The environmental consequences of UN Peacekeeping

Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of guest posts in our new interactive blog. Sarah Kleinman is the Outreach Director for International Non-governmental Organizations (INGOs) for Sense and Sustainability. She is a doctoral student at Oxford University in International Relations, where she is a Rhodes Scholar. She has previously worked as a consultant for The Carter Center in Sudan, as an associate at Global Policy Forum, and as the Executive Director of FACE AIDS

As a society emerges from conflict, the United Nations almost always responds by establishing a field mission to address the distinct but intimately related goals of goals and then building the peace.  Maintaining a ceasefire is only one step in a much longer-term process of stabilizing a post-conflict society and laying the foundations for sustainable peace, justice and development.  To accomplish their massive portfolio of peacekeeping and peacebuilding goals, UN field missions bring an equally massive entourage of staff and troops, as well as equipment and materials, to a given post-conflict area.  In recent years, UN peace operations have been criticized for having a negative impact on the environments in which they work.  For many critics, the problem is two-fold: the UN has failed to effectively promote environmental issues in their post-conflict peacebuilding efforts, and the missions themselves are environmentally destructive.  In the UN Peace Operations 2009 Year in Review, Under-Secretary General for Field Support Susana Malcorra concedes, “Peacekeeping operations do have a huge impact on the ground, from the water we need, to the disposal of waste, to the equipment we leave behind” (P9).

As a result of this criticism and an increasing “green consciousness,” the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) and other peacebuilding branches of the UN have begun considering ways to reduce the negative impact of missions on the local environment. According to USG Malcorra, who oversees the provision of logistical and operational support to over 120,000 UN personnel in field operations around the world, the goal of these efforts is to “achieve a more environmentally sensitive, ecologically mindful mission footprint” (P20). The 2009 Year in Review highlights the ways in which the Departments of Field Support and Peacekeeping Operations planned to partner with the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) to better address the environmental causes of conflict and to minimize the stress that UN operations place on local environments.

This drive to “green” peace operations at the UN may have implications for local communities far beyond the impact of a large carbon footprint.  In many places, UN missions implement policies that can hasten the degradation of local environmental resources. This, in turn, can exacerbate local conflicts.  For instance, the UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID) not only removed trees from an already arid environment to make space for their camp and operations, but the mission also chose to bolster the local economy by making bricks rather than importing them.  This policy incentivized Darfurians to “cut and burn even greater amounts of forest—already in serious decline—to produce [the bricks]” (P21). According to The New York Times, it takes about 34 trees to keep one Darfurian brick kiln running for a year. Many argue that resource scarcity in Darfur played a significant role in fueling the conflict, so it is easy to understand why continued degradation (perpetuated by the UN or other actors) could in fact run counter to the mission of the peacebuilders. UN peace practitioners bring their hugely ambitious agendas into fragile socio-political contexts, and sometimes they sacrifice sustainable solutions in favor of expediency requirements.  If not carefully mitigated, this tendency may produce further resource deprivation and stagnation in the peacebuilding process.