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Risks and restoration: Land as a driver of conflict and cooperation

Taghit, Algeria

Land is crucial to people’s livelihoods, health and wellbeing, culture and identity. So disputes over access to or use of land are a prominent feature in many conflicts. The Environmental Justice Atlas finds that land is at the root of conflict dynamics in approximately a third of environmentally-driven cases recorded. And because land is increasingly under threat—20-40% of global land area is degraded—the risk of conflict is increasing.

Conflicts over access to land can arise from factors including unclear land ownership, or exclusion based on gender, age, ethnicity, and religion. Power imbalances between different interests exacerbate such disputes. The result? Conflicts manifest in actions like land grabbing by major economic users such as mining companies. For instance, this was the case in Mukumbi in southeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 2016, where residents were evicted and the town was destroyed to make space to expand a cobalt mine.

Resource scarcity and demand pressures from population growth or shifting mobility patterns are another important dimension in creating disputes over the use of land and related resources. In Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, tensions between host communities and roughly 700,000 Rohingya refugees have arisen over increased competition for land, firewood and job opportunities. Such land use conflicts—both at the community-level and in larger disputes over transboundary resources—often are exacerbated by two key factors: a lack of effective institutions to enforce use rights, and inadequate conflict resolution mechanisms.

Conflict also has direct impacts on land, driving degradation through physical damage, contamination and pollution. For example, fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border also burned 102 square kilometers of land in 2020. And conflict situations may push people into harmful coping strategies that lead to unsustainable resource use. In Somalia, where livelihoods have been disrupted by conflict and frequent droughts, pastoralist communities have turned to illegal charcoal trade for income. Conflicts can strain governance and institutions that otherwise protect against land degradation and step in to mediate disputes. They also impede the implementation of conservation activities in areas made inaccessible by violence.

A Tool for Cooperation

Evidence for the impacts of land degradation on conflict is abundant. Yet there is a gap in understanding how land restoration interventions can actively contribute to peace, especially in transboundary contexts. And an emerging body of research suggests that ecosystem restoration initiatives have the potential to foster cooperation and good neighborly relations. At the community level, sustainable resource management can prevent conflict, improve livelihoods and reduce armed group recruitment. At the national level, cooperation over shared environmental resources can enhance trust and establish communication and technical collaboration channels.  

Several recent initiatives are creating momentum in this direction. In 2019, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification launched the Peace Forest Initiative, a flagship program to promote peace through transboundary cooperation on sustainable land management in fragile, conflict-affected and post-conflict regions. The effort offers a practical platform to facilitate collaboration for the restoration of degraded lands and forests, thereby supporting enhanced trust between participating governments, organizations, and communities.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) also has worked since 2020 to strengthen regional cooperation in the South Caucasus, Central Asia and South-Eastern Europe through joint activities over fire risk management and livelihood security. Both initiatives share a strong focus on participation and stakeholder engagement, as well as the use of a combination of activities to raise awareness, develop capacities, and share knowledge among stakeholders in the regions where they operate.

Improved Finance Offers a Path Forward

Finance must be available and accessible in order to harness the potential of land restoration for peace. Currently, this is far from being the case. The 2023 State of Finance for Nature report estimates current finance to nature-based solutions of $200 billion. This amount is far below the $542 billion per year needed by 2030 in order to reach the Rio targets of limiting warming to 1.5°C, protecting 30% of land and reaching land degradation neutrality. 

Given their potential as entry points to address both climate and conflict dynamics, there is a strong case for a greater focus on land restoration interventions. Examine the current state of major climate vertical funds: out of more than 3,500 projects supported between 2015-2024, 342—less than 10%—were directly relevant for land and forest issues.

Inadequate financing for land restoration interventions is not the only challenge. First, this finance must be more accessible for fragile and conflict-affected states (FCAS)—which received just over 14% of the overall funding for land and forest-relevant projects. The UN Peacebuilding Fund offers an example of how to increase funding to FCAS through a risk-tolerant approach to its own portfolio, offering small funding to pilot climate and land projects, and disbursing funds in tranches to ensure flexibility in volatile contexts.

Essential funding also needs to be directed to the local level for contextualized solutions. At present, logistical constraints, donor reporting requirements and the low risk tolerance of major financing mechanisms pose significant barriers. Some smaller funds such as the Climate Justice Resilience Fund have been able to deliver grants directly to the local level. In other cases, large NGOs serving as intermediary implementing partners accept funds and disburse smaller subgrants to local projects.

Donors should further see capacity development as an integral part of projects, with funds going directly to local institutions developing their internal capacity to carry out this work in addition to funding the work itself.

Taking effective action on degradation and conflict requires a better understanding of the role of sustainable land management and ecosystem restoration in fostering peace. This effort requires learning from the wealth of initiatives happening in this space, as well as increasing both the amount of funding available as well as the modalities of funds to reach local and fragile contexts where the need is greatest.

In this way, we can harness land restoration interventions to bring about peace-positive outcomes and encourage broader cooperation and dialogue at community and national levels.

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