Summary article by Ryan Morra, University of Vermont
Four scientists whose research focuses on environmental management issues in Eastern Europe shared challenges and successes to bridging community needs with natural resource management projects at the first inaugural International Conference on Environmental Diplomacy and Security hosted at the University of Vermont. Dr. William Keeton of the University of Vermont chaired the panel and framed the discussion by speaking to the cross-boundary nature of so many environmental security issues, using the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl meltdown as an example of a localized event that has had global reach in the form of radioactivity as far north as Norway even today. As a working member of the IUCN (World Conservation Union), Dr. Keeton’s own research in the Carpathians region has focused on the connectivity forests and sustainable management practices in forests that spread across national boundaries.
The first guest panelist, Dr. Erika Weinthal from Duke University, shared her work on the decision-making processes surrounding construction of new oil pipelines in the Caspian Region. After the dismantling of the USSR, oil-consuming countries looked to the Caucasus as the next great site for oil exploitation. The newly independent nations chose very different paths to production and distribution, explained Dr. Weinthal. Among oil-rich nations, there is often a high correlation to negative economic/political outcomes: unbalanced growth, weak states, impoverished populations, and authoritarian regimes. Some countries have chosen to let in outside private companies for oil drilling, while others have maintained nationalistic control over the reserves in the vain of Russia. Regardless of the method for extraction, the states of the former USSR were limited in their means of distribution because the only existing infrastructure for transport of oil was through the Russian pipelines. Thus, the states were still beholden to Russia even after their independence. For Azerbaijan, who developed the “Contract of the Century” with British Petroleum in 1994, interest spawned quickly in the creation of a pipeline that bypassed Russian soil. The question posed by Dr. Weinthal was whether this new infrastructure, the Nabucco Pipeline would promote domestic livelihoods or ignore concerns from communities along the corridor.
Azerbaijan is a fairly good example of government partenrships with private entities, says Dr. Weinthal. The government has worked to ensure that companies hire locals to construct the pipeline and police the pipeline after its creation, thus improving security and increasing economic gains. Many efforts were made to ensure corporate social responsibility on the part of BP by providing support to deal with refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh, a semi-autonomous region landlocked within Azerbaijan, and through which the pipeline runs. The executives at BP have even indicated that unless the people of Azerbaijan feel that they are benefiting from the company’s presence, it will not be a sustainable business venture. While the pipeline is still not complete, countries like Azerbaijan have set up systems that maintain a level of transparency in their national oil funds, employ citizens, and develop relationships with private companies that can potentially serve as a model for sustainable ventures in oil production and transport.
The next two panelists spoke to forest management practices in Eastern Europe, also highlighting examples of bi-lateral cooperation and private-public partnerships. Dr. Mersudin Avdibegovic of the University of Sarajevo has assisted in the creation of an international master’s program aimed at bringing together students from countries of the former Yugoslavia to work together on forest management issues in the entire region. The program, FOPER, recognizes that there is currently a movement to consolidate the forestry efforts of Southeast European countries under a single umbrella. When asked by a participant whether interpersonal conflicts exist between students from regions with historic dispute, Dr. Avdibegovic says faculty acknowledge this reality in the program, and highlighted the reconciliation work that occurs inside the classroom through coursework in cross-cultural understanding and conflict resolution. The importance of the FOPER program extends beyond being an example cooperative trans-national ecosystem management and into the even larger realm of peace-building efforts and reconciliation movements through its interdisciplinary curriculum.
To the north, another example of international forest management can be seen in the projects of Dr. Bernhard Wolfslehner at the European Forest Institute in Vienna, Austria. The EFI conducts pan-European research on forest ecosystem management, and Dr. Wolfslehner has been a part in the development of eco-regions and social-ecological regions in the EU as a way of overcoming these trans-national disputes and singular country issues. He sees forests as clear examples of natural resources that are constantly affected by national policies even when the forests themselves aren’t at the center of the legislation. A stirring example of forest management practices that can have global consequences mentioned by Dr. Wolfslehner are the forest fires in Belarus that release radionuclides back into the atmosphere that were once absorbed after the Chernobyl meltdown. When questioned about the ability of larger European countries to work with these small Eastern European states, both Wolfslehner and Avdibegovic agreed that cooperation among small states is the answer. Both were in consensus that there is a great need to develop clear eco-regions and international standards for environmental protection that are not just driven from outside countries.
At the close of the discussion, the panelists were asked if decisions on natural resource management in Eastern European countries were driven largely by politics, or if there were other physiographic and environmental issues at play. Dr. Weinthal contributed that while there are a number of environmental issues that can be resolved with good technical research, it is often the case in the Caspian that politics and reconciliation can often trump environmental management efforts. Recognizing that reality is a vital strategy towards moving forward on international cooperation. Dr. Avdibegovic also noted that in the former Yugoslavia, “yes, most of the issues lie on political lines,” as environmental issues unfortunately do not play the greatest role in government processes. He added that the political landscape has led to the design of the FOPER program in including processes that address reconciliation efforts as a key step in the forest management process. This international panel provided myriad examples of management efforts working in both the political and environmental landscapes of countries with high levels of trans-boundary projects.