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Analysis II
Last Updated: 11/02/2007
Peace Parks: a Natural Alternative
Elaine Hsiao

Peace Parks are essentially a type of protected area (PA) with an additional focus or objective of obtaining or maintaining peace within its boundaries. Oftentimes, you will also see it referred to as a “Transfrontier Protected Area,” (TFPA) or a “Transboundary Protected Area,” (TBPA), although it is actually a more narrowly defined type of TFPA or TBPA. The first international peace park, Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, was created between the United States and Canada in 1932.[1] Since its inception, key international players in the world of conservation have been busily declaring peace parks throughout the world and trying to mold a cohesive definition for each of these protected spaces. The most universally accepted definition of this type of protected area is proffered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) in its 2001 publication, “Transboundary Protected Areas for Peace and Co-operation.”

The IUCN is an international conservation network that works on trans-frontier projects to help communities, local and national governments, or other organizations conserve and protect their natural resources and environment. Their work includes a Parks for Peace initiative that seeks to promote international cooperation for the protection of flora and fauna, conflict prevention, resolution and reconciliation, and sustainable regional development.[2] Parks for Peace complements efforts by the IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and United Nations University for Peace, to further this concept of peace through ecological conservation. In their own ways, each has promoted and attempted to establish principles for transboundary protected areas. As an influential international organization, the IUCN has supported other peace park initiatives in the Central American region (for example, Sí-a-Páz between Nicaragua and Costa Rica).

In an effort to provide general guidelines for peace park initiatives around the world, the IUCN has established a useful definition and categorization of this type of transnational protected area. Per IUCN publications, a transboundary protected area is a special type of protected area that generally implies the international cooperation of two or more neighboring States. At times this cooperation can exist between neighboring sub-national jurisdictions (i.e. autonomous regions or provinces) and still be considered “transboundary”. Nations or jurisdictions are said to be working in cooperation when there is at the very least some two-way communication that takes place at least once a year between the protected areas where information is shared, including notification of actions which may affect the other protected area. In furtherance of this definition, the IUCN has specified “peace parks” or “parks for peace” as a special type of transboundary protected area. A peace park must state “a clear biodiversity objective, a clear peace objective, and co-operation between at least two countries or sub-national jurisdiction.” The United Nations University for Peace utilizes a slightly different definition, declaring “peace parks” as “protected areas where there is a significant conflictive past.” These can be areas of war and/or violence, where peace can bring new meaning to the territory. Accordingly, a transfrontier peace park is a narrowly categorized type of protected area that crosses jurisdictional or State borders and declares a focus on peace and cooperation above typical objectives of a protected area.

PA + TB + Peace and Cooperation = Transfrontier Peace Park

PA = Protected Area

TB = Transboundary

Social and Ecological Justifications for Peace Parks

Although wild spaces, natural landscapes, forests, marine ecosystems and so on are admired by many, they have not often been sustainably developed or properly conserved. Forests continue to be deforested at alarming rates, human and industrial waste have made the waters toxic, and human development is widespread and knows no limits as it paves over living soil, overtaking living space with concrete edifices, forcing survivors into patched areas of refuge. Inappropriate land uses, such as unsustainable augmentation of agriculture,[3] wetland development and drainage, and rampant resource extraction have contributed greatly to these alarming levels of deforestation and land degradation. In turn, the loss and fragmentation of habitat has led to extreme loss of resources that have only negatively affected poverty augmentation and social vulnerability.

Peace parks and their proponents provide an alternative solution – they suggest collaborative conservation and sustainable development of natural areas in order to improve the social ecological systems that exist within them. Protecting an area through human cooperation with an ultimate goal for peace provides multitudinous benefits and positive spillover effects along the way. Talk of peace parks alone can bring together differing parties in an open discussion of their interests, issues and resolution potentials. Despite significant possibilities for heated and hostile discussion, this method of collaborative mediation has been recognized to be more effective at presenting and addressing relevant issues when resolving land use disputes. Furthermore, in effecting land co-management, people can cohesively address ecological issues that undoubtedly transgress man-made borders (e.g. wildfire management, migratory species protection, transboundary watershed management, etc.), diminishing risk of conflict over resources. It is important to stress this point – that nature is not confined to the same borders that we are by our passports and national identities – when considering any type of ecosystem management. An effective peace park aims to address a contiguous and unified ecological unit in a cohesive and unitary manner, despite concocted socio-political reasons for territorial divide.

As explained above, a peace park is an area protected across some sort of boundary that brings people together across the artificial divide. In doing so, it breaks down barriers between humans, as well as wildlife, and promulgates peace-building between coexisting states. Lejano’s game theory vs. model of care assay of peace parks as compared to armed force-protected walls between nations provides an interesting cost-benefit analysis of the spectrum (from peace-building to conflict containment) under varying levels of political and social tension or amicability. Under highly individualized self-interests in times of greater conflict, the game theory model explains nations’ myopic decisions to choose a barricaded border over a peace park. However, Lejano reminds us that the game-theory model cannot be applied on its own without the model of care in today’s globalized dynamic. In recognizing the existence of relations across borders, people can come together to mitigate tensions and to symbiotic cooperation that will further global ideas of peace. The peace park can provide a natural landscape for interaction that cannot be achieved through the isolation created by walls that only further perpetuates disputes and misunderstanding.

Modern day science has stressed the obvious need to perceive environmental issues as an international problem, to be handled at a biospheric level that properly addresses an ecosystem as one interconnected unit. Out of this recognition have arisen a plethora of multinational conferences, round-tables, discussions and agreements (e.g. RAMSAR, CITES, CBD, etc.), meant to compel international cooperation and exchange in order to better protect the planet’s scarce resources and rapidly diminishing biodiversity. Today’s climate change dialogue has also spurred international collaboration, bringing together “developed” and “developing” nations as they work together to create Clean Development Mechanisms (CDMs), regenerate deforested lands and to protect greater regions of wild lands. In some political arenas, these overarching multilateral agreements have been replicated in regional agreements that aim to confront environmental issues with neighboring states.

The Mesoamerican Biological Corridor (MBC) is a prime example of nation-states who have previously experienced decades of war and resource loss and have now vowed to work together to protect the environment through the interlacing of natural habitats. The MBC testifies to the need for biological corridors, bridges or pathways between natural areas, as critical to wildlife survival. This is particularly true of migratory species or species with larger ranges, whose freedom of movement and ability to forage and survive can be severely debilitated by the presence of man-made obstructions. Our human need for false constructs of security and power are undermining the principal goals of our international biosphere management agreements. As an alternative, political leaders can work to build other human constructs – co-managed conservation areas.

Peace parks have been an increasingly popular mechanism for conserving wild spaces (even those that include human developments) and at least a few of these proposals directly conflict with discussions of fortifying human divides. One example close to home is the Big Bend National Park (U.S.) and Maderas de Carmen and Cañon de Santa Elena (Mexico) protected areas initiative that has existed since the 1930’s. In recent years, organizations have attempted to further this proposal for a peace park across the U.S.-Mexico border, but unfortunately the media, government and public have focused primarily on construction or expansion of a wall across this border. This has only furthered the divide between U.S. and Mexico politically and socially, separating families and blocking passage for wildlife incapable of distinguishing between the deserts and highlands of Maderas de Carmen and Big Bend. In a couple of other areas of great conflict, peace park initiatives continue to forge on – this includes the Siachen Glacier Region between India and Pakistan and the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea. The benefits of a peace park in these particular regions far exceed those of a militarized wall; peace park initiatives should be given serious consideration and force when the harms meant to be prevented by a human barricade are not mitigated and other negative effects (further fragmentation of wildlife habitats, breakdown of cross-cultural exchange and interaction, etc.) are amplified.


[1] Maano Ramutsindela, Scaling Peace and Peacemakers in Transboundary Parks: Understanding Glocalization, 69 (Saleem H. Ali ed., The MIT Press, 2007).

[2] Trevor Sandwith, Clare Shine, Lawrence Hamilton and David Sheppard, IUCN, Transboundary Protected Areas for Peace and Co-operation (2001).

[3] Jorge Eduardo Rodríguez Quirós, IUCN, Centroamérica en el Límite Forestal: Desafios para la Implementación de las Políticas Forestales en el Istmo 10 (Gabriela Hernández ed., 2005).


Elaine Hsiao is working on a J.D. with a specialization in International Environmental Law at Pace University School of Law and is working on transboundary peace park research as an outgrowth of her interest in the social ecology approach to conservation and sustainable development, particularly as a mechanism for environmental protection, natural resource management, poverty alleviation, and community capacitation. She has written previously on the legal framework for declaring transboundary protected areas between Nicaragua and Honduras as part of a peace park initiative in the Choluteca and Madriz departments.


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