Saleem Ali is assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of Vermont and on the adjunct faculty of the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. He is attending the Wilton Park Conference on Environment, Development, and Sustainable Peace.

Thursday, 16 Sep 2004

STEYNING, U.K.

A quiet English estate, renowned for its roster of conferences since 1946, is the venue for a meeting of 65 environmental professionals to discuss pathways toward sustainable development and peace-building. Sponsored by the British, Dutch, and German governments, as well as the United Nations Environment Program, the conference aims to shed light on strategies for using the environment as a peace-building tool in regions of conflict.

The conference was launched today by the executive director of UNEP, Klaus Toepfer, who delivered a candid and prescient speech on the importance of considering the environmental causes and consequences of conflict. Predictably, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Balkans all figured prominently in Toepfer’s narrative. He described some of the projects his agency had recently completed, such as an Atlas of World Water Treaties, and ongoing activities like support for the restoration of Iraqi marshlands. He affirmed that UNEP was playing an important role in bringing together communities in zones of conflict to collaborate on environmental issues.

Alexander Carius of Adelphi Research in Berlin and Geoffrey Dabelko of the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, the two key organizers of the event, formally introduced the theme and provided background material for participants. They were followed by a brief presentation by Okechkwu Ibeanu from the Nigerian office of the MacArthur Foundation, who framed the conversation around the concept of “resource regimes.” He urged participants to go beyond the usual approach of vertical cooperation between governments to the more inclusive phenomenon of horizontal cooperation between networks of civil society.

With verticality on their minds, the participants retreated for dinner in the vaulting “great hall” of the estate, the roof of which is still adorned by 16th century timber. Dinner was expedited to make time for another fleeting visit by a dignitary. The British secretary of state for international development, Hilary Benn, delivered a 30-minute speech on the British government’s activities in some conflict zones, such as Sierra Leone, Sudan, and the Middle East. Participants pointedly questioned the minister regarding the perceived inconsistencies in the government’s interventions in zones of conflict, but were skillfully eluded by factual yet tangential responses. Nevertheless, two high-profile speakers on the first day gave the participants a sense of importance and urgency that is often essential to galvanize such events.