Experts from Around the World Convene to Discuss War, Poverty and the Environment

July 03, 2003
by Sarah Yang

Berkeley - Kazim Niaz, a Pakistani who has worked with Afghan refugees the past two years, has come to the University of California, Berkeley, this summer to shed light on how war and political turmoil impact the environment.

"An Afghan woman whose husband died during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan told me that when she doesn't have enough kerosene, she's going to burn branches from trees to keep her five children warm," said Niaz, who worked as the deputy field coordinator in Pakistan for the New York-based International Rescue Committee. "It's a natural thing to do, but over the decades, this has contributed to a significant problem of deforestation in Pakistan."

Niaz is one of 40 participants in the Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program, which brings together environmentalists and policy makers from around the world to tackle the problems of natural resource management. He will be sharing his experiences with participants from other regions experiencing such challenges as political instability, land and water degradation, or devastating poverty.

The three-week summer program, which has just begun its third year and will run until July 20, was established at the campus's Center for Sustainable Resource Development with a $1 million gift from UC Berkeley alumni Richard and Carolyn Beahrs. Additional funding has been provided by grants from various foundations and some private donations.
"We're providing a forum where people from disparate regions can learn from each other at the same time they are exposed to top-of-the-line research in natural resources management," said David Zilberman, co-director of the center, which is based at the College of Natural Resources. "The goal of this program is to create a network of global leaders and to foster international collaboration. It is naïve to think that the problems of one country do not relate to or affect other countries."

For instance, figures from a government agency in Pakistan say the Afghan refugees are contributing to the country's deforestation at a rate of 17,000 to 22,000 acres per year. "This is not commercial logging, it's happening tree by tree as refugees use the wood for fuel," said Niaz. "Refugees are more focused on survival. They're not thinking of how their use of natural resources impacts the land in the long-term."

Niaz said that while there has been renewed interest in the plight of the refugees after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, he fears that the attention will be short-lived. There was a massive repatriation of 1.5 million refugees back to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban and after Hamid Karzai became president. But Niaz is concerned that continued instability in the new Afghan government will lead to a new influx of refugees, adding to the current population of at least 1.5 million refugees in Pakistan and further straining the country's natural resources. There are already signs of a reverse migration, with 300,000 Afghan refugees coming back to Pakistan since late 2002, said Niaz.

What Niaz expects to gain from the Beahrs program are skills in planning and management to support the refugee population in an environmentally sustainable way. This includes how to build a water supply infrastructure so refugees do not need to use water directly from manmade ponds that are shared with native animals, which increases the risk for water-borne diseases. He also hopes to learn ways of improving coordination among international relief agencies and with the local government in Pakistan.
Abou Bamba, coordinator of the Network for Environment and Sustainable Development in Africa and another Beahrs participant, is also struggling with how best to protect his country's environment in the face of poverty and turmoil. "It's very complex to explain to our people the conservation of some resources while they are starving," he said.

And just as regional conflicts can lead to strains on natural resources, the lack of resources can impact regional stability, according to Mutuso Dhliwayo, executive director of the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association. He expects to learn how the management of shared resources can be resolved through laws, policies and regulations relating to their management.

The summer certificate course includes six workshops, each taught by an interdisciplinary team of faculty from UC Berkeley and other experts, educational field trips that illustrate natural resource management issues in this state, and interactive panels and case study exercises. Participants will learn about issues in ecosystem management, pollution control, agricultural biotechnology and climate change, as well as effective leadership and conflict resolution skills.

On Thursday, July 10, at UC Berkeley, they will hear Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Norman Borlaug discuss agricultural development and the environment. Borlaug, known as the father of the Green Revolution, was awarded the Nobel in 1970 for his work in increasing crop yields in developing nations.

Robin Marsh, academic coordinator at the Center for Sustainable Resource Development, said that those who have completed the summer certificate course will have a chance to submit proposals for grants of up to $8,000 to help establish innovative conservation and sustainable development projects. The Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation have provided $130,000 for this small grants initiative.