More than ever, hostile countries that share borders are working together to save their common environments.
Last month, Iran, Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan declared war ... on thejellyfish. A particularly voracious species known as Mnemiopsis is munching happily on phytoplankton in the Caspian Sea, the building block for the sea's valuable fish stocks. As a result, they're wiping out sturgeon and every other type of fish.Skip to next paragraph
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None of the five nations wants to see a repeat of what happened a few years ago in the Black Sea, when the Mnemiopsis biomass - like the blob that ate New York in a long-ago B-movie - grew larger than the world's entire commercial fish catch.
So the Caspian countries, spurred by their common jellyfish enemy, are coordinating under the umbrella of the Caspian Environment Program. A five-year-old cooperative project to clean up the Caspian, the CEP has made some significant headway as well as willing partners out of feisty competitors.
Environmental problems that cross borders have often raised tensions between nations. But a new generation of scholars and activists see in these problems an opportunity to bring nations closer together. They even have a name for it: environmental peacemaking.
From disputed territory between Peru and Ecuador to the China-Vietnam border, hot spots that could trigger war instead have shown potential to bring peace. Big political challenges persist, of course. But advocates of environmental peacemaking point to a growing body of evidence that shows that working together to save the environment can begin to make peaceful neighbors of once-feisty nations.
"Environmental peacemaking is a reaction to the overwhelmingly negative focus on environmental conflict," says Geoffrey Dabelko, director of the Environmental Change and Security Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. "The focus has been on the glass half empty. We need to focus on how can we harness the environment, be more proactive - turn the whole issue on its head."
When it comes, for example, to who gets the rich oil deposits under the Caspian, the five nations that border it are still fierce rivals. But when it comes to the sea's environmental quality, they are quickly learning to bury the hatchet and work together.
The Caspian's problems are enormous. Even before the Mnemiopsis came to the Caspian in ship ballast water through the Volga River, oil slicks, sewage, and overfishing threatened to kill the region's valuable fish stocks on which all five nations rely. Now the jellyfish are rapidly taking over. Just two inches long, Mnemiopsis reproduces quickly - about 8,000 young every day.
"The environmental challenge in the Caspian really has brought these governments together," says Mary Matthews, an environmental consultant currently working on the cleanup. "Sure, there are some serious problems, but there's also new hope for the Caspian."
While not new, environmental peacekeeping has been neglected for years by researchers and activists in the field of environmental security. Now, that's starting to change.
"One reason we're seeing a lot more interest in this idea now is that the optimism of the early 1990s around the Rio Earth Summit has really waned," says Ken Conca, director of the Harrison Program on the Future Global Agenda at the University of Maryland in College Park. "It's increasingly clear that broadly global and formally institutional intergovernment cooperation will not be forthcoming anytime soon. So people at the grass roots are looking for more practical approaches on a more regional rather than global scale."
That includes "peace parks," often created in transboundary areas with ecological significance. The number of transboundary protected areas, including peace parks, more than doubled from 59 in 1988 to 169 in 2001 in 113 countries, according to the World Commission on Protected Areas.
While many such parks are, like laurel wreaths, bestowed only after hostilities cease - in a growing number of instances the parks are themselves the catalyst for peace. In 1998, for example, Peru and Ecuador established Cordillera del Condor Peace Transborder Reserve in a section of rain forest. Where for decades the two nations had fired periodic artillery barrages at each another along this disputed section of border land, the two now comanage a park.
That success encourages activist academics like Saleem Hassan Ali, a political scientist at the University of Vermont at Burlington. As this year marks the 50th anniversary of the first scaling of the fearsome mountain K2, by an Italian team, Professor Ali and other researchers along with activist groups are pushing India, Pakistan, and China to establish a peace park in the Karakoram area around it. The plan would involve a comanaged park that would draw ecotourists, but still protect the snow leopard, Marco Polo sheep, and Tibetan gazelle.