Sunday, January 24, 2010

In Defense of Peace Parks

“What does planting trees have to do with peace?” asked one sardonic Economist reporter in response to the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to South African activist, Wangaari Waathai.

Neutral territory between Jordan and Israel-- plans for creating a Peace Park are underway (

To those unaware of this growing international peace-building movement, the concept may seem a bit odd: sharing the responsibility of taking care of the natural environment in a border zone helps build a sense of transboundary community. Indeed, it sounds ideal in theory, but what about practice? Can we realistically expect people to put down their weapons, knock down their walls and start planting trees? Even the title "Peace Parks" elicits a mental rendering of a vague soft diplomacy tactic, at best (and at worst, some lovey-dovey hippies roaming around central park). But while it may seem a little counter-intuitive, especially considering the modern methods of dipomacy and so-called conflict resolution, I ask you to set aside your skepticism for a moment and try looking at things through a new lens.

What is the connection between protecting the environment and peacebuilding? If this land, for example, was filled with salted earth, no water and garbage, there would be no conflict-- there are no resources to fight over. The struggle to acquire land on the borders of Middle Eastern nations is not simply a power issue, but rather an issue of access to the region's most valuable resource. If you guessed oil, you're wrong. It's water. We are, above all things, in a desert. And it is only a matter of time before this water runs out. But as one environmental researcher told me yesterday, we shouldn't use water to ignite fires, but to put them out. We can use this so-called crisis as motivation to build bridges, instead of burning them.

A popular idea for building and maintaining peace between nations clashing over boundary lines is the concept of a peace park. Peace parks are neutral territories between nations, where the border becomes blurred. These parks emphasize people to people connections, attempting to buildtransboundary community a sense of mutual respect and appreciation for the land. Peace parks are instrumentally useful in resloving disputes even if the dispute is non-environmental. Sustaining peace between neighboring jurisdictions, it needs to show that the environment and ecosystem knows no political boundaries, and that there is a joint effort of cooperation for conservation on both sides of the border.

A great example of the success of one peace park initiative is on the border between Ecuador and Peru. This was a long standing conflict, and the border was such a point of contention that they had to bring in NASA to find a solution for a logical boundary that works with nature between the two regions. The US and Brazil initiated a peace declaration, but this didn't translate to the people on the ground. During peace talks, both countries recognized that the area should be conserved, and that things needed to change quickly because the military presence was causing damage to the environment. They came up with a joint conservation plan, and remains as such to this day-- as a jointly managed Peace Park. This resolution brought the sides together to think outside the box of the territorial conflict, and come up with a sustainable and pragmatic (not to mention financially profitable) way to attain grassroots peace between the two nations.

But it is not easily achieved. There are many challenges to overcome when creating a peace park. This creative challenge is currently being undertaken by grassroots peace and environmental researchers on the issue of the Golan Heights. Mainly, since the land itself-- including the border-- is disputed territory,it is imperative for both Israel and Syria to create a peace-treaty that involves the resolution of this land dispute before simply turning it into a Peace Park. As one Golan Heights resident and activist told me, "A peace park would be fine, but it should not be used as a condition for peace. It must be a result of a treaty, not a condition for peace."

This distinction may be difficult to understand, so I'm going to try to explain a little bit. The peace park as a condition of peace would look like the following: A treaty simply stating that the disputed land (now under Israel's political control) will become politically neutral-- allowing both Syrian citizens and Israeli citizens the ability to enjoy the natural landscape without the need for a visa or permit of entry. The problem with this method of creating a peace park would be (from Syria's point of view)that Syria will be officially losing the land, while Israel will be maintaining access to this land that they've occupied since 1967.* What would be preferable, is that a trade of some sort, perhaps involving access to water for access to land (as many diplomatic studies have suggested) would be in the official peace treaty, and any development of a peace park would be a subsequent result.

While attending a peace park conference at Tel Aviv University, the director of the University gave a rather depressing opening statement: "Peace with Syria is a pipe dream. Good luck with that." (yes, he actually said that to a room full of conflict analysts) Maybe he's got a point. Maybe we're just dreaming that people can put aside their narratives and do something beneficial for the greater good. Trees, not weapons. Water, not borders. People-to-people diplomacy. Transboundary responsibility. Maybe it is a dream. Yet, I've just got this strange feeling that won't dissipate: that people are able to evolve-- that if we have enough power and motivation to ruin something, we've got enough power and motivation to fix it. Maybe peace parks aren't the answer, but, in my humble researcher opinion, they're a good way to reframe how to deal with transboundary conflict.

* Obviously, I'm not Syrian, and I know only studied their perspective from a peripheral angle. I'm only assuming this would be one point of contention with the peace park plan, if it were to be presented as a condition for peace.

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