How to harness natural resources for peacebuilding in post-conflict societies? How to protect the environment during a civil war? How to prevent natural resources from facilitating armed conflict? How to solve tensions over land, water, forest, and sub-soil assets so that they do not escalate to violent disputes?

These were among the issues that were discussed during the recent Peace Week at University of California, Irvine (UCI). The Peace Week at UCI is a student led initiative that seeks to expand knowledge on peacebuilding and non-violent practices from different perspectives. I had the honor to listen to David Jensen’s keynote at the Peace Week on United Nation Environment Programme’s (UNEP) perspective on environment and peacebuilding. Jensen, who is the head of UNEP’s Environmental Cooperation for Peacebuilding programme, walked us through the different ways how environment can be part of armed conflict and how specific conflicts have shaped that perception.

In many wars, environment has been targeted as part of the warfare strategy or it has been directly affected by the warfare. During the Vietnam war, the United States sprayed 20% of Vietnam’s forest with Agent Orange to defoliate the jungle. During the wars in Kuwait and Kosovo, for example, the environment took a direct hit as oil wells were set afire and hazardous industrial sites such as petrochemical plants were targeted. Besides of being directly damaged by warfare, such as bombings, environment can be at risk as the war-affected populations develop environmentally destructive coping strategies. In Afghanistan, for example, extreme pressure on forests inflicted by the suffering communities has led to a near complete deforestation. It is also recognized that under some circumstances natural resources can motivate and facilitate conflict as did diamonds in Sierra Leone and Angola, timber in Liberia, and gemstones in Myanmar and Cambodia.

Consequently, peace agreements tend to more and more include aspects on natural resources, and peacebuilding processes seek to more and more capitalize on the potential that natural resources and environment have in promoting peace.

One of the core peacebuilding objectives is to rebuild relationships and trust between citizens and governments. Access to information and providing platforms for dialogue are important steps in building such trust.

You can read more about environmental peacebuilding at http://environmentalpeacebuilding.org/