Conservation organisations must speak out about war’s impacts on biodiversity if it is to be protected in fragile and conflict-affected areas.
Armed conflicts can lead to significant losses of biodiversity, and impede conservation activities. However, the legal and policy frameworks that govern global biodiversity conservation rarely address the unique challenges of operating in conflict-affected areas. Conservation organisations have expertise in this space. This commentary argues that until they speak out about the impacts of armed conflicts on biodiversity, we will not be able to mainstream conflict-sensitive conservation in international policy making.
After the Aichi targets, which aimed to slow global biodiversity loss by 2020, were missed, conservation organisations turned their attention to the post-2020 biodiversity framework, which is due to be adopted by Parties to the Conservation on Biological Diversity (CBD) later this year. The first full draft of the framework contains some promising elements – although the progress of negotiations has been slow. Notably, it will be the first global biodiversity framework to include a theory of change that shows explicit connections between actors, activities, and aims to create the conditions in which biodiversity can flourish.
This theory of change, for instance, recognises “gender equality, women’s empowerment, youth, gender-responsive approaches and the full and effective participation of indigenous peoples and local communities” as key cross-cutting issues for the framework’s successful implementation.
Put differently, the post-2020 biodiversity framework points towards a growing awareness, at the highest political level, that biodiversity aims are not only a question of setting ambitious targets, but also of creating the mechanisms needed to achieve these. However, in its current form, the zero draft framework ignores another important, widespread threat to reaching global biodiversity goals: armed conflicts and insecurity.
Armed conflicts threaten biodiversity governance and nature’s contribution to people
Negative impacts of conflicts on biodiversity are common and complex, although not inevitable. Armed conflicts and insecurity can harm biodiversity through direct damage to ecosystems, such as from vehicle movements or pollution, or when the environment is weaponised, as was the case in the deliberate destruction of the Mesopotamian Marshes.
Indirect effects, though often more difficult to disentangle from other drivers of biodiversity loss, are also widespread. For instance, areas affected by warfare are often hotspots of illegal or unregulated deforestation, hunting or mining; activities that happen for a large range of reasons, from financing conflict activities, to provisioning troops, or as part of coping and survival strategies by displaced communities. Research has found that wildlife populations in Protected Areas can have lower growth rates or even collapse during times of war. This is not an inevitable outcome, however, as case studies show that effective management is possible even during times of conflict, if the right strategy and support is in place.
In addition, conflicts can hamper biodiversity governance in many ways. For instance, organisations and government agencies that implement biodiversity projects may be forced to suspend project activities in areas affected by conflict or be hesitant to implement projects in such areas in the first place. The disruption to environmental governance can have a serious legacy for biodiversity, often lasting years. Ungoverned spaces within countries can facilitate deforestation or the illegal wildlife trade and without external support, it can take governments many years to rebuild their capacity to manage biodiversity effectively.
Furthermore, conflict-driven declines in biodiversity can have serious consequences for communities. Although IPBES’ 2019 Global Assessment suggests that our understanding of the effects of conflict on nature’s contributions to people is incomplete, there are examples showing how conflicts erode such benefits. For instance, deforestation during decades of war has left Afghanistan vulnerable to floods, displacing people and destroying livelihoods. Anecdotally, farmers in Goma in the DRC have limited their activities to areas close to homesteads due to security risks, intensifying land and resource use close to settlements, which leads to declines in soil fertility and nearby forest resources.
Biodiversity can play an important role in recovery and peacebuilding
As the case of Afghanistan demonstrates, biodiversity loss, whether driven by conflict itself or by other drivers, can jeopardise the long-term recovery and wellbeing of conflict-affected communities. Intact ecosystems and species communities provide a wide range of benefits, from clean air and water to food, medicine, and building materials. Biodiversity thus plays an important role in post-conflict recovery. Biodiversity governance can also contribute to post-conflict recovery, such as in Mozambique, where former combatants are re-integrated into civil society through employment as Protected Area rangers. In Colombia, former fighters have become citizen scientists.
Biodiversity can also be a key element of peacemaking and peacebuilding. Demilitarized zones, such as in Cyprus or on the Korean peninsula, can develop flourishing wildlife populations due to the absence of human activities, becoming geographical focal points for environmental peacebuilding efforts. Peace Parks, which are transboundary protected areas “dedicated to the promotion, celebration and/or commemoration of peace and cooperation”, can serve as avenues for increased cooperation among conflict actors.
Finally, maintaining and enhancing biodiversity can be a key component of building resilience to climate change and other external pressures for communities affected by or recovering from conflict, for example, through the promotion of ecosystem-based adaptation in Somalia.
Barriers to conflict-sensitive conservation policy
Against this background, it may seem surprising that multilateral environmental agreements very rarely address the relationships between conflict and biodiversity. In fact, they occasionally have provisions that explicitly exclude their application during armed conflicts. A potential explanation is that, within national governments, policy on biodiversity and national defence and security are made in departmental silos that tend to have little communication between them. This means that biodiversity policy makers may not consider conflicts to fall within their remit or expertise, and consequently they do not address these during negotiations of international biodiversity policy frameworks. An example of this disconnect could be seen during March’s CBD talks in Geneva. Several states took the floor to challenge Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, while failing to make the link to the post-2020 agenda’s silence on conflicts.
Of course, international biodiversity policy is not only influenced by governments; stakeholders such as conservation organisations play an important role in providing data, knowledge, and expertise on threats to biodiversity, as well as on potential solutions, and thus play a key role in shaping policy discussions. However, as a rule few conservation organisations explicitly call for these discussions to address armed conflicts. Multilateral processes on the environment are also conflict averse, as could be seen during the fifth UN Environment Assembly, which also coincided with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and where states and international organisations buried attention on the conflict in order to ensure the passage of resolutions.
Arguably, implementing biodiversity projects in areas affected by conflict requires additional time, resources and expertise that actors in this field, especially smaller conservation NGOs whose capacity is typically already stretched, do not have. When such NGOs then turn their attention to influencing policy, a lack of experience could cause them to hesitate to engage actively with this subject, or the consequences of war could simply slide down an already extensive list of policy priorities.
There may also be a perception that addressing conflicts would be “too political” for actors in the conservation sector. Conservation organisations often depend on the goodwill of governments for access to project sites and resources. They may thus be worried that speaking out publicly about wars could harm their reputation or working relationships, and ultimately their ability to carry out effective conservation work.
In addition, conservation organisations may have concerns about maintaining good relationships with conflict-affected communities. They may fear that their focus on environmental issues could cause tensions in situations where people are suffering from acute humanitarian crises, and thus be disincentivised from drawing attention to the environmental impacts, especially of ongoing conflicts.
Conservation organisations from the Global North in particular have been criticised for engaging in or enabling so-called fortress conservation – an approach to conservation that often depends on the militarised separation, and sometimes active removal, of people from areas considered to contain biodiversity in need of protection. This often results in increased violence against and the disempowerment of local communities. Against this background, conservation NGOs may be hesitant to engage in any conflict-affected settings if they are concerned about the unintended harmful consequences of their work for local communities, and subsequent reputational risks.
Towards conflict-sensitive implementation
There is, however, an increasing understanding that armed conflicts and insecurity need to be addressed for effective biodiversity governance. UNEP’s current medium-term strategy, for instance, explicitly acknowledges the distinct needs and challenges of conflict-affected states when working towards biodiversity policy goals. The Global Environment Facility, the environmental finance mechanism for several multilateral environmental agreements, including the CBD, recently carried out an analysis of the effects of armed conflict and state fragility on the projects it funds, finding that almost 40% of biodiversity projects funded until 2019 were located in countries “affected by major armed conflict”.
Given its pervasive impacts, conservation organisations also need to be more vocal about the relationship between armed conflict and biodiversity protection. The impacts of armed conflicts on biodiversity (and vice versa) are highly context-dependent and vary across the lifecycle of conflicts. Biodiversity conservation organisations are uniquely placed to provide insights into the complex links between conflicts and biodiversity, especially when they can draw on experience with implementing projects in conflict-affected settings.
This is especially important in the context of multilateral environmental agreements, given that these shape biodiversity funding, policy, and research globally. More active engagement of conservation-related organisations with issues surrounding conflict would render biodiversity-conflict linkages more visible, helping to bring them to the attention of decision makers.
Ultimately, this could then translate into more support for fragile and conflict-affected countries in the implementation of biodiversity policies, resulting in better protection of their biodiversity, and thus nature’s vital contributions to people in conflict-affected areas, helping to address community vulnerabilities. A crucial issue here is biodiversity finance. Global finance flows for climate change mitigation and adaptation illustrate that fragile and conflict-affected states face significant barriers to accessing funding, precisely because they are fragile and/or conflict-affected: they often lack the capacity to navigate burdensome funding applications, and climate financing itself is risk averse, diverting more money from where it is most needed.
This means that merely encouraging wealthy nations to make more money available to address the post-2020 biodiversity targets is unlikely to remedy biodiversity funding shortfalls. Indeed, developing nations have already called for an overhaul of international biodiversity financing during the ongoing post-2020 framework negotiations. A key part of this will be ensuring that the unique needs of conflict-affected countries are taken into account when shaping the global biodiversity funding landscape.
There is also scope to improve coordination between policy goals, so that biodiversity, climate change mitigation and conflict recovery/resilience can be addressed simultaneously. This would likely improve resource efficiency in meeting global biodiversity, climate, and sustainable development goals.
Finally, there is a self-interested argument for conservation organisations to push for armed conflicts to be addressed at the highest political level. Conservation in conflict settings means working in areas where national governments may have little de facto control, and where political dynamics can shift over very short time periods. However, current best practice norms largely assume that it is possible to identify who is able to give permission to NGOs to access and work in particular areas. This may not be the case in an area affected by active conflict. This then puts conservation organisations in a difficult position, for instance when collaborating with de facto power brokers to carry out their activities could lead to accusations of partisanship. If multilateral agreements addressed and clarified the role of conservation organisation during wars, this could also make it easier for conservation organisations to engage in these settings.
The negotiations on the CBD’s post-2020 biodiversity framework are an important opportunity for conservation organisations to address the implications of armed conflict on biodiversity. There is a precedent in the draft agreement already – specifically in the annex on gender-responsive implementation – that shows how cross-cutting issues that are not traditionally considered relevant to environmental discussions can be integrated into biodiversity policy implementation at the international scale.
Given that the Aichi Targets were missed, it is paramount that the post-2020 biodiversity framework is more effective at halting the biodiversity crisis. Ensuring that the specific needs of conflict-affected states are addressed is an important step towards that aim, and conservation organisations can play a key role in putting these needs on the agenda.
Henrike Schulte to Bühne is a conservation ecologist and Honorary Research Associate at the Institute of Zoology (Zoological Society of London), Doug Weir is CEOBS’ Research and Policy Director.