This forum reflects upon the current state of research on post-conflict natural resource management. It identifies two dominant perspectives on environmental peacebuilding in the literature: one focused on environmental cooperation, the other on resource risk. Both perspectives share a concern for the sustainable management of natural resources in post-conflict settings and prescribe environmental cooperation at large as a means to foster peace and stability. Yet both perspectives also feature notable differences: The cooperation perspective is driven by a faith in the potential of environmental cooperation to contribute to long-term peace through spillover effects. The resource risk perspective, however, recognizes that resource-induced instability may arise after intrastate conflict; stressing the need to mitigate instability by implementing environmental cooperation initiatives. Despite the significant contributions of both perspectives, neither has provided any cohesive theoretical understanding of environmental peacebuilding. This article suggests a timely revision of the research agenda to address this gap.
For international and domestic actors, post-conflict situations constitute one of the most difficult policy arenas to understand and operate within. In this context, the role of natural resources management has received increasing scholarly attention over the past two decades, as researchers have focused on the ecological foundations for a socially, economically, and politically resilient peace. However, this research has not led to a cohesive theoretical understanding of the pathways by which environmental cooperation facilitates peace. This is concerning, because it is increasingly evident that the interaction between social, political, and ecological processes decisively shapes the post-conflict landscape. In fact, a range of UNEP initiatives in Sierra Leone have conveyed the need to acknowledge and understand these complex interactions. In this country that suffered under a decade-long civil war, natural resource management has affected human development, the stability of peace, and prospects for sustainable development (United Nations Environment Programme 2017). The explicit inclusion of peace as goal 16 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) alongside social, economic, and ecological goals further stresses the importance of studying post-conflict natural resource management.
At this critical moment, I reflect on the present research agenda on natural resource management in post-conflict countries. I identify and critically review two dominant perspectives, which share concern for the sustainable management of natural resources in post-conflict settings and emphasize the potential for environmental cooperation to foster peace and stability. However, there are notable distinctions between the approaches: The cooperation perspective is driven by the potential of environmental cooperation to contribute to peace through spillover effects, focusing primarily on the interstate level, and often on conflict prevention rather than post-conflict peacebuilding. In contrast, the resource risk perspective recognizes resource-induced instability, especially after intrastate conflicts, and stresses the need to mitigate these risks through facilitating environmental cooperation.
Scholars from both perspectives have contributed valuable insights to the field of natural resource management. However, they have crucially neglected the theoretically informed empirical analysis that is indispensable for understanding whether environmental cooperation will actually facilitate peace. I argue in favor of revising this research agenda to focus on the rigorous, theory-driven study of the long-term interplay of social, political, and ecological processes in post-conflict countries, and to theorize how these processes may affect the potential for long-term peace. This effort will be needed to thoroughly understand how to build a peace that is socially and politically relevant and desirable as well as ecologically sensitive and viable.
The Cooperation Perspective
Beginning in the late 1990s, scholars critiquing the research focus on environmental conflict argued that research should study the rise of cooperative solutions in the face of natural resource scarcity (Wallensteen and Swain 1997, 702). Ken Conca outlined a first theoretical framework, suggesting that “carefully designed initiatives for environmental cooperation” could facilitate peace. Peace in this case meant “several dependent variables that might be affected by environmental cooperation,” such as perceptions of other actors, actors’ cost-benefit calculations, and broader societal changes (Conca 2001, 227). Succeeding empirical assessments of this relationship focused on two mechanisms that could possibly affect these variables: “changing the strategic climate”—that is, influencing the cost-benefit calculations of states to make conflict less appealing—and “strengthening post-Westphalian governance”—that is, affecting society broadly by disseminating new transnational norms (Conca and Dabelko 2002, 9). Like studies before, the case studies confirmed that environmental issues may provide an entry point for cooperation (Conca and Dabelko 2002).
Subsequent analyses, especially of water governance in fragile states, focused on the quality of cooperation, linking it to power asymmetries and hegemony (Zeitoun and Mirumachi 2008). Studies of transboundary water management provide abundant examples in which environmental cooperation prevailed between nations in the face of water scarcity (e.g., Jägerskog et al. 2015). In fact, disputes over water are frequently resolved through interstate cooperation rather than armed conflict (Delli Priscoli and Wolf 2009). The institutional design of treaties and joint river commissions has especially determined the character of such dispute resolution (e.g., Mitchell and Zawahri 2015).
Further empirical work has investigated the potential of trans-frontier conservation areas or peace parks. Recognizing demilitarized zones as de facto protected areas, scholars have suggested transforming their status to formal protected areas. This would shift the discourse from border security and division to cooperation and conservation of biodiversity hotspots. Cooperation could then facilitate trust among nations, generate livelihood for local actors through eco-tourism, and potentially provide spillover effects fostering broader cooperation (e.g., Ali 2007). Proposals supporting such peace parks exist for North and South Korea (Healy 2007), India and Pakistan (Swain 2009), and the Balkans (Walters 2015). Nevertheless, critics stress the complex politics challenging cooperation in transnational conservation (Duffy 2006), and some scholars caution that the concept supports a neoliberal agenda in developing countries (Swatuk 2014).
The cooperation perspective also features two salient empirical problems. First, research has focused almost exclusively on interstate relations, yet the majority of contemporary armed conflicts, and thus post-conflict peacebuilding, concern intrastate relations. Second, empirical measurement of the effects of environmental cooperation on peace has been neglected, thereby disregarding theory development. The positive effects of environmental cooperation on peace therefore often remain assumed rather than empirically verified. Indeed, research of post-conflict Nepal that has qualitatively measured the effects of environmental cooperation on political legitimacy—as a proxy for peace—indicates that successful cooperation does not necessarily mean more peaceful relations in the short term (Krampe 2016).
The Resource Risk Perspective
The second perspective of environmental peacebuilding emerged in tandem with increasing interest in natural resources and conflict by the UN. After its establishment in 2005, the UN Peacebuilding Commission emphasized that peacebuilding must pay more attention to natural resources (Swain and Krampe 2011, 207). The subsequent increase in cooperation between the UN Peacebuilding Commission and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) gave rise to a collaborative research project that included the Environmental Law Institute, the University of Tokyo, and McGill University. The resulting resource perspective is distinct in working against the backdrop of resource-induced conflict as a challenge for post-conflict peacebuilding, focusing on the intrastate level and UN peacebuilding, and broadly including renewable and nonrenewable resources.
This perspective treats the mismanagement of natural resources as the key threat for conflict relapse (Jensen and Lonergan 2012). UNEP has related 40 percent of all conflicts to the mismanagement of natural resources (United Nations Environment Programme 2009). Hence, UNEP emphasizes the need for UN capacity development in terms of natural resource management, with the intention to mitigate the risks of resource-induced conflict relapse (United Nations Environment Programme 2009, 7). UNEP reports aimed at other UN agencies and the training of peacebuilding staff have stressed the sustainable utilization of natural resources in peacebuilding to “capitalize on the potential for environmental cooperation to contribute to peacebuilding” (United Nations Environment Programme 2009, 29).
Aiding UNEP’s effort to anchor resource issues within UN peacebuilding, the collaborative project that originated this perspective undertook an extensive independent research effort. This work produced an impressive array of empirical studies emphasizing the potential of natural resources to support post-conflict recovery, while equally considering them as triggers of conflict. Jensen and Lonergan conclude that “integrating natural resource management and environmental sustainability into peacebuilding” is the way to avert uncontrolled exploitation in the aftermath of conflict (Jensen and Lonergan 2012, 9). Unruh and Williams argue that issues of land reform have recurrently destabilized post-conflict countries, and thus that “aligning land and property interventions” in peacebuilding efforts is essential (Unruh and Williams 2013, 16). Troell and Weinthal (2014) emphasize that water resource management is an important aspect of peacebuilding. Ignoring water can be counterproductive, because its socioeconomic effects impact community livelihood (Troell and Weinthal 2014).
In sum, these studies provide an excellent starting point, through broadening the research community and making it available in a unique evidence-based knowledge platform.1 This research exemplifies the crucial role of natural resources and their management in post-conflict countries and has raised awareness of the issue among different UN actors, such as UNEP, UN Women, and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations.
With all its merits, the current research agenda is not without shortcomings. First, given UNEP’s aim to securitize natural resources among UN peacebuilding actors, many studies have been technocratic and policy-oriented, and thereby have failed to develop a thorough theoretical understanding of post-conflict natural resource management and how it can facilitate peace. As such, we still do not know whether environmental cooperation actually supports the peace process. The studies only indicate that if we neglect post-conflict natural resource management, the risk of conflict increases. Second, the merging of nonrenewable and renewable resources is worth debating. Undoubtedly, the conflation of the two in Lujala and Rustad’s volume on high-value resources offers important insight into economic mechanisms (Rustad and Lujala 2012). However, the underlying greed-and-grievances debate has moved on considerably (e.g. Cederman et al. 2013). The disaggregation of renewable and nonrenewable resources appears to be valuable in a new research agenda for post-conflict natural resource management, because the dynamics among these resources are different: there is a clear connection between an abundance of nonrenewable natural resources and armed conflict, but only weak evidence that scarcity of renewable natural resources causes armed conflict (e.g. Koubi et al. 2014). Third, focus on the risk of resource-induced conflict has unintended consequences, because it stresses the risk and securitization of natural resources, even though UNEP intends to emphasize their potential to facilitate peace. This brings attention to preventing conflict relapse but takes attention from building peace, assuming that peace is more than the absence of violence.
A New Research Agenda Toward Sustainable Peace
It is undeniably a positive development that natural resources and environmental issues have become part of peacebuilding practice and research. This line of inquiry was neglected for too long, especially among “conventional” peacebuilding researchers who focused primarily on matters pertaining to security sector reform, political and economic liberalization, and transitional justice. The two perspectives of environmental peacebuilding reviewed here contribute to our knowledge of the relevance of natural resources management in post-conflict situations. However, most research has focused narrowly on natural resources, thereby ignoring the dynamics and challenges that stem from interactions of natural resource management with the unique social and political processes in post-conflict countries.
To address this issue, we need to reorient the research agenda and encourage theoretically informed empirical analysis of the long-term interplay between social, political, and ecological processes in post-conflict countries and how these processes affect peace. Three avenues are crucial.
First, the theoretical link between natural resources, environmental cooperation, and peace in post-conflict countries is poorly understood. Future research needs to focus on environmental cooperation as an independent variable and rigorously test it against well-established variables of peace. In addition to Conca’s (2001) variables, it will be fundamental to measure the effects of environmental cooperation on established indicators—for example, political legitimacy, intergroup trust, and reconciliation. A focus on these dimensions has revealed important complexities that question long-held assumptions (e.g., Ide and Fröhlich 2015; Krampe 2016).
Second, future research should emphasize interdisciplinary research. Many studies on environmental peacebuilding do not use the specific terminology and concepts developed in peace and conflict research. Long-revised concepts such as greed and grievances live on in many studies. In contrast, those concepts that dominate the conventional peacebuilding debate, such as “hybrid peace” (e.g., Mac Ginty 2010), are absent in research from the two perspectives of environmental peacebuilding discussed here. Hybrid peace, however, explains important dynamics of contemporary peacebuilding processes: namely, that tensions between international and domestic actors especially produce unintended, hybrid outcomes, leaving post-conflict countries frequently trapped in a situation of neither peace nor war. Using these concepts to analyze natural resource management will not only enhance knowledge transfer but also will produce new insight into the tensions that peacebuilding efforts produce. For example, after the Kosovo war, the UN’s highly technical approach to reconstructing the water sector clashed frequently with political realities in this landlocked and disputed territory. This produced outcomes not envisioned by either actor and has constrained the peace process (Krampe 2017).
Third, there is a need for research developed from a clear definition of environmental peacebuilding. The empirical insight produced in recent years is a good basis, but it remains eclectic and constrains comparison. Studies held together by one coherent definition will enable more systematic assessments—qualitative as well as quantitative—and will allow for comparison, careful generalization, and thus theorizing of the dynamics and processes related to natural resource management in peacebuilding. A good example is a new project by Tobias Ide comparing several cases to discover whether cooperation in international freshwater treaties and transboundary conservation areas affects reconciliation between states.
The indirect, long-term effects of wars exaggerate the challenges to building sustainable peace. Public health is especially critical and disproportionately affects the civilian population (Ghobarah et al. 2004), because of both poor sanitation and the lack of access to clean and safe drinking water (Gleick 1993). Environmental changes, including climate change, expose these post-conflict populations to further unprecedented risks, exaggerating the human costs of war long after combat has ceased (Barnett and Adger 2007). Future research needs to acknowledge the complexity of the post-conflict landscape and advance environmental peacebuilding research to realize the potential and the risks of natural resource management. This is urgently needed, because this complexity lies at the core of the SDGs that will guide UN policies in the coming decades and is instrumental to building a sustainable peace.
I am grateful for helpful comments from the editors of GEP and anonymous reviewers, as well as from Ashok Swain and Charlotte Grech-Madin at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University.