Posted by: sean | July 22, 2007

Darfur and the environment

I still haven’t read UNEP’s report on Darfur (pdf), due to a lack of time (it’s 358 pages) and a lot of other lengthy reading on my plate these days. I have, however, followed some of the press coverage, which makes it sound like the genocide in Darfur is the result of purely ecological factors, including desertification, water shortages and global warming. As it happens, I’ve worked with UNEP on a publication before, and I’m inclined to believe that their report is a lot more nuanced than the press coverage gives it credit for. But I’ll have to save that final judgement for when I have the time to sit down and read it.

In any case, the fact that environmental concerns and competition for resources places a part in conflict is an obvious point, it’s how much of an impact these concerns have that is at issue. Lydia Polgreen, whose coverage of Sudan in the Times has been very good, has a piece in this week’s Week in Review that takes a quick look at the underground lake recently discovered in Darfur. She quotes Alex de Waal and John Prendergast, both of whom know a lot about Sudan, in order to illustrate her point that it’s less the ecological strain that’s to fault for conflict in Sudan and more how that problem is dealt with:

A scientific explanation for the problem (environmental degradation) along with a tidy technological solution (irrigation) gratifies the modern humanitarian impulse.

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. “It can be a blessing or also a curse. If the government acts true to form and tries to create some sort of oasis in the desert and control who settles there, that would simply be an extension of the crisis, not a solution.”

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 farmers, who tend to be non-Arab, and herders, many of whom are Arabs. 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, Mr. de Waal said. “The question is how they are managed.”


“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 I.M.F., which were focused on intensive agricultural expansion that really mined the soils and left a lot of land unusable,” said Mr. 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.”

She then goes on to make a point that I’ve been harping on for a while now:

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.

It is a conflict between those at the center of the country, the elites who have controlled Sudan and its wealth for the past century and a half, and the desperately poor people who beg for scraps from the periphery.

Until that equation changes, many analysts argue, nothing else will.


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