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It is not only climate change that has a negative impact on the environment. Economic actors’ business activities may often bring about irreversible collateral damage on natural habitats. If this is the case in fragile and conflict situations conflict and violence may be exacerbated. A conflict-sensitive and rights-based approach to business activities are essential to ensuring that social and environmental impacts do not negatively affect marginalized populations.
Environmental challenges, particularly those linked to business activities, are part of a complex web of actors, interests, and stresses: not the sole root cause of conflict. They are often connected to unaddressed grievances and human rights violations ensuing from scarce resources, increasing inequality, political oppression, dispossession, displacement, and a discriminatory political economy.[i]
Environmental peacebuilding must address these root causes. A holistic approach that combines conflict-sensitivity and a rights-based approach is key to adequately understanding and addressing these challenges.[ii] The 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda calls for a multisectoral approach to sustainable development, inviting business actors to consider their role to contribute to sustainability and peace—as further outlined by the 2020 report on business and conflict by the Business and Human Rights Working Group.[iii]
A rights-based approach to environmental challenges is one that is grounded in international human rights standards and operationally directed to promoting and protecting them. It analyses and seeks to redress inequalities which lie at the heart of people’s grievances. Such an approach when applied by business actors is not merely an obligation but part of a process to sustainable business engagement and peace. As a central document the Aarhus Convention[iv] sets apart three procedural rights relating to the environment, namely the right to access to information; participate in decision-making; and justice[v]—echoing Principle 10 of the 1992 Rio Declaration.[vi] When states, legitimate local authorities, and business actors uphold these rights, they foster resilient, just, peaceful, and inclusive communities, which in turn creates enabling business environment for all.[vii]
A sustainable business engagement necessarily also includes a conflict-sensitive approach. [viii] This requires a sound understanding of context-specific intergroup tensions, gender constructions, and potential divisive issues—which often include environmental challenges—and the two-way interaction between activities and the context.[ix] Conflict sensitivity requires actors, including businesses,[x] to act upon that understanding to avoid negative impacts on social relations and to avoid fuelling further division.[xi] The following case study illustrates how a well-intentioned project subsequently failed on its own terms – illustrating how necessary both approaches are to business.
The “Addax Bioethanol SL” project in Sierra Leone—product of a policy push to attract foreign direct investment by the government of Sierra Leone and supported by numerous development finance institutions (DFIs)—was meant to set the bar for good practice in agriculture and renewable energy projects. Established in 2010, it aimed to produce ethanol from sugarcane for the European market, while providing jobs and supplying electricity for the national power grid. Instead of constituting an example of best practice, however, civil society organizations soon reported negative impacts of the project on the local population, including environmental pollution, food insecurity, the violation of land rights, and a consequent increase in local conflicts and violence.[xii]
Following pressure from human rights groups, human rights due diligence measures, including multistakeholder dialogues, were implemented while the project remained under Addax ownership.[xiii] However, the project lacked a thorough conflict and context analysis, resulting in increasing intra-and inter-community conflict. The land lease, for instance, was negotiated between local authorities, such as Paramount Chiefs, and company representatives, without direct involvement of the landowners and land users.[xiv] Though not uncommon, this practice exacerbated already existing conflicts between the local chiefs and communities as well as inter-community relationships. Multistakeholder meetings, a Farmer Development Service and vegetable gardening programmes were not enough to mitigate negative impacts on livelihoods in the communities, including loss of income, growing inequality, and increasing frustrations around a perceived lack of transparency. Consequently, as business activities contributed to people losing access to their land and subsistence as well as clean water, tensions and (domestic) violence increased.[xv] The company and DFIs were not prepared to compensate for those unintended impacts.
As the Addax project illustrates, a conflict-sensitive and rights-based approach to business activities throughout the project cycle and changes in ownership are necessary to avoid negative impacts on women and men, the environment, and peacebuilding.
Environmental peacebuilding should be obligatory for all actors, including business. Business actors and their financial supporters (including DFIs) should:
Regularly conduct conflict mapping and human rights due diligence (HRDD) assessments, alongside environmental and social impact assessments of their activities.
Implement processes of meaningful engagement and inclusive consultation of communities while negotiating concession agreements.
Enhance transparency by making information on business activities accessible and understandable.
Develop exit strategies to secure continuity of conflict mapping and long-term HRDD measures throughout ownership changes and compensation for harm occurred.
Adopt legislation on mandatory conflict sensitive HRDD, including accountability measures, to ensure that business actors conduct conflict sensitivity and HRDD throughout their activities, value chains, and investments.
Develop policy measures and mechanisms to implement the right to information, meaningful participation, and access to remedies concerning the prevention of destructive conflict relating to the environment. Measures should ensure that grievance mechanisms set up by business actors are accessible to affected communities.
Be strongly supported by international donors in this endeavour.
Moving forward, a focus on policy implementation is crucial. Ensuring objective monitoring through civil society remains critical throughout. Future action in environmental peacebuilding will also need to address the open question as to why guidelines and international jurisdiction are not sufficiently implemented. Is there simply a need for more due diligence? Or is there, instead, a need for more complementarity between peacebuilding and human rights-based approaches?