Great Britain colonized India for salt, tea, and spices. Iraq invaded Kuwait for oil. Russia invaded Ukraine over natural gas. You could argue that the United States fought the Civil War, at least in part, over agriculture. These represent just a few examples of the many conflicts in which natural resources played major roles. Sure, political egos are involved in wars and other international or civil conflicts. But groups battle each other over their perceived rights to something, and whether it’s the right to exist or the right to extract fuel makes no difference to the brutality of the ensuing conflicts.

And while wars may be fought over natural resources, we often pay little attention to the aftermath or to the effects that war has on the environment. Those consequences can be just as long-lived as the more immediate casualties of war. And while it may be counterintuitive to think that we should start rebuilding wildlife populations or ecosystems while a conflict is still going on, new research suggests that efforts to help restore the natural environment can play a crucial role in bringing about peace.

In a study published Wednesday in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, researchers in Switzerland and Israel propose that natural resource restoration can provide a path to peace and reconciliation. They based this research on projects they conducted among Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority, including a notable barn owl conservation initiative. This region, known for years of intense conflict, has suffered immeasurable environmental degradation.

“Nature is sometimes a source of conflicts, but more often suffers as a result of them. Although in some instances warfare might benefit wildlife by depopulating wilderness areas and reducing resource exploitation, conflicts are usually harmful to ecosystems,” write the researchers. “The destruction of natural resources can be deliberately used as a weapon, illustrating the vicious circle of armed conflicts: natural resources can be the source of conflict and conflicts can destroy these resources.”

The researchers recognize one of the inherent struggles of environmental conservation: People can not be separated from the land. Just as people can’t fight wars without having an impact on the environment, you can’t create environmental policy without having an impact on the people who live in that environment.

A) These posters, in Hebrew and Arabic, explain the ecological importance of owls two both the Jewish and Arab communities. B) This map shows how barn owls, which breed in Israel but hunt in Palestinian territory, know no geopolitical boundary. C) A pair of barn owl mates, one born in Israel, the other born in Jordan.
A) These posters, in Hebrew and Arabic, explain the ecological importance of owls two both the Jewish and Arab communities. B) This map shows how barn owls, which breed in Israel but hunt in Palestinian territory, know no geopolitical boundary. C) A pair of barn owl mates, one born in Israel, the other born in Jordan.

So they looked at programs that used a focus on the environment to build a middle ground between groups in conflict. While it’s not always easy for local community members to feel a strong connection to a long-standing international conflict, humans share a long history of connections to the natural world.

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Barn owls provided this shared connection, and the “Birds Know No Boundaries” project capitalized on the symbolism of these raptors. This project helped farmers on both sides of a contested border understand the impact that pesticide use has on barn owls, as well as recognize that community boundaries are meaningless in the natural world.

By involving local community members in a project that benefits the environment, “Birds Know No Boundaries” helps to reinforce the importance of environmental preservation in building peaceful understanding among people.

This Jordanian farmer holds a barn owl, which many consider a bad omen. Behind him, an Israeli farmer tends an ow nest box.
This Jordanian farmer holds a barn owl, which many consider a bad omen. Behind him, an Israeli farmer tends an ow nest box.

The researchers point out that the strength of this project lies in the fact that it has a local benefit to each community that’s involved. This, in turn, helps build human connections.

“This is necessary for cross-border interactions to be credible, if the ultimate aim is to build confidence between communities in conflict and improve intergroup relations,” write the authors. “By working together on a common, politically neutral goal, actors can change their vision of the neighboring cross-border community and strengthen common regional identities.”

Photos via Motti Charter, Hagai Aharon, Getty Images / Dan Kitwood

Peter is a writer living in New York. He is preoccupied with Star Wars and memes, but he writes about climate change, chatbots and ants. You may have seen his work in Popular Science, New Scientist and Motherboard.