Telling (and Showing) the Role of Energy Resources in Peacebuilding

October 30, 2013

By Meghan O'Neil

As one of the first blog posts for our team, Exploring the Intersection of Energy and Peace-Building through Film, I’m hoping this post will serve both as an introduction to a few of our project’s driving questions and ultimate goals and as a reflection on several of my own experiences working with the team thus far.

So, first things first: Who are we, and what are we doing? With the support of Bass Connections in Energy and the Franklin Humanities Institute’s Borderwork(s) Lab, our team is partnering with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to digitize and catalogue hundreds of hours of film from fieldwork conducted by UNEP’s Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch. This footage, which documents everything from environmental sampling and fieldwork, to community awareness meetings, to local training sessions, demonstrates the ways in which the international peacebuilding community has recognized the important role the environment plays in both sparking and perpetuating conflict and the steps organizations such as UNEP take to address both human and environmental concerns (and the linkages between them) in a post-conflict setting.

Coupling this exciting opportunity to view “insider” UNEP footage with research into both the intricacies of regional conflicts and the growing global concerns over environmental and natural resource security, our team is interested in exploring BOTH complex and politically fraught questions, such as:

  • What is the relationship between natural resources and conflict? (e.g., How are energy resources used to fund conflict and/or perpetuate regional instability?)
  • How can natural resources bring people together (politically, socially, economically, etc.) and be used in peace-building efforts?
  • What are the linkages between the environment and human health, livelihoods, and security?

…as well as more specific questions regarding UNEP’s assessment peacebuilding efforts in particular cases and regions, for example:

  • How does UNEP engage local communities in the assessment and peacebuilding process?
  • How does UNEP help diffuse or mediate tension or hostility amongst stakeholders, local organizations, ethnic groups, etc.?
  • How does UNEP ensure that communities are trained to continue remediation, development, and peace-building efforts once their team has moved on?

Though these are all incredibly interesting, complex, and timely questions, perhaps the most compelling and unique (and certainly the most challenging) aspect of our project is that the primary medium through which we will be considering and responding to these questions is film. In digitizing and logging UNEP’s extensive footage, we will not be looking to generate policy recommendations or journal articles (though these may, of course, be byproducts), but to discover and create compelling, innovative, and educational ways to TELL STORIES about the role natural resources, especially energy resources, play both in initiating and perpetuating conflict and in supporting sustainable peacebuilding efforts. Though we aren’t quite sure what our ultimate products will look like, we know we will be building educational films that address these issues.

So, for example, one of our educational films may be directed toward the sustainability (or “greening”) of the assessment process, itself. This type of film could help UNEP team members to understand the nuances of the region being assessed and the ways in which they can monitor and assess their own impact on scarce or contested natural resources and fragile local ecologies. In contrast, a region-specific film may use UNEP footage as well as interviews to detail the ways in which UNEP successfully engages local communities in the assessment and peace-building process. Obviously at this early point in the project, we are still thinking about what’s possible (given the content and quality of the footage, the expertise of our team members, the availability of outside resources, etc.), but soon we’ll be deciding on specific messages and stories.

In addition to making films, we’re also hoping to tell stories using other digital tools, such as interactive timelines and maps. These will be incredibly useful in the research phase, but they’ll also become compelling final products, in themselves. For example, by creating a digital timeline of the discovery and development of the oil industry in the Niger Delta, our team (and those who later access this timeline on a website or in an archive) can better understand the complexities of the various drivers of the conflict and resultant environmental degradation that led to the convening of the environmental assessment in Ogoniland. This historical contextualization will help us further understand and analyze the footage taken during UNEP’s assessment, leading to a more nuanced and subtle film product in the long run.

This leads me to a short reflection… Contrary to what we may think, telling stories and working with film are not always easy or intuitive. Though I came to this project with some knowledge of documentary filmmaking and a background in literary studies (i.e. I thought I would immediately have a ton of ideas to contribute), the sheer amount of time and effort that needs to be put into simply watching and describing hundreds of hours of amateur video footage is incredible and often overwhelming. This is especially true if the film varies widely in terms of audio/visual quality and content (as ours does) and if there’s a learning curve regarding the state and regional policy and history of the regions assessed (as there was, at least for me). On the one hand, the learning curve made beginning the research process exciting and immediately rewarding.To me, the most fun thing about the project so far has been the research – gaining a nuanced understanding of a specific region and conflict, building my (environmental) policy vocabulary, and learning about global shifts in the understanding of the relationship between conflict and the environment. On the other, hand, however, the sheer scope of the footage as well as its varying quality and the fact that we have many sets of eyes who haven’t all watched the same things has made it tough to generate short-term goals and a tangible vision for a future films. This is what we’re working on now, however, and as we continue to log footage, conduct research, and begin to break into groups of regional experts and tease out the messages embedded in our films, I think we’ll figure out how to imaginatively use film and other digital tools to explore the fascinating questions surrounding natural resources, conflict, and peacebuilding.