Natural Hazards: A look at ecological threats and ways to address them
A new report from the Institute for Economics and Peace highlights grave ecological threats around the world — and suggests ways advocates can nurture a more benign environmental future.
At first glance, the Jaguar cacao fruit resembles a glowing green orb wrapped in earthen brown roots. But the fruit’s value lies within: a multitude of edible seeds that, when roasted and ground into powder, give chocolate a nuttier flavor profile.
The fruit grows in a few ecosystems in Central and South America, such as the foothills of southeastern Colombia. There, in the Amazon River basin, Rotary Peace Fellow Lorena Rodriguez has played a pivotal role in seeding this rare crop and quite a few others. During her fellowship, Rodriguez spent time in rural Colombia conducting field research on food sovereignty, which prioritizes the needs of the people who grow and otherwise produce food over the demands of the markets and corporations that distribute it. In 2019, she joined forces with friends and launched La Realidad, an NGO that helps communities in the Putumayo region of Colombia grow their own fruit and vegetable crops using regenerative agriculture practices — such as crop rotation, composting, and cover cropping — that help create a more nutrient-rich soil and reduce excess carbon in the atmosphere.
“Putumayo has been highly affected by the armed conflict in Colombia, by narco traffic, and by the structural violence that arises from the gap between urban and rural societies,” Rodriguez says. “A lot of the elders there were leaving, and their kids cannot sustain their lives doing agriculture the way their parents did, using pesticides and heavy chemicals to produce bigger yields of corn or sugarcane for the global market. It’s not sustainable economically or environmentally.”
In recent years, Putumayo has also felt the scourge of deforestation inflicted by loggers and cattle ranchers. That’s the fractious backdrop against which La Realidad partners with Putumayo residents to grow sustaining crops that are endemic to the Amazon belt — cultivating a food source that can ultimately bolster the security of rural communities. Ecological degradation, including the burning or uprooting of forests, can undermine a community’s resiliency, especially when it comes to food security. In the worst cases, it can sow the seeds of conflict and fuel a relentless cycle of collapse and violence.
The relationship between ecological shocks and conflict isn’t speculation. It’s the latest finding from the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), a partner of Rotary International. Founded in 2007 by Australian software entrepreneur and philanthropist Steve Killelea, the IEP uses data from global and national indices to explain why some regions of the world are enjoying peace and prosperity while others are mired in or on the brink of conflict. This data often pertains to issues such as resource availability and economic power. But the IEP’s second Ecological Threat Report, released in October, zooms in on the symbiotic relationship between conflicts and ecological calamities such as droughts, record-breaking storms, and temperature changes.
According to Michael Collins, the IEP’s executive director in the Americas, the Ecological Threat Report can function as something of a blueprint not only for recognizing ecological vulnerability at both local and regional levels but also for improving societal resilience in vulnerable countries and, hopefully, averting conflict. “Climate change can certainly act as an aggravator of issues such as food insecurity and water stress,” says Collins. “But some ecological threats are going to happen independently. They’re the next step of what any country could be ‘attacked’ with.”
So how does the report score the severity of the ecological threat facing 178 independent countries and territories? It focuses on five things that can endanger the ecological stability of a society: food risk, water risk, rapid population growth, temperature anomalies, and natural disasters. The report also uses the IEP’s Positive Peace Index, which identifies the attitudes, institutions, and structures that ultimately create peaceful societies. Conversely, the absence of societal bedrock — such as an equitable distribution of goods, a well-functioning government, or a healthy business sector — can leave nations primed for conflict, to the point where all it takes is one final shock to ignite relentless violence. The report shows that ecological shocks can be that incendiary spark.
“Indicated throughout this report is the deep, deep cyclical relationship that exists between ecological degradation and levels of conflict around the world,” says Collins. He also notes that once violence has begun, it can actually worsen the ecological problems, like food or water shortages, that predated the conflict. “Eleven of the countries with the report’s worst scores are now in conflict,” says Collins. Most of these countries are located in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, and the report highlights one particularly profound driver of their conflicts — food insecurity.
Since 2014, global food insecurity, which had been lessening for decades, has risen an alarming 44 percent, a situation further aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Its steady resurgence didn’t occur in isolation; it was sometimes fueled by natural events, such as insufficient rainfall, or in many cases by sectarian conflicts. In South Sudan, these forces merged and have exacted a terrible toll. By 2018 — half a decade after civil war erupted between the South Sudanese government and insurgents — an estimated 190,000 people had been killed through direct warfare, and an additional 193,000 are believed to have died as a result of disruptions to the country’s fragile food production and health systems. Their food systems were already vulnerable to droughts and flooding, and they still haven’t recovered. As recently as 2020, about 85 percent of South Sudan’s population was struggling to find sufficient food on a daily basis.
Without intervention, global food insecurity is expected to get much worse over the next three decades. The Ecological Threat Report projects that by 2050, the number of people who are experiencing undernourishment — not getting enough food to sustain day-to-day physiological health — could rise by a staggering 45 percent. The broad global demand for food could also grow by more than 50 percent within this time frame. As ecological events like rising temperatures, earthquakes, or hurricanes exacerbate resource scarcity in vulnerable countries, the risk of conflict and societal collapse becomes more severe, and more liable to spill beyond borders.
This can already be seen today in the rate of forced displacements and migration occurring around the world. The report’s researchers found that in 2020, 82.4 million people were displaced — the highest number of global displacements on record, 1 in 94 people. It’s a tremendous shift from 2000, when 1 in 161 people worldwide had been displaced. But like the recent rebound of food insecurity, this surge also didn’t happen overnight. Forced displacements have been rising over the past nine years, as hot spot regions, identified by the report, reckon with worsening ecological deterioration, resource deficits, warfare, and, in several cases, significant population growth.
In the face of such massively worrying trends, how can one begin to promote peace and sustainability at a local level, let alone a regional one? Collins is quick to spotlight two of the Ecological Threat Report’s most salient policy recommendations for humanitarian agencies and organizations: thinking about ecological risk as a systemic problem, and empowering communities in ecologically vulnerable nations to become more resilient. This can be done through collaborative grassroots projects that focus on intersectional issues such as agriculture, economic prosperity, and human security.
Collins comes from a family of construction professionals, and before joining the IEP, he applied his family trade to humanitarian projects in developing nations, including Indonesia and Haiti, often in the wake of natural disasters. “Initially, a lot of this revolved around training programs for people who are seeking to enter or already in the construction sector,” he says. “Due to a number of social and institutional issues, construction quality is extremely low in a number of developing countries.” In Padang Alai, a town on the outskirts of West Sumatra’s capital city of Padang, Collins addressed this problem by working with community members to create a brickmaking cooperative, owned and managed by its members.
Rodriguez would adopt a similar approach in 2020 when building La Realidad. As she and her friends converted the setup of their Putumayo cacao orchard into an organic production, neighbors would drop by and ask why the group was doing all the “hard work” of regenerative growing techniques. Why not just spray the cacao trees with pesticides that would work faster than organic alternatives? “These questions created a conversation about why it was important for Putumayo residents to prioritize their homeland and not the global market,” Rodriguez recalls.
The farmland on which La Realidad hosts several regenerative agriculture projects — including a food forest (a diverse, multi-layered blend of edible plants and trees) — was acquired through this community outreach. “The owner was selling her land,” Rodriguez recalls. “She met us and said, ‘I really want to leave the land to someone who appreciates this ecosystem. I don’t want to just give it to another person who will put cows here.’”
Whether the product at the heart of a community resiliency project is organic fruits and vegetables or stronger building materials, the best results come when the project is conceived and launched in close partnership with residents who will manage the work long term. The way Collins sees it, members of Rotary are uniquely well-positioned to step up and invest their knowledge and labor into these collaborations. “One of the amazing things about Rotary is the ability of every club and every district to contribute,” he says. “Because Rotary is made up of community members, you have this grassroots network of individuals throughout the world who can develop a variety of different projects that are very well-tailored to the community in question — because a lot of Rotarians are actually from those communities.”
Recently, Rotary has taken two big steps to catalyze more projects that address the intersection of ecological degradation and conflict. In 2020, it added a new area of focus — protecting the environment. (More than $18 million in global grant funding from The Rotary Foundation had already been allocated to ecological projects in the five preceding years.) Also in 2020, working with the IEP, Rotary launched the Positive Peace Activator Program. The program already has trained 90 peace activators, who are also Rotary Peace Fellows (such as Rodriguez) or members of Rotary, and those activators have since taught more than 50,000 people in North America, South America, and Europe about the tenets of the Positive Peace Index — the same framework that underlies the Ecological Threat Report. “Rotary’s key strengths lie in our ability to convene and mobilize communities both locally and globally,” says Rebecca Crall, Rotary’s area of focus manager for peacebuilding and conflict prevention. “Merging with the empirical research and analysis of the IEP is a potent force for creating good in the world.”
For a literal taste of that good in the United States, look to the vacant lots of Atlanta, where urban farmers are growing fruits and vegetables that find their way into refrigerators and pantries across the city. Atlanta’s recent urban farming boom is partially the result of the city’s AgLanta initiative. Its goal is to put fresh produce within half a mile of 85 percent of Atlanta’s population by the end of this year by offering residents the education and resources they need to get involved with urban farming.
As the number of urban farmers swelled, it became clear that AgLanta needed a framework for settling disputes between growers. The city turned to Kate Keator, a Rotary Positive Peace Activator specializing in conflict resolution. Through her conversations with urban farmers and AgLanta leaders, Keator identified two things that could help keep the peace: virtual gatherings in which growers could connect and foster a foundational culture of dispute resolution, and access to an informal mediator when necessary.
Atlanta might seem a world apart from the regions spotlighted in the Ecological Threat Report, where ecological degradation and conflict are more severe. But peacemaking and community empowerment can be applied, at scale, anywhere that conflict arises.
In an era of climatological changes that will reshape the way billions live, there can be an enduring glint of hope in this potential for collaboration. “One of the things that I learned through community development is that people are people,” Collins says. “The same solutions don’t work for everybody, but there are synergies. There are many, many ways.”
• This story originally appeared in the February 2022 issue of Rotary magazine.