Transborder, or transboundary, conservation can be loosely defined as the subset of international relations focusing on particular international borders and border regions. To some degree, the word transboundary appears to have become more preponderant than transborder in the environmental literature, and two commonly heard phrases are “transboundary natural resource management” and “transboundary ecosystem management.” The semantic differences between these terms is negligible, however, and perhaps the best reason to favor transborder conservation is because some commentators and policymakers have begun to apply transboundary more broadly to interactions between subnational units—for example, between two Australian states or even two bordering government agencies (e.g., the U.S. National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service).
To understand exactly what distinguishes transborder issues from global and international issues, take an example from the world of international trade and finance. Whereas U.S. monetary policy for resolving the Mexican peso crisis is not a transborder issue, the efficient shipment of goods from Mexico to the United States is. Similarly, greenhouse gas emissions that lead to climate change constitute a global rather than transborder problem, but mercury emissions from an industrial facility that directly affect a neighboring state downwind do constitute a transborder problem.
Applying transborder, however, is often less straightforward, as exemplified in an attempt to juxtapose it to two major multilateral biodiversity conventions. First, the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) imposes trade restrictions without reference to particular geographic borders—yet much of the enforcement of CITES occurs at border checkpoints. Second, the text of the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) never refers to transborder issues, yet the promotion of transboundary protected areas is now included in its “Programme of Work on Protected Areas.” Thus, although these global conventions generally do not focus of particular borders, each one no doubt has a transborder aspect to it. The same holds true in regard to several higher-level international institutions—including the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the European Community (EC), and the UN Economic Commission for Europe—all of which by the late 1970s had at least proposed some form of transborder conservation activity. Ultimately, it should come as no surprise that the topic has been adopted at such a broad scale; after all, at the heart of the subject lie roughly 220,000 kilometers (136,400 miles)—or five and a half Earth equators’ worth—of international borders.
There are transboundary aspects to a large number of environmental issues, including water conflicts, air pollution, migratory species, and transborder landscapes and ecosystems. In the first case, the longest-standing, most well-recognized, and most contentious transborder issue has been over water. Fierce disputes over the quantity and quality of transborder water flows lie at the root of the burgeoning fields of “environmental security” and “environmental peacekeeping.” To resolve these disputes, diplomats and scholars have developed a somewhat convoluted web of international legal principles around the subject of international watercourses—which is the phrase that scholars use to signify the various forms of transborder water resources that include rivers, lakes, and even groundwater. Today, across a minimum of 261 international river basins worldwide, there are approximately 300 international treaties that aim to avoid conflicts over water. However, only a few of those treaties have attempted to go beyond the settlement of disputes over water rights toward the protection of either water quality or aquatic biodiversity.
Although not engendering the high level of conflict over water rights, transborder air pollution problems have been a topic of many international disputes. A notable early instance occurred between Canada and the U.S. over a large lead and zinc smelter located near the border in the Canadian town of Trail, in which the two countries submitted the case to an international tribunal in the 1930s. More recently, most European countries have agreed to the 1979 Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution, which has led to the passage of eight protocols that limit emissions on a wide range of transborder pollutants.
Migratory species range over vast territories and multiple borders, and helped to usher in what one historian has described as the “dawn of conservation diplomacy.” European efforts to protect an international flyway began as early as 1868, when an assembly of German farmers appealed to the Austrian and Hungarian foreign minister to join “other states in concluding an international agreement” for the protection of agriculturally beneficial birds. This effort eventually led to the 1902 International Convention for the Protection of Birds Useful to Agriculture (the treaty was generally considered ineffective since Italy—a critical flyway to and from the Mediterranean—never signed on). Across the Atlantic, the 1916 Migratory Bird Treaty called for an end to the hunting of certain taxonomic families of bird species, and was ratified by Canada in 1917 and the United States the following year. In 1936, the Treaty was effectively extended to Mexico under the U.S.-Mexico Convention for the Protection of Migratory Birds and Game Mammals. Currently, the broadest multilateral treaty in this arena is the 1979 Bonn Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), which focuses on protecting in-country habitats that are imperiled by land-use change and has several affiliated treaties such as those on migratory European bats, Eurasian waterbirds and cetaceans in the Baltic and North Seas and Black and Mediterranean Seas.
A fourth form of transborder conservation is the protection of geographic habitats that cross international borders. To counter the inevitable conflicts along these borders, diplomats and conservationists have long advocated the idea of international “peace parks” and “transboundary protected areas”.
- Blatter, Joachim and Helen M. Ingram, eds. 2001. Reflections on water: New approaches to transboundary conflicts and cooperation. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. ISBN: 0262522845
- Chester, Charles C. 2006. Conservation across borders: Biodiversity in an interdependent world. Washington, D.C.: Island Press. [Note: This entry in the Encyclopedia is adapted from this book; extensive parenthetical references can be found therein.] ISBN: 1559636114
- Secretariat of the Convention on Migratory Species. 2004. 25 years of journeys: A special report to mark the silver anniversary of the Bonn Convention on Migratory Species (1979–2004). Bonn: United Nations Environment Program.
- Bratspies, Rebecca M. and Russell A. Miller, eds. 2006. Transboundary harm in international law: Lessons from the Trail Smelter arbitration. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN: 0521856434