Peace Parks: Conservation and Conflict Resolution

Edited by Saleem Ali. MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2007.

By Ken Simons (reviewer)

One of the many unexpected bits of fallout from the September 11, 2001 attacks was the extension of the "war on terror" to the world's first peace park. The unlikely targets were outdoorsy types who would hike 20km through the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park to arrive at Goat Haunt border crossing in northern Montana. Suddenly, Homeland Security was saying that Goat Haunt would have to close because it had neither electricity, computers, nor road access.

The border-crossing issue was eventually sorted out, but there have been other post-2001 repercussions in Waterton-Glacier - there are fewer staff for conservation-related jobs because more are required for security, and responses to forest fires and other emergencies have to fit in with new security protocols.

The park had been established in 1932, following years of cross-border cooperation between naturalists and park officials on both sides of the border. In 1931, Rotary Club members in both countries lobbied for the symbolic "peace" designation for the new international park. Both the US Congress and the Canadian House of Commons found no problem with that - in 1932, peace was very much a motherhood issue - nor with the idea that the international border would be largely invisible within the park.

Saleem Ali, a professor of environmental planning at the University of Vermont, is editor of Peace Parks, a new collection of papers on the complex relationships which link land use, conservation, and war prevention. He establishes that the proposals discussed in the book are not just empty symbolic gestures ("of course we believe in peace - see, we dedicated a park to it") but multifaceted efforts to prevent conflict through joint environmental protection measures.

The 31 contributors include environmentalists, military officers, political scientists, and park rangers. The situations they describe range from Korea (where the idea of a peace park in the Demilitarized Zone is really only at the blue-sky thinking stage) to West Africa (where the "W" park has been largely successful in protecting the Niger river basin from poaching and deforestation).

It is in Africa that the links between environmental protection, economic development, and regional peace have been most fully thought out. Aside from the "W" park, successful projects have also included the Selous-Niassa elephant corridor - originally a grassroots project, linking village-based wildlife management areas between Tanzania and Mozambique.

South Africa's Peace Parks Foundation has done groundbreaking work in the legal frameworks for peace parks. It is directly involved in at least six projects in southern Africa, including a transborder park which would expand the area protected by South Africa's historic Kruger National Park into Mozambique and Zimbabwe. This would allow those countries to develop ecotourism as part of their local economies. South African conservation efforts, in turn, would benefit as the available grazing range for elephants and other large mammals is already at its maximum.

Civil wars and insurgencies can complicate the relationship between conservation and peacebuilding. National parks are often used as free-fire zones by both sides in a conflict, and as shelter by civilians and insurgent soldiers. In post-conflict situations, parkland has often been used to resettle refugees - as, for instance, in the Great Lakes region of central Africa. Cross-border peace parks can nonetheless protect sensitive areas in times of crisis, particularly if this is codified in agreements such as UNESCO's Biosphere Reserve system.

Indigenous peoples' land rights, often seen as a competing or complicating factor in regional peacebuilding, can instead be a motor for change. In 1995, there was a brief border war between Peru and Ecuador in the Cordillera del Condor, a remote but also environmentally rich mountain region.

What followed was interesting and unusual - for the first time in modern history, environmental and indigenous groups were part of the negotiation process. As a result, the 1998 peace treaty between the two countries specified the creation of national parks on both sides of the (now formally delimited) border, with the expectation that they would compose a bi-national park.

In the intervening years, environmentalists, indigenous peoples, and logging companies have managed to work together on a framework for international cooperation - a remarkable achievement that has helped greatly in ensuring a lasting peace.

Reviewed by Ken Simons, managing editor of Peace.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2008

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2008, page 30. Some rights reserved.

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