How Climate Change Leads to Violent Conflict Around the World

Apr 25, 2017 by


Drought, desertification and deforestation are some of the climactic phenomena that have led to environmental racism and violence in postcolonial regions.


People prepare plastic containers to collect water at a refugee camp in Juba, South Sudan in 2012.
Photo Credit: Vlad Karavaev/Shutterstock

The following excerpt is from Razmig Keucheyan’s new book, Nature Is a Battlefield:Towards a Political Ecology(Polity Books, 2017)

Without doubt, ecological inequalities in general and, in particular, environmental racism, take on their most acute form in the postcolonial context. In a column published in the Washington Post in June 2007 the UN general secretary Ban Ki-Moon stated that the fighting in Darfur was linked to climatic pressures: “It is no accident,” he declared, “that the violence in Darfur erupted during the drought.” Like all postcolonial conflicts, this war resulted from numerous intertwined factors, but Ban Ki-Moon was at least right to say that the ecology of the conflict is of decisive importance for understanding how it broke out and then went on to unfold. More precisely, we could say that political ecology provides the most adequate viewpoint for understanding the dynamic of the factors involved.

In recent years, the war in Darfur has been the object of a public awareness campaign such as few African conflicts have previously enjoyed. An international coalition called Save Darfur, bringing together dozens of churches and other organizations, has since 2004 campaigned for an end to the ‘genocide’ and for intervention by the international community. Co-founded by public figures like Elie Wiesel  and the ineffable George Clooney, the coalition’s French branch includes supporters such as Bernard-Henri Lévy, Patrick Poivre d’Arvor and Bernard Kouchner. This conflict is usually presented as one opposing ‘Arabs’ to ‘Africans,’ with the former portrayed as Muslims having come from the North or from outside the country who commit the bulk of the abuses, as against the ‘Africans’ native to this region of Western Sudan covering approximately one-fifth of the country’s territory. The dividing line between the two groups is therefore essentially perceived as being ethnic and religious in character.

The reality could hardly be more different from this media representation. In fact most of the protagonists in this conflict are Muslims and all have the same skin colour. To put that more pointedly, it is impossible to distinguish between two ‘ethnic groups’ on the basis of these criteria. Even just twenty years ago the very idea of ‘Arabs’ and ‘Africans’ would have been incomprehensible to the inhabitants of Darfur. The perception of this war in Western countries since it broke out in 2003—or more accurately, since it became more aggravated; in fact there had already been conflicts before this date, particularly in 1987-89—is very much over-determined by the ‘global war on terror’ that has been underway since the 11 September 2001 attacks. The war on terror has imposed a certain interpretative framework on all conflicts in the region, founded on categories like ‘Muslims,’ ‘Arabs,’ ‘Islamists,’ ‘terrorists’ and so on. In this global war, the Khartoum government—held responsible for this situation—is a designated enemy of Washington; and President Omar al-Bashir does evidently bear some responsibility for the massacres and, in particular, for arming the Janjawid militias. Yet the conflict resists these interpretative assumptions: and in any case, not all the Janjawid are ‘Arabs’ and it is far from the case that all the ‘Arabs’ belong to these militias.

Darfur is made up of different clans. Some of them are nomads while others are settled, and this distinction is crucial for understanding the social structure of this region. For a long time the coexistence of these two groups took place without major clashes, with the settled farmers of the Fur clan (Darfur means ‘House of the Fur’ in Arabic, with the Fur being the region’s main ethnic group) allowing the nomads and, in particular, the Baggara  tribe, to graze livestock on their land. However, starting in the 1970s, a series of extreme climatic phenomena upset the existing arrangements. The Sahel now fell victim to terrible droughts, in particular between 1982 and 1985. Deforestation accelerated, with 600,000 hectares of forest lost each year between 1990 and 2000. Desertification, the erosion of the soil and sharply declining rainfall led to reduced agricultural production. At the same time as water became more scarce, the population of Darfur increased, from 1.1 million inhabitants in 1956 to 7.5 million in 2008.

These climatic phenomena are forcing the groups on the ground to adapt, in a context in which resources are becoming increasingly scarce. The forests and pasture-lands accessible to the nomads are shrinking; all the more so given that the farmers, who are themselves under pressure, are now hostile to giving them access to their properties. This in turn drives the nomads to take up permanent abodes. The tensions over ever-less productive land multiply. And we can understand what follows from this.

Extra-environmental factors have also radicalized the con- flict. Like the east and south of Sudan, Darfur is a historically poor region that has long been denied a share in the country’s power and wealth, which are principally concentrated around Khartoum. Add to this the fact that numerous conflicts during the Cold War made weapons readily available in Africa, thus allowing the warring forces to arm themselves. Moreover, Darfur shares a border with Chad, a country that has been in an almost constant state of civil war since the 1960s and which also fought a foreign war with Gaddafi’s Libya. Indeed, Gaddafi initially trained and armed the Janjawid militias.

The result was a conflict that led to between 300,000 and 500,000 deaths, as well as 2.5 million refugees. Some estimates set the number of fatalities lower, at around 150,000. Whatever the case may be, military violence proper is responsible for only 25 percent of these deaths, with the illness and malnutrition resulting from population displacements and the current living conditions accounting for the remainder of the total.

These numbers do not alone explain the attention that this war has garnered in Western countries. By comparison, the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo claimed some five million victims from 1990 onward (all different causes of death included), without this stirring George Clooney to action. Women particularly fell victim to the violence in Darfur—as is often the case in the context of the ‘new wars’ that we discuss in Chapter 3. In the sexual division of labour that currently exists in the region, women are responsible for procuring water; but with desertification and declining rain- fall, they have to travel ever greater distances to get to it, which makes them all the more exposed to violence from men.46 It is very often the case that men cannot leave the refugee camps, for fear of being considered combatants and killed—and as such, women are effectively compelled to take on an increasing share of these responsibilities.

The people whom the Western media call ‘Arabs’ are most often former nomads, while ‘Africans’ refers to the settled tribes. The Muslim presence in the region goes back to the eighth century—that is, the very first decades of Islam’s expansion. The idea that the Darfur conflict is the result of outsider Muslim Arabs’ intrusion into a region that had up till then remained ethno-religiously ‘pure’ is therefore a false one.

Of course, there could be no question of arguing that the ‘ethnic’ dimension of the conflict is purely a media invention. Ethnic groups certainly do exist in Darfur, and for a simple reason: the British colonizers invented them. There was a sultanate in Darfur from the mid seventeenth century onward, but in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the British took possession of the region, with the colonial period in Sudan lasting from 1916 to 1956. The incoming British established a system of land property rights, attributing por- tions of land to certain ethnicities and not others. On the one hand, this system allowed them to control the local populations, after the tribes of Darfur had determinedly opposed British conquest. Moreover, it allowed the British to profit from the region economically, particularly by way of taxation. An early crystallization of these ‘ethnic groups’ took place on the basis of landed property (and, therefore, on a class basis), as British colonialism gave rise to an opposition between the settlers and the nomads, with those who were attributed land henceforth being opposed to the others. The current conflict is the ultimate result of this property system. Such approaches were commonplace among imperialists at the time, in what Mahmood Mamdani has called the strategy of ‘re-define and rule.’ Indeed, the opposition between the Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda has a similar genealogy.

The sociologist Harald Welzer has said that Darfur is one of those ‘conflicts that have ecological causes’ and yet ‘are perceived as ethnic conflicts.’ As we have seen, this was also Ban Ki-moon’s view, expressed in his Washington Post column in 2007. Given what we have observed thus far, we can say that they are simultaneously both correct and mistaken. They are wrong because ethnic groups are the object of a long history in Darfur, going back to the colonial period; and over time, this has made them into a reality. Their mode of existence is historical, and we have to understand this history if we are to grasp the current conflict. At the same time, however, they are also correct, insofar as over the last half-century this colonial and postcolonial history has collided with extreme climatic phenomena, which has led to an intensifying crystallization of ethnic identities.

Razmig Keucheyan teaches sociology at the University of Paris IV-Sorbonne.

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