Saleem H. Ali
Photograph by Maria S. Ali
Saleem Ali thinks like an environmentalist, a diplomat, a wealthy industrialist, an impoverished villager, a government regulator, a product innovator, and a father. To him, environmental conservation can succeed only if vying factions communicate and collaborate.
Ali facilitates that process as a professional mediator for governments, companies, and indigenous communities; an advisor to the United Nations on environmental conflicts and strategies; a university professor; researcher; and author. His tactics may vary, but his message remains clear: The environment itself can be a powerful force in resolving conflicts, even between groups who seem diametrically opposed over how the world’s limited resources should be used.
According to Ali, environmental issues have tremendous, yet underutilized, potential for diplomacy.
“When people discuss the high politics of war and peace, the environment can often bring all sides together around the shared goal of conserving resources. At the height of the Cold War, the U.S., the Soviet Union, India, and Australia cooperated on the Antarctic Treaty," he says. "All sides recognized the environmental importance of this special part of the world and essentially made it a scientific common ground, even when they were embroiled in conflict over other issues.”
Ali also points to a longstanding territorial war between Ecuador and Peru, fought over a pristine Amazon rain forest region. “The environment played a central role in the treaty resolving that conflict. Both sides ultimately agreed it would do more harm than good to fight over territory that was so rich in biodiversity and forest resources. Instead, a Transboundary Conservation Area was created that holds great value for each country.” Also known as peace parks, such areas help resolve disputes by establishing environmentally protected zones between clashing nations, which are then maintained through shared responsibility.
Today, Ali feels particular concern for conflict between his native Pakistan and India. “We’re calling for Transboundary Conservation Areas in certain places there to help reconcile disputes.” He believes this tactic could be equally effective in the Mesopotamian marshlands between Iran and Iraq, the agriculturally rich Golan Heights between Israel and Syria, and the disputed Kuril Islands between Russia and Japan.
Ali is also convinced that natural resources can be a positive force in alleviating poverty. Here, he departs from many in the mainstream environmental movement, arguing that extracting resources such as minerals, gems, and oil may be necessary to catapult economies from poverty to prosperity. He cites Botswana, where responsible mining of diamonds has created a thriving economy.
“Before 1960, this was one of the poorest countries in Africa; now it has the highest per capita income on the continent. Mineral wealth has directly benefited Botswana’s citizens in many ways, allowing the government to provide free education and health care to much of the population, including free HIV/AIDS drugs. Huge tracts of land have been set aside for conservation, and money has been used to develop a diversified economy powered by far more than mining.”
Ali’s pragmatic brand of environmentalism promotes inclusion, rather than exclusion, of corporate interests. “Some conservationists think corporations are inherently evil,” he notes. “I don’t see it that way. I’m willing to work with companies to make sure they are part of the solution. Regulation is crucial, but it should spur innovation.”
One of his favorite examples occurred in response to environmental pollution regulations enacted in Denmark. “This regulation didn’t constrain corporations,” he explains, “it allowed them to find solutions of their own. As a result, an eco-industrial park was established with a very innovative waste-exchange system. A power plant, an enzyme manufacturer, a pharmaceutical company, a gypsum-processing factory, and others collaborate so that the waste from one company becomes the input for another. They’ve created a new paradigm of industrial ecology.”
Demonstrating his faith in the environment’s peacemaking power in an entirely different realm, Ali works with madrasahs (Islamic religious schools) in Pakistan and Indonesia. “Our research showed that the very intolerant vision of Islam taught in these schools is directly linked to domestic sectarian violence. Yet I knew that both Sunni and Shiite share a similar Islamic view of the environment, it transcends sectarian divides. So I created an environmental education component for schools to help unify fractured communities around at least one issue. The curriculum has already been well received and successfully implemented in some Indonesian madrasahs."
As an environmentalist, and a father, Ali hopes the agreements he brokers today will benefit future generations. “I don’t have an apocalyptic vision of society. I remain optimistic about human resilience; our ability to adapt and confront new circumstances. Thousands and thousands of years ago, a huge volcanic eruption in Sumatra destroyed much of early human civilization. Only a few thousand Homo sapiens survived … yet here we are today.”
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What are Saleem Ali and the rest of the National Geographic Explorers up to? Meet the E-Team and learn about their projects in this interactive mural.
In Their Words
Environmental issues have the power to unify groups with seemingly irreconcilable differences. Shared concerns about resources and conservation can help resolve even bitter conflicts.
Saleem H. Ali
While standing at the U.S.-Mexico border, Ali realizes that environmental issues can unite the world.
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