State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

On Bananas, Coffee and Teaching Environmental Links to Conflict

Alex Fischer
Alex Fischer

On Aug. 14, for radio station WKCR′s interview series “Peace and Conflict at Columbia: Conversations from the Edge,” Beth Fisher-Yoshida, director of the M.S. in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Program, interviewed Alex Fischer, associate director of the Haiti Research and Policy Center at the Columbia University Earth Institute and program coordinator for the Center for International Earth Science Information Network. Fischer is  senior advisor for the Environment, Peace, and Security Executive Seminar, a new, intensive, five-day seminar that will be offered by Columbia University’s School of Continuing Education and the Earth Institute Sept. 17–21. It will provide senior managers with the intellectual framework, practical skills and analytic tools that they can apply to their organizations to meet challenges arising from environmental variability and conflict.

During their conversation, condensed and edited here, Fisher-Yoshida and Fischer discussed the strained, complex systems that give way to conflict and how data science plays a key role in comprehending and ultimately addressing the root causes.

Tell us about yourself.

My background is in political science with a focus on water management. Twelve years ago, I was working for a nonprofit in Vermont looking at nonviolent and very low-level conflict—conflict between a private water bottling company that was extracting water from the main aquifer in Vermont, and the local community whose wells it was intruding on.

The local community got very angry, and it raised really interesting questions about the legality of who owns the water under the ground. So I became very interested in the nexus between water management and conflict resolution mechanisms.

I later moved to Beirut to work with the American University of Beirut. When I was there in the early 2000s, I became very interested in water, changing technologies, and how they played a role in social dynamics and social conflict. And that’s led to my work at Columbia.

It sounds like a natural evolution that you would now be involved in the Environment, Peace, and Security Executive Seminar. How did this seminar come about?

Students have been looking for more tools, skills and theoretical frameworks for how to understand the relationship between natural resources, peace, security and conflict. Plus, climate change science, which recently emerged in the last 15 years, gives us a better understanding of environmental variability. So there has been student demand, a surge in new ideas, and various partnerships with The Earth Institute here at Columbia.

We can see that low-value resources like bananas and coffee are linked to social structures and conflict zones, and there’s a direct link in how those resources are managed. But how do we teach that? How do we incorporate these learnings into curricula for the next generation of practitioners?

What will you be addressing in the seminar?

We’ll be reviewing the latest research and science around the key environmental components: climate change, water resources, the extractive industry, mining, land rights, and land use.

We’ll also look at climate change science. We’ll have the latest research and frameworks for understanding the role of the environment and how it’s linked to conflict, peace, and security.

And then we’ll focus on conflict resolution skills—the work that you’ve been doing, Beth, in thinking about how to communicate in conflicts. We’ll really dive into the theory of conflict resolution and work on some skills that can be readily applied.

The final component will be more skill-based. We want to talk about how the changing face of data is making a difference in the way decisions are being made.

A lot of my work is in Haiti, a Caribbean island that has almost none of those protections. I was there for the earthquake, and it really disrupted the fabric of the society and the way that institutions responded. So the last part of this course will be looking at conflict assessments and the new types of visualization and data tools that will be relevant in addressing environment and conflict.

We’ll be looking at the broader system. It’s very rarely one factor or one piece but how it all links together.


This interview appeared originally  “In the News” of the Columbia University School of Continuing Education website.


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Mark Contorno
8 years ago

Fascinating interview! Who knew that bananas and coffee could be the source of so much conflict?