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When protecting nature helps build peace

© Adrián Portugal

Over the past 60 years, more than 40 percent of civil wars or armed conflicts have been linked to competition over resources. And that’s expected to grow as climate change and environmental degradation exacerbate existing clashes, experts say.

Meanwhile conflict begets further environmental damage in a self-perpetuating cycle that disproportionately hurts the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities.

For more than a decade, Conservation International has worked to integrate environmental peacebuilding and conflict sensitivity into its conservation programs — from identifying what drives disputes among northern Kenya’s pastoralist communities to developing support systems for survivors of sexual violence in one of Peru’s protected forests.

“We’re increasingly seeing a greater recognition of the complex ties between climate change, environmental degradation and conflict — and the need to link peace and conservation,” says Nora Moraga-Lewy, who manages Conservation International’s conflict resolution and peace program. “It’s one of the best ways to ensure lasting, positive impacts on people.”

Conservation News spoke with Moraga-Lewy about new trends in peacebuilding, how conflict can create opportunity and what “positive peace” is all about.

Conservation News: How is conservation linked to peacebuilding?

Nora Moraga-Lewy: At its core, most conservation involves transforming relationships between people, nature and resources. When done with care, this can strengthen social cohesion, promote collaboration and support communities’ livelihoods — all of which contribute to positive peace. On the other hand, conservation projects can also prioritize specific interests or introduce new ways of managing a forest or a coastal area. This can change local dynamics in ways that inadvertently trigger conflict — or even violence.

For centuries, many Indigenous and local communities have understood the importance of protecting nature to sustain peace. I think we’re now in a time of reckoning where more academic perspectives and policy discussions are connecting with traditional knowledge on these issues. And, as climate change accelerates, there is an increasing sense of urgency to address the ways in which changes to our ecosystems can lead to conflict

You mentioned ‘positive peace’? Isn’t all peace good?

NML: Let me take a step back, it’s not necessarily about good or bad. The notion of “positive peace” goes beyond the absence of violence. It means that the underlying conditions that might lead to violence — like social injustice or structural inequities — have been addressed so societies can thrive and build a peace that’s durable. That’s the goal.

Also, I want to recognize that not all conflict is necessarily negative. Conflict is part of life and can be managed as an opportunity for transformation. For example, a conflict related to natural resources can be used as a jumping off point to transform social structures by providing opportunities for a negotiation that can yield better conservation outcomes. 

How do you integrate peacebuilding into conservation? 

NML: It depends on the context. The first step is to look at the root causes of the conflict and try to figure out what we can address and what we can’t. Some communities we work in face power asymmetries for historic reasons, including colonialism. Conservation International offers training and other resources to help Indigenous communities negotiate fair agreements that are aligned with their needs and priorities, rather than simply reflecting the interests of outside organizations.

In other cases, conservation projects might not overtly address power dynamics, but can involve communities that have been marginalized from making decisions on how lands or natural resources are used. Making sure these communities have a voice in the project could lead to participation in other social and political processes — all of which can help build peace. 

Another way is to create shared commitments for conservation. These can provide a reason for cooperation among people who might otherwise have opposing interests. For example, local communities might decide to work together to manage shared water resources — rather than competing for them. Or national governments might come together to share scientific data that helps achieve a regional conservation goal. The idea is that sharing responsibilities for conservation can build and sustain peace, even between countries and communities that are at odds. 

Ultimately, conservationists have to be sensitive to the cultures and dynamics in the places where we work, so we support programs that minimize harm and maximize opportunities for good. 

Can you give me an example?

NML: Yes. Conservation International has worked for many years with communities in Peru’s Alto Mayo forest to reduce deforestation and support sustainable sources of income. Women hold traditional knowledge and play a key role in protecting the forest. But over time, my colleagues in the field saw that boosting women’s economic opportunities did not increase their participation in leadership roles — in fact, it put them at greater risk for domestic violence. Working with women as conservation partners meant we needed to respond. 

In partnership with a local organization, our staff worked in an Awajún Indigenous community to provide training on women’s legal rights and the prevention of sexual violence — and helped develop support systems for survivors of gender-based violence. Over 17 months, with a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the project trained 70 women on their legal rights and engaged 24 men from the community on how to achieve justice for survivors, among other issues. By the end of the project, 70 percent of women reported feeling safer engaging in conservation activities and 73 percent understood the resources and organizations available to support them. During one of the last training sessions, a community chief recognized the importance of addressing gender-based violence in the community and publicly committed to including information about it in the new community regulations. 

What does environmental peacebuilding mean for you?

NML: It’s a field that tries to make sense of the connections between climate change, environmental degradation, peace and conflict — from the geopolitical to the local level. It affirms the importance of understanding how fragile relationships really are — and that nature and people are tied together. It speaks to the wisdom that we need to do good for nature if we want our society to thrive in the future. And it underscores the importance of rooting conservation in a genuine respect for, and partnership with, Indigenous people and local communities. Ultimately, those are the most powerful partnerships we have for protecting nature. 


Indigenous Negotiations Resource Guide

Conflict Sensitivity and Environmental Peacebuilding in Conservation 

Vanessa Bauza is the editorial director at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.