Sustainable Peace

Published as a blog post for Search For Common Ground. The original post can be accessed here.

Food, water, shelter, clothing. Every human being of the 7 billion that live on Earth today must satisfy basic needs to survive.  In grade school, we learn that we all depend on limited natural resources.  In the lush Great Lakes region of Africa and the dry landscapes of the Middle East, scarcity of natural resources is both directly and indirectly a major cause of violent conflict. 

According to the Global Policy Forum, 40 percent of all intrastate conflicts in the last sixty years have some connection to natural resources. And in a recent address UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon said:

Since 1990, at least 18 violent conflicts have been fuelled by the exploitation of natural resources such as timber, minerals, oil and gas.

The landscape of the Great Lakes region and that of the Middle East could not be starker in contrast. The rich highland soil and substantial rainfall across Rwanda and Burundi create the perfect environment for growing crops for food and materials needed to build shelter. The demand for the most important resource in this area, land, grows as rapidly as the population and the number of refugees returning home.

Under the shadow of the Virunga Mountains in Rwanda, sits Donat Singirankabb’s small plot of farmland. Donat’s hands are wrinkled and cracked from the hard labor of more than 50 years of cultivating. The hair on his chin is speckled with gray and the creases around his eyes get deeper every year, but he continues to tend to his crops, even at 61 years old. IMG_1703

Rwanda and Burundi are both slightly smaller than the state of Maryland, with 12 million and 10 million inhabitants, respectively. The two nations are the most densely populated countries in Africa, with 90 percent of inhabitants completely dependent on subsistence agriculture for survival. 

“Land is everything,” Rebecca Besant, our Regional Director for East Africa said,  “and its importance becomes even more evident when inheritance comes into play.” In Rwanda, the fight for land and land rights is the main driver of violent conflict, with few policies and authorities able to monitor fair distribution.

To avoid conflict within his own family, Donat divided his land equally amongst his children, keeping a small portion for himself. “After I pass away, they will also inherit the small plot where I grow my own food,” he said. 

The majority of violent conflict surrounding land in this region occurs between family members and neighbors. Though equal distribution may seem like the obvious solution, the lines of inheritance become blurred when polygamy and having children out of wedlock are common practices. The generational practice of passing down land also means that every generation has less and less than the one before. 

Seraphine Uzamushaka is the mother of three children in the Eastern Province of Rwanda. When her husband married other women, he forbid her and their children from harvesting the crops. “He’d beat and chase me away when I’d come to harvest,” she said. “Local authorities wouldn’t help because they are all friends with my husband.” As a result, Seraphine’s eldest son left school to help the family make a living.

A recent article published on our blog states that over the last ten years, more than 500,000 ethnic-Hutu refugees came back to their homes in southern Burundi, from neighboring Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Conflicts between residents and returnees who are claiming their land back after a decade-long absence are becoming more commonplace. 

Rwanda is making notable steps to move towards a positive future. The Rwanda National Resource Authority recently implemented land mapping and registration to reduce the number of disputes around certainty of ownership. In an effort to quell the tensions and provide land and resources to returning refugees, Rwanda reduced the size of one of its biggest national parks to accommodate the added influx of people re-entering the country. Akagera National Park is now a third of the size it once was in the mid-90s. “Reducing the size of a nationally protected park might seem like replacing the land scarcity issue with a conservation issue, but it’s a hard line to draw when people have nowhere else to go,” Besant said.


The connection farmers have to land means they are often the first to notice major changes in climate patterns, based on how it affects their crops. Both local and international communities have noticed how climate change is affecting these two countries. “Rainy seasons have changed in length and time of the year and it’s much harder for people to predict the weather patterns that follow crop growth efficiency,” Besant said.

In a recent discussion held at The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Mike Jobbins, our Senior Program Manager for Africa said, “Climate change is going to have a startling effect on Burundi. Between the 3% per year population growth and soil degradation, there is a problem in terms of how people can feed their families, and how they can live.”

In an effort to reduce the amount of land being needed for farming, we are leading educational projects to foster the entrepreneurial skills of young Rwandans and Burundians, so that they can choose from a wider range of career paths to support themselves and their families.

“Search produces weekly radio programs and television shows that inform citizens on everything from registering a business, to providing knowledge about the options outside of agriculture,” Anaïs Caput, our program officer for East and Southern Africa said.

As refugees from Rwanda and Burundi begin to assimilate to the place that was once home, the same cannot be said for Syrian refugees taking shelter in neighboring countries across the Middle East. In Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, the lack of resources, funding and even space, is causing tensions between host communities and refugees. 

This week, the United Nations asked Western countries to open their bordersto the thousands that still continue to leave Syria every month. In the four years since the beginning of the revolution, roughly half of Syria’s 22 million people have either fled the country or been forcibly displaced from their homes. 

Lebanon is a third of the size of the state of Maryland and currently home to just over 4 million people. 1.2 million of them, roughly 25 percent of the total, are Syrian refugees. This dramatic, sudden increase in population has brought about significant disruptions to the Lebanese economy, infrastructure, demographics, and society. In addition, refugees are often concentrated in already economically underdeveloped regions of Lebanon. As a result, Lebanese youth in these areas suffer from high levels of unemployment and feel marginalized in their own country. Marginalization on both sides leads to a vicious cycle of more resentment and pre-conceived stereotypes being perpetuated; all the while, the strain on natural resources is exacerbating tensions to a tipping point.

“The Lebanese initially welcomed the refugees with generosity, but the sheer number is now threatening to tear a fragile social fabric in some already deprived communities,” Emily Jacquard, our Country Director for Lebanon, said. Our offices in Lebanon are working in eleven local communities in collaboration with two regional partners to strengthen inter-group relations between Syrian refugees and the Lebanese host communities. Through roundtable discussions with attendees from both sides, sporting events, summer camps and youth targeted activities, the areas that we work in have seen positive changes in the attitudes towards hosts and guests.

Training sessions to strengthen existing local capacities for conflict resolution are empowering communities to take initiative in the peace process. More than 200 Lebanese and Syrian community leaders will attend trainings focused on community mediation and rumor management. Eventually, these leaders will establish local mechanisms for resolving ongoing neighborhood conflicts, such as the ones involving access to water, shelter and food. 

“In the 1970s we too sought refuge in other countries during our own war,” Khalil Harfouch, the mayor of the Lebanese town of Jezzine, said. “I am a firm believer that dialogue is the way to solve conflict, especially in our case, where displaced people are hosted by local communities,” he said. 

The World Economic Forum’s latest Global Risks Report states that interstate conflict is most pressing and devastating issue we are facing today. Despite its precedence over the water crisis, weapons of mass destruction and spread of infectious diseases, like Ebola, there is an obvious piece of the puzzle we are not connecting. Violent conflict is not separate from these issues, but deeply connected to all of them. In order to eliminate violence, we must look at the stressors that contribute to its inception. 

Environmental devastation and resource scarcity are among the most damaging of these stressors. Our projects on land conflict mediation, and our trainings to offer sustainable livelihoods to people who don’t have access to resources, are tackling a part of the problem. The solution, though, needs a concerted effort from governments, international organizations, civil society groups, and citizens alike, to find constructive solutions to resource management, pollution control, and conservation that include the voices and meet the needs of all parties. Respecting the environment doesn’t just mean living on a cleaner planet, but also helping sustain peace and coexistence, all across the world.

SIDS facing major economic and environmental setbacks without green reformation

Published as a news update for the Global Island Partnership (GLISPA) .

“The renewable transition for all islands is really an opportunity for the islands to define and realize their own potential for a green economy, because without sustainable energy being a part of that they will become the canaries in the coal mine,” Justin Locke said.

Locke was part of a panel of esteemed representatives working in sustainable economic development in Small Island Developing States or SIDS. Master’s candidates from The John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Energy, Resources, and Environment Program, presented a year of research to the panel.

The students were part of a practicum course that allowed them to consult for a client organization aimed at addressing international environmental and energy policy issues. The client, SIDS DOCK, is an initiative among 31 member countries of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) to provide mechanisms to assist in transforming national energy sectors and help generate financial resources to adapt to climate change.

“Islands are really at the forefront of climate change,” Celeste Connors, Associate Practitioner in Residence at SAIS, said. “They are particularly vulnerable to climate related issues including seal level rise, biodiversity loss, limited resources and catastrophic natural disasters, but at the same time, are laboratories for solutions.”

Students, Taylor Crompton, Madeleine Holland, David Pedigo and Erica Shifflett highlighted their policy recommendations to mobilize sustainable development investments in Small Island Developing States. These islands differ greatly in location, cultural diversity, history and governance. Creating a plan that fits all is very challenging, but the research presented took these disparities into account.

The main point the students wanted the audience to leave with were: an understanding that SIDS are well-positioned to turn their challenges into opportunities; long term vision for projects that generate electricity and programs that generate sustainable development are essential in a successful future; regional cooperation can scale up efforts to enable leaders and empower latecomers; and most importantly, that political will is necessary in achieving any goals.

One of the most startling components of their research was the illustration of the high dependency on fuel imports for electricity in most of these island states. In a comparison of 16 SIDS, the importation of fuel alone accounted for between 20 percent and 180 percent of total exports.

“This pattern makes profit from trade almost impossible when other imports such as food and manufactured goods are considered,” Pedigo said.

Energy sector reform, innovative financing mechanisms and long term resilience planning were the three solutions offered to combat the cycle of high electricity prices, high public debt and vulnerability to climate change.

“The challenges SIDS face are significant, but they are also very interrelated; they feed into one another to collectively impede economic development,” Holland said. “The solutions to these challenges require holistic and innovative action.”

The Seychelles is engaged in a Debt-for-Nature Swap, a financial transaction in which a portion of a developing nation’s debt is forgiven in exchange for local investments in environmental conservation measures. This debt swap will result in increased marine protected areas in the country to 30 percent. By protecting the marine habitats such as coral reefs, the island nation is better protected against powerful storms and swells.

After the presentation, each panelist provided a brief response, expressing their gratitude and admiration of the work and research. The first panelist to speak was Ambassador Ronny Jumeau of the Seychelles. As the Ambassador for Climate Change and Small Island Developing State Issues, he argued that the problems such as high electricity prices, high public debt and vulnerability to climate change, were all development issues.

“The solution to all these problems are providing opportunities and challenges for us to solve development issues. We are too small, with the little resources we have, to be dividing these issues into separate empires,” he said.

Ambassador Jumeau urged people to “wake up and smell the coffee,” as many island states are already being left behind in developing the resilience to adapt to the inevitable effects of climate change.

“How can we buy time and make it easier for our populations and our communities, our people to adapt to the transitions that are headed our way whether we like it or not?” he said.

He, along with other panelists, stressed the need for further collaboration amongst the SIDS in sharing information, data and solutions.

Panelist Jennifer DeCesaro, the Director of Technology–to-Market Program at the US Department of Energy spoke about her agency’s contribution to small island energy transitions. The work being done resulted in the publication of a new playbook with case studies, research and observations from studies done in Hawaii, the US Virgin Islands and other island states such as New Zealand and Iceland.

“The playbook has phases one through six to help islands on their energy transition,” DeCesaro said. “The first step is committing to transition, then setting the vision, assessing the opportunities, doing project preparation and execution, operation and then finally, looking at improving processes.”

Addressing several detailed components to the issue of development was panelist, Justin Locke. Locke is the Director of Islands at the Carbon War Room and expressed that regulatory and policy framework were still not mature enough to take on full-scale projects.

“Land is something we must consider in our development plans,” he said. “Renewable energy becomes very much a part of the natural landscape just like the resorts and hotels that have become a part of the landscape.”

He also made note of the project development costs and the often tedious and drawn out process that makes investors hesitant to commit. There are often multiple stakeholders involved, from the politicians to the investors. Lack of communication and access make projects complex and drawn-out, leading to cuts in funding or stunting of production.

Jan Hartke, the panelist from the Clinton Climate Initiative spoke significantly of the importance of building partnerships with international communities, NGOs and other islands. He thanked the students that presented for their efforts to highlight problems that he hoped to make clear in his work as the Global Director of Clean Energy.

In his response, he compared the effects of climate change and natural disaster on islands and the United States, focusing on the difficulties to recuperate and rebuild after major hurricanes and storms.

“When we think about what Katrina did to one city, imagine what happens when an entire country’s GDP is wiped out for an entire year, maybe even two,” he said.