Linking Environmental Governance and Peacebuilding at Rio

 

Blake Ratner

“Natural resource management, environment, good governance, and political stability: they are all so interrelated,” says Madam Haddijatou Jallow, head of the Environment Protection Agency in Sierra Leone.

She’s speaking from experience. Her country’s ten-year civil war, she says, stemmed from an alarming disparity between rich and poor, driven especially by inequity in the distribution of natural resources. While the scourge of “conflict diamonds” has received significant international attention—including the recent conviction of former Liberian president Charles Taylor for war crimes—millions more suffer in less publicized struggles over agricultural land, forests, and water needed for their food and livelihoods.

“When people have no hope, when people feel disenfranchised, they resort to violence… so it is better to invest [in improving natural resource management],” says Jallow. Her agency, established only four years ago, is charged with implementing new legislation that affirms the rights of local communities to transparency and participation in decision-making over natural resource management. The policy reflects President Ernest Bai Koroma’s personal commitment to environmental issues as a core route to peace and stability.

As world leaders gather next week in Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, they would do well to bear in mind these links. Twenty years after the first Earth Summit, in a world now more tightly integrated by trade, many of those most at risk from environmental change live on the fringes of the global economy, on degraded rural lands or in urban slums faced with poor water supply and pollution. Climate change, large-scale agricultural land acquisitions, mining operations, and industrial development all present potentially destabilizing changes for the most marginal communities, even in the absence of broader civil conflict. In post-war countries, where institutions of governance have broken down and need to be gradually rebuilt, these challenges are all the more acute.

International agencies responding to conflict need to be able to navigate these risks, helping to improve environmental governance, with capacities for rapid response and adaptation to the particular demands of very different socio-political environments. This combination of capacities, unfortunately, “characterizes none of the [international] agencies we work with,” says Jeffrey Sachs, head of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and special advisor to the UN secretary general. Important innovations are underway, such as a UN Environment Program initiativethat supports capacity to assess natural resource management challenges in the wake of conflict and opportunities to integrate the environmental dimension into peacebuilding. Yet, the needs far outstrip the resources now available for this kind of work.

At the same time, there are huge gains to be made by building capacities for natural resource management and good environmental governance at local, national, and regional levels in ways that not only help fight poverty and achieve sustainable development goals but also reduce the risk of future conflict. A robust approach to investment in environmental peacebuilding must include these twin aspects of response and prevention.

High on the agenda at Rio is how to improve the Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development which includes reform in the UN system, the international financial institutions, and the multilateral development banks, as well as measures to strengthen transparency, public participation, and access to justice in decisions over environment and development. While these may sound like abstract principles, people like Madam Jallow know they can also be matters of life and death.

This article is one in a series emerging from the conference, “Identifying Lessons for Natural Resource Management in Post-Conflict Peacebuilding,” held at Columbia University April 25, 2012, and co-hosted by the Earth Institute and the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), UNEP, ELI, the University of Tokyo, and McGill University; in cooperation with the Advanced Consortium for Conflict, Cooperation and Complexity and the Vale Columbia Center on Sustainable International Investment. For more information about the conference and the book series, please go to http://environmentalpeacebuilding.org/.