July 2008

Green Diplomacy

Cross-border "peace parks" are cooling hot spots as they conserve ecosystems

By Michael Blanding

Amid five years of violence and political strife, Iraq has seen one unmitigated success: the restoration of its marshes. Saddam Hussein drained the marshes, known as al-Ahwar, in the 1990s to punish his enemies, the Shia Muslim Ma'dan, or Marsh Arabs. But thanks to a United Nations environmental program, the area is lush and green again, with millions of Basra reed warblers, Iraq babblers and sacred ibises breeding among the tall waving reeds.

"We need to convince people the environment is another diplomatic card you can play at the negotiating table," says Saleem Ali, A94. Photo: Mark Mahaney

There is only one obstacle to fully restoring the marsh system: half of it lies in Iran, with which Iraq has a history of violent conflict. Recently, the U.N. brought the two countries together in meetings to discuss the first tentative steps towards cooperating in wetlands conservation.

But Saleem Ali, A94, sees the possibility for more-a joint national park that would not only repair the wetlands but help repair relations between the two governments.

Ali, an associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Vermont, has high hopes for such "peace parks." He views them as a powerful way to combine environmental protection with international diplomacy. In the past 20 years, he notes, the number of peace parks has more than tripled, from 59 to 227.

Now, Ali and a Tufts colleague, Charles Chester, an adjunct assistant professor of environmental studies at the Fletcher School, are on the front lines of an effort to green some of the world's most violent corners.

Putting It to the Test

The concept dates back to 1932, with the formation of the Waterton Glacier International Peace Park between the United States and Canada. While that designation was largely symbolic-the two countries had been at peace for 150 years-the concept was put to the test in 1997 at the end of a border war between Peru and Ecuador.

The two countries agreed to withdraw troops and designate the border zone as the Condor-Kutuku Conservation Corridor, an area of dense cloud forests that are home to spider monkeys, forest falcons and other endangered species. "In places where the main problem is the demarcation of borders, peace parks can provide a face-saving strategy for both sides," says Ali.

In other countries, they can offer a way to share water, timber and other resources or, more often, avoid a "common aversion" such as water depletion or species extinction. In West Africa, the countries of Niger, Benin and Burkina Faso have collaborated on the "W" International Peace Park (named for its shape) as a way to preserve species including lions and elephants.

Such cooperation can sometimes get countries talking about other issues as well. The often-hostile countries of Macedonia and Albania, having recently signed a treaty on joint environmental management of a sensitive lake, have entered into broader negotiations.

Making Peace Personal

For Ali, who majored in chemistry at Tufts and earned advanced degrees from Yale and MIT, the issue is deeply personal. He grew up in Pakistan, where he witnessed the drawn-out conflict with India over ownership of the border region of Kashmir. "It's a cause of great personal grief to me to see how these two countries who have so much in common are in such a constant state of turmoil," he says.

Caught between the armies is the ecologically vital Siachen Glacier, source for much of Pakistan's fresh water. The melting of the glacier because of global warming has caused erosion and water run-off that have destroyed habitat for snow leopards and Tibetan gazelles, and it threatens a "mountain tsunami" if the built-up water bursts forth.

Ali recently organized a conference of scientists and policy officials in Pakistan to discuss ways to avert the problem, but the deliberations were hampered by the absence of Indian scientists, who were denied visas.

This spring, he helped organize a larger conference to bring scientists from both Pakistan and India together in the neutral territory of Nepal. In between, he compiled a book, Peace Parks: Conservation and Conflict Resolution (MIT Press), as an answer to naysayers who keep telling him cooperation is impossible. "We realized that it was not just possible, but had been done," he says.

Peace parks aren't just for countries in conflict. Even countries at peace can have trouble managing common environmental issues. "Very rarely do borders jibe with ecosystem boundaries," says Chester, F96, G96, F03, author of Conservation Across Borders: Biodiversity in an Interdependent World (Island Press).

Chester studied conservation efforts in the Sonoran desert on the U.S.-Mexico border. His "canary in the coalmine": the Sonoran pronghorn antelope, the second-fastest animal in the world after the cheetah. A road and a vehicle barrier along the border have cut the antelopes' population in half, creating genetic inbreeding that leaves them vulnerable to extinction.

As part of his Ph.D. at the Fletcher School, Chester had previously been involved in a successful collaboration on the U.S.-Canadian border called "Yellowstone to Yukon," which helped preserve species of wolves, grizzly bears and wolverines in the northern Rocky Mountains.

Scientists on both sides of the border were able to achieve more than either could alone, in part simply by branding the area after two iconic wilderness symbols to win support from government officials and foundations. "A minimum of $45 million dollars has come into the region that without that label probably wouldn't have," he says.

Fences Don't Make Good Neighbors

By contrast, an effort to build a peace park by the International Sonoran Desert Alliance crumbled under the difficulty of communicating between three different cultures: Mexicans, Americans and a Native American tribe called the O'odham, each with its own language and competing needs.

"No one was going to come to talk about the Sonoran pronghorn if they couldn't also talk about health care, drug smuggling and getting across the border to go shopping," says Chester.

While that effort did help spur creation of several parks in Mexico, the current U.S. proposal to build a wall on the border could be nothing short of disastrous to the environment. "With this wall, you are not only going to stop the pronghorn from crossing, you are going to stop all non-flying species, with one exception-humans," says Chester.

A unified focus on conservation could help opponents defeat the proposal. "If we could promote this cohesive identity, we could fight that wall," he says. While Congress approved construction of some 700 miles of triple-layer fence, only a small fraction of that has been built, mostly near major cities, as lawmakers continue to debate the cost and effectiveness of the barrier. Chester hopes that risks caused to the pronghorn, jaguar and other species could provide new grist to opponents and lead at least to a scaling back of the wall, if not nix it entirely for the Sonoran area.

Of course, if peace parks can't succeed here at home, one might wonder what hope they have in volatile regions such as the Middle East. Ali counters that two peace parks closest to becoming a reality are on the borders of freshly war-torn Afghanistan and Cambodia.

Even in Kashmir, India's prime minister recently proposed making Siachen Glacier a demilitarized "peace mountain," behind which high-ranking Pakistani military officials have also thrown their support. Though recent electoral turmoil in Pakistan puts the situation in doubt, Ali heads to Nepal hopeful that pragmatism will eventually win out.

"We need to convince people," he says, "that the environment is another diplomatic card you can play at the negotiating table."

This story first appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of Tufts Magazine.

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