Around 1.6 billion people depend on forests for their livelihood, and about 2.6 billion people rely directly on agriculture.1 Deforestation, land degradation, and unsustainable management of ecosystems threaten those livelihoods and may contribute to resource-related conflicts and social unrest.
Shrinking spaces and unjust tenure systems can make parts of the population more receptive to terrorist recruitment or force people to migrate away from places that are no longer hospitable. The dire scenario of a rapidly declining nature revealed by the recently released IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services further underscores the urgency of conserving and restoring natural spaces for the sake of human security and well-being. Sustainable land and forest management thus needs to be an essential part of SDG16 activities on peace, justice, and good institutions.
The critical importance of land, forest, and biodiversity for core foreign policy objectives
As deserts spread, partly due to a changing climate, food insecurity and competition for the remaining fertile land increase. When forests stop providing fibre, fuelwood, shelter, and habitat for wildlife, rural livelihoods fall under pressure. When corrupt elites prevent efforts to manage resources better and share the benefits of the land and the forest equally, social and political conflicts loom. In Sudan, Somalia or the Lake Chad Basin where nomads clash with sedentary farmers, these processes add to an already conflicting and chaotic situation and hence undermine international efforts to de-radicalize communities and combat terrorism. Non-state armed groups are likely to exploit the changing access to and availability of natural resources. Decreasing land and soil productivity may also become one of the drivers of environmental migration, both voluntary and forced. People may migrate in quest of a more liveable and less vulnerable environment2, or move as a reaction to risks and tensions posed by conflicts resulting from resource scarcities3.
Fragile societies with weak economic foundations and insufficient state services, where conflicts are latent or manifest, are much more vulnerable to such environmental degradation - be it barren land or loss of forests and species. At the same time, the challenges of implementing SDG15 in fragile countries and risks of unintended side effects are much more significant. For instance, deforestation and forest degradation can increase in post-war situations, if forest territory earlier in control of armed rebels becomes accessible. Sustainable forest and land management in fragile and conflict contexts thus require a different, specifically conflict-sensitive approach.
Foreign policy can play a critical role in supporting sustainable management of land and forest resources by facilitating data exchange across borders, supporting the implementation of key international agreements in international fora, investing in and co-designing local restoration programmes and support community-based environmental stewardship. By promoting and supporting development plans that integrate conservation efforts and by investing in modern land management technologies, structural drivers of human insecurity can be eliminated, while at the same time creating resilience against slow and sudden onset disasters such droughts and floods, which again can contribute to forced displacement4.
The UN Security Council has called for risk assessment and management strategies that include coordinating policies, strategies, and programs addressing humanitarian needs, livelihood insecurity, climate change adaptation, and peace building. However, these considerations have not been adequately integrated into foreign/humanitarian policy processes yet.
Forests deliver a range of services to humans. They support the freshwater cycle (SDG6), infiltrate soils, and increase the overall resilience of landscapes and communities. They also offer habitat to biodiversity, which in turn provides essential services for human well-being and influences societies’ ability to alleviate poverty (SDG1), ensure food security (SDG2) and more generally, withstand shocks and respond to various disturbances. Conserving, managing and restoring forests and their services (addressed under target 15.2) are not only necessary to reduce CO2 emissions (SDG13), but will maintain and in some cases reinstate livelihoods and biodiversity, and help in preventing and strengthening the foundation of a socially and economically stable society (SDG16). The same holds true for combatting desertification and land restoration (addressed under target 15.3).
Biological diversity, which is addressed under target 15.5, provides essential services for human well-being and influences societies’ ability to alleviate poverty, ensure food security and more generally, withstand shocks and respond to various disturbances. Combatting the alarming trend of biodiversity loss and broadening the participation in decision-making processes for biodiversity conservation can, therefore, be a means to build peaceful and resilient societies. Besides, illegally sourced and traded wildlife products are often used by radical organizations as a source of income5 and indirectly endanger security6.
Illustration: poor forest governance fuels conflict in Myanmar
Forced migration of more than hundreds of thousands of people is a result of more than six decades of armed conflict and recurring outbursts of violence. Although Myanmar is in the process of negotiating peace, the southeast of the country is still facing acute humanitarian vulnerability with little prospects for stable livelihoods7. How is this linked to SDG15? Myanmar has the third highest deforestation rate in the world, losing about 2% of its forests per year8 due to unsustainable logging and extensive agricultural development. Land property rights in forested regions are poorly developed, and undemocratic governance and mismanagement of forest resources have fuelled political grievances and none-state actors taking control of territories using violence. The perception of unequal distribution of timber revenues sustains the tensions9. For a democratic transition and successful peace negotiations, the fair management of Myanmar’s natural resources is vital. Progress towards sustainable forest management (SDG target 15.2) and ensuring the conservation of mountain ecosystems, including their biodiversity, to enhance their capacity to provide benefits that are essential for sustainable development (SDG target 15.5) would yield high peace dividends.
Protecting life on land is essential to securing livelihoods of many populations around the world. Deforestation, desertification and biodiversity loss increase the grievances, exacerbate conflict and can be a driver of migration. Protection and fair distribution of natural resources provided by functioning terrestrial ecosystems is thus an important part of reducing conflict, especially in fragile societies, while conservation activities themselves can be a vehicle for building peace. Foreign policy can benefit from analysing the complex interaction of life on land and conflict and use its unique tools to set off positive dynamics of better resource management and socio-political gains, with a view to building resilience.