UN peacekeepers not only operate in conflicts where land and natural resources are a component of the fighting but their own bases and operations can also impact the local environment. As well as documenting practical steps to minimize the footprint of field missions, a new report from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) reviews the relationship between natural resources and conflict and what it means for peacekeeping.
While there’s been talk about “greening” UN peacekeeping for years, the details about the economic, environmental, and mission benefits contained in Greening the Blue Helmets: Environment, Natural Resources and UN Peacekeeping Operations suggest that this talk is getting closer to reality.
As of December 2011, the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations was responsible for 121,591 personnel, 17,000 vehicles, and 257 aircraft across 16 different operations worldwide. These forces account for more than half of the entire UN system’s carbon emissions and can significantly strain the resources of fragile host communities, according to the report.
Building on the 2009 Environmental Policy for UN Field Missions, the UNEP report provides a dozen best practice examples from ongoing missions.
Field cases serve as evidence of how increasing water and energy efficiency, safely discarding solid and hazardous wastes, protecting cultural and historical sites, and ensuring a limited footprint after the closing down of camps, can save environmental and financial resources. These measures, the report claims, also reduce the risk of tension with host communities, such as occurred in Haiti when an outbreak of Cholera was traced to unsanitary water management practices at a UN camp.
Technologies recommended include better waste management systems, improved water systems, energy efficient buildings, and green energy capacities. However, some improvements can be made by simply encouraging behavioral changes; the UN mission in Timor-Leste reduced energy consumption by 15 percent over 12 months using a “CarLog” system to encourage fuel efficiency. With a 2009 global fuel bill of $638 million, even a 15 percent margin relates to a significant figure (much like the logic behind similar efficiency efforts within the U.S. military).
However, uncertain mission lengths are a major barrier to the adoption of more efficient technologies. Despite UN operations lasting an average of seven years and evidence indicating that capital investments could be recovered within one to five years in some cases, year-to-year mandates complicate long-term planning.
Natural Resource Nexus
Conceptually, the nexus of natural resources, conflict, and peacebuilding must be a central concern of peacekeeping operations, asserts the report.
In Africa alone, 13 operations have been conducted in response to conflicts associated with natural resources, at a cost of around $32 billion. Exploitation of natural resources such as diamonds, timber, and oil has financed and fueled conflicts in Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Liberia. Communal tensions over access to scarce land and water resources are also considered an exacerbating influence on conflict dynamics in much of Sudan and now South Sudan, according to the report.
Addressing this nexus can also provide opportunities to reduce and redress conflict. In Darfur, firewood collection is a dangerous task for women and girls. By making “firewood patrols” a regular feature of the UN forces’ protection, the prevalence of sexual violence has been limited.
The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan is cited in the report for its efforts to hire ex-combatant and vulnerable populations to aid in the reforestation of extensively degraded pistachio woodlands from 2003 to 2009.
“Natural resources can provide opportunities for emergency employment and…sustainable livelihoods for former combatants,” write the authors.
Countries recovering from episodes of violence tend to have a low capacity to effectively and equitably manage a natural resource base that itself may have been degraded by conflict. Recent attention, however, is being paid to the peacebuilding potential of managing shared resources.
According to the report, “while only 54 percent of peace agreements reached between 1989 and 2004 contained provisions on natural resources, all of the major agreements concluded between 2005 and 2010 included such provisions.” This includes the renovation of land tenure systems, management of valuable extractive industries, and reallocation of resource rents.
Preventing Predatory Extraction
As peace begins to take hold, “access to land may be a key determining factor affecting the successful reintegration of a former combatant into a community.”
According to interview data from Northern Uganda, 93 percent of male LRA ex-combatants were unable to access land after demobilization. Often due to the death of an elder relative, sale of land by a family member, or land grabs by other members of the community.
While shared resources can build trust between communities, spoiler groups that use aggressive means to secure resource rents in the aftermath of conflict can endanger a fragile peace. The report identifies a role here for peacekeeping forces – and in particular for their civilian contingent – to identify these potential risks and opportunities for action.
In particular, the report recommends a higher level of clarity about the relationship between peacekeeping forces and so called “expert panels” – groups of civilian specialists called upon by the Security Council to provide advice on an official basis about natural resources in the aftermath of conflict.
The UN mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, was given a direct mandate in 2008 to work with the DRC expert panel and to “use its monitoring and inspection capacities to curtail the provision of support to illegal armed groups derived from illicit trade in natural resources.”
UNEP Program Officer Matti Lehtonen, in an email interview, called the panels a “tremendous asset that is not yet used up to its full potential.” However, he noted, “expert panels and peacekeeping missions are different tools with different objectives so there is also a need to maintain a degree of independence.”
The report identifies a set of key recommendations for the UN moving forward:
The slow but steady expansion of natural resource concerns has pushed some UN missions to take a more active role in monitoring, patrolling, and reinforcing governance of natural resources, as well as work with civilian groups who understand the complexity of local environmental contexts. The UNEP report suggests that these changes may soon come to be reflected in more extensive Security Council mandates that recognize the need for UN forces to interact with natural resource issues as a fundamental component of international peacekeeping efforts.
- Ensure that pre-deployment and in-mission training includes instruction on environment and natural resource management
- Aid and encourage disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programs to look closely at emergency employment and sustainable livelihoods related to natural resources and the environment
- Support and encourage civil affairs personnel to seek ways to capitalize on peacebuilding opportunities around natural resources and the environment
- Systematically inform the Security Council of linkages between natural resources and conflict in states where the Council may be considering action
- Where natural resources have fueled or financed conflict, provide peacekeepers with a more systemic mandate to act on these issues
- Effectively implement best practices identified in the 2009 environmental policy
Photo Credit: UN peacekeepers in Côte d’Ivoire distribute water during a 2007 mission, courtesy of United Nations Photo. 8MXM49VWC3ZH