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ENVIRONMENTAL PEACEBUILDING: An Old Idea Is New Again


There’s a new concept gaining steam on the international scene.

It’s called "environmental peacebuilding” or “environmental peacemaking” (and sometimes “environmental mediation”). It’s based on the principle that our common dependence on the natural world—clean water, fresh air, usable timber, or accessible oil, metals and minerals—can provide a pathway to peace for parties in conflict.

Put another way, it’s the idea that cooperation among countries is essential because natural resources often cross politically-drawn boundaries. The left bank is occupied by one people group; the right, another, but toxic vapor affects them both. No less than ten countries share the Nile river basin, so what one country does to the water profoundly affects those downstream. The emissions from China drift all the way back to the Western United States; not only are both countries harmed, but so is every people group in between. There’s an interdependence of our eco-systems. When those resources are degraded or poisoned, no single country or people group can fix the problem.

It’s that very interdependence that provides a foundation for communities in conflict to build upon in working towards sustainable peace. The ultimate goal is to build trust, to reconcile the communities to one another.

This concept works even in high conflict situations--where there’s longstanding ethnic, political, or religious hostility--because the parties are encouraged to focus on the interests they share, rather than those that divide them. They’re challenged to build consensus around the resources that have no moral implication other than the fact that all of mankind is charged with stewardship over the natural world.

Virtually every major religion includes the moral imperative to care for the environment. It’s one of the few things upon which we can all agree. It’s a natural ground, pardon the pun, for working toward peace:

Islamic perspective: The Qur’an says that Allah (God) is the Creator of the world. Human beings are in the world as trustees or ‘viceregents’ - they are told to look after the world for Allah and for the future: “The Earth is green and beautiful, and Allah has appointed you his stewards over it. The whole earth has been created a place of worship, pure and clean. Whoever plants a tree and diligently looks after it until it matures and bears fruit is rewarded. If a Muslim plants a tree or sows a field and humans and beasts and birds eat from it, all of it is love on his part.”

Buddhist teaching: The Dalai Lama writes that “Since I deeply believe that basically human beings are of a gentle nature so I think the human attitude towards our environment should be gentle.”

Judeo-Christian viewpoint: Not only are Jews and Christians called to steward the natural world, but also Scripture repeatedly tells us that the natural world is a gift from our Creator: “you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land he has given you.” Look at the language of Psalm 8:

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, 4 what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?

5 You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. 6 You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet: 7 all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild, 8 the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.

New Age thought: This perspective includes the concept that there’s a spiritual inter-connectedness between all living things. When one is harmed, all suffer. Think Avatar.

Native American beliefs: The sacred is visible throughout the natural world. There’s a reverence for the animals that provide meat and clothing, for the gifts of corn, squash, soybeans, and other plants.

I wrote at the beginning of this post that there’s a new/old aspect to environmental peacebuilding.

It’s new in the sense that all major peace agreements since 2005 include provisions on land and natural resources. Increasingly, rather than turning to war, blockades, or litigation, warring factions are eyeing nearby natural resources as the building block for resolving all types of conflict. More and more, lawyers are involved in this process because mediation and peacebuilding brings together aspects of national and international law, regulatory provisions, negotiation, science, diplomacy, and contractual agreements. All things that already are a part of the practice of law.

The “new” factor also comes into play because green innovation is moving fast. We now have more creative ways to tackle environmental degradation, which gives communities in conflict more options to use in building a lasting peace.

Environmental peacebuilding is old in the sense that reconciliation is the story of Christ. Through Jesus Christ, “God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ's blood on the cross.” (Col. 1:20).

Scripture says “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.” (1 Tim. 2).

We reflect the Glory of God when we use peaceful and affirming grounds to reconcile people groups to one another. Let us continue on that path.

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