Environment, Peace and Sustainability

Environment, Peace and Sustainability

The linkages between environmental sustainability, political and economic security, and peace are increasingly prominent in domestic and international political discourses. As a field of inquiry, the discussion has moved beyond asking whether these factors are interconnected, focusing instead on how social-ecological systems function, what factors enhance or erode their resilience, and how changes cascade across these systems.

Our Environment, Peace, and Sustainability (EPS) program aims to better understand social-ecological system dynamics, with particular focus on participatory approaches to resource governance and environmental conflict management. Through a portfolio of applied and basic research, the EPS program brings theoretical grounding in the resilience paradigm and practice/policy grounding in environmental peacebuilding approaches,  and uses multiple methodologies.


Dr. Joshua Fisher
Director of EPS, Director of AC4

Alexandra Harden
EPS Research Associate

Sophia Rhee
Program Associate

This program seeks to:

  • Study these complex social-ecological systems,
  • Develop and test theoretical insight into complex-adaptive cycles, and
  • Generate practical and policy-relevant knowledge to assist decision makers and stakeholders navigate these systems.

Under the leadership of ACDirector, Dr. Joshua Fisher, the EPS Program works closely with practitioners in government and civil society organizations in order to integrate research and practice. In this way, we create learning networks to enable cross-pollination of ideas from research and governance. These lessons are then distilled into curriculum for courses at Columbia University, through Columbia’s Masters Program in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution, in multiple courses co-taught with Law and Engineering faculty, and for the Environment, Peace and Security Certificate Program.

Current Projects

Sustainable Alternative Livelihoods in Madre de Dios: A Pilot Study on the Valuation of Artisanal Mining, Brazil Nut Harvesting, and Fish Farming
Madre de Dios in the Peruvian Amazon is a region of high cultural and biodiversity facing threats to its intact forest landscape from mining, illegal logging, agricultural expansion, and road construction. Migrant and indigenous communities are facing rapid and dramatic changes to the mosaic of economic uses of land in the area. Given the conservation and sustainable development considerations of forest degradation, an overarching dilemma is how to instead incentivize sustainable economic activities in the area. The authors used a multi-method approach in the Tambopata National Reserve and its buffer zone to assess the viability of alternative livelihoods – including Brazil nut harvesting, agricultural certifications, and fish farming – that both leverage intact forests and are economically comparable to artisanal and illegal gold mining. The authors found evidence to partially reject the assumption that mining is the most lucrative economic choice in the area, with tremendous growth potential in both Brazil nut harvesting and fish farming.

Conflict-Sensitive Resource Management: An increasingly sophisticated body of work suggests that including conflict analysis into conservation planning and natural resource management can lead to policies and management actions that are more responsive to stakeholder needs and interests. Likewise, designing processes that give stakeholders ownership over the process of making management decisions has been shown to increase procedural justice, and generate more effective solutions to environmental conflicts. Through on-going partnerships with civil-society, NGOs and government actors, the CSRM project works to test hypotheses related to the strategies, tools, and techniques that enable resource managers to enhance peaceful stakeholder relationships and still meet biodiversity, resource management, and economic targets.

  • Key research topics include methodological development in risk assessment, integrated approaches to monitoring and evaluation and impact assessment, and synthesizing physical science and qualitative data.

Conflict Prevention and Human Rights in the Extractive Industries: Around the world, resource rich countries invite investment by multinational corporations to generate revenue and spur economic growth. That development strategy creates a dilemma for governments who must simultaneously maintain an investment and regulatory climate that can attract companies while also providing development, security and safeguarding of human rights for their citizens. While these are not necessarily incompatible goals, few countries are able to effectively strike that balance. As a result, communities with the closest proximity to extractive industry operations like oil, gas and mining are often subjected to a host of social, environmental and political impacts that are largely unseen by the corporate offices of the operator, by the central government of the host country, and by the consumers of the end products. Through an on-going partnership with the Columbia University Human Rights Law Clinic and physical scientists at Penn State University, this project utilizes physical science methodologies and legal analysis to build more sophisticated understanding of socio-economic rights, and the institutional arrangements that can better guarantee them.

  • Key research topics include methodological development in human rights legal analysis, integrating physical science and qualitative approaches to evidence, and design and testing of participatory monitoring and evaluation programs.

Sustainable Human Development: Volatility and change in social-ecological systems forces us to consider how to balance competing needs and interests of multiple actors and environmental factors in the global system. Central to the debate on finding that balance is the concept of Sustainable Human Development (SHD), broadly conceptualized as the pursuit of equitable and expanding human and social development without compromising ecological integrity. While SHD increasingly serves as a normative framework to guide global development policy, there remains little coherence around the specific nature and properties of sustainable systems, and even less consensus on the appropriate social, political, environmental, and economic structures and processes required to effectively pursue development. Through an on-going partnership with The Agirre Lehendekaria Center for Social and Political Studies at the University of the Basque Country, the SHD project seeks to better understand the institutional characteristics that enable decision makers and stakeholders to effectively navigate conflicting needs and interests, and thereby enhance human well-being and environmental sustainability. Utilizing literature reviews, theory building and large-n statistical approaches, the project is testing multiple hypotheses on the role of participatory and inclusive institutions in enhancing SHD.

  • Key research areas include testing and refining a theoretical model of wellbeing and understanding the cultural drivers of sustainability. Read more about the SHD Project.

Environment, Peace and Security Certificate Program: This program prepares mid-level managers to understand the dynamic connections between environment and security, and equips them with the tools for managing the risks. Topics covered range from environment-peace-security linkages and theory of conflict resolution for environmental peacebuilding, to assessment methodologies, data collection and visualization tools, and related communications issues. In-class lectures and case studies are coupled with technical trainings, hands-on activities and field visits. Faculty from Columbia include Marc Levy, CIESIN Deputy Director; Beth Fisher-Yoshida, AC4 Co-Executive Director, and Josh Fisher, ACDirector.

Participants in the Environmental Peacebuilding Certificate Program led by AC4 and colleagues at CIESIN, the Center for Information and Earth Science Information Network during Fall 2016.

Featured Resources

Conflict Sensitive Conservation Practitioners Manual

Reconceptualizing the Science of Sustainability

Conflict-Sensitive Conservation Stories

Sustainable Water Management in Urban, Agricultural, and Natural Systems

Getting Involved

The EPS Program is actively building partnerships around the world. For more information on getting involved, please email sr3107@columbia.edu.

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