other hand, a competing narrative has begun to emerge that looks more deeply at the positive potentials embedded in the peace-environment nexus. With the connectivity having been established through the conflict-resources lens, we can surmise that an equally potent set of outcomes might be fostered by highlighting the peace potential of environmentalism, and likewise the environmental benefits of peaceful relations among peoples and nations. In fact, a significant body of literature has coalesced in the past decade around the broad theme of Peace Ecology (see Amster, 2009), analyzing concepts including environmental peacemaking (Conca and Dabelko, 2002), peace parks (Ali, 2007), peace co-operatives (Emmanuel and MacPherson, 2007), and “just sustainabilities” (Agyeman et al., 2003a; 2003b). In the end, it is apparent that “the issue of environmental quality is inextricably linked to that of human equality” (Agyeman et al., 2003a, 1), and furthermore that “a sustainable society must also be an equitable society, locally, nationally and internationally [since] social justice and environmental sustainability are inextricably linked” (Agyeman et al., 2003b, 323-325).

As we come to understand the interrelated nature of social and environmental issues, we thus also come to recognize that “no country can achieve sustainability alone” (Rees and Westra, 2003, 119), since environmental issues are inherently transnational in nature. In a rapidly globalizing system, “the increased interconnection of the biophysical world” is becoming increasingly evident, and thus “requires that adaptation to challenges occur at multiple levels” (Dolšak, et al., 2003, 338). As Kent Shifferd (2011, 111) adds, creating peace requires the development of a “social system that at all levels produces abundant life and justice, a system in which … basic human needs are met, including the right to life, to food and clean water.” As with a healthy ecosystem, such a social system must be “layered, redundant, resilient, robust, and proactive. Its various parts must feed back to each other so the system is strengthened and the failure of one part does not lead to systems failure” (Shifferd, 2011, 173). These insights help to frame the ecological dimensions of peace, the peaceful potentials of ecology, and, in the end, the overarching impetus toward a sustainable peace.

From Militarized Borders to Resource Collaborations

In the current geopolitical landscape, where resource wars and processes of economic colonization continue to dominate, it behooves us to consider in particular the transnational scale as we seek a sustainable peace. Physical borders between nations are increasingly militarized in the post-9/11 era, even as the barriers to so-called “free trade” and footloose capital are simultaneously relaxed. This has the effect of diminishing the potential for genuine exchange among peoples and communities on opposite sides of national borders, and interrupting the natural processes of ecosystems that do not abide lines on a map. It also serves to exacerbate tensions among nations, leading to the creation of permanent war economies whose explicit “national security” focus is the procurement and control of dwindling resources – down to even the essentials of food, water, and energy. The zero-sum logic of scarcity and competition is palpable, and has become a central norm of international relations, even as its workings are becoming little more than a self-fulfilling downward spiral in which vast resources are expended in the attempt to secure more resources.

In addition to reflecting an inherently unsustainable logic, such processes further reify a number of dualisms that lay at the core of the Western paradigm that has held sway throughout the industrial age. Resource wars and patterns of economic colonization are largely initiated by the nations of Global North vis-à-vis those of the Global South, yielding a two-tiered world of privileged consumers at the top and vulnerable producers on the bottom. The false scarcity created by such a system is reinforced by a mindset in which human culture is seen as separate from nature, and where traditional societies that exist closer to nature are viewed in Darwinian terms as inferior to modern societies in their political, economic, and moral development. In each instance, these dichotomies (North/South, Nature/Culture, Traditional/Modern) are inherently fallacious, to such an extent that they are self-refuting even when taken at face value. But even more insidiously, they provide the ideological software that serves to perpetuate an unsustainable world in which people are alienated from one another and are dislocated from the essential workings of the habitat.

In this light, any exploration of processes that confront these eventualities is potentially revolutionary in its full dimensions. The set of interrelated themes brought together under the rubric of Peace Ecology remain grounded in the notion that the crises of scarcity and conflict are also opportunities for mutually beneficial engagement born of necessity yet aimed at longer-term sustainability. The cultivation of a sense of shared destiny and mutual necessity can bring even ardent adversaries to the negotiating table, and as Alexander Carius (2006, 11) cogently observes, in this manner there is great potential for environmental conflicts to create opportunities for peace:

“As a mechanism for peace, the environment has some useful, perhaps even unique qualities that are well suited for peacebuilding and conflict resolution. Environmental problems ignore political borders. They require a long-term perspective, encourage participation by local and non-governmental organizations, help build administrative, economic and social capacities for action and facilitate the creation of commonalities that transcend the polarization caused by economic relations…. As environmental cooperation develops and societal and political stakeholders are systematically integrated in negotiation processes to protect natural goods, a simultaneous thrust is given to building trust, initiating cooperative action and encouraging the creation of a common regional identity emerging from sharing resources. It also helps establish mutually recognized rights and expectations.”

This emerging perspective suggests that peoples and nations have the potential to find ways of managing ecological concerns that not only work to avoid conflicts but that can also serve to promote peaceful relations among human communities and with the environment itself.

A foundational work in this vein is Ken Conca and Geoffrey Dabelko’s landmark book Environmental Peacemaking, in which the overarching aim is to ascertain “the cooperative triggers of peace that shared environmental problems might make available” (2002, 5). In this lexicon, there are two necessary elements for an environmental peacemaking effort to be successful: (1) it must create minimum levels of trust, transparency, and cooperative gain, and (2) it must strive to transform the nation-state itself, which is often marked by dysfunctional institutions and practices that become further obstacles to peaceful coexistence and cooperation. The operative principle is that an environmental crisis or conflict can be transformed into an opportunity for peace when it can be demonstrated that there is more to be gained by cooperating than by competing, and further when the essence of peaceful cooperation transcends the interests and aims of nation-states that are generally focused on security as a function of control. These outcomes are intimately connected with the capacity of people to attain healthy, productive, and equitable livelihoods, since “the advance of sustainable human development is a significant element in successful conflict resolution between neighboring countries” (Paz, 2007, 329), and with due regard for the basic premise that “ecological sustainability and economic development go hand in hand, that each is prerequisite for the other” (Rees and Westra, 2003, 100).

These trends toward resource collaboration, conflict transformation, and sustainable relations have been on the rise in recent years at various “hotspot” locations around the world, including disputed territories between Peru and Ecuador and along the China-Vietnam border (Clayton, 2004). Conca and Dabelko’s edited volume includes exemplars of environmental peacemaking in the Baltic region, South Asia, the Aral Sea Basin, Southern Africa, the Caspian Sea area, and the U.S.-Mexico border (which is discussed in more detail below). Among these powerful illustrations is the case of India and Pakistan, which have been sharing the Indus River for decades even in the midst of warlike tensions. The basic recognition of the irreplaceable need for water has yielded a situation in which environmental scarcity “offers the potential to bring about regional cooperation – even on very inhospitable terrain” (Swain, 2002, 62). A recent assessment of the dire situation in Darfur similarly reflected on the underlying environmental issues at play there, including persistent drought and ensuing land-based changes in the relationships between farmers and pastoralists, concluding that conflict transformation and the cessation of hostilities in the region will not be possible “without addressing the issues of livelihoods, long-term development needs and the use and management of natural resources” (Castro, 2010, 350).

The Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST) offers another compelling example. The MST utilizes a model of cooperative agriculture to address issues of food production and environmental conservation, as well as to incubate “political and social activities designed to foster more equitable social relations” (Wittman, 2007, 121). While the MST itself is not expressly transnational in scope, it is a key component of larger efforts such as Peoples’ Global Action that work to link similar efforts around the world. These synergistic efforts yield a framework in which “grassroots agrarian reform and associated visions of alternative co-operativism seek land not only as a productive resource, but as space for the installation of new democratic social relations” (Wittman, 2007, 142). Likewise, an exploration of cooperative agricultural initiatives on both sides of the Israel-Gaza border highlights the work of transnational organizations that facilitate the sharing of knowledge, employment opportunities, and food production techniques, ultimately serving to foster the development of “mutually reinforcing relationships that are the basis of a sustainable peace process” (Goldman, 2007, 338-339).

In his work on “peace parks,” Saleem Ali (2007) further emphasizes the positive sense of how environmental issues can play a role in cooperation, regardless of whether they are in fact part of the original conflict. Peace parks generally exist along contentious borders in nations that have endured conflict in the past but are working to create protected areas together. Examining international conservation efforts around the world, Ali observes that positive exchanges and trust-building gestures are a consequence of managing shared environmental threats, and that a focus on common environmental harms can be very successful in leading to cooperative outcomes. The centuries-old conflict between Iraq and Iran provides a poignant illustration. The al Ahwar marshes that straddle the border between these nations are part of the Mesopotamian region that marks what is often taken as the birthplace of modern civilization. The impact of warfare has compromised the vitality of these critical marshlands, leading some in the region to advocate for the creation of a peace park on the premise that such a project “could potentially result in coordination and co-management of this globally significant area, and future establishment of a demilitarized zone between the countries” (Stevens, 2007, 324). Despite the seemingly intractable nature of the political conflict, “restoration projects in the marshlands have continued” and there is “a visceral respect for conservation” among the diverse communities in the region, which ultimately “could provide a means of building trust and a cooperative nexus” between Iran and Iraq (Stevens, 2007, 328).

Perhaps the quintessential example of the potential to turn the degradation-conflict cycle into one of collaboration and sustainability is the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, which has become a massive wildlife and bird sanctuary since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Having remained relatively untrammeled by human activities, the DMZ is a rich habitat made up of marshes and grasslands, inhabited by rare and endangered species including the Asiatic black bear, leopards, lynx, and a significant portion of the world’s population of red-crowned cranes. This case illustrates concretely that demilitarization can lead to species diversification and a thriving ecosystem, and that formerly warring nations can develop an equivalent interest in cooperating to maintain the integrity of unique regions and simultaneously to cultivate mutually beneficial relationships in the process. “The preservation of the DMZ ecosystems promises to provide an unusual opportunity for the two Koreas to work together toward common goals and economic and environmental securities. Such strategy therefore could become an attractive vehicle for conflict resolution concerning North Korea’s nuclear threat and for changing the political environment over the Korean issues toward a more flexible and optimistic future” (Kim, 2007, 256-257).

There are a plethora of similar examples across the planet, such as the work of 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Project in East Africa, which links women’s rights, economic self-sufficiency, resource conflict resolution, and environmental restoration. This project highlights the connections between the ways that we manage our habitats and how we govern ourselves, between environmental sustainability and our sociopolitical systems (Democracy Now!, 2007). Focusing on a particularly “hot” conflict zone further illuminates these complex issues.

The U.S.-Mexico Interface

The U.S.-Mexico border presents many obvious points of conflict, ranging from the interpersonal and societal to the ideological and environmental. While “the border” is widely known as a contentious political issue as well as a place of violence and danger (see Romero 2007), there are also a number of efforts being undertaken to help transform these conflicts into opportunities for peacebuilding and cross-cultural comity. Individuals and organizations on both sides of this conflictual border are working in myriad ways and from multiple perspectives to ameliorate conflict and violence in the region, opening up opportunities for more positive concourse among peoples and nations alike. In particular, these actors strive to promote peaceful alternatives to border fractiousness in spheres including human rights, economics, healthcare, education, and the environment. Conservation efforts and resource management programs in particular possess great potential to improve the ecology of the region as well as the tenuous political climate.

Transnational boundaries in general are known as areas of danger and opportunity alike. “The borderlands have a peculiar appeal to proponents of peace parks because the demarcation of state borders have often led to disputes, most of which erupted into bloody wars. It is therefore logical to assume that borders as sites of conflict can be brought under new cross-border regimes, with ecoregions acting as a catalyst for peace” (Ramutsindela, 2007, 70). By focusing collaboration and conservation efforts on transnational borders, the aim is to achieve a “change of scale from the national to the supranational” (Ramutsindela, 2007, 70) – a move of particular importance with regard to the global scope of environmental issues and the pervasive nature of global conflict. Since issues of degradation and injustice cross borders, so too must the workable solutions being created.

In the case of the 2000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, the significance of demonstrating peacebuilding and sustainability opportunities in a region rife with ostensible conflict and despoliation can have wide-ranging impacts on people worldwide confronting similar border issues of violence, mass migration, refugeeism, drugs, and a militarized version of “security” that includes steel walls and unmanned aerial drones. By viewing these matters through the prism of peacemaking and conflict transformation, it becomes possible to envision relative stability and positive exchange in even the most troubled regions. In undertaking this task, it is apparent that the project of building peace in a conflict zone is intertwined with the process of highlighting the subtleties of the production of violence, both by the nation-state and civil society, as well as how that violence is deconstructed and transformed. In other words, there are many levels of conflict and violence, ranging from overt forms that are often physically deployed to the more subtle forms that work at the level of psyche, ideology, and identity construction (see Slocum-Bradley 2008), yielding a sociocultural landscape of fear, divisiveness, and environmental sacrifice in the name of security that impacts the potential for peace in the minds of the people who reside in border communities.

Despite concerns over the ecological impacts of a border wall and similar militarization efforts, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security exempts itself from environmental laws and regulations. Data such as that collected by conservation groups in the region may not be able to halt such projects, but they paint a compelling and unequivocal picture in which “barriers on the U.S.-Mexico border are disturbing ecosystems and endangering animal species,” including the Coues’ Rice Rat, the Jaguarundi (a small feline), and the California red-legged toad (Cruz, 2011). A 2006 symposium that brought together park managers, biologists, and conservation groups concluded that the border wall “will fragment the Sonoran Desert ecosystem, damage the desert’s plant and animal communities, and prevent the free movement of wildlife between the United States and Mexico” (Cohn, 2007, 96). As one of the symposium participants observed: “It’s a war zone here. We’re into triage in deciding what to sacrifice in the environment to achieve border security” (Cohn, 2007, 96). Confirming these sentiments, it has been observed that in general the U.S.-Mexico border “is an area characterized by environmental degradation, economic and political inequality, and conflicting norms and priorities” (Doughman 2002, 190).

Efforts to transform border conflict are informed by environmental peacemaking tenets indicating that crises such as violence, militarism, and competition over resources can be utilized as moments to draw people together rather than accentuating rifts (see Conca and Dabelko, 2002). For instance, it has been argued that “water cooperation efforts in the U.S.-Mexico border region have the potential to improve U.S.-Mexico relations in many respects [and] could help to move the border from a zone of uneasy transition and human insecurity to a zone of peace” (Doughman 2002, 191). The problems plaguing the region are numerous, and include grave ecological concerns over not only water but as to pollution and toxification from maquiladora factories, soil contamination, loss of habitat and biodiversity, and the environmental toll of mass migration. Still, it is also perceived that efforts to turn this zone of sacrifice into one of sustainability could provide “an opportunity to strengthen trust, reciprocity, long-term planning, interdependence, shared norms, and trans-societal linkages” (Doughman 2002, 199) – and in fact, “shared natural resource initiatives continue even in a time of increased attention to border security” (Sifford and Chester, 2007, 212). In the end, despite the failure to date in establishing a transborder peace park or equivalent on the U.S.-Mexico border, it remains the case that “the establishment of cross-border protected areas could actually help diminish current, seemingly irreconcilable, tensions while benefiting long-term cooperation in other arenas besides that of conservation” (Sifford and Chester, 2007, 218).

Conclusion: Spillover Effects?

In the final analysis, this is the critical element toward creating a sustainable peace, namely that conservation efforts can serve to promote mutuality and social justice, and that cooperative and collaborative initiatives can work to restore and maintain the environment. Such moments of social-ecological synergy are sometimes referred to as “spillover effects” in which work in one sphere benefits others at the same time. Environmental peacemaking, peace parks, and other forms of transnational collaboration indicate that “environmental cooperation can be an effective general catalyst for reducing tensions, broadening cooperation, fostering demilitarization, and promoting peace,” and furthermore that there can be “positive side effects from such cooperation that can create positive synergies for peace, in the form of trust building [and] the identification of mutual gains” (Conca and Dabelko, 2002, 9-11). While it would be an overstatement to say that environmental cooperation causes peace, it is clear that such efforts can “support peace by enabling communities in fragile states to increase their resilience [and] establish collaborative and cooperative relationships” in the recognition that “shared resource systems and ecological interdependence are part of a durable peace” (Leroy, 2010, 339-340). Even as much work yet remains to achieve this, the theories and examples cited here help point the way toward a sustainable and equitable world.



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