Can we mediate a peace process with(out) land?

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by Dr. Antje Herrberg

Last year, I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Initiatives for Change retreat on Land, Lives and Peace in Caux, Switzerland. A seemingly unlikely choice for me, but since I was involved in the Aceh peace process, the nexus between land and conflict was something of interest to me. Side by side with botanists, scientists and UN bureaucrats in the grand halls of Caux Peace Palace, I gave my perspective on the role of international peace mediation and the linkages with land degradation. My key point was this: mediation is about making the “pie” (the contentious issue) bigger, and land restoration – enhancing the usability of degraded land – is pretty much the same practice. Bringing degradation issues into peace negotiation would therefore be good news, increasing the potential for peacemaking.

It was a very informative week, meeting people from all over the world who work on all sorts of issues relating to land and peace. Back home at mediatEUr, my interest in the topic grew, encouraged by our members. Finally, together with my colleagues from ICRAF (Patrick Worms), Land Lives and Peace (Dr. Allan Channer) and Olivia Lazard, an environmental peacebuilding consultant, we recently offered a joint perspective on land and peace to a rather diverse group of people from the fields of development, mediation, peacebuilding, human rights and diplomacy. Brendan McAllister, our member facilitator who also works at the United Nations Mediation Support Unit, navigated us through the diversity of that group. And while the broad base of those who work on this topic may seem like a blessing, such a multi-dimensional nature is also one of the reasons why we have not yet fully bridged the gap between the root causes of conflict and the actual peace negotiations themselves.

In order to determine what to say, I reviewed our statistics and drew on the wisdom of three sources:

  1. Arthur Blundell’s and Emily Hartwell’s piece called “Missing the Peace for the Trees,” in Foreign Policy
  2. A report by Forest Trends by Arthur Blundell and Emily Harwell
  3. The UN Peacemaker website for peace Agreements and statistics
  4. Our own collection of peace agreements, which we study once in a while.


Surprisingly, there seemed to be very little other scientific/empirical evidence available concerning the relationship between peacemaking and land degradation. There is an overall acceptance, though, that land issues and conflict have a distinct connection.

Do we now need a Security Council Resolution for the planet, stating that all peace negotiations need to take into account the issue of nature, the environment and its protection, so as to preserve the land for present and future generations?

On reflection, the facts, statistics, and peace agreements all pointed to four key facts that need to be communicated if we are to “get the picture” when it comes to understand land restoration and peacemaking.


Fact 1: Land issues are marginal to peace negotiations.

15% of all post-WWII Peace Agreements mentioned land and resources, and of these, the issues are mostly mentioned in terms of joint or shared management. That’s the same amount as those which address women and children. It is shocking that those who bear most of the brunt of conflict – women, children and nature/land – have scarcely received a mention. There are a lot of reasons why this is the case, but their exclusion is unjustifiable.

Fact 2: The degree of failure of peace agreements

It is by now a well-established fact that most peace agreements fail within the first five years of their implementation (in fact there is an estimation of 50-70%).

Fact 3: Natural resources in peace agreements are unstable

Agreements that feature clauses on natural resources are twice more likely to fail than other agreements. This is an interesting figure, and begs the question as to why. Is it because the agreement on natural resources is a result of inefficient negotiation, or is it because the root causes have not truly been addressed? Indeed, the cause may be neither of the two; let’s give these deals the benefit of the doubt, for now.

What is truly remarkable though, is that according to these statistics, 86.5 % of peace agreements that feature natural resources or land sharing fail, which means 13 out of 15 agreements.

Fact 4: Natural Resources are a driving source of conflict

What makes this all quite disconcerting is that, according to the figures of UNEP, 40% of all conflicts are indeed driven by natural resource issues.

These simple hard facts give sufficient leverage to the argument that the peace making and land degradation nexus needs to be worked out.

Serious empirical research on this topic remains to be done, as we are seeking to set up a pilot project on this issue. However, from my experience so far, there seem to be five principal causes creating friction between land degradation/restoration and sustainable peace settlements.

  1. The first one is that, even after years of capacity-building, many negotiators and peace makers still negotiate compromise. That is, when we talk about sharing, we divide things rather than finding solutions where everyone could augment their share if truly committed. In the field of land restoration that is what is needed. Most often, the sharing involves natural resources that generate income. Governments and stakeholders have a very short-term vision about this, viewing their resources as a fast-track to wealth and power, rather than a long-term vision that considers nature as a stakeholder and key to sustainable peace and development. Thus it seems ‘natural’ that natural resource conflicts are likely to relapse into conflict.
  2. From this we could also derive that the method in which we practice negotiation –making the pie bigger – is suboptimal. No surprise to anyone. Parties, mediators and negotiators still are stuck in the field of distributive bargaining. Communities and their wellbeing are of little importance, even if conflict is often driven by groups of communities (ethnic, territorial) and the competition for resources that exists among them.
  3. The third point is that the issue of land restoration and degradation is a complex subject. I have spent a year talking to my colleagues and have come to consider it as a specialist subject area, without doubt. Whilst the UN has recognised this special status, we have done little to make it accessible in the way that gender, transitional justice or security issues have been “opened up”. Why? Maybe because we do not understand that nature is, in fact, a hard security issue.
  4. The fourth related cause is lack of engagement with land restoration issues due to the time it takes for scientific evidence to emerge. Land restoration takes years, even decades. Although of academic interest, studies which demonstrate the long-term benefits of land restoration efforts simply cannot be produced quickly enough to have an impact around the negotiating table.
  5. Last but not least, we should not forget one of the main reasons why the issue of land restoration remains unsolved: many natural resources are tied up with vested private-sector interests who have inherently short-term visions. When a resource can be vital for filling coffers and serving political interests, the public interest becomes secondary. This is no different from the Western world, and it is only a raising of public consciousness about this issue that will transform this way of thinking and acting when it comes to natural issues. The Earth’s resources are not unlimited free goods, and they certainly do not belong to politicians. Having said that, politicians do play a vital role in managing these resources for everyone’s benefit.


So what do we do about all this?

To close this stream of thought, there are a several things that came into my mind about what could be done to instigate change and bring nature to the negotiating table.

I’m reminded of the discussions and work that we did about the role of women in peace negotiations, remaining largely underrepresented in peace talks despite constituting half of our world’s population and a very important piece of its social fabric. On this matter, the United Nations formulated a Security Council Resolution (SCR1325) around which a lot of energy, resources and institutions were formed, leading to promising changes and an awareness of the work that still remains to be done. Do we now need a Security Council Resolution for the planet, stating that all peace negotiations need to take into account the issue of nature, the environment and its protection, so as to preserve the land for present and future generations? It might be an initiative worth reflecting upon and a campaign worth investing in.

In parallel, we should build capacity. In order to work on land degradation and restoration as a tool for peace, we obviously need to understand it much better. This includes making key audiences aware of the issues, through workshop seminars and trainings. It also means developing the necessary expertise among those who can bridge the nexus between land issues and peace processes. It demands extra effort in linking the usual silos of science, development, agroforestry practice, security, peacemaking and peace building.

Finally, it is also clear that we, as in the entire international community, need to create a system of accountability for the state and private-sector use of nature for people and societies. The Paris Agreement on Climate change has a big overarching aim here. Let us, as peacebuilders, make it a concrete aim that peace negotiations not only seek to satisfy the needs of all parties, but to do so sustainably – in every sense of the word. I think that’s something that we all want.

We are also looking forward to investing our energies in deepening this important area of work.

Thanks to Miguel Varela and Martin Leng for editorial support.


This article was first published by MediatEUR. Read it here.

About Dr Antje Herrberg

Antje Herrberg is co-founder and CEO of mediatEUr, and an Adjunct Professor for International Peace Mediation at the College of Europe. She is a well-known peace entrepreneur, faciliator, mediator, process designer and yogini with 20 years of global experience in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Between March 2013 and March 2014, Antje was Senior Mediation Expert for Process Design on the UN Stand-By Team of Mediation Experts, where she supported peace efforts in the Maldives, Mauritania, Malawi, Moldova, Turkey, and Ukraine and the UN Headquarters. With a keen interest in EU affairs, she has been one of the intellectual advocates and practical supporters to build up EU mediation support capacity as it stands today. In this vein she also led a multi-year process that led to the eventual set up of the European Institute of Peace.

Besides building the network of mediatEUr, Antje is also a member of the UN Roster of Mediators, and was UN Mediation Advisor for the Maldives in 2010. She is an experienced trainer and coach, including to senior-level EU diplomats.

She has been recruited to provide advice on conflict transformation and capacity building in mediation by many clients, from the non-governmental and governmental sector, in Europe and beyond. She advises and coaches high level negotiators and processes, as much as she works with grassroots mediators. Over the years she specialised in dealing with non-recognised entitites, mediation during electoral violence, and how to build overal mediation capacity.

She is a highly experineced trainer and coach, including to senior-level EU diplomats, negotiation parties and civil society. Besides building the growing network and partnerships of mediatEUr,  Antje is also a member of the UN Roster of Mediators.

Prior to mediatEur, Antje was the Director for Mediation and Dialogue of the Crisis Management Initiative from 2004 to 2012. She worked as the Chief Facilitation Advisor to the Aceh follow-up peace process for Martti Ahtisaari, having worked on the negotiations since the start up of the process that led to the signing of the peace agreement. At CMI, she also worked on the creation of the Black Sea Peacebuilding Network on conflict resolution and coordinated the influential Mediation Cluster of the Initiative for Peacebuilding, also acting as Project Director for capacity building of the African Union on mediation. From 2000-2004, Antje was the Regional Director for Europe at the EastWest Institute, where she worked on, amongst other things, trilateral cooperation between the Russia, the U.S. and the EU, and cross-border cooperation in the Balkans and North-West Russia. Before that she was an activist, academic and advisor working for governmental and nongovernmental organisation in the transition processes of the former Soviet Union.

As a mediator, Antje received her credentials from the Centrale für Mediation (Cologne); and holds an MA in Mediation from the European University Viadrina (2008), having attended a wider number of professional mediation trainings worldwide. On the postgraduate level, she holds an M.Econ.Sci in European Economic and Public Affairs from University College Dublin; and a Doctorate in International Relations from Aalborg University (PhD) in International Relations and Intercultural Communications.

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