Engaging armed groups on environmental protection and climate change: current challenges, approaches and looking to the future

About the author(s):

Yiokasti Mouratidi is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of International and Operational Law at the Swedish Defence University, focusing on compliance with the law of armed conflict. Previously, Yiokasti obtained her LLM in Public International Law from Utrecht University, the Netherlands (2022) and her LLB in Law with European Law from the University of Nottingham, UK (2019). Yiokasti has a strong interest in international humanitarian law and international security law.

Her work on the AGIL blog is provided in a personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the views of any present or previous employer.

With thanks to Anki Sjöberg and Florian Weigand for their input and feedback.

On 31 October, the Centre on Armed Groups, ODI Global Risks & Resilience and Fight for Humanity co-organised a panel discussion on “Engaging armed groups on environmental protection and climate change” as part of the Geneva Peace Week. With panellists from across academia and practice (Anastasia Isyuk, ICRC; Ann-Kristin “Anki” Sjöberg, Fight for Humanity; Leigh Mayhew, ODI Global Risks & Resilience), the event highlighted the need to consider the interplay of climate change, environmental protection and armed conflicts, and the specific challenges that arise in relation to non-state armed groups (NSAGs). As noted by Pascal Bongard (Centre on Armed Groups), moderating the panel, climate change requires a collective response by all stakeholders, and NSAGs can also play an important role in supporting climate adaptation. 

This blog post first summarises the panellists’ contributions under three overarching headings: examples of environmental practices by NSAGs; the current challenges faced in adapting territories controlled by NSAGs to environmental degradation and climate change; and the engagement between humanitarian and development actors and NSAGs on these issues. Thereafter, it provides some reflections by the author on the issues raised during the panel and more widely the topic of NSAGs and environmental protection. 

NSAGs and environmental practices 

As a starting point to her contribution, Sjöberg delved into some examples of current practices by NSAGs towards the environment, both negative and positive. On the one hand, many NSAGs exploit or tax natural resources, such as through illegal mining and logging, to fund themselves; there has been evidence of this in the DRC, Myanmar and Senegal. Such practices can exacerbate the negative impacts of conflict, harming and displacing civilians, oftentimes indigenous populations, and causing further environmental degradation in circumstances where resources may already be scarce. 

On the other hand, NSAGs can have positive environmental impacts through their own policy and practical measures. In particular, NSAGs with clearly stated political objectives and those with strong ties to the natural environment and specific territories, usually ethnic NSAGs, can develop institutions to regulate the use of finite natural resources, such as water, forests and game. This is ordinarily in circumstances where the controlled territory is politically and economically isolated, and NSAG’s awareness that resources are limited leads to the need for such environmental governance. In some instances, NSAG’s practices are amplified on the international arena, such as the attendance of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua at COP26 to launch their “Green State Vision” and the International Water Forum organised in response to the water scarcity in Northern Syria. 

Current challenges

The main challenges discussed around NSAGs and the need to adapt the territories they control is their access to funding and capability of carrying out such projects. According to Mayhew, multilateral climate funds and multilateral development banking to enable climate change adaptation and mitigation is geared towards states and spent by the same in territories they control. This leaves a gap for territories controlled by NSAGs, who do not have direct access to such funds. Even if such funds were accessible, they remain burdensome processes that are for entities with the capacity to undertake these, ordinarily state structures. Concurrently, the need for a return of investment requires lower risk, stable structures that can implement the funded projects, rather than conflict-affected structures. Concurrently, independent development actors and donors can be restricted from working with NSAGs due to concerns about the latter’s legitimacy and some of them being listed as terrorist organisations by certain states and donors. 

In light of these barriers, according to Mayhew, there is little evidence of what climate adaptation programmes would look like when implemented by development actors in territories controlled by NSAGs. In turn, there is a lack of sharing on any existing practices or lessons learnt. Echoing this, Isyuk noted that whilst there is a sense of urgency, there is a lack of understanding of what the “price of inaction” will be: how will the dynamics of the conflict change? What will happen to civilians with no livelihoods and nowhere else to go?

As a solution, Mayhew suggested looking beyond multilateral climate funds and development banks, to bilateral funding by donors. Donors may offer more flexibility around the terms of funding and aims, focusing on smaller scale, local projects as opposed to large national infrastructure projects. Moreover, there is a need for decision-making in granting funds to be informed by experts on implementing projects in conflict affected areas, such as researchers, humanitarians and peace actors with an understanding of the conflict dynamics and armed groups experts, who will have different insight into what is feasible in given circumstances. Whilst making climate financing more accessible is the first step, it is also crucial to have a better understanding and clarity on what can be done with it, so that donors are encouraged to spend money in these territories. 

Finally, Isyuk highlighted the need for nuance when considering the solutions that are needed in such territories, as these are not necessarily the same as projects on state controlled territories. Rather, solutions may be more low-tech and adapted to their needs and lifestyles, such as protecting water sources from evaporation with covers. This is where development and humanitarian actors have a key role to play in engaging with armed groups. 

Engagement with NSAGs

Oftentimes, the lack of state presence can also mean a lack of any environmental governance if the controlling NSAG is not able or willing to fill this gap. Hence, engaging with NSAGs is crucial. The legal frameworks for this engagement, as set out by Sjöberg, are International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL, in line with the “sliding scale” approach of IHRL obligations for NSAGs). Particularly under the latter, the recent recognition of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment provides an opportunity/tool for engaging NSAGs to play a bigger role in contributing to environmental protection. 

Furthermore, environmental agreements can be reached between parties on an ad hoc basis, just like humanitarian agreements, as is done already on the exchange of prisoners, for example. Such agreements can be reached during conflict or subsequent peace processes. Agreements can also be established between relevant conservation actors and NSAGs. Notably the Karen National Union and the World Wildlife Fund have signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the protection of forests within the former’s controlled territory. There are further examples of the environment being integrated into peacebuilding and post-conflict recovery, such as the reintegration of former members of NSAGs as park rangers in Mozambique and as citizen scientists in Colombia. 

Isyuk also spoke on the engagement with armed groups through the ICRC’s lens, as an organisation that as a principle engages with all parties to a conflict across a wide spectrum of issues. Within the ICRC’s operations, the integration of climate risks began organically, but the ICRC is now starting to take a more systematic approach in mainstreaming this within engagements with different stakeholder, as it grows in significance. When framed as issues of resilience and sustainable livelihood and the solutions discussed are more tangible and available, such as the sustainable use of existing water sources or decisions on agricultural produce, this dialogue with different actors, including armed groups, can be easier. The difficulty begins when trying to look at alternative solutions where there are none readily available, which may require long-term governance structures and programmes, which not all armed groups can deliver. 

Likewise, according to Sjöberg, the technical nature of some issues requires experts to deliver digestible training, and these experts can be difficult to find. At the same time, there can be an overload of information, considering that the environment is among one of many issues on which actors want to engage NSAGs, leading to a need for prioritisation in advocacy efforts. 

At the same time, Isyuk observed that the highly networked structures and environments in territories controlled by armed groups mean that it is not necessarily the case that actors target their work at the “leaders” of armed groups. Often, work is done through the communities, empowering them to do something differently in order to maintain their livelihoods. This also furthers the sustainability of such efforts, trickling measures through communities able to maintain these and organising themselves to do so. 

Takeaways and reflections

Tuning into this panel, one of the main takeaways from the discussion is that in order to better tackle the existing challenges, there is a need to take stock of current and past practices from multiple angles. First, what are the practices and underlying motives of armed groups’ actions impacting the environment? A recent policy brief by the Danish Institute for International Studies surveyed 20 NSAGs in order to better map out how and why NSAGs protect the environment; it found NSAGs do so i) unintentionally, in the case of forest protection ii) for recruitment and legitimacy reasons and iii) as part of their political vision. It concludes that while little is known about NSAGs and environmental practices, climate change and environmental degradation will only lead to an increase of their ideologies and politics vis-à-vis the environment. Thus, better understanding of their practices, intentions and challenges is needed in line with the growing importance of the same. 

Second, there is a wealth of international humanitarian and development actors who are engaging with NSAGs that would also benefit from sharing their lessons learnt and practices in this regard. Existing networks and groupings, such as the Geneva Environment Network, therefore have a role to play in putting NSAGs and the environment on their agenda. 

Third, and finally, how have barriers to funding previously been dealt with in relation to broader development work in territories controlled by NSAGs? There are long-standing issues in working with NSAGs who may be designated as terrorist organisations and/or do not have access to traditional, state-centric sources of funding to deliver services on the territory they control. While there is no easy fix, lessons drawn from broader development cooperation with NSAGs can also inform environmental cooperation. 

Aside from these stock-takes, there is a need to look at the legal and regulatory frameworks pertaining to the environment and how they account (or not) for situations involving NSAGs. Indeed, NSAGs in control of territory represent just one side of the coin; what of the states that have lost control of that territory, and their climate change obligations? Under the Paris Agreement, states are able to account for their national circumstances in setting out their ambition to reduce and mitigate their greenhouse gas emissions. This grants states leeway in absolving themselves of full responsibility, in terms of climate change obligations, for territory they no longer control. Combined with the aforementioned challenges NSAGs face in filling this governance gap, the legal regime’s silence on such situations is symptomatic of its wider failure in addressing the links between climate change and armed conflicts.  

Finally, on the legal side, there is a gap in the research as to what NSAGs’ obligations are in relation to the environment under fields of international law other than IHL: IHRL, but also International Environmental Law (IEL). Little has been written about NSAGs being bound by IEL, including the modalities of this and practical implications (see van Steenberghe). Yet there are clear policy reasons, both positive and negative, in establishing whether (and how) this is the case. Meanwhile, recent developments under IHRL, such as recognition of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and arguments tying the (treaty-based) rights to life, family life and privacy to climate change action by states, may also impact the obligations owed by NSAGs. International actors’ interest and academic research on these fast-paced developments would be amiss to leave NSAGs behind. 

Concluding remarks

This timely panel event is part of a notable increase of interest in the field of environmental harm during armed conflict. Yet, within this discourse, the role and obligations of NSAGs remain underexplored. The multidisciplinary nature of the challenges posed, and the potential solutions, call for greater cooperation, dialogue and research by international actors, both state and non-state institutions. Climate change poses an existential threat, in the face of which no stone must be left unturned. 

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