Harnessing peace dividends and conservation via international parks

When the U.S. and Canada established the world’s first “international peace park” in 1932 in the Rocky Mountains, the friendly neighbors created a symbol of goodwill that other countries seek to replicate today.

Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park straddles the borders of the U.S. state of Montana and the Canadian province of Alberta. The 4,556-square-kilometer park is a model for the conservation of rivers, forests, mountains and wilderness areas that cross more than 200 boundaries, including places with hotly disputed borders.

Herd of elephants walking in dry brush (© AP Images)
Elephants wander in the bush after being released into Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park in 2001. The 35,000-square-kilometer game reserve covers parts of South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. (© AP Images)

Only a dozen or so are called international peace parks, but environmental organizations such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) are hard at work trying to protect these wonderlands. In the 1990s, Nelson Mandela was the driving force behind several transnational preserves in southern Africa that helped heal colonial fractures.

“In a world beset by conflicts and division, peace is one of the cornerstones of the future. Peace parks are a building block … not only in our region, but potentially in the entire world,” Mandela said.

International peace parks have been proposed in surprising places, including the Korean Demilitarized Zone and along the Bering Sea between Russia and the U.S.

Cleaning up a sacred river

Boys playing in pond surrounded by tall vegetation (© AP Images)
Young Israelis stand in a small lagoon fed by the polluted Jordan River. (© AP Images)

EcoPeace Middle East, a nonpolitical partnership led by Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian co-directors, spearheads efforts to clean up the fouled Jordan River.

Ecuador and Peru disputed their border in the mountainous Cordillera del Cóndor region for decades. The quarrel erupted into a conflict in 1995. The U.S., Argentina, Brazil and Chile helped broker a peace treaty. President Bill Clinton later personally convinced the leaders of Ecuador and Peru to agree on a borderline and to protect the forested region, which became a peace park in 2004.

The European Green Belt along the 12,500-kilometer Iron Curtain line that once divided East from West stands as another example of how nations can work together on environmental protection, said Todd Walters, founder of International Peace Parks Expeditions, a wilderness-training organization.

La Amistad International Park: Panama and Costa Rica

People looking at waterfall surrounded by forest (Shutterstock)
A waterfall in the cloud forest in La Amistad International Park (Shutterstock)

This park between Panama and Costa Rica covers large tracts of the highest and wildest nonvolcanic mountain range in Central America. Those two countries once had border disputes.

Natural resources, traditionally a source of conflict, can instead “create that impulse for conservation and cooperation,” Saleem Ali, a University of Queensland professor and former director of the Institute for Environmental Diplomacy and Security at the University of Vermont, has observed.

Citizens and conservation groups often take the lead rather than waiting for governments to act. It was members of Rotary International, a volunteer organization, who successfully lobbied the U.S. Congress and Canadian Parliament to pass legislation to create Waterton-Glacier.

Rotarians still join in a “Hands Across Borders” ceremony to mark the anniversary each September. While the parks have separate entrance fees, U.S. and Canadian rangers lead joint interpretive hikes and collaborate on fire response and search and rescue.  “We’re looking at re-establishing a transboundary bison herd,” Glacier Superintendent Jeff Mow said.