VIEW: The land of no army —Saleem H Ali
Every year when I visit Costa Rica to lead a seminar on environmental conflict resolution, I encounter students from all over the world at the University for Peace who marvel at the ability of this nation to live without an army. Last year, there were three Pakistani students in attendance at the University who wistfully wondered if such a situation was ever possible in our own country
As archaeologists delve into the past to unearth the earliest indications of human civilisation, they usually search for weapons. Since time immemorial, human societies all over the world appear to have a natural proclivity for warfare and hence the need for armies and weapons. Such implements have not been used for subsistence hunting alone but rather for attacks. In his notable book ‘Constant Battles,’ Steven LeBlanc has dispelled any vestigial notion of a ‘noble savage’ by describing human pugnacity through the ages. The fundamental tension in fields such as political science also emanates from the divergence in assumptions about whether human beings have a natural proclivity for sustaining peace or an expansionary tendency that leads to conflict.
Despite the entrenched assumption that armies are essential, there is indeed a country with no army and it seems to be doing pretty well on all accounts. I am writing this article from the Central American country of Costa Rica, which has the distinction of being the world’s only country with no army (excluding city states such as the Vatican). It is for this reason that when the United Nations general assembly decided in 1980 to pass a resolution establishing a University for Peace, they chose to do so in Costa Rica. Remarkably, the absence of an army has not led to massive invasions of the country from any of its neighbours, Nicaragua and Panama, which have both endured military coups and civil conflict.
Costa Rica has been a bastion of peace and development for the region. Immigrants have flocked to its borders looking for employment and stability. Anarchy has not prevailed and Costa Ricans have admirably made the distinction between a need for civil order thorough a police force rather than an army that could play the security card and assume political power. The Costa Rican police force is well trained and able to maintain order, and with a stable government and a lack of postcolonial territorial stresses an army became irrelevant.
Every year when I visit Costa Rica to lead a seminar on environmental conflict resolution, I encounter students from all over the world at the University for Peace who marvel at the ability of this nation to live without an army. Last year, there were three Pakistani students in attendance at the University who wistfully wondered if such a situation was ever possible in our own country. As long as there is a disparity between the power and the expansionary ambitions or regional players, armies are likely to be a nefarious necessity in places such as Pakistan.
However, we should at least pause and savour the immense opportunity, which countries may have when they do not have to invest in weapons and warfare. Costa Rica has the highest literacy rate in Latin America of 96% and a life expectancy that rivals the United States. The government has also been instrumental in its efforts to promote peace regionally and its current president, Oscar Arias Sanchez (re-elected after being voted out of office for over a decade), won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his efforts to resolve the civil war in Guatemala. Costa Rica, consequently, also has the resources to protect its environment, unlike many of its neighbours. The country has pledged to have almost a fifth of its area designated as biosphere reserves and national parks. At the same time it has allowed pharmaceutical companies to search for medicinal plants and non-timber forest products in its rainforests, thereby allowing the conserved forests to generate economic opportunities. When considering ethno-botanical medicine, I am reminded of the tragic assassination of Hakim Saeed a few years ago in Pakistan, who had tried to have similar programmes in Pakistan.
There should be no illusions that Costa Rica is a land of milk and honey. It still has poverty in rural areas and there are growing concerns of inequality growing between the elite and the poor. There is also occasional corruption in some of the government ministries and apprehensions of government officials for indiscretions. While Pakistan can probably never emulate a no-army future because of its geopolitical position, we can at least consider more profoundly the price we pay for security. Perhaps what we should try to emulate from the Costa Rican model is the commitment to environmental conservation that is providing the country with tangible economic benefits.
For the sceptics who would relegate such efforts to small countries with unique circumstances, let us consider the case of China’s ‘Grain for Green’ programme that was launched in partnership with the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF). The programme has allowed for farmers who conserve the environment to be paid for this process through a fund created by a tax on polluting industries elsewhere in the country. By 2010, the programme aims to conserve 14 million hectares of cropland. . It is also important to note that the conserved land can still be productive for food crops as long as minimal environmental criteria are met.
Perhaps our army, which is so adept at producing everything from weapons to corn flakes, might also take on the charge of environmental protection. Establishing an Ecological Corps for our armed service might be a valuable contribution. At present, environmental conservation is only the domain of retired army officials who start NGOs or join societies such as the Alpine club to climb mountains. Such organisations are indeed valuable but environmental literacy should be an essential part of all military curricula in Pakistan. A silver lining to our enormous military expenditure just might be a more ecologically conscious and disciplined set of boots that are firmly grounded on the earth.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning and conflict resolution at the University of Vermont and a senior fellow at the United Nations mandated University for Peace. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org