April 10, 2012

Environmental Peacebuilding on the World’s Highest Battlefield: A Pragmatic Approach to Security

Saleem Ali of the University of Vermont and author of Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future had a terrific piece in National Geographic Magazine on April 7 exploring the opportunities to transform the Siachen Glacier – the world’s highest battlefield – into an environmental peace park that could pay significant dividends for stability between Pakistan and India. Here is an excerpt of his article:

The death of over a hundred Pakistani soldiers due to an avalanche on April 7 has brought forth the forgotten frozen frontiers of Siachen in the news cycle. This is the world’s highest battlefield where more die of hypothermia than of battle wounds and yet no end is in sight for this senseless conflict. Seven years ago, I wrote an article for India’s Sanctuary Asia magazine on how to quell this conflict using ecological approaches. This was a very practical solution modeled after the Antarctic treaty, which erstwhile adversaries such as the United States and the Soviet Union signed at the height of the Cold War. As the world’s longest non-polar glacier, Siachen has particular importance for science and since this region is not habitable by humans, there is little value in terms of useful real-estate. In the age of military drones and cyber warfare, coupled with a massive nuclear deterrent, the strategic value of Siachen is also very limited. This is the most hostile border to cross and is clearly not on the priority list for terrorist infiltration! Contrary to popular opinion in both India and Pakistan, incursions such as the Kargil episode also have no connection to strategic advantage over Siachen. Even if troop deployments now extend across the full range, such deployments are malleable and the cooperative monitoring system proposed in various peace plans could easily assuage concerns of security on both sides.

Despite the merits of transforming the Siachen Glacier into a peace park, the efforts have stalled in recent years. As Ali notes, because the Siachen Glacier is under India’s control, progress toward developing the region into a peace park will have to come from India and will require political will from India’s leadership to move forward. “Technology now exists for monitoring any potential violations of treaties and accords signed to resolve this dispute through remote sensing and so having troops physically on the ground is also utterly unnecessary,” Ali writes:

The only people who would genuinely like to visit Siachen are environmental scientists and mountaineers. Creating a zone of visitation from both sides of the border to the Siachen region for scientists and mountaineers and equally sharing any economic revenues from such activity would be a means of operationalizing the resolution of the conflict. Similar to the Antarctic treaty, neither side would relinquish their claims of sovereignty to the area but would place all such claims in abeyance for the higher purpose of science.

Ali’s ecological approach to peace is part of a broader field of study on the role of environmental cooperation as a means to foster broader security and stability goals. Geoff Dabelko of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars has been a pioneer on this research front, and he and I have explored the merits of military-to-military cooperation on the environment to promote peacebuilding and security. Of course, environmental peacebuilding is not an endeavor reserved for just military institutions. Rather, governments as a whole should look at how the range of national security and foreign policy institutions can integrate environmental cooperation into their agenda to promote broader peace and security goals. Efforts like those described by Ali could bring a modicum of stability to regions of the world trapped in decades-long territorial disputes. U.S. security and foreign policy makers should take note of these pragmatic approaches to enhance peace and security.