What Is Environmental Peacebuilding?

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Citation: Dresse, A., Fischhendler, I., Nielsen, J. O., & Zikos, D. (2019). Environmental peacebuilding: Towards a theoretical framework. Cooperation and Conflict, 54(1), 99-119.

Keywords: environment, peacebuilding, cooperation, research, structural violence

Environmental peacebuilding is an emerging field in both academic and practitioner communities that views environmental conflict as an opportunity to build peace rather than exclusively as a pathway to violence. It has gained attention among many international organizations, non-governmental organizations, and scholars, creating new research and funding opportunities. Yet, this article argues that the field lacks a “harmonized framework and empiric data,” resulting in a lack of clarity around what environmental peacebuilding is or is not. In an effort to fill this gap, the authors offer a research framework based on a critical assessment of existing scholarship in “peace and conflict studies, political ecology, hydropolitics, and institutional and ecological economics.”

The authors offer the following definition of environmental peacebuilding: “the process through which environmental challenges shared by the (former) parties to a violent conflict are turned into opportunities to build lasting cooperation and peace.” By employing the term peacebuilding, the field is oriented towards addressing both direct and structural violence and consists of inclusive activities that take place throughout a typical conflict cycle (before, during, and after a violent conflict). Environmental peacebuilding sees the natural environment as an opportunity for cooperation. This means shifting from political borders to “ecosystem borders,” acknowledging that many ecosystems, like river basins or forests, are commonly shared by multiple communities and/or countries and supersede political boundaries (whether understood as borders between countries or between different political communities within countries). Environmental peacebuilding assumes that the mutual benefits gained from cooperating over natural resources will outweigh more self-interested motivations to escalate conflict.

Structural violence  a form of violence wherein some social structure of social institution harms people by preventing them fro meeting their basic needs. This type of violence cannot be traced to a particular actor or agent.

Galtung, J. (1969). Violence, peace, and peace research. Journal of Peace Research, 6(3), 167-191

While the existing literature discusses the various ways in which environmental peacebuilding can operate, there is not a clear consensus or understanding of how environment-peace activities contribute to building a lasting and inclusive peace. The authors offer their research framework to both address this gap and move their field towards a stronger theoretical and empirical basis.

First, they propose three overarching questions for researchers to address:

  1. Initial conditions: when do conflict parties resort to cooperation instead of competition over natural resources?” This question focuses on both the environmental and the socio-political context of a specific case, taking into consideration elements like power disparities, histories of conflict, or the use and sharing of environmental resources.
  2. Mechanisms: how do parties address shared environmental challenges?” This question focuses on the activities and implementation of environmental peacebuilding, namely, how to create “neutral spaces” where conflicting parties can interact and how to develop technical means by which they can cooperate.
  3. Outcomes: why do they do so and what are the expected v. actual benefits?” This question outlines the direct and indirect benefits from an environmental peacebuilding activity. The authors theorize that the direct benefits could include “the reduction of environmental problems, uncertainty or resource inequality,” whereas the indirect benefits could include dialogue and trust-building among conflicting parties that positively influence negotiations on other, non-environmental concerns.

Following the discussion of these questions, the authors offer an additional three “trajectories” for future work and research in environmental peacebuilding. The first is “technical environmental peacebuilding,” or coordinating solutions to environmental challenges among the conflicting parties. While the authors note that technical solutions alone do not constitute peacebuilding, they can serve as a first step towards broader cooperation and interdependence. The second is “restorative action,” which creates a space to acknowledge historical injustices among conflicting parties and begin to create a shared identity on the basis of each other’s reliance on the natural environment. The third is “sustainable environmental peacebuilding,” which leads to “equitable resource distribution as a pre-requisite for sustainable development and peace.”

Ultimately, the authors intend that this research framework will empower researchers to conduct comparative work and build a relevant evidence base for environmental peacebuilding. Yet, they also identify areas in which the framework is lacking. Environmental peacebuilding rests on a linear approach, but, in practice, it is far messier—for instance, when it co-exists during active conflict. At its core, environmental peacebuilding is based on an assumption that cooperation on the environment can “spill over” to other areas of political or social contention, thus creating a more lasting and inclusive peace. In reality, the work is complicated by the sheer number of relevant economic, ecological, and political variables. This complexity also makes research on environmental peacebuilding challenging, as it is difficult to attribute the outcomes of a particular environmental peacebuilding initiative, especially given the dynamic nature of realities on the ground.

Talking Points

  • Environmental peacebuilding is an emerging field that views conflict over environmental resources as an opportunity for conflicting parties to cooperate with one another and, ultimately, work towards establishing a lasting and sustainable peace.
  • Despite a surge in attention and interest in the work of environmental peacebuilding, the field lacks a research framework and evidence base that can link the activities of environmental peacebuilding to its stated objectives.
  • By creating a more cohesive research framework, the field of environmental peacebuilding can build a knowledge base that can better link cooperation over natural resources to peacebuilding activities that address both direct and structural violence.

Informing Practice 

Environmental peacebuilding is an emerging field that has garnered much excitement from both academic and practitioner communities—and for good reason. From a practitioner perspective, it blends observations from the ground regarding the use of and access to natural resources with insights about how this resource use relates to communal conflict as well as communities’ standards of living. While natural resources are normally thought to create or exacerbate conflict, environmental peacebuilding instead highlights the way in which natural resources can provide opportunities for cooperation. From an academic perspective, the field of environmental peacebuilding draws on various disciplines, from political science to economics and ecology, which results in the creation of a new and dynamic field of study. Yet, this diversity of perspectives is also a source of confusion, as various academic disciplines enter the conversation with their own unique assumptions, theoretical orientations, and methodologies. How can a researcher embark on an environmental peacebuilding study while accounting for all this nuance?

Defining environmental peacebuilding is a crucial step in the right direction. Additionally, the research framework offered in this paper draws an important distinction between technical solutions to environmental problems and how such solutions can be tied to broader restorative and sustainable action. While a technical solution to an environmental problem in a fragile or conflict-affected scenario is a great success, if that solution is not oriented towards transforming the conflict and addressing its root causes, then it falls outside of what the field means by environmental peacebuilding. Peacebuilding is to address both direct and structural violence, not simply to provide technical solutions that may reinforce existing asymmetries in power, access, and use of natural resources.

Finally, there is a credible fear that the impacts of global climate change will result in an uptick of violence from stress on natural resources—and some evidence is emerging that suggests this might be the case (see O’Loughlin and Hendrix in Continued Reading). However, there is also work and research emerging in environmental peacebuilding that shows how cooperation in natural resource use can de-escalate tensions (see Mercy Corps in Continued Reading). In particular, there is a rich history and literature in water and peace (see Kramer in Continued Reading). As we anticipate the effects of global warming in the near future, there is no easy way to predict how changes in the natural environment will result in change in our social, political, and economic relations and systems. But learning from past experiences of cooperation rather than conflict over natural resources can only help our chances of preventing climate-related armed conflict.