Thousands of conservation leaders will convene in Barcelona Spain next week for the 2008 World Conservation Congress, an event which International Union for Conservation and Nature (IUCN) sponsors every four years. On October 6, a select few will meet with key military leaders at an invitation-only roundtable to spearhead a paradigm shift in thinking about the intersection of environmental issues and local, regional, and national security.
The IUCN Roundtable on Environment and Security will match representatives from the military (USA, Netherlands, Spain, Thailand, Nepal, Mauretania), NATO, and other members of the world’s security community with key environmental leaders to explore strategies for waging an environmentally sustainable peace.
Among those security leaders is Sherri Goodman, General Counsel for the Arlington, Virginia think thank CNA, and former U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Environmental Security. “Climate change is a national security threat. It is a threat multiplier for instability in fragile regions,” says Goodman.“We need to protect natural resources, food, water, forests, agriculture, as a matter of security.”
From Suspicion to Alliances
In the past, discussion of the intersection of environmental and military concerns have focused on direct pollution and damage caused by armed conflict. For example, the U.S. media has recently turned its attention to the USEPA’s failure to regulate perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel, which is found in groundwater near military bases and has potentially serious human health effects.
“War is the worst destructor of nature and the environment. Depleted uranium and other pollutants leave large tracts devastated,” says Wouter Veening, director of the Institute for Environmental Security, one of the sponsors of the Environment and Security Workshop. “It uses tremendous amounts of fossil fuels, tremendous CO2 emissions from military operations. Seventy percent of what you bring to the battlefield is fuel.”
While contention over the environmental impacts of military operations continues, the relationship between environment and security is evolving into a new perspective – that of seeing security forces as an ally. Effecting this shift presents significant challenges in overcoming communications breaches and biases.
Frits Hesselink, CEO of HECT Consultancy and a member of the IUCN’s Commission on Education and Communication, was one of those who saw opportunity to foster interaction between environmental and security personnel at the World Conservation Congress. His goals for the workshop are to look beyond direct ‘battlefield impacts’ on the environment and explore both environmental implications of the military – and military implications of environmental crises.
“We are thinking of, for instance, is in mandate of peace missions, that the military also be instructed to guard the forests and look after water supplies, food supplies. But at the same time, we have to open ears of environmental people, who may see the military as a threat instead of an ally, and yet military is the only organization that has the logistical capacity to help.”
Climate Change Brings Sea Change in Environmental Security Thinking
Climate change is one transnational factor driving urgency into the need for environmental-security community cooperation. Last year, CNA issued a ground breaking report National Security and the Threat of Climate Change authored by a team of 3 and 4 star generals and admirals. Military organizations increasingly realize that environmental problems challenge their assets, which threatens national and international security. Naval bases, for example, are by their inherent nature located in positions extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels. This realization has helped focus military organizational attention on environmental issues.
As floods, droughts, and shifting storm patterns grow in the wake of climate change, environmental organizations increasingly see the need for security force allies. One scenario on the table for discussion is the glaciers of the Himalayas, which are disappearing at an exponential rate, leaving billions of people who rely on the Indus, Ganges, and Yangtze river systems in danger of short term flooding and long term drought.
“If these rivers run dry, imagine the security risk,” says Veening. “People will be moving into other areas where there is water or food, creating conflict due to competition for resources. Water would have to be brought in, perhaps in tanks or trucks, people moved out, how do you organize that? The Red Cross and other aid organizations are great, but they do not have the ships, the helicopters, the transport trucks. This is beyond their capabilities. My imagination is not enough, we need the imaginations of others with experience in large-scale operations, such as the military.”
As climate change progresses, analysts anticipate that security communities will increasingly be called upon to perform disaster relief and humanitarian assistance. “As the NGO community is already heavily involved in these activities, it will be critical for the military and NGOs to cooperate and develop a working relationship of each other,” Catarious says. “If the organizations look at each other with suspicion, the mission and people in need will not get the help they require.”
Security Intervention in Conservation Crises
Environmental organizations are increasingly confronting their own needs for that security help, not only with crises triggered by climate change but also in ongoing conservation work. At Virunga National Park, which spans the borders of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, armed security forces are all that stand between a raging civil conflict and the continued existence of mountain gorillas. Over 17,000 U.N. peacekeeping troops are working “to keep rebels apart and protect world heritage sites including the mountain gorillas,” Veening explains.
But their intervention needn’t stop at keeping the belligerent parties apart, Veening says, envisioning potential for positive post-conflict transformation: “One thing I would hope could happen is you demobilize the rebels, then try to retrain the young men, typically young men, to restore agricultural lands, engage in reforestation and terracing to prevent erosion. Then you also train them to be park guards and serve ecotourism. We need some of the old-fashioned military drilling types to make environmental guards out of them.”
Conservation NGOs also increasingly ponder their own operational security needs. IES specializes in mapping and remote sensing to protect environmentally sensitive areas from intrusions like illegal resources extraction. In Columbia, IES provides assistance to a federation of indigenous persons, helping to protect the Orinoco River basin.
“How can we help without putting our personnel or the indigenous persons into a dangerous situation? They are facing threats of encroaching coca plantations and violence. We are very good at remote sensing, we do mapping and locate the coca fields, but we still have to figure out how to share those data with the communities without compromising their safety,” Veening says.
Mutual Benefits from Military Green-Think
But the benefits of military green-think do not run only to the conservation community:
Environmental security actions also create opportunity for positive military consequences, Catarious continues. “While environmental security is usually seen through the lens of “threats” and “vulnerabilities,” the environment also presents some of our most valuable levers of soft power. In regions where we may have strained diplomatic relations, cooperating over environmental issues like food and water scarcity can be a very effective way of rebuilding strong ties that can help in other areas.”
As Undersecretary of Defense in the Clinton administration, Sherri Goodman took steps to build those ties at home as well as abroad.
“When I was at the U.S. Department of Defense, I did a lot of outreach to the environmental community, so that the environmental community could get to know us, and also so that the military could learn from environmental organizations,” she says. “Many conservation organizations, for example the Nature Conservancy, work hand-in-glove with the DoD. DoD is the third largest federal (U.S.) landowner, and its lands have the highest number of endangered species. Communities with military installations want to keep those lands open, they are a natural oasis and anchor for environmental stability in the area.”
But even ongoing armed conflicts present opportunity for the new environmental-security alliance model. Piet Witte, director of global conservation NGO Syzygy, recently returned from Afghanistan, where, serving as a major in the Dutch army’s peacekeeping forces, he worked on provincial reconstruction in fields of sustainable agriculture and food development, providing leadership and advice to small farmers who have had irrigation systems destroyed in the ongoing armed conflict there.
In peacetime, this kind of assistance might have been provided by private organizations, but “because it’s an insecure situation, it must be a militarized intervention,” Witte says. “I’ve been in a convoy that ran over a bomb. It’s very dangerous. But I hope that people realize that even during conflict, it is very much possible to join forces to work on environmental conservation issues and humanitarian issues. Most military personnel I have worked with have notion now that we not only win hearts and minds but bring economic stability. Security is also food security, and food security depends on ecosystem stability. It’s exciting and satisfying work.”
Military and environmental community leaders will explore a wide range of opportunities to engage in that work at the upcoming Roundtable on Environment and Security. The Institute for Environmental Security and other participating commissions are already planning a follow-up meeting next year, to bring the potential for positive progress to the attention of parliamentarians and key world opinion leaders.
Cindy Hill is an environmental attorney and freelance writer living in Vermont. She can be reached at: email@example.com