Why Nature Can Flourish In War Zones

These three cases show that the environment can sometimes benefit from conflict.

War often devastates natural environments -- bombs and bullets can destroy forests, kill animals and contaminate rivers. But human conflict has also protected natural areas, according to conservation biologist Dr. Thor Hanson.

"It's an unexpected finding in some ways," the author of The Triumph of Seeds, told The Huffington Post on Tuesday. "But it makes logical sense." This is because biodiversity can rebound in areas where fighting has reduced human activity, he explained. 

The most striking example of a war's conserving power might be the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea.

The area commonly known as the DMZ was set up in 1953 after the Korean War to mark the boundary between the two East Asian countries. Although it represents a bloody gash in the region's history, the zone is now remarkably biodiverse, Hanson said.

"You have several kilometer-wide strip going from coast to coast that is depopulated," he said. "There's a de facto park between those counties; all sorts of species are thriving there that have disappeared outside that area."

The Korean demilitarized zone, seen from the Cheorwon Peace Observatory in Cheorwon, South Korea.
The Korean demilitarized zone, seen from the Cheorwon Peace Observatory in Cheorwon, South Korea.

Similar conflict-cum-conservation zones exist around the world.

The island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, was a bombing range for the U.S. Navy until 2003. Much of the island was turned into a national wildlife refuge after the navy left. Although bombs decimated marine life around the island, Vieques is now one of the most ecologically diverse areas in the Caribbean, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Sun Bay, on Vieques Island, where U.S. Navy bombings took place.
Sun Bay, on Vieques Island, where U.S. Navy bombings took place.

Several thousand miles south, in the Falkland Islands, penguins thrive among the land mines that litter the countryside. Soldiers laid down nearly 20,000 mines there during the 1982 Falklands War. The minefields have kept people out, but members of the island's growing penguin population are too light to spring them. 

"So you have penguin rookeries on top of the minefields," Hanson said.

While fishing threatened the Falklands' penguin population in the 1980s, the de facto wildlife refuge the minefields provided has allowed the flightless birds to thrive.

A colony of King Penguins on the Falkland Islands.
A colony of King Penguins on the Falkland Islands.

The pressures of war can conserve land in other surprising ways. For instance, the Department of Defense has set aside 260,000 acres of land near military bases across the country so soldiers can train on undeveloped land.

Conservation biologists have also proposed turning the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay into a protected area for scientific research.

Joe Roman, a fellow at the University of Vermont's Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, said researchers hope that the base will close. Much of the site's 45 square miles of land remains undeveloped, Roman said. 

"That's not to say that it’s pristine," he told HuffPost. "But it's not developed in the way that, let’s say, a city is."

Most scientists agree that, overall, war tends to be devastating for the environment -- and it's not only bombs and gunfire that destroy natural spaces. Excessive energy use, resource consumption and waste production during wartime combine to make human conflict uniquely destructive to the planet. 

But while war more often destroys environments than preserves them, paying attention to cases in which conflict leads to conservation can teach scientists how to protect environments during and after war, according to Hanson.

"Of course war is bad," Hanson said. "But if you’re interested in conversing biodiversity then you must have a plan for working in conflict zones."

For Roman, the tragedy of war can create opportunities for conservation.

"No one ever wants a war," Roman said. But in some cases, "we can take advantage of them in order to advance the cause of peace and conservation."



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