Environmental Justice

In the coming years, will we see environmental preservation as a new approach of state policy directed at preventing and resolving conflict? I think Professor Wangari Maathai answers this question best when she says, “[T]here can be no peace without equitable development; and there can be no development without sustainable management of the environment in a democratic and peaceful space. This shift is an idea whose time has come.” Through the work of Al Gore, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and Wangari Maathai, this article will show that environmental preservation can promote peace in one of two ways. The first is through policy changes of the state government— changes from above. The second is through action at the grassroots level—changes from below. While the issue is open to debate, if governments could be influenced into action simultaneously by external and internal sources through top-down and bottom-up approaches, we would see a substantial decline in conflicts brought about by environmental degradation, the scarcity of resources, and other effects of climate change.

In the last four years two environmentalists and one environmental organization have won the Nobel Peace Prize. Wangari Maathai won in 2004 “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace” with the creation of the Greenbelt Movement in her home country of Kenya. In 2007, Al Gore and the IPCC shared the prize, “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.” Thus, the word “peace,” which the Nobel Committee identifies with “work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition of reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses,” has been officially reinterpreted to include actions of environmental preservation.

Recognition such as this from the Nobel Peace Prize Committee is significant because it confers legitimacy on the use of environmental preservation as a policy to achieve peace. It is able to do so because of the committee’s influential position in the international arena. There are over 300 peace prizes in the world, but the Nobel Peace Prize is widely recognized as the most prestigious.

Past winners of the prize have won international attention as well as material support for their causes because of the powerful influence that the Nobel carries. Examples of this phenomenon include Aung San Suu Kyi’s win in 1991, which garnered a higher international priority for the conflict in Burma in addition to a greater emphasis on human rights by Western states in their policies toward the country. The awarding of the 1996 prize to Bishop Carlos Belo and José Ramos-Horta influenced the United Nations to participate more closely in the East Timor conflict, and led several European Union countries and the United States to adjust their support for Indonesian authorities. Clearly, acknowledgement of environmental preservation as a vehicle for promoting peace has many implications for enacting alternative state policies aimed at resolving conflict both domestically and internationally.

How exactly does environmental preservation promote peace? To answer this question it is best to see how environmental degradation and the inequitable access to resources in China, South Korea, and Japan; in India and Pakistan; and in Darfur leaves these states prone to conflict. After all, people living in developing countries are especially reliant on their natural environments, as their states do not have the infrastructure to provide resources needed in daily life.

“Scores of deaths and billions of dollars in damages” in South Korea and Japan are the result of yellow dust storms that originate in the Gobi Desert of China and Mongolia, said a Seoul press release last February. More precisely, the Korean Environmental Institute explains that these yellow dust storms claim up to 165 Korean lives each year and make as many as 1.8 million people ill. Economic damages total somewhere between 4.47 and 5.86 billion dollars annually.

Yellow dust storms are comprised of heavy metals and carcinogens that are picked up by the storms as they pass over Chinese industrial regions. China’s rapid economic growth has caused massive deforestation and the degradation of other greenbelt areas, leading to an increase in the frequency and toxicity of the storms. For instance, in 2000 the Environmental Ministry of South Korea recorded over 12 dust storms—four more than the average in the 1990s and eight more than in the 1980s.

The increase in dust storms has led to mounting tensions for China with South Korea and Japan, who suffer at the expense of their neighbor’s economic expansion. To bring these dust storms to a halt and ease regional pressure, the South Korean Ministry of Environment has begun planting over 20 million trees, while the Chinese government is in the process of creating the world’s largest man-made forest at the inner Mongolian border city of Chengde.

According to the Global Policy Forum, there are approximately 300 potential conflicts concerning water around the world, originating from arguments over river borders and the drawing of water from shared water sources. One of the most serious disputes involving the control of riverheads is between India and Pakistan. Hostilities over water are intensifying as supply becomes scarce for both states. A report by the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies explains that population explosion in the areas surrounding the rivers and neglect of the downstream country’s use of the rivers, together with the mismanagement of this vital resource, is partly responsible for water’s increasing scarcity.

The Final Settlement: Restructuring India-Pakistan Relations, a report from the International Centre for Peace Initiatives, a Mumbai-based independent think tank, says, “Pakistan is not interested in Kashmir alone; Pakistan wants Kashmir plus those districts of Jammu that form the catchment area of the Chenab (River)…A water war between Kashmir and Pakistan is inevitable in the future.” Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has recognized the clash over control of the waters. In his college dissertation regarding the distribution of Indus River waters between India and Pakistan, he wrote that it had the “germs of future conflict.”

In the case of Sudan, particularly Darfur, deserts have spread an average of 100 kilometers over the last four decades. This process of desertification has forced Arabs to move farther south every year, bringing them into conflict with African farmers. Moreover, with over five million internally displaced people and international refugees, a United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) report explains that the Sudan has the largest number of displaced persons in the world. Such immense displacement is also responsible for widespread deforestation because wood is the country’s main source of fuel.

On this subject, Achim Steiner, the Executive Director of UNEP, has said, “central to keeping the peace will be the war in which Sudan’s environment is rehabilitated and managed. Sudan’s tragedy is not just the tragedy of one country in Africa—it is a window to a wider world underlining how issues such as uncontrolled depletion of natural resources like soils and forests allied to impacts like climate change can destabilize communities, even entire nations.”

The Nobel Committee stated that by awarding the Peace Prize to the IPCC and Al Gore, it was “seeking to contribute to a sharper focus on the processes and decisions that appear to be necessary to protect the world’s future climate, and thereby, to reduce the threat to the security of mankind. Action is necessary now, before climate change moves beyond man’s control.” It is evident that Al Gore won the Peace Prize because of his aim to influence states to introduce legislation that promotes environmental preservation through awareness-raising about the effects that man-made climate change will have on our environment. Through his media campaigns—including his books, his film An Inconvenient Truth, and travel on the lecture circuit—Al Gore has applied pressure to states to reform their policies.

When asked about his thoughts on the integration of environmental preservation into state policy as a means to achieve peace, Al Gore said via email, “This is unfortunate that there does exist a connection between the likelihood that global climate disruptions will stress the international order, and perhaps tragically increase the risk of armed conflict. That this unfortunate connection does exist should not distract us from the other human challenges that climate change will impose. Those impacts are widely predicted, and will be severe, particularly affecting the world’s poor. Individual citizens typically have a hard time thinking beyond their interests for the national good, and national leaders have a hard time thinking beyond their domestic priorities for the global good. Without a robust and objective institution like the IPCC, scientific consensus on climate change, much less political consensus, probably would remain out of reach today.”

On the other hand, the International Panel on Climate Change received the Nobel Peace Prize not only for research on the effects of man-made climate change, but research that takes into account the international perspective. For example, IPCC documents explain how water and food scarcity are issues growing out of climate change, and how these issues cause cross-border or internal conflicts. Moreover, the IPCC provides policy-relevant information for understanding man-made climate change and recommendations for its alleviation. The IPCC recognizes man’s reliance on the environment for his livelihood and that certain areas of the world are more reliant on their surrounding natural environments than others. Furthermore, it seeks to disseminate its research in developing countries, especially those more vulnerable to the negative consequences of climate change.

Lastly, Wangari Maathai has promoted peace on more than one level through her creation of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya. For one, she and her organization have planted 30 million trees to stop deforestation. Between 1950 and 2000, Kenya lost more than 90% of its trees, causing soil erosion, water pollution, difficulty finding firewood, and lack of animal nutrition, among other effects;.

Professor Maathai’s grassroots environmental development project not only addresses the above-mentioned environmental issues, but also builds agency among the local populations involved. Money that enters the projects remains in the targeted areas because local women are the operating officials. Women receive an income, feel a sense of ownership of the work they are doing as well as a stronger bond to their community members, and obtain new skills. Actions such as these work toward the promotion of peace in their own way; when people people living in poverty-stricken areas have job security and can provide for themselves and their families, tensions among them are greatly relieved.

Wangari Maathai faced heavy opposition from the Moi government for her growing popularity and political and social influence, so much so that she was thrown in jail and beaten to the point of hospitalization on separate occasions. Thus, while the strengthening of communities would seem to alleviate pressure on the government to give state aid to communities, it often has the opposite effect. Governments of developing countries are able to maintain a level of control over their populations because those populations are depressed and do not have strong powerbases to rival the elites that are in power. The strengthening of communities is often accompanied by stronger calls for governmental reform by emerging community leaders or groups. It is also possible that successful local development movements will produce political candidates, as was the case with Wangari Maathai, who represents her region in parliament.

The work that Wangari Maathai has done with the Green Belt Movement has gained widespread international support and political clout. Her movement has gone on to plant over 30 million trees, as well as expand her grassroots organization to numerous countries throughout Africa to promote peace through environmental work.

When asked about her thoughts on how environmental preservation could be used as a strategy to promote peace, Professor Maathai said via email, “[T]he world has come to a point where environment and sustainable development have become a key to conflict prevention and resolution. Look at what is happening here in Africa and I just heard that there are 50 million refugees roaming around because of environmental degradation. That kind of figure has always a potential to become a big crisis involving several nations.”

It is clear from the cases of China and its yellow dust storms negatively affecting its neighboring countries; India and Pakistan and the dispute over the control of waters; and Darfur and desertification aggravating the Arab/African conflict that environmental degradation is a primary source for both internal and cross-border conflicts. If working to alleviate a global cause of massive human misery does not justify a Prize for Peace, it’s hard to think of what does. Without a figure like Al Gore who can highlight grave risks while remaining optimistically focused on potential solutions, scientific consensus might have led to despair, with citizens and national leaders alike mired in a rising swamp of inaction. At the same time, figures like Wangari Maathai are invaluable to starting the process of change. Her ability to mobilize people at the community level and promote environmental preservation in a democratic way, while facing opposition from her own government, is the necessary complement to the top-down work of Al Gore and the IPCC. There is no doubt that if governments could be moved to incorporate acts of environmental preservation into both their peacekeeping and security policies, the world would see a substantial and enduring decline in conflicts brought about by environmental degradation, the scarcity of resources, and other effects of climate change.