Environmental peacemaking

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.

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.

That might seem a long shot to some, except that transboundary parks are popping up like mushrooms in Africa among nations [see related story left] that not long ago were shooting at one another.

Not all parks are on a glide path, however. Since the war ended in 1953, the narrow 115-mile-long demilitarized zone between the two Koreas has undergone a radical transformation. Although it's the most heavily mined area in the world, the DMZ has become a tranquil Eden.

Untrammeled by man for more than 50 years, the zone between the razor wire has seen idle rice paddies morph into wetlands, now home to rare birds and small animals like the red-crowned crane and yellow-necked marten. Anything not large enough to trigger a land mine can call it home.

Just a few years ago, warming relations between North and South Korea brought calls for the DMZ to be turned into a UNESCO world biosphere preserve. Now, with tensions rising over North Korea's nuclear problem, the idea has ground to a halt.

"This is something that groups in South Korea would very much like to see - and they're pushing for it," says Esook Yoon, a political scientist at Kent State University in Ohio. "Ideally they want to do that, expand it to a peacemaking process. But because of the standoff over nuclear materials this process is stuck right now."

Similarly, a push by the Friends of the Earth Middle East (FOEME) to get Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority to cooperate in piping Red Sea water into the dying Dead Sea has been at an impasse since renewed hostilities.

Diversion of rivers flowing into the world's saltiest body of water has caused it to fall from 1,280 feet below sea level to more than 1,360 feet below sea level in the past 50 years - evaporating to just a third of its former size. An $800 million pipeline from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea would help restore the sea, eliminate sink holes, and encourage tourism.

"The project is presently stuck," Gidon Bromberg, an FOEME activist, comments in an e-mail. "I think the project, though, is far from dead and that the parties will find the language to move forward."

Despite severe obstacles, some working examples of environmental peacemaking are popping up in unexpected corners of the world. Today the highway corridor connecting China and Vietnam, bitter enemies for centuries, is still the largest conduit for smuggled wildlife in the world. Trucks filled with sacks of snakes, turtles, pangolin, mongoose, and civet cats flowed across the border into China, recalls Tom Dillon of the World Wildlife Fund, who worked on halting such smuggling.

For years China had seemed relatively unconcerned, while Vietnam was furious over losing its wildlife. But in the past year, the two nations have begun working much more closely on enforcement measures to stem the tide of Vietnamese and Laotian wildlife smuggling, Mr. Dillon says.

He predicts more progress this fall when talks under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, in Bangkok, ratchet up the pressure on China and others nations.

"As the SARS epidemic has revealed the link between the consumption of wildlife and public health, they've become much more serious about stemming use of wildlife in medicine and stopping the trade in these species," he says.

In the long run these efforts will succeed more often than not, Dr. Matthews predicts. "There's not much in the way of political stakes, so if all fails there's not nearly the embarrassment there would be on a cooperative deal on the economy or military," she says. "The environment is just a nice soft-political backdoor way for countries to get along."

Maybe that's why the US and Cuba, along with Mexico, have embarked on a new research program into the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem. It is thought that Gulf currents carry fish, lobster, and larvae of other species from Cuba and Mexico into US waters, and that sea turtles that nest on US beaches feed in Cuban waters.

"Despite a chillier and chillier political climate between the US and Cuba, this set of research activities has been licensed by the US Treasury Department," says David Guggenheim, head of the newly formed Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University, in an e-mail. "We have gained support from the highest levels of government in Cuba."

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