War is an Environmental Issue

Photo by Tina Hartung on Unsplash

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This article was written by Adrian Risley. He has 35 years experience working in nature conservation, in the UK and in Europe, with governmental bodies and in the non-governmental sector. Adrian is supporting EUROPARC in following the developments in Ukraine and potential opportunities for the EUROPARC network to assist.

As Russia’s war in Ukraine continues, few of us can fail to be affected by the horrors which are gradually unfolding. The hideous practice of bombing of open cities, the restrictions on the provision of humanitarian aid and, most recently, as Ukrainian forces retake parts of formerly Russian-occupied areas, direct evidence of war crimes, of the murder of civilians in the most horrific of circumstances. As the war appears to be entering a new phase, with Russia’s military apparently focussing on eastern Ukraine, the worst may yet be ahead. Truth is always the first casualty of war, and there are some who might dismiss these reports as biased propaganda. Time will tell, but there can be little doubt that the 4 million refugees who have now left Ukraine, are fleeing for their lives, and those who stay, even if far from the front lines, risk death, injury and trauma.

In the face of these horrors, it may seem trivial to talk about nature, or the environment, and in EUROPARC we have considered this dilemma. We have been in contact with our friends and colleagues in Ukraine, and asked them what they need. Two things are clear. Firstly, there is an immediate need to help people from National Parks relocate to other countries. Ukrainian workers and their families have found refuge with colleagues in Poland, Austria, Germany and Romania.

There is a superb effort underway by the National Parks family across Europe to coordinate the housing of refugees.

Secondly, our Ukrainian colleagues have asked for help with the information war, for us in the conservation sector to condemn Russia’s invasion, and to exclude Russia from their organisations. Yet this poses further dilemmas for conservation organisations, some of which have important projects in Russia, and who have spent decades building positive working relationships with authorities and organisations there. Can we afford to jeopardise this progress, for what some might dismiss as virtue signalling?

At EUROPARC, we have been very clear about this. We issued a statement just four days after the war began, denouncing and condemning the invasion, drawing the link between the impact of war on our ability “… to look after our shared European nature, but also to support those who live and work in and for our Protected Areas.” Acts of war “destroy the fundamentals of society…the building blocks upon which we build our common future, where nature and Protected Areas are safe places and the life support system of our planet.”

Our Ukrainian colleagues are seeking to join our EUROPARC community. They have a great network of Protected Areas and hold much of Europe’s valuable biodiversity. Indeed plans to join EUROPARC were already in place prior to the war commencing. EUROPARC members have since offered to support the fees of Ukrainian Protected Areas to join us and we will ensure our Ukrainian friends can join the EUROPARC family when peace returns.

Birdlife International also issued a powerful statement, which condemns not just the war in Ukraine, but the regime in Russia which has “…all but liquidated civil society and has made unprecedented investments in undermining truth and people’s trust in facts and institutions.” In addressing the ecological crisis facing us our efforts depend on “…a healthy civil society… NGOs, free media, accountable politicians, scientists that can speak openly.” Other organisations, such as the IUCN, Flora and Fauna International and Rewilding Europe have also issued statements, which do not go as far as condemning Russia explicitly, but express degrees of concern about the war, the impact on the people of Ukraine, and our collective ability (to quote from IUCN) of “…working together for a just world that values and conserves nature.”

Perhaps the largest environmental non-government organisation currently working in Russia is WWF-International, who released a statement on the war in Ukraine on the 15 of March, observing that “the catastrophic humanitarian crisis is deepening rapidly and an environmental crisis looms larger with every day that the conflict continues”. The statement does not mention Russia explicitly, but it is nevertheless a powerful declaration, expressing how “WWF is appalled by the escalating war in Ukraine…”, and condemning what it calls the “…alarming measures, extreme violence and destruction against civilians in Ukraine”. WWF is involved in many vital projects in Russia, including the species recovery of European bison and Amur tiger, expanding the cover of Protected Areas, and strengthening Russia’s compliance with international environmental agreements. Just as the strength of the conservation movement lies in its diversity, perhaps too we can recognise the strength of diverse but effective responses to the war in Ukraine.

At EUROPARC, we are in no doubt that war is an environmental issue.

It has many impacts, some directly on Protected Areas in Ukraine. Talks are currently underway in Geneva to make progress on global biodiversity targets, and never before have these talks been so vital to the future of our planet. As Ukraine’s deputy ambassador, Oleksandre Kapustin, declared in Geneva, “Russia’s attack on Ukraine is also an attack on the environment“, drawing a response from the Russian delegation that this assertion was “false and irrelevant” to the work of the Convention on Biological Diversity. That statement from the Russian delegate is entirely wrong. War damages people and the planet.

As the British historian Max Hastings observed recently, all wars end in conversation, and we can all hope and pray that the conversation starts soon, and the killing will end. When the talking is done, whatever the borders and governance of Ukraine look like, our work will continue, working together for nature, our communities, and our planet, in Ukraine, in Russia, and across Europe. We cannot afford not to.

EUROPARC continues to support the Frankfurt Zoological Society‘s call for donations and we want to thank all that have already donated so far.