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Saleem Ali
Saleem Ali
photo by Sabin Gratz

Conflict and complexity
Environmental professor uses his field’s methods to study difficult
issues ranging from the roots of terror to the costs of gold

“Nuance” is a word that often arises in conversation with Saleem Ali, an assistant professor in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources and expert in unraveling the roots of environmental strife — and, ideally, resolving it. Trained as a professional mediator, with corporate experience at General Electric, and active as an academic and advocate in countries around the world (he has or will write about Australia, Ghana, Myanmar, Madagascar, Pakistan, and Brazil, among others), his work gains subtlety from his diverse interests. Ali’s drive to apply complex, multi-factor analysis to a wide range of issues — everything from a first-of-its-kind Tiffany Foundation study of gemstone mining to a close look at  Pakistani religious schools to an effort toward fostering peace with ecological preserves — makes him hard to pigeonhole. And hard to ignore. Since arriving at UVM from Brown University in 2002, he has written prolifically for academic and popular audiences. “My interest is ultimately in conflict resolution,” he says. “And I feel that lasting resolution is only possible with public awareness of the issues at stake.”

Most of us see the environment as a source of conflict, but you use environmental issues as springboards to agreement on larger issues.

Because it is so important, the environment can be a source of cooperation. Even if the conflict is about something else — for instance, the Middle East conflict is not just about water, it’s about a lot of other things — we can use the environment as a means of bringing the parties together by making them realize that if the environment is messed up, it’s going to harm both sides.

You’re putting this idea into practice by working on “peace parks,” ecological preserves on conflicted national boundaries. 

One way to think about environmental peacemaking is through international treaties, looking at agreements on biodiversity protection, climate change, or desertification, and saying, “Look, these treaties are bringing together countries that might not otherwise talk to each other.” You might have Iran and the U.S. talking about wetlands, or Cuba and the U.S. talking about environmental issues when they would not meet otherwise.
But the notion of trans-boundary conservation areas, or peace parks, is more tangible. The environment does not follow political borders, of course; so we started with the notion of conservation zones, which is one ecosystem that is separated by political borders that you want to have some joint management over. But if these two countries are not on good terms with each other, then you can take the next step, develop the conservation zone as a peace park, and perhaps help resolve the conflict.

Your work on this is centered on a particularly senseless high-altitude conflict in the Himalayas between India and Pakistan.

I’m focusing on the Siachen Glacier. It doesn’t have any habitation because of its high altitude, and yet it has been a source of armed conflict for India and Pakistan. My wife is from Kashmir, I’m very much aware of the conflict there; it has been a source of personal anguish to see how both countries have become more and more entrenched. And very little has been done to mediate the conflict; despite the high stakes, international governments have basically let it be.

The peace park effort originally started in that region from mountaineers. I know some of them and began trying to help. I hosted a conference in 2003 in Vermont; some very high-profile people participated. Since then, we have been successful in being able to lobby both at the grassroots and at the academic level, so much so that in June of this year, the prime minister of India, Manmohan Singh, actually made a public statement when he went to Siachen to visit the troops at the glacier that the place should be made a peace mountain. On the Pakistani side, the progress has been a little slower in terms of the public statements, but we know that this proposal has reached the desk of President Musharraf. The next step is to get the scientists more involved, and I think this earthquake might provide an opportunity for that, because to be able to study the geology of this region, you need to have access. So it’s moving along, and that’s a big deal because the Siachen conflict has been around since 1986 and it won’t be resolved overnight.

The economic and social impact of mining is a major theme of yours. You’ve spoken and written about consumer responsibility in terms of gold and diamonds. What should people think about before they go over to the mall and buy a diamond?

Consumer choice, especially when it comes to mineral products, is often made at short range. It’s emotional, people don’t usually think about the supply chain. And this chain is especially complex when it comes to minerals. They often come from very distant locations. You cannot grow them — you can’t buy organic with minerals. You are beholden to the suppliers, so it is very difficult to make a personal decision on supply because you are so disconnected with where the minerals come from. For diamonds, I feel far more comfortable because of the Kimberley Process of standards and certification… I think we should also start moving toward similar gold certification. It would be very difficult to do, but it can be done, and there are some organizations that are trying to accomplish this, creating “clean gold” or “green gold.”

What I find especially interesting is that unlike other consumer goods, where the demand centers are largely in the developed world, with gold the demand centers are mostly in the developing world, especially where I come from, South Asia. More than half of the world’s gold is consumed there. So this is not a case where you can blame luxurious lifestyles of Americans and Europeans.

Another issue is that a lot of the time the gold miners, the people doing the work, are very poor. Yes, you want to make decisions for responsible mining. But you don’t want to say that you don’t want any gold mining when, apart from the big companies, you have 14 million artisanal miners. If you are going to be engaging in advocacy, you have to consider their livelihoods. If they don’t have gold, what are they going to do? I think there are alternatives; but the decision-making has to encompass them. If you could have clean gold mining at the small scale it would be fine; but the problem right now is, miners are using cyanide, they’re using mercury.

You’re very interested in those livelihoods — and, more broadly, in the interests of indigenous people who come into conflict with corporations or governments around mining or resource issues.

People tend to go to the lowest common denominator and say [environmental conflicts are] about money. My work, especially with indigenous communities, reveals that it’s much more about identity and sovereignty. The main argument of my book is contrary to common perceptions about indigenous people, Native Americans in particular — the idea that they are interested in just monetary benefits, or they are inherently environmental in their inclinations, a very patronizing “noble savage” image. I counter those perceptions by arguing that especially in contemporary indigenous politics, the conflicts are much more an assertion of their right to make decisions. There’s a big difference between consultation and negotiation. Sometimes people don’t appreciate that, especially within the environmental impact assessment process, because companies and developers will often say, “Well, we consulted with them, we had town meetings, and now we know what they feel.” But that’s not what indigenous people are after. They want to be at the table.

Another theme in your resumé involves projects related to your identity as a Pakistani Muslim. What strands of environmental stewardship have you found in the Islamic tradition?

I personally think that the religious aspect, if you tie it in with the environmental aspect, can help in the conflict-resolution process. So that’s how I’ve been trying to look at Islam and the environment and go back to the theological roots. I feel strongly that conflict resolution has to be an integrative approach. I cannot just say, Oh, it’s the environment, or it’s ethnicity, or it’s religion. That’s why I keep getting into all of these different nexuses. The religion part I have a slight advantage on because I understand Islamic theology, and I come from a very religious family. I try to understand the conflict causality when it comes to religion; of course religion can be the source of problems, but I also think it has the potential to be a source of great cooperation.

I want to talk about the madrassah work, your study of the Pakistani religious schools that many believe foster terrorism. There’s some environmental aspects to this issue, but it extends far beyond that.

It was the conflict connection, first and foremost, that interested me. What [I and Pakistani collaborator S. Tauqir Shah, a member of the country’s civil service] wanted to do there was use environmental planning techniques to look at where madrassahs are located. We wanted to do an exhaustive survey of all the madrassahs in one particular part of Punjab where there have been lots of conflicts, and look at an urban area, Islamabad, the capital, and compare the rural and urban dynamic of madrassahs. We were looking at some environmental indicators, scarcity indicators, arability of land, water availability, and so on to see if the poverty-madrassah connection holds.

People say terrorism is all about poverty; or it’s all about education. I’ve tried to counter that. It’s much more complex. You need a level of awareness about world events to understand the issues. But just educating people is not going to solve the problem. The problem often has to do with insidious education. Think of Alexander Pope, his essay on criticism: “A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.” Unfortunately, what we often have in Pakistan is education, but it’s limited, a Rush Limbaugh version: people have a lot of information, but no context.

I got the impression that you began this with some skepticism toward the terrorism claims made about madrassahs.  But as you and your colleagues were on the ground, your sense of the issue changed…

My collaborator in Pakistan and I initially had very divergent opinions. He was saying that madrassahs were a big problem and a source of conflict, and I was much more skeptical. This has been bandied about in the media, that they are “weapons of mass instruction.” I was skeptical, I thought they were providing a social service for children… But after we did the research, I felt my collaborator was probably more right than I was. It is true that they do provide a service, but the damage that they are doing in terms of conflict — not necessarily international terrorism, but sectarian conflict within Pakistan — is immense. This is between Shia and Sunnis, like we are seeing now in Iraq. The madrassahs are accentuating the fault line between the two sects. We looked at police data on violent crime and arrests made on sectarian holidays, and there was no doubt that there was a connection between madrassahs and violence in rural areas.

My initial feeling was proven to be wrong; there is a problem. But you have to be nuanced. I don’t want people to think that because madrassahs are a problem, therefore elite education institutions are not a problem. You need to have multi-faceted approaches. That’s the problem with the media, they like those instant solutions. It’s the madrassah theory, or it’s this theory.

Saleem Ali is an organizer of the Vermont Pakistan Relief Fund in support of rebuilding post-earthquake. Those interested in helping can send tax-deductible contributions to the Vermont Pakistan Relief Fund (Account: 464180), New England Federal Credit Union, 141 Harvest Lane, Williston, VT 05495.