Editor's Note: M. Sanjayan is a lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that seeks to preserve species by "protecting the land and waters they need to survive."
M. Sanjayan says environmental damage plays a role in causing conflicts such as Darfur.
(CNN) -- I am watching a 10-year-old boy carefully burn the fur off a dead monkey. And I'm learning again why nature is the ultimate safety net for the world's rural poor, about one sixth of the world's population.
I'm in a little village sunk into the rain forests of Sierra Leone, West Africa, amidst a landscape pitted with the scars of a horrific civil war. The monkey is a white-nosed guenon, a relatively common crop-raiding monkey in these parts.
It will soon be food. Every bit from nose to tail will be thrown into a pot, along with some meager vegetables and a few drops of palm oil, to create a stew yielding about two spoons of meat protein per person, gauging from the small crush watching the boy's delicate handiwork. It's a small monkey in a big pot.
And it's not an uncommon sight. Spend time observing the daily rituals of rural village life in a developing country, and you will be impressed by the magnitude and diversity of services people derive from their immediate surroundings -- otherwise known as nature.
From food to fresh water, fiber to wood for fuel, animal fodder to fruits and nuts, and even soil fertility -- all are given freely by nature, and all are nearly always taken for granted.
Nature is what gets desperately poor people through crisis and calamity. Its capacity to protect and provide for humanity far exceeds humanity's financial and logistical abilities. But now that safety net is fraying. And the consequences are often bloody.
Civil conflict has multiple causes, but many are rooted in or made worse by the scramble for increasingly scarce natural resources.
For instance, close to half of the Darfur region of Sudan was forested 50 years ago, but by the time the conflict erupted in earnest there, that forest cover was down to just 18 percent.
The United Nations office providing humanitarian relief in the region says that such environmental degradation is the root cause of the conflict, and that even if fighting stops now, that degradation will have to be dealt with.
The environmental tie to the violence in Darfur isn't unique. Entire civilizations have disappeared throughout history because of environmental collapse.
In his book "Collapse," Jared Diamond argues that even the 1990s genocide in Rwanda was the result of years of shrinking per capita agricultural productivity as forests were cut down, topsoil washed away and the remaining soil lost its fertility.
Unless the world provides aid and security not just to the rural poor but also to the natural safety net that protects them, these cycles of violence will continue.
The U.N. can monitor cease-fires and send peacekeepers to every hot spot of violence. But once the blue helmets of those peacekeepers are gone, the refugee camps demobilized and the West's attention distracted, people will still be scrabbling to live on an increasingly barren land, and the killings will begin anew.
We are at a point in science where we are finally able to appreciate and understand the interconnectedness of our global ecosystem, matching the globalized economy.
And economic analysts are responding to that science. We are beginning to incorporate the threats to nature (from climate change to deforestation) and the services it provides us (such as the importance of watersheds for freshwater production) into our economic models for development.
The time is ripe to broaden this connection. The recent turmoil in our financial markets has made people more receptive to new approaches.
The most surprising thing about the newest James Bond film "Quantum of Solace" is the premise: not a villain or a syndicate, but the loss of an environmental service in a poor, developing country. The loss of freshwater resources in Bolivia causes local hardship and destabilizes a sovereign government, setting the stage for 106 minutes of unadulterated action.
Farfetched as this premise might seem, something rather similar really did happen. Plans to manage Bolivia's fresh water through a private scheme did indeed spark a rural revolt and martial law was imposed in 2000; a second water crisis was resolved peacefully in 2005 under a new government.
Bond's celluloid fight is a sign of our times. We may finally be ready to outfit our providers and peacekeepers with not just blue helmets, but also green ones.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of M. Sanjayan.
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