As Ivory Becomes Bigger Issue, Environmental Peacebuilding Gaining Ground at IUCN World Congress


Bethany N. Bella, New Security Beat

Date Published


See link for video of the  IUCN 2016: Members’ Assembly 10 Sep – 8th Sitting 
A traditional conservation approach to climate change (e.g., habitat restoration, species protection) has been a primary tenet of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) agenda for decades. But this fall at the quadrennial World Conservation Congress in Hawai’i there were new discussions about tackling climate change in the context of national security and environmental peacebuilding.

There has been discussion about environmental security and peacebuilding themes within IUCN for some time. In 1999, IUCN published a report examining the link between environment and security, in an attempt to “lay the foundation for a full and informed debate.” Climate change and international security resurfaced at a panel discussion at the2008 IUCN World Conservation Congress in Barcelona, while recommendations abouttransboundary protected area were introduced at the 2012 Congress in Jeju, South Korea.

“It is still a pretty small community that’s using [the phrase],” observed Todd Walters, the founder and executive director of International Peace Park Expeditions, at the Congress this past September. But “the concepts of environmental peacebuilding are embedded in a lot of the work – it’s just not being explicitly called ‘environmental peacebuilding,’ even though it conceptually is.”

There were sessions at the 10,000-delegate gathering of environmentalists, scientists, government officials, and members of the private sector with explicit environmental security themes, including one facilitated by Carl Bruch of the Environmental Law Institute on environmental protection in relation to armed conflict.

“From my perspective, there were a good number of relevant sessions,” Bruch said. “It was really exciting for me, as someone who has worked with IUCN for a number of years, [who has] been to three of these Congresses now, to see how much growth there has been.”

The potential to aid in improving stability after decades of conflict could be a huge breakthrough

A variety of perspectives were represented at Bruch’s session, including from the humanitarian, development, conservation and policy fields. “One of the challenges about environmental peacebuilding is that you’re not talking about just one audience,” Bruch said. The wide base of interests – from climate scientists to agriculture and mining specialists to the military – can make it difficult to form a consensus on environmental peacebuilding directives.

But the Congress was not deterred. The IUCN General Body approved a motion outlining its support for conservation and peacebuilding efforts to continue in biodiversity-rich Colombia (see Motion 105), where a fragile peace is under threat. The potential to aid in improving stability and democracy after decades of conflict could be a huge breakthrough for the legitimacy of environmental peacebuilding on a global scale.

“This is the first time I’ve ever seen a motion coming out of an international institution of like-bodies that is supporting environmental peacebuilding and not just conservation for conservation’s sake,” Walters said.

The Ivory Dilemma and Peace Parks

The consensus on how environmental peacebuilding should be addressed is far from clear, however. Motion 007, which calls for the closure of all domestic ivory markets, has major implications for environmental security and was met with considerable contention.

Last year’s National Geographic documentary and special issue on the “Warlords of Ivory” propelled the links between terrorism, national security, and the underground ivory trade into public discourse. Terrorist groups operating in Africa are now directly linked with the transportation of illegal elephant ivory to other African countries as well as East Asian consumer countries.  

In Hawai’i, voices from elephant rangeland nations, neighboring African countries, as well as elephant-and-ivory invested organizations and ministries were heard during anearly two-hour debate of Motion 007 on the Congress floor.

A spokesperson from the Japanese Ministry of Environment, a consumer country, proposed elephant ivory markets should be “appropriately” regulated but not altogether banned. “We hope to draw your attention to the fact that there are several countries which have been successful in appropriately conserving African elephant populations with appropriate management,” the spokesman said. “We strongly insist that we have to take into account respective situations among different range and consumer states.”

Similarly, a representative from South Africa’s Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife argued, “we don’t have a problem managing our resources.”

A representative from Safari Club International Foundation, citing the Convention of Biological Diversity Article 3, acknowledged that “under international law, states have the sovereign right to exploit their own natural resources in pursuant with their own environmental policies, but they also bear the responsibility to ensure that those activities do not damage the environment of other nations. SCI Foundation firmly believes in the sovereignty of individual nations and that the regulation of domestic markets is a sovereignty issue.”

Ultimately, the original motion recommending closure of all domestic markets for elephant ivory – without “weakened” amendments suggested by some rangeland nations and Japan – prevailed in the majority vote, but not without controversy.

“The people who are getting the benefits from ivory right now are criminals and terrorists”

“This motion was tied directly to the linkage between poaching and wildlife crime and the financing of terrorism and destabilizing guerilla groups,” Walters said. It was the voices from members like the Uganda Wildlife Authority and Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority that decided the vote.

“The people who are getting the benefits from ivory right now are criminals and terrorists,” a Uganda Wildlife Authority spokesperson said. “Uganda has fought wars – the Lord’s Resistance Army, everybody knows that ivory is their major source of money – [and] people are killed. We have done DNA analysis of the source of ivory, and actually the countries that we’ve heard saying can control their markets, this ivory is actually coming from there. Nobody has been able to regulate this market, and we need to…act now.”

The Hawai’i Commitments, a summation of the motions and other issues raised at the Congress, recognize that the involvement of organized crime networks in the illegal ivory market “pose a threat to national and international security as well as to social and economic development.”

Peace parks also received some attention in Hawai’i. IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas was able to pass a motion supporting transboundary conservation efforts. “The text of that motion does a good job of highlighting some of the environmental peacebuilding components that go into transboundary conservation and asserts that there should be greater support for those types of initiatives – and that the IUCN itself, as a global institution, should be one of the leaders pushing that,” Walters said.

In addition, the World Commission on Protected Areas highlighted a report from the Transboundary Conservation Specialist Group for its contributions to the global environmental peacebuilding discussion. Updates to the IUCN Green List, a catalogue of all protected and conserved areas, were also available at the Congress.

There is still a balance to be struck in aligning member interests with the overarching IUCN commitment to conservation. But the opportunity to expand environmental peacebuilding concepts to a wider audience has contributed both short-term and long-term momentum in growing the international environmental peacebuilding community, said Bruch.

“We had a lot of people signing up for the environmental peacebuilding community in practice,” Bruch said. “Even beyond the use of the term ‘environmental peacebuilding,’ there was a lot of interest.”

The commitment from IUCN members to encourage environmental peacebuilding in Colombia, address wildlife trafficking, and support peace parks accelerates the dialogue on environment and security connections in this important conservation forum.