Peace Science Digest

Conversations on Indigenous and Decolonial Approaches to Environmental Peacebuilding: Interview with Dr. Elaine (Lan Yin) Hsiao

We conducted a series of interviews with experts to gain deeper insight into Indigenous and decolonial approaches to environmental peacebuilding.

Elaine (Lan Yin) Hsiao was a law student that stumbled into environmental peacebuilding after a summer internship supporting a transboundary peace park project on the Honduras-Nicaragua border. Today, she is an Assistant Professor in the School of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kent State University. She studies the intersection between environmental conservation and conflict—be it active armed conflict or social conflict between groups—asking how the environment is involved, how we resolve conflicts, and how we recover from conflicts.

PSD: Can you introduce yourself and describe how you got into the environmental peacebuilding field?

EH: Environmental peacebuilding came into my awareness and consciousness when I scoped the feasibility of a peace park for my summer internship during law school. I spent many years studying this idea of protecting transboundary areas for peace or conflict resolution in Central America and, later, in Central East Africa. The more I did, the more I got interested in the communities that live around these spaces and their contributions to, engagement in, and perspectives on these conservation areas that have this peacebuilding element. That led me more into the decolonial environmental peacebuilding space because I was interacting with Indigenous communities that had long traditions of what we could call environmental peacebuilding but often don’t. Now, I focus on the protection of the environment in relation to armed conflict and looking at protected areas as (potentially) having protected status as humanitarian zones. I feel like it’s a different take on environmental peacebuilding—it’s not just how does state A cooperate with state B in an armed conflict, but how do we have conservation and protection on the ground when state A and state B are at war.

I’m starting this new area of work looking where Indigenous communities are not a party to an armed conflict, but their territories are intersecting with conflict zones. Additionally, how do we think about this in a historic context and make reparations for territories that have been seized through armed conflicts? I’m thinking about what that might look like in the U.S., which is a territory that has been taken through very active armed conflict with Indigenous peoples. There’s a lot of talk around Land Back, reparations, and reconciliation. I’m curious about what lessons may emerge out of those movements in the U.S. and what we can learn to apply to active armed conflict zones that impact Indigenous territories.

PSD: When you first started looking at the peace parks, was there an engagement with Indigenous communities in that process?

EH: On the Costa Rica-Panama border, there’s the international peace park. It’s a government-to-government created peace park, but they have a really interesting management approach on the ground. The entire eastern front of the peace park—and this is large area of something like 100,000s of hectares—has very little ranger force protection (official government enforcement on the ground). The Indigenous communities who live there protect the forest so there is no need for any kind of government presence. Most of the official ranger posts were mostly for tourist interaction on the west side. And on the west, park authorities were working with communities on conservation efforts. The more that the communities were engaged in conservation in their own spaces and were buffering the protected area, the better.

PSD: You mentioned thinking about your work in the context of the U.S. I’d like to hear more about what you’re thinking about in this regard.

EH: California has a very interesting policy and resources behind this idea of healing and reconciliation. There is state policy with certain state lands to try and return them to California Native Tribes whenever possible and offer the first right of purchase to whatever Tribe would have historically been there or has some historical claim to [the land]. There has been funding set aside by the state government specifically for Tribes to buy that land back. So, there’s a policy and money in place to facilitate land back as a land return policy that’s aligned with the governor’s policy around truth and healing. We’re looking at this project to try and understand where there are publicly managed lands that have been environmentally degraded over time and are suspectable to wildfire, floods, droughts, etc., understanding that has an unequal impact on Tribes because of where they’ve been forced to live. A project to return land to those Tribes to manage in a way that makes both the ecosystem and the community more resilient is an incredible opportunity to repair historical harm. Having tangible examples that help to explain what land back could look like and what it might mean is important. Land back is not this scary thing where everybody who’s non-Native must leave. It could be good for everybody.

PSD: In our special issue, we use the following definition for environmental peacebuilding from an International Affairs special issue: “environmental peacebuilding comprises the multiple approaches and pathways by which the management of environmental issues is integrated in and can support conflict prevention, mitigation, resolution, and recovery.”[1] What is your reaction to this definition? Anything you might add or change?

EH: I’ve seen this definition before. I think it fits where it comes from. It is a very technical approach to peacebuilding, very management oriented and a formulaic approach to conflict. I think of it as a very Westernized way to define environmental peacebuilding. I think that a decolonial or Indigenous approach to environmental peacebuilding would bring about a very different definition. I wish it had more concepts from peace and conflict studies on relations and repair, reconciliation, and healing. These kinds of words are missing in that definition of environmental peacebuilding. It will ultimately limit what is environmental peacebuilding or what environmental peacebuilding can achieve. Because if we don’t get the relational aspect, and the healing of what has happened in the past, then we might get stuck at an environmental technical fix. I find it also very anthropocentric: speaking about a human-to-human peacebuilding and forgetting that there’s humans and nature, and humans and the rest of life on earth that needs to be repaired in the process. Environmental peacebuilding is really about the repair of relationships between people [and] people, between peoples, and between people and the rest of life.

Another thing from peace and conflict studies: this definition is so focused on a formulaic approach to conflict that conflict is almost seen as a bad thing. There’s this idea in peace and conflict studies that conflict is a way to resolve issues, especially in cases of extreme injustice. Nonviolent action and the practice of nonviolence is seen as a form of conflict creation to make extreme injustice right. In a definition like this, nonviolent action, which is sometimes called conflict creation, would be sidelined, or made invisible. It’s such a powerful strategy really to making right with nature. Thinking of environmental peacebuilding as needing to step up and create a conflict where an extreme injustice is happening or about to happen is another decolonial angle that could be brought in.

PSD: Can you describe how Indigenous or decolonial approaches are distinct in environmental peacebuilding? 

EH: Many Indigenous approaches are often decolonial, but not all the decolonial approaches are Indigenous. Decolonial for me is about disrupting those colonial legacies and those systems of power that have been entrenched by former colonial systems. It has a lot to do with a few things like the coloniality of knowledge and knowledge production, the coloniality of identity and the hierarchy of race and ethnicities, and economic systems. It’s the extractive capitalist approach and globalized extractive capitalism combined with today’s government’s approach to neoliberalism that’s very colonial. The ways that political power is consolidated and controlled—that’s what decolonial is trying to be a solution or alternative or antithesis to. Sometimes the more bottom-up, community-driven/led—whether that’s Indigenous or not—is often a more decolonial approach. It’s also not taking the environment as this technically separate thing from us, but to think of all of it as an integrative whole through the lens of actual relationships between us and other species and life on earth. If we’re bringing in the Indigenous approaches, we can also start thinking about environmental peacebuilding as our spiritual relationship with nature and other species. There are ceremonies that I think we could consider as a form of environmental peacebuilding from an Indigenous perspective, but that’s not at all what you see in the UN’s work in post-conflict countries. It also pulls us into this realm of how we define peace. I was in the Rwanda-Congo-Uganda borderland area in a village. I asked the villagers, “What would environmental peace look like to you?” And they said, “It’s fresh air.” Then, they explained that fresh air means that the air is clear because there [are] winds coming through and there [are] rains that clear the air so it’s not dusty, and if there’s rain then there’s agriculture and food for everybody. It was their way of describing a wholly functioning ecosystem that provides for people and people provide for the environment as environmental peacebuilding.

When you come into a lot of Indigenous communities, one of the things they might tell you is that they don’t have a word for the environment because it’s not a separate thing. They are so embedded in it that they don’t identify it separately. At least that’s what I’ve been told. One thing that I’ve noticed about Indigenous peacebuilding broadly is that it inherently encompasses the natural environment in many different ways. And when there’s conflict in Indigenous communities, it also invokes the natural environment. Taking a decolonial or Indigenous approach really opens up your mind to the basic idea of what these words really mean, what needs to be made right, and if environmental peacebuilding is even its own thing or is that just peacebuilding.

PSD: What does an Indigenous and/or decolonial approach look like in practice?

EH: Decolonial practices offer space for a lot more exploration, and that’s a hard one for all of us grappling with how we change these mega systems that are incredibly colonial. There is a lot of incredible work coming out of critical development studies, like the pluriverse dictionary that shares different approaches to decolonial development—which I think inherently embraces a lot of these concepts of what could be a decolonial environmental peacebuilding. I think one of the challenges is the external intervention-based answer to environmental peacebuilding where people come in and offer solutions and it’s funded by donors and then projects happen, and they go away. That, I think, is a very colonial approach. A decolonial approach would have to look quite different. It doesn’t mean that external people can’t come in to support communities locally that are trying to do environmental peacebuilding, but I think you would have to disengage that capitalist economic system somehow. A decolonial approach to environmental peacebuilding should also be very appreciative of where its resources and money and ideas come from.    

PSD: To what extent has the environmental peacebuilding field embraced an Indigenous and/or decolonial approach?

EH: I think it’s in its early stages. You’ll see it in some of the summative articles on environmental peacebuilding where there is a small section on local and Indigenous approaches. It’s not yet at the space where it’s radically re-thinking peace—is it an environmental management thing or is it a relational spiritual practice? As a field, environmental peacebuilding is very open and welcoming and tries to be very inclusive, so I think there’s space for that. But when you put forward a definition for a concept, it inevitably excludes people who don’t think that’s what they do. In sessions we’ve done on Indigenous approaches, we’ve had to pull in people who would have never called themselves environmental peacebuilders.

PSD: How does militarism and militarization show up in environmental peacebuilding? 

EH: One of the dangers is that the field of environmental peacebuilding allies itself with mainstream conservation movement thinking that it’s an avenue for expanding environmental peacebuilding initiatives, especially with ideas like peace parks or cooperative natural resource management. The mainstream conservation movement is, in many places, quite militarized. There’s been a lot of the pushback against conservation and its affiliation with armed rangers that are perpetrating human rights violations. Environmental peacebuilding initiatives aren’t free of that just because we call it peacebuilding. That’s why I got really interested in working with communities. The states are telling me that they’re working together but then when I go to the communities, they’re telling me that the armed rangers are burning down their homes and arresting their people. The peacebuilding between the states might be decent but the peacebuilding with the people is not looking great. There’s also the growing interest of the military in the natural environment due to climate change that is front and center for environmental peacebuilding. I started reading a report by the International Military Council on Climate Change and Security. The sum of the report is that they think militaries will be overwhelmed by the challenges of dealing with climate change and the security implications of it.

When we think about Indigenous territories and the environmental conflicts that they face against large corporations, against private security forces that are well armed, and the kind of human rights violations that come out of that—I think shedding light on the nonviolence that Indigenous communities practice is so important. If we don’t support the nonviolent struggles, then…it’s not going to look good.

PSD: It’s not going to look so nonviolent anymore.

EH: Yes, exactly. I think the environmental peacebuilding world is going to have to struggle with these realities. I do sometimes wonder if having that limited definition of environmental peacebuilding that’s focused on environmental management will be able to encompass those struggles in a way that is helpful.

PSD: How important are designated conservation and protected areas to environmental peacebuilding?

EH: This question is interesting given where international policy is right now. We have a Global Biodiversity Framework and targets calling to expand conservation areas and protected areas to 30% of the Earth’s surface (terrestrial and marine). There’s been a lot of concern on whether that enables an increase in militarized conservation to acquire those lands and if it will displace people. There is research showing that this could impact up to 1.8 billion people. That conservation and protected areas policy is potentially creating this whole new space for environmental conflict. How will we manage to meet those targeted goals in such a way that isn’t violent and isn’t displacing people or their rights? This is an important question for the environmental peacebuilding community.

There’s also an idea that there’s an overemphasis on conservation areas as a vehicle for environmental peacebuilding. That raises some of the problems and challenges around protected areas as a concept, especially in countries where protected areas were created by a colonial government and then have been militarized. I’ve started telling people to be mindful of “sacrifice zones,” like this area is for conservation and everything else can be sacrificed where we can do whatever we want to the environment.

Environmental peacebuilding, for me, has been very exciting because it has so much possibility. There’s so much opportunity, so much to think about, and so many directions and ways that you can take it and view it and practice it. In a world that looks increasingly violent, divided, and broken in so many ways, I think that the fact that environmental peacebuilding can take so many different forms, means that it can help us address extreme circumstances whether that’s war or genocide or civil conflicts or interpersonal differences on an everyday level.   

Continued Reading and Watching

Second International Conference on Environmental Peacebuilding. (2022, February 1-4). Roundtable on decolonization and environmental peacebuilding. Retrieved April 25, 2024, from: 

Tuso, H., & Flaherty, M. P. (2016). Creating the third force: Indigenous processes of peacemaking. Lexington Books.

Villanueva, E. (2021). Decolonizing wealth: Indigenous wisdom to heal divides and restore balance. Birchbark Books.  

Brockington, D., Duffy, R., & Igoe,J. (2008). Nature unbound: Conservation, capitalism and the future of protected areas. Routledge.

Massé, F. & Lunstrum, E. (2016). Accumulation by securitization: Commercial poaching, neoliberal conservation, and the creating of new wildlife frontiers. Geoforum 69, 227-237. DOI:  See:

Baker, K. J. M., & Warren, T. (2020). WWF’s secret war. BuzzFeedNews. Retrieved April 25, 2024, from:

International Military Council on Climate & Security: 

Kothari, A., Salleh, A., Escobar, A, Demaria, F., & Acosta, A. (2019). Pluriverse: A post-development dictionary. Tulika Books.

BIOSEC: Biodiversity and Security:

Photo credit: Dr. Elaine (Lan Yin) Hsiao

[1] Ide, T., Bruch, C., Carius, A., Conca, K., Dabelko, G. D., Matthew, R., & Weinthal, E. (2021). The past and future(s) of environmental peacebuilding. International Affairs, 91(1). doi: 10.1093/ia/iiaa177

This interview is featured in our Special Issue: Decolonial and Indigenous Approaches to Environmental Peacebuilding.