Warring nations take a break from fighting to protect ecosystems.

Over the last century, civil wars and international conflicts have had shattering effects on local ecosystems. Deliberate defoliation during the Vietnam War bared vast swathes of forest. Civil wars in Rwanda, Burundi and, most recently, in the Democratic Republic of Congo have threatened the fragile gorilla populations in those areas.

Now, several different governments located in biodiversity hotspots are cooperating to protect endangered ecosystems, prompting hopes that shared conservation goals will translate into shared peace.

“Almost any multi-national agreement promoting wildlife conservation is good, as plants and animals do not recognize national borders,” said Jeffrey McKee, an anthropologist and ecologist at The Ohio State University. “The agreements also have a positive effect in creating a community of disparate nations, sharing a common goal that has universal support.”

The agreements were struck at 8th UN Conference on the Convention to Biodiversity in Curitiba, Brazil, where the establishment of protected lands was a primary goal for participating nations. Transnational nature reserves do exist—including several that span the border between the US and Canada—but the new ones are some of the biggest on record.

For instance, take the island of Borneo, home to 6% of the world’s plant and animal species including seriously endangered animals like the orangutan, the Sumatran rhino, the clouded leopard, and the Asian elephant. The island is divided politically between Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, and all three countries have now agreed to double an already protected area—creating a total reserve of 84,950 square miles (nearly 137,000 square km), roughly the size of Britain—to fight deforestation.

In the conflict-ridden Central Asia, the countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have agreed to consolidate 695,000 square miles (over 1.1 million square km) of reserve, an area almost the size of Mexico, by linking pre-existing parks and creating protected corridors for wildlife migration.

Similar efforts are also being coordinated to build partnerships across borders in the Amazon and in marine territories of the Asian Pacific.

Transnational parks do not only provide a basis for diplomacy, they also allow poorer countries to pool resources and work for biodiversity on a larger scale, says Lance Gunderson, a professor in the environmental studies department at Emory University.

“It is a good idea to help coordinate conservation efforts across political boundaries, especially when there are large differences in wealth and attitudes towards conservation among countries,” Gunderson said. “Mutual governance should also help conservation because it is looking at management issues at larger scales and contexts.”

Originally published April 9, 2006


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