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Peace Park Expedition to Balkans Reveals Tensions Over Development, Rule of Law for New Governments

31 August, 2015
Ohio University’s Environmental Studies Program
Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs

One of the last biodiversity hotspots in Europe was also backdrop to one of its last violent conflicts and now home to its newest nation states. The Prokletije/Bjeshket e Nemuna Mountains, often referred to as the Southern Alps, are a large expanse of wilderness and stunning alpine landscapes that form the border between Montenegro, Albania, and Kosovo. Three national parks share borders and form a patchwork of protected land that could be the basis for an international peace park – a shared resource that could promote cross-cultural exchange collaborative natural resource management, and eco-tourism.

Under the leadership of International Peace Park Expeditions Director Todd Walters and Ohio University Professor Geoff Dabelko, a small group of students trek through this prospective Balkans peace park each summer in May to learn about the potential for conservation and eco-tourism to not only provide wealth and alternative livelihoods but also encourage cooperation between former adversaries. The yearly expedition is part of a for-credit course through Ohio University’s Environmental Studies Program at the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs.

Combatting Corruption in Montenegro

Prokletije National Park in Montenegro began as a “paper park” in 2009 – a protected area by legislation but not in practice. The park gained legitimacy in 2012 when Enes Dresković was appointed its first director. At 6-foot-10, Dresković can be intimidating as he patrols the park day and night on a motorcycle. But as the park’s sole employee for the first two years, he has had to be. It was up to him and just five volunteers to protect the entire 41,100-acre area until three rangers were hired this past year.

“Illegal logging is the biggest threat,” Dresković told us. The industry has roots in organized crime and illicit support from officials at the state and local levels, he said. What’s more, it impacts more than just the environment. Illegally harvested timber brings in less money to local government than legally harvested timber because the loggers evade taxes. This dynamic reduces money flowing into public budgets and the formal economy while encouraging corruption. According to the Regional Environmental Center, an NGO based in Hungary, more than half the conifers illegally logged in Montenegro in 2007 were from the municipality of Plav, a center of mafia activity near Prokletije National Park’s borders.

Loggers have diversified their tactics as the park becomes more legitimate, said Dresković, adapting to new monitoring and enforcement efforts. A daily newspaper in Montenegro recently highlighted the involvement of a high-ranking Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) in the industry, for example. “Every logger with documents between 2011 and 2013 had legal permits to cut conifer forests located within the borders of National Park Prokletije, to which they have no right,” Dresković explained in the article. Every permit was approved and signed by the same DPS official. “There is reasonable suspicion that these documents were false because certain permits were entitled to individuals who are deceased,” Dresković said.

As a court case against the DPS official progresses (some prosecutions have earned two illegal loggers jail time), Dresković has more mundane challenges as well. Acquiring funds to hire staff and build basic infrastructure is a top priority. “The national park budget is based in a centralized national bank account,” making it difficult to procure funds sometimes, he said. “Each of Montenegro’s five national parks do not have their own bank account and all costs must go directly through the representative office in Podgorica.”

Encouraging people to use and care about the park is a major focus as well. The park recently reached a significant milestone when the Austrian Development Agency and the National Parks of Montenegro co-financed the construction and outfitting of a visitor’s center on land donated by the municipality of Gusijne. The park is also working hard to attract young volunteers, a critical step toward addressing the intergenerational communication and technology gap in the surrounding communities. “There still exists a clear lack of information in the eyes of the local population of how they can benefit from the national park,” Dresković said.

Gaining a Foothold in Kosovo

Hiking northeast through the mountains, we came across the first evidence of the conflict that shook this part of the world only a decade and half ago. Zulfikar “Zuko” Kurtagic, our Montenegrin mountain guide, stopped in his tracks as our small group approached the crest of the Hajla Mountain Pass. Several students, unaware they had reached the border between Montenegro and Kosovo, had already crested the hill and walked 50 meters into one of the world’s newest countries. As we stood gazing over the burnt aftermath of a wildfire to our left and the breathtaking view of the rolling mountain range before us, we were surprised by the quiet unmarked border.

From 1998 to 1999, the trees and rocky outcroppings of this pass served as cover for snipers during the conflict between the Kosovo Liberation Army, comprised of ethnic Albanians, and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, primarily ethnic Serbians. A family was killed on the very trail we traveled as they tried to escape the Serbian attacks. We later beat a hasty retreat from a lightning storm down along a KLA weapons re-supply trail. Today the area is home to the Bjeshkët e Nemuna National Park which, like its Montenegrin twin Prokletije, faces a battle for legitimacy.

To become a member of NATO and the European Union, countries must set aside at least 10 percent of their land for conservation and protection. The government of Kosovo has set aside Bjeshkët e Nemuna with this in mind. However, the economy is the top political priority, making funding for park management, law enforcement, and educational and recreational opportunities nearly non-existent. Without state support, residents, local government, and NGOs are left to carry on the effort themselves. This neglected “paper park” designation has generated distrust of the national government and opposition to the park itself from some.

But Prokletije’s Dresković has found partners in environmental defense here. Fatos Lajci lost a brother in the fighting for Kosovo’s independence, but today he is the executive director of Environmentally Responsible Action Group (ERA), an NGO based in Peja dedicated to improving environmental protection and sustainable development in Bjeshkët e Nemuna.

ERA establishes and supports educational programs for local youth, hunting and forestry associations, reforestation projects, ecotourism, and efforts to preserve traditional culture. They are currently involved in a multi-country project to identify and monitor the status of the endangered Balkan Lynx with hopes it will help raise awareness of the region’s biodiversity and threats to it. Our group delivered and helped install two digital wildlife camera traps to assist with the project, and this year ERA captured the first photographic proof that the Balkan Lynx lives in Bjeshket e Nemuna. This international effort provides an environmental pathway for ongoing dialogue and collaboration on an issue of common ground among citizens of different countries with different religions, different ethnicities, and different languages.

The Peaks of the Balkans and the Balkans Peace Park Project are also working to promote a trans-national hiking trail that winds through Kosovo, Montenegro, and Albania. Private groups supporting conservation, including ERA, have installed signs and informational kiosks in the protected areas of all three countries. In spite of a letter of good intent circulated between the three countries affirming hikers can cross unguarded borders on the trail, the procedures for remote border crossing remain cumbersome. The best practices proposed in the letter are rarely followed and were seemingly unknown to the border guards we met in Kosovo.

Despite these efforts, Bjeshkët e Nemuna Park is not welcome by everyone. Ripped up trail markers and anti-park graffiti on maps and kiosks are not uncommon. Rights for land owners was a new and confusing issue when the park was first established, and loggers have spread rumors about the government trying to take over private land. Poaching and illegal logging is lucrative and continues, though it has been dramatically reduced through stricter monitoring of the single-lane access road which provides access to Rugova Gorge at the heart of the park.

Zeqir Veselaj, former advisor to the Kosovo Ministry of the Environment at the Kosovo Environmental Protection Agency, said calling the park a conservation area does not mean certain areas cannot be legally logged. The Ministry of the Environment, he said, “is not doing enough to inform people about the benefits of the park,” though this is beginning to change as ERA and other advocates help inform local governments and people about the multiple use zones within the park.

Culture Clash in Albania

Turning southwest we trekked into the “Accursed Mountains,” as the Prokletije Mountains are known in Albania. Thethi, the name of a small village and national park in the northern mountains, is fortunate to have aesthetic beauty rather than exhaustible resources, which would tempt exploitation, said eco-tourism operator Pavlin Polia who lives in the area.

With the help of GIZ, the German Federal Enterprise for International Cooperation, many Albanians are opening their homes to travelers in an effort to promote tourism in a country that was closed to most outsiders during 50 years of communist dictatorship under Enver Hoxha. Ecotourism has created a wide range of economic opportunities for families in the village, supporting local farmers, tradesmen, and drivers through requested goods and services. The income has created hope for a stable economy and healthy environment.

“Hospitality is in our blood,” Polia said, whose guesthouse, Polia Shelter Theth, and guiding business is increasingly coordinating with park and tourism officials across the border in Montenegro.

But as tourism increases, others have tried to expand the industry in ways that conflict with Polia’s smaller, sustainability-focused, local charachter vision. Between 2012 and 2014, a three-story red brick hotel was built among the traditional limestone rock structures nestled in the valley. The incongruence in architecture is clear. Aside from diminishing Thethi’s cultural presentation and historic atmosphere, new construction for other large hotels is underway on park land with no permits, and no permitting process. Government presence is minimal and enforcement rarer still. New roads are also under construction to ease access to the region.

Polia and other locals worry that these legal and illegal developments and the larger crowds they may attract will diminish the region’s traditional culture and preserved environment. “In five years, Thethi may be ready for it,” he said, “but right now it’s not.”

The race for development is part of the country’s push for European Union membership. Like Kosovo, the government has focused on showcasing Albania’s preserved landscapes to draw foreign interest and facilitate joining the European Union. Indeed, in June 2014 the European Union granted Albania candidacy status, the next step on the way to becoming a full member. Arjeta Troshani, the dean of economic faculty at Shkodra University and a consultant to the national government on tourism, stressed the importance of marketing Albanian culture while working to secure resource management plans with neighboring countries, including environmental partnerships with Montenegro and Kosovo that could make a tri-country peace park possible.

But in order to preserve the culture of Thethi and other small villages, it is clear more open discussion between stakeholders is needed. “[Albania] is too small to see on a map, but inside…it is so huge,” said Polia. Comprehensive planning that takes into account the impact of development on the landscape, the culture, and the people is sorely lacking.

A critical dynamic that will determine the success of this transition from isolated subsistence to interconnected development across the Balkans is how effectively laws protecting Thethi, Bjeshket e Nemuna, and Prokletije are enforced. This single alpine ecosystem spans three new democracies and is crucial for European Union membership in all three countries, providing an important barometer for cross-border cooperation.

Cross-cultural exchanges contribute towards establishing the cooperative frameworks needed to achieve these goals. And, as grassroots activism and action integrate with top down policies, we hope there will one day be formal recognition of a Balkans Peace Park. Perhaps expeditions like ours will play a small part in facilitating the cross-border cooperation that expands sustainable development, environmental conservation, and reconciliation.

 

The original version of this article appeared on New Security Beat.

Jenna Cripps, Stephanie Gentle, Sarah Liuba, Alaina Morman, Matt Paulins, Alexandra Sargent, Rachel Schack, Nora Sullivan, and Laura Tobar were students on the 2014 Balkans Peace Park Expedition. At the time, Stephanie Gentle and Sarah Liuba were graduate students at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, Alexandra Sargent a graduate student at the University of New Hampshire, and Jenna Cripps, Alaina Morman, Matt Paulins, Rachel Schack, Nora Sullivan, and Laura Tobar were students at Ohio University.

Todd Walters is the founder and executive director of International Peace Park Expeditions. Geoff Dabelko is a senior advisor to ECSP and professor and director of the Environmental Studies Program at Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs.

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Biodiversity & Livelihoods
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Topics

Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Co-Benefits

Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Development

Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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Energy

The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

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Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

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Finance

Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.

Forests

Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender

Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Security

Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.

Water

The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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Regions

Asia

The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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Europe

As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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