Main page content

Protecting biodiversity, not just from war, but for peace

Gora Arailer, Armenia

Biodiversity as a victim of conflicts

We often think of biodiversity in the context of armed conflict as threatened and endangered, impacted negatively by the ravages of war, and in critical need of special protection. Hanson et al’s (2009) study noting that major armed conflicts afflicted two-thirds of the world’s recognised biodiversity hotspots between 1950 and 2000 is well cited and confirms our fears about armed conflict as an endangerment to not only people, but also to nature. 

International and humanitarian laws call on us to protect the natural environment from “widespread, long-term and severe damage” or from becoming a military target. Taking this further, the International Law Commission’s (ILC) draft principles on the Protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts will provide for the recognition of “protected zones”, places of major environmental and cultural importance that “shall be protected against any attack.” Protected zones can include internationally designated protected areas, such as World Heritage Sites and peace parks.

This is an approach mirrored in the International Committee of the Red Cross’ (ICRC) newly revised Guidelines on the protection of the natural environment in armed conflict, which state that ‘Parties to a conflict should endeavour to conclude agreements providing additional protection to the natural environment in situations of armed conflict.’ Very few internationally designated protected areas, such as the Greater Virunga Landscape between the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda, have formal agreements that address their protection in relation to armed conflict. 

Although this sense of responsibility to protect is embedded in the culture of humanitarian law and humanitarian actors, do we know why or what we’re protecting biodiversity for? Or perhaps more importantly, do we know how? 

Saving nature to save ourselves

Clearly, biodiversity is precious and worth protecting from harm in its own right. As the famous biologist E.O. Wilson said, “each species from a bacterium to a whale is a masterpiece of evolution” to be understood and preserved. We also know that we are a part of this web of life and that Our Common Future is interdependent. 

What the Indigenous Peoples of this Earth have always known, the environmental security scholars were able to put into (inter-)national security and human security terms to remind us that biodiversity protection and our own survival are deeply interwoven. It became important to protect natural resources and the environment for national security, for food security, for energy security, for water security, for livelihood security, and these days, for climate security. In this way, the imperative to protect nature and biodiversity derives from the need to save ourselves.

Shifting from nature as victim to nature for peace

Many of the early studies on the environment and armed conflict brought our attention to the dire consequences of human violence on natural environments. Meanwhile, others revealed how nature and its resources can become a source of violent conflict between people. In a similar vein, still others, explored the ways in which the environment or natural resources could and were being exploited in the pursuit of armed violence. As the Kikuyu proverb goes, “when the elephants fight, it is the grass who suffers.” 

Much of environmental security research has focused on the environment or nature as a victim. It took environmental peacebuilding scholars to remind us that natural resource management, cooperation and sustainability can alternatively support conflict prevention, resolution and even transformation towards peace and peacebuilding. It was in this spirit that transboundary protected areas for peace or peace parks found their niche, promoting biodiversity conservation and cross-border environmental peacebuilding between states and people.

Protecting rights and justice, not the fortress

What we have learned about protecting protected areas in bello, however, is that establishing “protected zones” in name alone, or even through the defensive strategies of fortress model conservation, are not enough to secure biodiversity during conflicts, and certainly not enough to unlock its peacebuilding potential

We have to remember that many protected areas were first established through violent acts of historical injustice, including colonisation and the coercive expulsion of Indigenous Peoples and traditional communities, with contemporary conservation practices often remaining highly racialised and, in conflict zones, increasingly militarised

The risk that international borders are a vector for wildlife trafficking or the targeting of ranger forces by armed groups can be used to justify green militarisation, even though these practices have been linked to human rights abuses, conflicts between park authorities and local communities, and can complicate civil wars and international disputes. Furthermore, the commentary to ILC draft principle 17 on “protected zones” states that armed occupation or military presence in a protected zone can cease its protection against attacks. 

Similarly, the ICRC Guidelines encourage the protection of biodiversity and natural environments through the designation of demilitarised zones, but this is not necessarily practical where ranger forces themselves are paramilitary or work closely with security forces for their own protection during armed conflict.

Ultimately, protecting biodiversity in places of armed conflict and in ways that “do no harm” require us to better integrate human rights and environmental justice in the interventions of conservation, development, humanitarian and peace workers. 

From “responsibility to protect” to protecting “territories of life” for peace

The nature of conservation in conflict zones requires us to reconsider how we undertake our responsibility to protect people and biodiversity. Conventional interventions based on a responsibility to protect might invoke security, military or peacekeeping forces, which would nullify the ILC’s principles on “protected zones.” As an alternative, we can look to arguably the oldest protected areas for peace – sacred natural sites

When inter-tribal conflicts start to take a heavy toll on the lives of warriors in the Karamojong region of Kenya, South Sudan and Uganda, the elders gather in sacred groves to break spears and restore peace. These protected forests are an important feature of the landscape and part of a global biodiversity hotspot. They have long been integral to peacemaking between the peoples of a place long afflicted by larger civil wars known to have negatively affected wildlife in the region. Elders also protect forest patches in the region from being cut because they provide shade, increase rainfall and prevent erosion – in other words, they enhance their communities’ environmental security. 

These forest patches are not recognised by the government as protected areas, but they do constitute “Territories of Life” conserved by Indigenous Peoples and local communities. Integrating local, culturally-based means of environmental peacebuilding, like sacred natural sites and “Territories of Life,” could provide new ways of protecting biodiversity from armed conflict, while promoting peace between people. However, the ILC draft principles suggest that this should occur through state designation of Indigenous territories as protected zones, creating potential conflicts over sovereignty and self-determination.

Biodiversity needs to be protected from the consequences of armed conflict, but it also offers an opportunity for people to come together, to resolve conflicts and to build peace. This cannot be achieved solely by designation of a protected or demilitarised zone. The common strategies of conservation or even humanitarian intervention may undermine its status. However, with the appropriate means, such as the customary environmental peacebuilding approaches of local and Indigenous Peoples, biodiversity protection can extend beyond protection from harm to conflict resolution and post-conflict peacebuilding.


This article was originally published on