Global Policy Forum

How Much Is Ecology to Blame for Darfur Crisis?


By Lydia Polgreen

New York Times
July 22, 2007

The announcement by researchers at Boston University last week that an underground lake the size of Lake Erie had been discovered beneath the barren soil of northern Darfur, a blood-soaked but otherwise parched region of Sudan wracked by war for the past four years, was greeted by rapturous hopes. Could this apparent discovery bring deliverance from a cataclysmic conflict that has killed at least 200,000 people and pushed more than 2.5 million from their homes? That hope is built upon an argument, advanced by a U.N. report released last month and an opinion article in The Washington Post by Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary-general, that environmental degradation and the symptoms of a warming planet are at the root of the Darfur crisis.

"There is a very strong link between land degradation, desertification and conflict in Darfur," said the U.N. Environmental Program report, which noted that rainfall in northern Darfur has decreased by a third in the last 80 years. "Exponential population growth and related environmental stress have created the conditions for conflicts to be triggered and sustained by political, tribal or ethnic differences," the report said, adding that Darfur "can be considered a tragic example of the social breakdown that can result from ecological collapse." The idea that more water — unearthed through a thousand wells sunk into the underground lake — could neatly defuse the crisis is seductive. Messy African conflicts, from Congo to Liberia, from northern Uganda to Angola, seem to become hopelessly more complex as they drag on, year after agonizing year. A scientific explanation for environmental degradation gratifies the modern humanitarian impulse.

Humans play a role, too

But the history of Sudan, a grim chronicle of civil war, famine, coups and despotism, gives ample reason to be skeptical. "Like all resources, water can be used for good or ill," said Alex de Waal, a scholar who has studied the impact of climate variation in Sudan and who witnessed the 1984-85 famine that is often cited as the beginning of the ecological crisis gripping Darfur. The droughts that gripped Sudan in the 1980s, and the migrations and other social changes they forced, have doubtless played a role in the conflict by increasing competition for water and land between herders, many of whom are Arabs, and farmers, who tend to be non-Arab. But an environmental catastrophe cannot become a violent cataclysm without a powerful human hand to guide it in that direction.

"These wider environmental factors don't have impact in and of themselves" in terms of fomenting conflict, de Waal said. "The question is how they are managed." In fact, while different regions and social groups suffer severely, Sudan as a whole has riches to spare, in oil, fertile soil, and even water.

Policies promote plight

Successive Sudanese governments and their colonial precursors have adopted agricultural policies that have almost inevitably led to conflict. They have favored large mechanized farms and complex irrigation schemes, controlled by the government and its allies, over the small rain-fed farms that are the backbone of the rural economy in much of Sudan.

In eastern Sudan, where a rebellion has been brewing for years, the Beja people have nursed grievances since Britain and Egypt ruled Sudan jointly during the first half of the 20th century. Under their rule, irrigation programs for commercial farming deprived the Beja of their prime grazing land.

Some Sudanese have even been pushed off their land entirely. In the early 1990s the Nuba people were forced into "peace villages," where they provided a steady supply of cheap, captive labor to mechanized farms. In other areas, including parts of Darfur, intensive mechanized farming by the government and investors left large tracts barren. A vast new agricultural scheme in a largely uninhabited swath of northern Darfur is more likely to fit into this destructive pattern than not, said John Prendergast, a founder of the Enough Project.

"Climate change and the lack of rain are much less important than the land-use patterns promoted by the government of Sudan and the development policies of World Bank and IMF, which were focused on intensive agricultural expansion that really mined the soils and left a lot of land unusable," said Prendergast, who has been studying Sudan for 20 years. "That was probably the principal impetus for a lot of intra-Darfur migration in the decades leading up to the conflict in Darfur."

During those years, the government exploited tensions over water and land to achieve its own aims, putting down a rebellion among the non-Arab tribes, who rose up because they wanted a greater share of Sudan's wealth and power. It armed tribal militias to fight the rebels, and these militias unleashed a tide of violence.

A report released last year by the Coalition for International Justice on the role that oil and mechanized farming have played in human rights abuses in Sudan concluded: "The predominant root of conflict in Sudan is the instability that results from the systemic abuse of the rural (and recently urbanized) poor at the hands of the economic and political elites of central Sudan."

In this analysis, the heart of the Darfur conflict, as in all conflicts in Sudan, is the battle for control of resources and riches, but not between farmers and herders, northerners and southerners, Christians and Muslims, or Arabs and non-Arabs.

More Information on the Security Council
More Information on Sudan
More Information on the Dark Side of Natural Resources In Conflict
More Information on Water In Conflict


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