Peacebuilding at the Edge

As In Nature, So Among Humans

Have you ever noticed that wounds heal from the outside towards the center? Think of a cut, a scab or a bruise: the outside edges heal first and then the healing moves slowly toward the center. The natural world repairs itself in a similar way, and so do human communities. 

In Nature as in human society, the edges are where the action is. People who live at the margins of society have to improvise in order to get their needs met. People who solve difficult problems are able to think ‘outside the box’, beyond the edges of conventional ideas. In Nature, the edges where different ecosystems meet (riverbanks, interface of fields and forests, ocean and shore) are more fertile and have higher concentrations and diversity of plant and animal species than other areas. Crops planted at the edge of a forest or a river are dramatically more productive than those planted in other areas. Curved and comingled planting areas are more productive than rows and monocultures.

When a forest has been clear cut, or a pasture has been overgrazed, certain species of grasses and other plants, often considered to be weeds, arrive first to repopulate the barren soil. Some of these seeds have been lying dormant in the soil for a long time. Some may have been carried in by birds and bats. Others arrive on the wind. These plants are called ‘pioneer species’ because they are the first to arrive to resettle a devastated landscape. They are Nature’s emergency ‘first responders’. These plants have multiple functions, including the ability to capture nitrogen from the air and pull it into the soil through their roots; to host microbes and insects necessary to rebuild healthy soil; and to entice birds, insects and other pollinators to return and bring additional seeds and nutrients with them. Eventually, leaves and brush cover the bare ground and, as they decay, they nourish the soil and hold water in the ground, recharging aquifers. In this way, trees and plants protect against drought.

By observing these natural processes we can see that edges and ‘edgewalkers’ have a special role to play in restoration and healing. This is why border communities are often more resilient and creative: they have to be. If edge communities are strong, then the center of a country and even an extended sub-region will also be better protected.

In peacebuilding, border villages are key. They are both especially vulnerable and especially important. Deforestation in rural edges has driven wild animals closer to human settlements and sometimes these wild animals carry illnesses and pathogens. Conflicts among humans, and between humans and the natural world, arise due to habitat loss and competition for access to food, shelter and water. In rural Africa, people who have not developed reliable sources of protein rely on bushmeat – the hunting and eating of wild animals (often endangered species) that may carry diseases. (Consumption of undercooked fruit bats is thought to be one of the original causes of the recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa). Border villages also have certain advantages: they host lively markets, long distance truckers and prostitutes – all of whom are potential sources of news, and early warning indicators of natural disasters or conflict. In a crisis, border communities also receive the first influx of refugees and must be able to provide these people with food, shelter, safety and medical care. Often, this holds true in analogous ways in urban edge neighborhoods as well. In the face of increased violence and instability, both urban and rural, domestic and international, it is especially important to build a decentralized infrastructure of peace, ecological repair, and food and energy security in border communities. It is urgent to pour our efforts into building resilience of all kinds along border areas, both urban and rural. 

What are the activities and structures that support peace? 

Westerners have few qualifications as ‘experts’ at peacemaking and sustainability. In fact, the opposite is true. The West has been unable to lead by example in any of these areas. Thus, we must learn from non-Western cultures and from the folks who have suffered directly from the war and disease that Western thinking has caused. As Westerners seeking to be helpful, we must continuously ask ourselves what our proper role as outsiders might be. One of the most useful things we can do is listen and observe, and then speak as respectful witnesses, reflecting back to the community the beauty, generosity, creativity and wisdom that is already there, and help them clarify for themselves, on their own terms, their insights, priorities, and available tools and infrastructure. This includes eliciting memories, dreams, stories and the wisdom of elders. It requires inclusivity, transparency, and patience. It includes the observation and communication of natural ecological patterns and processes. 

Trauma, and decades of being told by outsiders that a country, neighborhood or community is broken and in need of outside ‘experts’, many people now believe they can do little for themselves. This is true globally, where the ‘aid industry’ persists in throwing vast sums of money – with little evidence of success - at problems that do not improve or go away. Many people now believe the lie that money solves all problems, when in fact money and greed have caused most of the world’s suffering, including war and the destruction of the natural world. Communities know what they need, they know their history, they know their strengths and weaknesses. We as outsiders have little to offer except our love and encouragement, and our observations and questions from our perspective at the edge. In our work in Liberia, everyday gandhis places great importance on community consultation, talking to elders, women, traditional leaders, ex-combatants and youth. Often, this takes the form of community councils. Then, in partnership with the community, we develop a plan. Then we listen again to see how things are going, and try to address our inevitable mistakes in a transparent way. We seek to hold ourselves - and the community mutually accountable. (  

Guidance comes from many other edges as well, particularly from dreams, divinations and signs from the natural world. One of the most destructive assumptions of Western thinking is that linear, logical human ideas are the best source of information for planning and analysis. This assumption presumes that Nature, the spirits and ancestors have nothing to offer, though we are alive because of them, and our actions affect them directly. The results can be seen in the suffering all around us and in the ruin of the natural world. How did we become so insane as to dare think that Nature has no intelligence? How did we come to ignore our debt to those that came before us, or our responsibility to future generations? We have refused to listen, refused to respect, refused to enter into a reciprocal relationship of gratitude and generosity. We can begin to repair these mistakes by the way we work.

Dreams are one of the most important sources of guidance available. Signs from the natural world are another: weather patterns; the appearance or disappearance of particular animals, such as elephants or certain fish or birds; the color of the moon, the shapes of the clouds – all these things are messages in the language of nature and the spirit world. It is our responsibility to learn to listen and understand this language.

It is deeply disrespectful to give people money, advice, tools or other material goods as a handout. This kind of ‘aid’ is actually an insidious form of disempowerment because it places the donor in a ‘one up’ position and the recipients in the ‘one down’ position, assuming that the recipients have nothing to offer when just the opposite is true. Therefore, it is important to ask communities and individuals what kind of exchange would be fair: What do they need? What can they offer in return? And what can people do for themselves? In the wake of Ebola, as in the wake of a natural disaster, terrorism or war, one of the keys to healing is to mourn fully and deeply. The pain and frustration of unexpressed grief will often burst out in the form of domestic violence, armed robbery, drug and alcohol abuse, high-risk sex, cruelty to animals and children, destruction of nature, and military aggression. We are seeing this all over the world. In the Liberian context, the beautiful traditional Mourning Feasts bring communities together to grieve and make peace, and to properly honor the dead so that the living can turn their attention to building a future. 

Then we must ensure a reliable long-term supply of food and water. There are many tools, including Permaculture; seed saving and exchanges; holistic management; earthworks, strategic planting and rainwater catchment for drought protection, and reforestation. Accelerated deforestation and aggressive mining have devastated rainforests and wetlands everywhere, and many communities are experiencing droughts, floods and severe winds as a result.    

And so the work of repair begins again and continues. The ideas for our efforts can and should come directly out of dreams, natural signs and community councils. We can continue to heal as nature does: from the edges toward the center.