Research shows that the vast majority of armed conflicts occur in areas rich in biodiversity, says Eva Fearn. In this week's Green Room, she explains how conservationists often find themselves on more than the front line in the battle to save species.
Conservation 'diplomacy' has become an exciting and critically important outgrowth of the work of conservationists
In Afghanistan's Wakhan region, a mountainous area bordered by Tajikistan and China, a herd of ibex deftly climbs a steep hillside.
Across the valley, a man in Wakhi headdress views them through a spotting scope.
His tracking skills are helping my organisation - the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) - assess ibex numbers.
Of all the places to study wildlife, why work in a volatile country such as Afghanistan?
Well, Afghanistan holds a surprising diversity of species, from giant flying squirrels to the Himalayan lynx.
Of course, first and foremost, war is a tragedy for humans. But the environmental destruction it causes has also become a concern.
In Afghanistan, the past three decades have seen 50% of the country's forests disappear and wildlife hunted out of many areas.
The connection between conservation and conflict was highlighted by a report published in the journal Conservation Biology last year.
It found that more than 80% of the armed clashes in the past 50 years occurred in countries that contain places of extraordinarily high global species diversity.
In the 1990s, in Africa's biologically diverse Albertine Rift region, civil insurgencies rendered national parks the strongholds of rebels and provided shelter for refugees, causing large mammal populations to plummet.
More recently, instability in other parts of Africa, including Zimbabwe and the Central African Republic, has facilitated increased elephant poaching, which is boosting the world's illegal ivory trade.
So if conservation organisations are to protect wildlife and wild places, they must increasingly operate in conflict and post-conflict settings.
On the front line
Because civil unrest can often result from competition for natural resources, there is another powerful reason why conservation is important in conflict settings: it can help build peace.
While wildlife conservation and the promotion of peace are worthy goals, staff safety is a major concern for conservation organisations operating in conflict zones
The UN Environment Programme (Unep), the World Bank, and the International Institute for Sustainable Development have all found re-inforcing linkages between natural resource management and post-conflict recovery.
As the international community looks for ways to encourage peace and development, some conservation NGOs are taking on a little extra work.
How exactly can a conservation organisation promote political stability? In part, it is by helping to build (or rebuild) natural resource management governance structures.
During conflict, as people flee - and after, as refugees return - traditional ways of managing forests and pastures can dissolve.
Helping to re-establish local governance structures for natural resources has become a key way to manage overgrazing, overhunting, and competition for dwindling resources.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for example, decades of strife have allowed for an explosion in the trade of bushmeat, tropical timber and charcoal.
With funding from the US development agency USAID, WCS staff facilitated multi-stakeholder village committees to target overharvesting and corruption, and to plan for the management of resources.
At three fishing villages near Lake Edward, addressing overfishing involves a participatory process to ascertain why fish stocks are declining and what can be done. It brings together stakeholders, including the military, police, fishing community, local security officials, and park managers to agree on plans for managing the stocks.
People participating in this effort at good governance are building the foundations of new democratic institutions that will be essential to long-term stability and the future sustainability of fishing, their main resource.
While wildlife conservation and the promotion of peace are worthy goals, staff safety is a major concern for conservation organisations operating in conflict zones.
A beautiful landscape can often be the source of human conflict
In Nuristan, a volatile region of Afghanistan along the Pakistan border rich in species like Asiatic black bear and markhor sheep, conservation work has stalled.
Foreign experts cannot enter this Taliban stronghold, and even local Nuristani wildlife surveyors have been interrogated, their GPS units and binoculars a cause for suspicion.
In DRC, a Congolese conservationist surveying Grauer's gorilla in Kahuzi Biega National Park was recently apprehended (and thankfully released) by a militia group.
For conservation work to succeed through times of conflict, organisations must commit for the long-term. In war-torn DRC in the 1990s, a combination of UN agencies and NGOs continued to pay park guard salaries long after central ministry funds dried up.
Similarly, flexible funders allowed WCS to maintain a presence in Rwanda and Uganda through the years of civil unrest.
Perseverance through times of upheaval is well worth the effort on many fronts.
Often, the conservation of resources and of economically important species can be discussed with relatively little political, ideological, or military pressure, and can serve as a starting point for wider political dialogue.
For example, the creation of a wilderness buffer area along the contested Peru/Ecuador border bolstered a 1998 peace accord between the two countries.
In Africa, there are plans for similar transboundary "peace parks" on the border between Sudan and Uganda, as the two nations emerge from decades of civil unrest.
Because post-conflict states are often pre-occupied and underfunded, international conservation organisations can be called upon to help in myriad ways.
Working to establish and re-establish community resource management mechanisms can help secure food, shelter, and economic stability, while nature tourism, transboundary parks, and scientific training can contribute in other ways to long-term peace.
Conservation "diplomacy" has become an exciting and critically important outgrowth of the work of conservationists.
Eva Fearn is Editor of the State of the Wild series, published by the Wildlife Conservation Society and Island Press. The 2010-2011 volume features a special section on Conservation in Times of War
The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website
Do you agree with Eva Fearn? Can conservation be a force for peace and renewed stability after conflict? What could governments do to make the conservationist's task easier in these regions? Or is considering nature a luxury in these situations?
I work in the DRC for WCS and basically what Eva says is correct. Conservation is more and more being asked, demanded by funders, to peform these tasks. However conservationists need to bring in experts who can perform these sort of tasks and that is possibly one of the great benefits of this process. It is bringing together different types of NGOs from different fields and forging new partnerships. This can hopefully only be good for conservation and the local population. However people have to realise this is long term and very complicated. Funders need to know that it will not happen over night and have long term vision and sadly at the moment most of them do not.
Eva forgot to mention the huge number of conflicts caused by conservation organisations who fund paramilitary forest guards to control activities on the customary lands of forest peoples from the Congo Basin, guards who then prevent these indigenous and local peoples from practicing their traditional, sustainable subsistence activities in the forests they have roamed for aeons. Conservation which alienates the local population from their lands makes forest peoples poorer, and badly managed armed guards targeting local people results in human rights violations of the kind more associated with the war zones she mentions. In line with international conservation standards it is time for conservation organisations to move away from the exclusionary model of conservation towards practices which recognise peoples' land rights, and which work with indigenous and local people to protect forests upon which we all rely.
John Nelson, Moreton-in-Marsh UK
There is a serious danger within this whole movement to overplay the role of conservation in building peace. I don't doubt that establishing fairer and more equitable use of natural resources can help alleviate conflict in certain situations by helping to promote dialogue and improve governance, but conservationists often naively assume that this is the cause of the conflict when it is often just the manifestation of more deep-rooted social/cultural/economic issues. We also have to be honest and stop portraying the conservation movement as an independant and impartial broker in these processes - we have vested interests which will chime with some but not others. This gives us a seat at the table, but not the right to lead the process. This article also overlooks the uncomfortable reality that conflict and turmoil in these places is a large part of the reason why they are rich in biodiversity. The lack of stability has restricted economic development, and the environmental destruction (particularly the large-scale clearance or degradation of habitats) that typically accompanies it.
Eva is absolutely right! Those centers need to be built and both governments should cooperate on the idea of Urb-Wild Prolong Life Centers where people return back to nature. It's a wholistic approach to balance: Live, Work, Exercise, Nutrition and Mental Health. The whole system needs to be rewired, by giving people knowledge, teach them, so they can be sustainable. The variety topics of teaching should differ on the reagent. The daly business of these centers needs to be shared through YouTube and other similar media to challenge the status quo and inspire others into action on cause bases. Of course the logistics of these centers would have to be made and agreed upon by the different leaders of the regents by a liaison, who is interested ONLY in managing these centers.
Vita Gillar, Honolulu, HI USA
I think there is a lot of hostility and ongoing conflict to completely find an adequate and immediate solution. If people don't get all their needs filled from an authoritative government that can provide as well as control people will naturally take things into their own hands whether or not it causes greater damage than good. Maybe some lessons can be gained from the experiences that have gone on and continue to with Korea. Neutrality must be established and needs met before even considering correcting current behavior.
ED, sioux falls, SD; US