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Nature conservation as a bridge to peace in the Middle East

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IMAGE: This photograph shows Palestinian and Israeli Arab farmers, from Northern Samaria, smiling while holding a Barn Owl in a joint seminar in Israel. view more

Credit: Hagai Aharon

Loss of biodiversity is a major challenge in today's world as is the quest for peace in regions engaged in conflict. But scientists writing in a Review published March 22 in Trends in Ecology & Evolution say that efforts to conserve natural resources present an opportunity to find common ground between communities at odds, building trust and renewed hope for peace.

"Nature can build bridges between nations," said Alexandre Roulin of the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. "We use nature conservation to favor communication between communities in conflict. Although we've developed efforts in the Middle East, including Israel, Jordan, and the Palestine Authority, we hope that our work will become a platform to stimulate similar initiatives around the world."

Roulin says it all started about 35 years ago when co-author Yossi Leshem from Israel's Tel-Aviv University noticed that Israeli farmers were using poison to kill rodents. The trouble was that the rodents' natural bird predators were also dying from poisoning. It took years, but they ultimately convinced farmers and the Israeli government to eliminate the use of the pesticides and begin building nest boxes for barn owls and kestrels instead.

The effort helped to protect wildlife without any increase in crop loss. That's because each pair of owls can produce 11 offspring in a year. Those owls, in turn, consume thousands of rodents per year.

But there was more. The scientists began to realize that farmers in Jordan and the Palestinian Authority faced similar challenges, which needed to be addressed on a regional scale. They also began to realize that the project could unite Jordanians, Israelis, and Palestinians for a common cause despite their religious and political differences. Roulin recounts many examples in which people engaged in the project over the years have laughed and joked together, visited each other's places of worship, and more.

Roulin says it's best to start small. By documenting small-scale successes, you can begin to identify committed partners in other places. Ultimately, programs such as their "Birds know no boundaries" effort can be expanded to reach a national and international scale.

"The combination of nature conservation and peace-building is not only important, but it also brings a new message of hope that our society is looking for," Roulin said. "We hope to persuade the international community to consider such projects as diplomatic tools to pave the road to peace."

Their project in the Middle East has continued undeterred despite the conflict. There's already interest in their example from the Swiss and Chinese armies. There's also hope that a similar effort could be a starting point for bringing people from North and South Korea together.

"Unexpected ideas, such as working scientifically with barn owls, can be the source of great inspiration for issues that are far bigger than our scientific questions," Roulin said.

Roulin says he and his colleagues now hope to launch an educational program in Europe, to encourage connection between children from Europe and the Middle East and raise awareness about the interdependence of nature on a global scale.

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Trends in Ecology & Evolution, Roulin et al.: "'Nature Knows no Boundaries': The Role of Nature Conservation in Peacebuilding" http://www.cell.com/trends/ecology-evolution/fulltext/S0169-5347(17)30057-5

Trends in Ecology & Evolution (@Trends_Ecol_Evo), published by Cell Press, is a monthly review journal that contains polished, concise, and readable reviews, opinions, and letters in all areas of ecology and evolutionary science. It aims to keep scientists informed of new developments and ideas across the full range of ecology and evolutionary biology -- from the pure to the applied, and from molecular to global. Visit: http://www.cell.com/trends/ecology-evolution. To receive Cell Press media alerts, please contact press@cell.com.

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