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Peace parks work

University of Vermont

Peace parks can work. Not just for managing cross-boundary wilderness areas, as occurs in the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park at the US/Canadian border, but as a powerful tool of diplomacy in war zones around the world.

That is the conclusion of the forthcoming book, Peace Parks: Conservation and Conflict Resolution, edited by Saleem Ali, associate professor at the University of Vermont, and published by the MIT Press.

Peace parks have effectively defused conflict between Ecuador and Peru, Ali and his colleagues show, and are succeeding at the border between Tanzania and Mozambique. By creating shared management of borderlands that have ecological significance and limited development, conflict resolution has been achieved when other diplomatic efforts have failed.

And peace parks hold promise for building trust and cooperation in the Mesopotamian marshlands between Iran and Iraq, in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, and in war-torn Kashmir, contested by India and Pakistan, they argue.

The book will be released at Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada, on Monday, September 10, 2007 as part of the Parks, Peace and Partnerships Conference in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Waterton-Glacier peace park, the first in the world.

"It is a great relief to see the publication of Peace Parks," notes Harvard biologist EO Wilson, "This is a full and definitive work on the subject by multiple experts. As hoped, it demonstrates a powerful instrument for achieving peace, one constructed at the intersection of science, environment, and international relations."

Rather than following an idealistic vision that has been championed by some environmental activists--that peace parks promote conservation for its own sake--Ali and his colleagues have taken an academically rigorous look at the history and theory underlying existing peace parks, their role in the hard-nosed world of international relations, and their potential in the future.

"If you look at a lot of international conflicts you can find some environmental roots to them," Ali said, "but even if natural resources and environmental concerns are not part of a conflict they can be used as an instrument in conflict resolution."

For example, some observers, such as The Economist magazine, contend that the grim conflict in the Sudanese border region of Darfur is driven by ethnic and political forces, not environmental ones. But even if this is true, these factors, Ali argues, "could still be addressed by an approach stating that desertification is a common threat to both sides, and this could be a means of bringing parties together."

But only if border management is shared. "Some places described by people as peace parks are not peace parks, they're just transboundary conservation zones," Ali said. "Joint management is critical to making peace parks work and achieve their broader objective of bringing parties together who would otherwise have little reason to."

"It means thinking about the environment as a means of cooperation and thereby using it instrumentally," he said.

Importantly, this cooperation is not usually based on recognition of a shared interest. Instead, it's almost the opposite, in what Ali calls a "dilemma of common aversion."

"Usually when you have common interests you get competition," Ali said. "But if you have a common aversion, like the depletion of water, it's going to be mutually respected in the long run and you're more likely to get cooperation."

Peace Parks had its genesis in the realization that few scholars have considered whether environmental conservation is a practical diplomatic tool that can contribute independently to peace-building in international areas of conflict.

"The idea that peace is idealistic is a tragedy of our times," Ali said, "It's very pragmatic and so are peace parks. They have worked in the past and can work in the future."


Saleem Ali is associate professor of environmental planning at the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont and holds adjunct faculty appointments at Brown University and the United Nations mandated University for Peace.

Information about the book and the MIT press is available at

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