Is Climate Change the Culprit for Darfur?

Is climate change the culprit for the disaster in Darfur? The answer is not simple. In this posting I argue that climatic and environmental factors have compelled Darfurians to adapt their livelihoods and migrate southwards. These changes have been going on for centuries, but over the last thirty years, they have occurred at a faster pace and on a larger scale. But depleted natural resources and livelihood transformations cannot on their own account for conflict, let alone armed conflict. The most important culprit for violence in Darfur is government, which not only failed to utilize local and central institutions to address the problems of environmental stress in Darfur, but actually worsened the situation through its militarized, crisis management interventions whenever political disputes have arisen. In turn, violent conflict has worsened Darfur’s ecological crisis. For many reasons, Darfur cannot now be reconstituted the way it was. What’s needed is a new governance of Darfur that takes account of the challenges of the coming century—including the impact of future climate change.

In an article published on June 15, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon provocatively identified climate change as an underlying cause of the disaster in Darfur. The UN Environment Programme’s assessment (published last week) is, "there is a very strong link between land degradation, desertification and conflict in Darfur. Northern Darfur—where exponential population growth and related environmental stress have created the conditions for conflicts to be triggered and sustained by political, tribal or ethnic differences—can be considered a tragic example of the social breakdown that can result from ecological collapse." Others see Darfur as an augur of crises to come: a bleak future of people fighting for survival over dwindling resources across the globe. In April this year the UN Security Council held its first-ever debate on climate change as a global security issue, and the ambassador of Denmark cited Darfur as an example of a conflict driven by resource shortages. These claims have enough truth to be interesting. But they run the danger of oversimplifying Darfur, and therefore need to be investigated carefully.

The main source that Ban Ki-Moon cites is an article by Stephen Faris in April’s Atlantic Monthly. In turn Faris’s article draws heavily on my experiences researching drought and famine in Darfur in the 1980s. In fact Faris opens by referring to my November 5, 1985 meeting with Sheikh Hilal Mohamed Abdalla in the nomadic settlement of Aamo in North Darfur, during which the elderly and ailing chief of the Mahamid Rizeigat complained about the ecological changes that were ravaging his homeland, and how they were upsetting the social balance between his own camel-herding people and the sedentary Fur and Tunjur farmers.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the famine of 1984-5 and the associated social dislocation are important events in Darfur’s recent history and are intertwined with the region’s subsequent descent into war and violent land-grabbing. But we need to identify the different strands of possible cause and effect. Let’s break the question down into four different hypotheses:

1. Man-made climate change caused drought and ecological degradation.
2. Drought and ecological change caused famine in 1984-85.
3. The 1984-85 famine caused the subsequent conflict.
4. Drought and ecological change directly caused conflict.

1. Climate change caused drought and ecological degradation

The proximate cause of the 1984-85 famine was an exceptionally severe two-year drought. That is not in dispute. The question of whether these were the principal causes will be addressed under hypothesis 2. Under this section I ask the questions: what caused the drought? Or, to be precise, was the drought part of a longer-term pattern or a new phenomenon associated with recent global warming?

The 1983-5 drought was an anomalous climatic fluctuation, also the extreme manifestation of a cyclical pattern of alternating dry and wet years (the third such low since 1900), and lastly a symptom of a long-term drying out of the Sahara and Sahel. During the 20th century, each wetter period was less wet than the previous and each dry period drier. Archeological evidence shows that the region has been slowly drying out over centuries, and in the days when travel into the desert regions was much easier than today, a visitor could observe rock paintings of giraffes and rhinos in areas that are now completely barren, and see the remains of ancient palaces and terraced cultivation in areas now too dry to support life. The Zaghawa have a saying that "the world dies from the north," referring to the long desiccation of their desert-edge homeland and their southward search for greener pastures.

Have these climatic patterns altered—and has the drying out of the Sahelian region accelerated—because of recent global warming? The data for Darfur are meager—they start only in 1917 and many rainfall monitoring stations have been non-operational since the 1980s. The data for next door Kordofan are longer and better, but still insufficient to prove the point one way or the other. Looking at the whole of the Sahel, climate scientists will be able to provide better-informed answers. Their conclusions will be significant not only because of the historical record of Darfur but also because it could make Darfur an augur for changes to come in other parts of the world.

An associated phenomenon is ecological change due to changing patterns of land use. Throughout most of the 20th century, African land use planners held it as axiomatic that savanna cultivators and herders were destroying the natural environment on which they depended for their livelihoods. It was argued that the ranges were overstocked with animals and farmers were extending dryland cultivation into areas that were unsuitable, causing desertification. Population growth was driving both activities. In the 1980s, this received wisdom was challenged—for a pathbreaking reassessment see Melissa Leach and Robin Mearns’ The Lie of the Land—by research that showed that African smallholders’ and herders’ stewardship of the land was in fact much more sustainable than had been supposed, and that many administrative measures introduced to try to stop ecological damage were in fact counterproductive. This is an important riposte to strongly-held views that still regard traditional land management practices as damaging. One general implication of these findings is that environmental dessication may be driven more by climate than by human activity—providing a reason to sympathize with the climate change hypothesis.

But anyone who has seen the circle of dessication that spreads out from each town in Darfur, as the forests are felled for firewood, will recognize that human activity has also damaged the Darfurian environment. It is continuing to do so as millions of displaced people depend upon wood for fuel and housing. This destruction is more a consequence of dislocation and displacement than a cause of it—it’s an indicator of how the current crisis is putting further strain on the environment. The reconstruction of Darfurian villages after the conflict has been resolved will put further strains on the region’s wood supply.

One fact is indisputable: climatic and environmental changes have a much bigger human impact than in the past, because Darfur is home to many more people. At independence in 1956, the population was 1.3 million. Today it is over 6 million.

2. Drought and ecological change caused the famine

The droughts of 1983 and 1984 caused a precipitous drop in food production in Darfur, especially the northern areas. This food production collapse followed years of declining yields associated with environmental degradation. There’s an attractive deterministic logic here: Darfur’s natural resources have the capacity to support only a finite number of people, and lower productivity due to a combination of drought and desertification plunged the region below that critical threshold. This is a version of environmental Malthusianism, of a kind fashionable in the 1970s, which holds that regions such as Darfur are "overpopulated" and therefore will inevitably succumb to demographic disaster.

This argument has a simple empirical refutation. The Malthusian argument holds that famine is a natural corrective to overpopulation. The facts of the matter are that the 1984-85 famine killed about 100,000 people from a population of 3.2 million. There were also about 100,000 fewer children born during this period. This deficit of 200,000 people was made up within two years and by 2003 the population had doubled to about 6 million. Similarly, the 200,000 or so deaths during the conflict in 2003-05, even with a reduced birth rate, represent a demographic loss that will rapidly be overcome due to natural increase.

In 2002, the last year before full-scale conflict, the 6 million Darfurians were poor and often food insecure, but few of them were starving. The reason for famine in 1984-85 and food insecurity subsequently was technological: farmers did not apply efficient fertilizers and utilize small-scale irrigation. This was not through ignorance. Darfur’s farmers have a remarkable entrepreneurial spirit. James Morton’s study of Darfur documents examples of how rapidly Darfur farmers adopt new crops, new fertilizers and new irrigation techniques. But they need either public sector investment to make these inputs cheap and reliable, or good markets to ensure sufficient returns. In the 1980s, Darfur was deprived of both: roads were so bad and fuel prices so high that the cost of transport meant that it simply wasn’t worthwhile to produce more than could be sold locally. The economic incentives simply did not exist to expand production. But we should also be aware that the successful adoption of new technologies—such as diesel pump irrigation—can fuel conflict, because it brings more land under cultivation which in turn can deny herders access to water and grazing.

If technology and market access are held constant, then drought and desertification can cause food crisis and famine. But in 1980s Sudan, the situation was often worse. Government policy and the activities of traders and commercial farmers closely associated with the ruling elites meant that rural people were often deprived of the meager assets that they possessed. There is a rich seam of Sudanese social and political science that documents and analyzes the way in which the economic depredations of traders and commercial farmers were creating famine. Writers such as Mohamed Salih stressed how the alienation of land from smallholders by absentee landowners who set up mechanized farms, created a combination of local impoverishment, ecological degradation, and deep resentment that in turn fuelled banditry and insurrection. Land and livelihoods were the focal point for a life-and-death struggle between a predatory state and its citizenry. Pointing to the decades-long deprivation of pasture and farmland from pastoralists and farmers in eastern Sudan and Kordofan, Mohamed Salih attributed the famine to these causes. The profiteering of moneylenders and the sharp price differentials between rural markets and urban markets squeezed rural people hard. Worst of all, a handful of major grain merchants sought to profit from speculating in the cereal market in 1985-85, withholding stocks from sale until the price climbed high.

Darfur, however, lay beyond the frontier of mechanized farming and was not the scene of significant land alienation for commercial farming—this explanation for the famine could not hold there. Rather, the economic neglect of Darfur led to the region being exploited as a labor reserve for central Sudan, leaving Darfurian villages impoverished. Market-based exploitation also occurred—for example a cow sold for less than 60 Sudanese pounds in a village in central-west Darfur would fetch more than three times that price in a major Darfurian town and almost twelve times that price in Omdurman. For Darfurians, the main problem was not their forcible integration into a commercial economy, but the weakness of the market infrastructure.

Also critical was the politics of the response—or non-response to the famine. President Jaafar Nimeiri held that it was beneath his pride to admit that the Sudanese people were going hungry. A state has a fundamental obligation to protect the lives of its people, and for 100,000 people in Darfur and comparable numbers in Kordofan and the Red Sea Hills, the state dismally failed in that basic task in 1984-85. The scandal of Nimeiri’s refusal to acknowledge the famine was one of the reasons why the citizens of Sudan rose up in a non-violent popular uprising in April 1985 and brought down his dictatorship. Strictly speaking, the government policy did not cause the famine—it allowed the famine to proceed without response, which is just as morally repugnant.

In Famine that Kills, I reviewed much of this evidence and also drew on the views of the ordinary people of Darfur, to argue that while the underlying causes of the famine were impoverishment associated with neglect, alongside the inadequacies of existing technology and marketing infrastructure, the immediate cause of the famine was drought compounded by the government’s denial that a problem existed.

3. Famine caused conflict

The famine of 1984-85 both accentuated and altered the social, economic and political changes at work in Darfur. When I conducted my research into the famine during 1985-87, I was first struck by the astonishing resilience and survival skills of the Darfur people. Predictions of mortality of between 500,000-2 million, confidently forwarded by aid agencies, were confounded. Despite the fact that very little relief aid arrived in time, the death toll was actually 100,000—terrible but much lower than feared. As I spent more and more time examining what had happened, I realized that it was an error to define a famine in terms of mass starvation. Famine was a social experience as well as a biological process, and the nature and outcome of the famine were determined by how the people of Darfur responded to the crisis they faced.

I ultimately came to a definition of famine drawn from the experience of the Darfurian people: famine is the threat of mass mortality to a way of life. Darfurians’ main struggle in 1984-85 was to sustain decent livelihoods (as farmers, herders, artisans, and commonly a mixture of the three), and to sustain their communities and social values. They succeeded far better than any outsider expected. But Darfurian society bore a terrible cost from those efforts. We can analyze this in terms of loss of capital—both productive capital and social capital.

The extent of impoverishment was vast. In particular, many farmers and herders lost their livestock—assets that would take decades to replace. Young men from pastoral groups found themselves in the frustrating and demeaning position of having to work as hired herders or wage laborers or try to find a plot of land to farm. The economic incentives for violence are evident. However, when we look at the violence that actually broke out, it was always mediated by other factors—chiefly political. In the dry season of 1985-86 there was large-scale raiding by the Murahaliin militia, drawn from the Baggara tribes of southeast Darfur and south Kordofan, across the internal boundary into Southern Sudan. The primary purpose was to attack populations seen as sympathetic to the SPLA. The major incentive was economic: huge numbers of cattle were raided and sold for profit in the markets of Darfur, Kordofan and Omdurman. There is no doubt that poor Baggara men found this attractive. However these raids were no spontaneous response to drought and impoverishment. They were organized and armed by the government’s military intelligence, whose chiefs toured the area in July 1985 to provide weaponry and coordination. Also, the Darfurian raiders did not try to occupy the lands of the Dinka (though some of their Kordofan militia comrades did so in Abyei).

Two years later, when the Janjawiid militia first appeared in Darfur (originating as a coalition of a Chadian militia and their Sudanese hosts), military intelligence did not need to distribute arms—the Libyans had already done that—but it did turn a blind eye. Many of those involved in the raids of 1987-88 were impoverished Abbala men from communities hard hit by the 1984 drought. They were not nomads so much as failed nomads. On their own, they would not have been capable of inflicting such organized violence. It was their contact with Chadian militia, for whom pillage had become a way of life since the mid-1970s, that created the Janjawiid phenomenon.

More generally, the aftermath of the famine, coinciding with an influx of automatic weapons from Libya and Chad, contributed to an enormous upsurge in banditry. For many young men, livelihoods became criminalized. We lack studies of the identity of the armed bandits who have plagued Darfur for the last two decades but it is fair to assume that they include demobilized soldiers and militiamen from the Chadian wars and impoverished failed nomads.

The loss of social capital was equally devastating and less appreciated at the time. This ranged from a collapse of faith in the government to the sundering of marriage ties as men abandoned their wives to seek work in the towns or central Sudan. The migration and dispersal of populations, albeit mostly temporary, undermined the status of village sheikhs and local administrators. The longer-term resettlement of desert-edge communities in the wetter areas of Southern Darfur involved a reconfiguration of authority structures, in which merchants and moneylenders took over the position formerly enjoyed by sheikhs. A line of credit from a trader or shopkeeper was more important than the blessing of a village elder in taking hold of a piece of land. The further south the settlers ventured, the more the social structures changed to ones of entrepreneurial clientism. The forest-edge settlements of Legediba and al Amud al Akhdar were settled by Zaghawa migrants in this way, six hundred miles from their original homes. (The Zaghawa living in these areas were burned out in August 2006.)

This administrative vacuum had already been created by the abolition of the Native Administration system in 1971 and the failure of people’s councils and salaried local government officers to step into the shoes of the sheikhs, omdas and paramount chiefs they supposedly replaced. This vacuum was first seen on the southern marches of Darfur in 1985-86, where the ending of annual inter-tribal conferences between Rizeigat and Dinka in the 1970s made it possible for the first raiders to cross into Bahr el Ghazal with impunity. As conflicts erupted in central Darfur two years later, the Native Administration found itself too weak to contain the problem. The 1989 al Fashir conference that brought to an end that round of fighting was led by tribal notables from all sides, but these men were unable to bring a decisive end to the conflict, because they lacked the means to enforce the provisions of the agreement. Only the government and its coercive apparatus (police and army) could have ensured that compensation was paid and land rights respected, but the government failed to do this, both through lack of will and lack of capacity. When the SPLA invaded South Darfur in December 1991, it was not the army and police that defeated the incursion, but the tribal militia of the Beni Halba, known as Fursan. From that date, the idea that the government might prefer an impartial administration to militia vigilantism was a vain hope.

Both economically and socio-politically, the famine accentuated changes that were already under way. As mentioned above, longer livestock migration and competition for grazing during the famine led to some clashes between pastoralist groups and between them and farmers. But the more significant impact was that the loss of productive assets by young failed nomads and the continuing decline of the only workable administrative system in Darfur left the region more vulnerable to conflict.

4. Climate change directly caused conflict

A final version of the hypothesis is that climate change directly caused conflict, chiefly by inducing new patterns of migration and land use. This is distinguished from the hypothesis that climate change caused famine, by the absence of an intermediary element of impoverishment and hunger.

In Darfur, the strongest case for this argument would be that groups affected by declining rainfall migrated to other, wetter areas of the region and thereby sparked conflict. The motive for that migration may have been fear of impoverishment and famine, but it was not a consequence of actual famine. It is the adaptation to actual or impending climatic change that is the key factor. Thus for example, some wealthier Arab camel nomads ranged further south with their herds not because they were poor and threatened but because they wanted to take advantage of the southward retreat of the tsetse fly belt and the opening up of new grazing lands. Similarly, the 1970s and ’80s witnessed a large-scale resettlement of Zaghawa from the far north in eastern and southern Darfur. This migration took place principally during better rainfall years and actually declined during the famine. The migrants were less poor and more entrepreneurial than the distress migrants who moved south during the famine.

This transformation of livelihoods and land use occurred on a scale that had no precedent in Darfur’s history, simply because the population is now so much higher than in the past. Any changes on this scale are bound to cause disputes and conflicts—these are inevitable in any dynamic society.

There is a prima facie case in support of this hypothesis. The geographical contours of the Darfur conflict since 2003 have followed, in part, the migration patterns of Abbala Arabs and Zaghawa. Much of the violence and displacement in central and western Darfur in 2001-03 occurred in locations where camel nomads were pushing further south. The list of flashpoints in eastern and southern Darfur where violence and displacement erupted in 2004-06 is very similar to the spread of Zaghawa settlement locations.

However, two considerations argue against a simple cause-and-effect link to the violent conflict of the last few years. One is delay: the initial southward migration occurred more than thirty ago, but large-scale violence only erupted much more recently. What happened was that the migration placed ethnically distinct populations in close proximity and in circumstances that were likely to give rise to competing claims over land and indigeneity. Back in 1986 I noted that the question of who owns the land around Legediba was a matter of acrimonious dispute—a statement that was equally valid for any number of Zaghawa settlement sites in eastern and southern Darfur. The arguments were bitter, but it took many more years before they became violent. The factors that led to violence were the combination of political manipulation and the militarization of rural administration.

The second consideration is that a second and distinct migration was instrumental in both sparking and shaping the violence. This was the migration into Darfur of Chadian Arabs and other nomadic Arab groups from further west. (This phenomenon is continuing with documented accounts of tens of thousands of Chadian and west African Arabs settling in Darfur, and, it is rumored, registering to vote.) The first Darfur wars (1987-89 and 1994-98) were directly caused by major influxes of camel herders from Chad. Well-armed and usually not respectful of Darfurian traditions and authorities, these groups were responsible for much of the herder-farmer violence. They arrived for political reasons, not ecological or climatic ones. Today, we hear many displaced community leaders in Darfur argue that while they could find ways of living together with the historic Darfurian Arabs, they will find it very difficult to do so with the newcomers

The reason why migration led to violence was bad government. Successive governments had undermined the only workable local administrative and judicial system, the so-called Native Administration, but replaced it with a vacuum. Each crisis was managed not by creating impartial state structures but by supporting militia to control Darfur by force of arms, thereby exacerbating the problem. As mentioned, many of these militia were not of Sudanese origin. What Darfur needed from the 1970s onwards was a form of governance that could manage the stresses arising from Darfurians’ adaptation to their changing environment. It needed institutions to prevent and manage conflict, to ensure the effective stewardship of natural resources, and to ensure that resources for development were equitably and sustainably utilized. What Darfur experienced was, on the contrary, successive governments that showed no interest in the welfare of the people and which instead tried simply to squash perceived security threats through manipulation and repression.


The climate change hypothesis is sufficiently plausible to be attractive. There is no doubt that drought—a climatic phenomenon—was a major reason for famine in the 1980s and that in turn famine was a significant factor in the death of the old order in Darfur. As Sudanese environmental scientists have long asserted, there’s an ecological disaster happening in Darfur. But beyond that, the causal links are complicated:

"¢ The argument for a causal relationship between man-made climate change and the 1983-5 drought is unproven. (I stand to be corrected by climate scientists on this point.)
"¢ Drought and environmental degradation led to a food production shortfall only because Darfur was denied economic development and the opportunities for Darfurians to utilize the productive resources of the region more effectively.
"¢ Food crisis only led to famine because of governmental neglect.
"¢ Darfurians showed extraordinary skill and resilience in surviving the famine of 1984-85, but at the cost of drawing down their reserves of productive and social capital. Impoverishment and the undermining of community authority left Darfur vulnerable to conflict sparked by other factors.
"¢ Drought and environmental degradation caused migration and livelihood changes, creating actual and latent disputes that later became the focus of armed conflict.
"¢ In all cases, significant violent conflict erupted because of political factors, particularly the propensity of the Sudan government to respond to local problems by supporting militia groups as proxies to suppress any signs of resistance. Drought, famine and the social disruptions they brought about made it easier for the government to pursue this strategy.

In summary, Ban Ki-Moon’s linking of climate change and the Darfur crisis is simplistic. Climate change causes livelihood change, which in turn causes disputes. Social institutions can handle these conflicts and settle them in a non-violent manner—it is mismanagement and militarization that cause war and massacre. The UN Secretary General is absolutely correct that a political settlement is necessary for Darfur. Then the really tough work begins—re-stitching Darfur’s torn social fabric for the challenges of the coming century, including the challenge of rebuilding livelihoods and communities in the face of climate change.

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21 thoughts on “Is Climate Change the Culprit for Darfur?

  1. Here are some initial thoughts on question #1 that Alex de Waal is asking. It is one of two on top of my TO DO list, the other being what is future climate change going to be like in the Sahel. No one can conclusively answer either at this time. I’ll give two reasons for why the answer could be yes, and then the caveats that prevent me from saying yes conclusively:

    1) the prolonged drying of the Sahel of the 1970s and 1980s is associated with warming of the global tropical oceans (Giannini et al in Science 2003, with comment by Kerr in Science). So, to the exent that it is reasonable to infer that the warming of the oceans is a result of the enhanced greenhouse gas effect, as discussed recently (Levitus, Barnett…), then if the drying of the Sahel is associated with warming, it is indirectly associated with anthropogenic greenhouse gases.

    The problem here is that climate scientists are still squabbling about what the actual pattern of sea surface temperature change that results in Sahel drying is. Some argue that it’s the warming of the tropical oceans, and a physical argument akin to that made for El Nino can be made that relates warming of the oceans to drying of continents. Others emphasize the relative warming of the South Atlantic compared to the North, and its effect on the location of the Intertropical Convergence Zone. To complicate matters further, the fact that the North Atlantic has not warmed up as much as the South, and the northern hemisphere oceans in general not as much as the southern hemisphere oceans, may very well be related to aerosols – anthropogenic aerosols, also from pollution due to industrialization (not dust being blown from the Sahara/Sahel).

    Another mistifying issue with the pattern of sea surface temperature change related to the drying of the Sahel is the fact that warming has continued, but the rains in many parts of the Sahel (though possibly not Darfur), have at least partially recovered since the mid-1980s.

    2) a majority of models used in preparation of the 4th assessment report of the IPCC, which is due out at the end of the year, actually do reproduce drier conditions at the end of the 20th century in the Sahel. This is from work led by a colleague of mine here at Lamont, Michela Biasutti (Biasutti and Giannini 2006). We compared the last 25 years of the simulation of the 20th century with forcings, anthropogenic and natural, to long control simulations without any forcings (or rather only with fixed solar forcing, otherwise there would be no climate here on Earth!) In a majority of models, the Sahel is consistently drier.

    Caveats: many models don’t only include anthropogenic forcings in their simulation of 20th century climate, and once they are run with anthropogenic and natural forcings together, it becomes impossible to separate the two strains.

    Also, many climate scientists, especially observationalists, are not satisfied with the level of fidelity with which models reproduce features of the observed climate.

  2. Alex’s analysis is a really helpful re-framing of the conflict-climate change issue. It is too easy and glib to attribute all problems to climate change, and in the long run could be very counter-productive. It’s important to get the right analysis not only for reasons of research integrity, but also because the wrong analysis leads to the wrong steps being taken. In the case of Darfur, it makes no sense to deny the enormously important longstanding tensions and political struggles between different groups working at local, regional and national level, as well as the international dimensions. The devastating droughts clearly played an important part in impoverishing many households, and rendering destitute young men who then turned to other ways to make a living and survive, such as through arming themselves and fighting and banditry. Here there are some parallels with Sierra Leone and the economy of conflict and war that grows up. Young men may have little interest in returning their arms and losing the power they confer. Yes – climate change will certainly bring much difficulty and damage to societies, their economies and ecosystems, but its vital to recognize the role of history, politics and institutions in understanding current conflicts.

  3. I agree. Environmental factors certainly cannot explain the level of atrocities committed in Darfur.

    Social Psychologists have defined aggression as either instrumental or hostile. Instrumental aggression is impersonal and strategic. It’s business. Hostile aggression is hateful. A mugger that beats a man on the street demonstrates instrumental aggression. He doesn’t care about his victim-he cares about his money. Harming the target (victim) is a means to the end of taking his money. Hostile aggression is when the aggressor intends to harm someone for the sole purpose of harming them. Obviously the two are not mutually exclusive. If climate change was the root of the crisis in Darfur, we would only see instrumental aggression. The Janjiweed however has clearly shown hostile aggression. In other words, they have an interest beyond just manipulating or getting something from their victims, demonstrated by the atrocious nature of their attacks.

    Lt. Col Dave Grossman, (1995) a former military psychologist, documents with strong evidence a history of human resitance to killing. In “On Killing: the Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society” Grossman cites laboratory psychology experiments as well as historical evidence from wars (including World War II, the US Gulf War, the US-Vietnam War, the US-Korean War, the 6-day Arab-Israeli war) describing how even soldiers trained to kill have resisted, consciously or unconsciously, from carrying out their duties.

    Grossman cites one study showing that 98% of survivors (within the study) of 60 days or more of continuous battle became psychiatric casualties. In other words, 98% of those survivors were psychological incapacitated-unable to function as soldiers because of on-the-job stress. This doesn’t seem hard to believe if we attribute this stress to fear of death. Interestingly enough later studies suggest that fear of dying is NOT the highest stress factor in battle (eg. Berkun, 1958; Shalit, 1988). As humans we have an innate resistance to killing our own species. This plays a key role in battle stress (along with other primary factors such as not disappointing comrades)

    People with an antisocial personality do not have to worry about this psychological barrier to killing-they feel no guilt. They will only restrain themselves in self-interest.

    Antisocial personalities are too rare to make up entire armies. Genocide isn’t mainly committed by people with an antisocial personality. Instead, several mental and physical mechanisms enable perpetrators of genocide.

    Distance and dehumanization (among other factors such as obedience, group think, diffusion of responsibility and others) are key enablers for killing, especially in modern warfare. Killing is not nearly as difficult if done with a button from the view of a radar screen. For example, it can be much less traumatic for someone to press a button (dropping a bomb over a village) from 10,000 feet than it is to look even one victim in the eyes.

    While the Sudanese government has sophisticated-enough technology for its military to use a physical distance to dehumanize their victims, the militias they contract (Janjiweed) most certainly do not have that technology. They see their victims.

    In order for humans to do what the Janjiweed has done, they have to dehumanize their victims through emotional distancing. In most genocides, the perpetrators pick some arbitrary distinction between them and their enemies that (in their minds) justifies their acts. The Nazis were able to separate themselves (mentally) from their victims by dehumanizing them as non-Aryan. How does the Janjiweed dehumanize Darfurians, many of whom they share both religion and race?

    Environmental changes can be a factor in Darfur. Climate and the subsequent migration of groups could be a motivation for the government hiring militias (instrumental aggression). The nature of Janjiweed attacks however are more than instrumental. Attackers want to hurt their victims. With intermarriage that has blurred the line between African and Arab, the Janjiweeds’ ability to dehumanise their victims (with whom they share a common religion) is particularly puzzling.

  4. To clarify my point:

    Climate change can be a provocation but the mental dehumanization required for the Janjiweed do to what they have done to Darfurians cannot be attributed to land rights alone. That hostility must be addressed before we can hope for sustaining peace.

  5. Alex, what are your thoughts on the underground lake discovery? According to the BBC, the BU researchers who make the discover report its size is that of Lake Erie.

    Clearly, the claim of “may end Darfur war” is overstated. However, do you feel this takes out the climate change factor? Obviously, climate change has added tension and consequent fighting that is now independent of its original source and thus will not dissolve per result of an improved water situation.

  6. Reconstruction of Social Infrastructure: The First Task

    Alex de Waal’s recognition of government as a culprit for the armed violence in Darfur is not only completely accurate, but also refreshing. While the environmental conditions and depleted natural resources obviously present issues and challenges that require immediate attention and action, it is the government that provides the basis for such action and should be the focus of adaptation in itself. The situation in Darfur is so often oversimplified and analogous relationships between climate change, degradation, and conflict are much too quickly concluded. By constructing such quick conclusions and therefore narrowing strategies and recommendations, climate change is often cited as the sole reason for degradation and conflict and is therefore the only focus in assembling models for recovery. This, in turn, ignores the fact that other variables may be present in the equation, such as human interaction and its effect upon both degradation and violence. Although climate change may present an opponent that many find overwhelming, the issues within human interaction are those that can be addressed and improved by social institutions. While climate change is no doubt an intimidating adversary, social conflicts must be recognized as an additional variable and therefore present an opportunity for optimism. These disputes can be easily settled and solved non-violently, but it is the government that must undergo remodeling to do so. We must begin rebuilding from the inside of Darfur and its government and social infrastructure before we can successfully address the larger and more daunting challenges presented by climate change. Consequently, when possible solutions are suggested – such as the employment of the underground lake for water reserves – we can be confident that such recommendations create advances rather than catalysts for even more conflict and violence.

  7. Alex de Waal does a nice job of showing how climate change can indirectly cause and exacerbate problems such as food shortage and famine, but that there are specific social causes that play a much bigger role in allowing the problem to get out of hand. While it is a good thing to be aware of climate change and acknowledge its effects on the world and it inhabitants, these days it seems that people can be overly sensitive toward climate change and are quick to blame global warming for many of their problems. It makes sense that the patterns and practices of humans will cause changes in their environment, forcing them to alter their habits and possibly relocate to new locations where they may find themselves in closer company with greatly varying communities and groups of people; and, it also makes sense that having a large influx of people into new areas that are already inhabitated by others will inevitably cause tension and possible conflict. But what is so confounding and counter-intuitive is the way the government deals with this conflict by using military and force, making the situation all the worse, with no apparent concern for a reasonable and peaceful solution to the tensions between groups. While it is necessary to take steps to reduce human impact on climate and environment, it is imperative and more pressing to address and improve the social tragedies and mistreatment that is being allowed to continue.

  8. The cause of armed conflict in any part of the world is not something that can reduced to just one factor. Climate change could be a factor causing conflict but it is intertwined with many other issues. These issues being economic marginalization, not having access to fair markets, food and resource scarcity, migration, racism, powerful militias, gun trade, and government neglect.
    I believe to solve any problem you must be able to see the whole picture. Some of the development programs put in place to help pastoralists be more sustainable ended up being counterproductive because the ecologists took too many assumptions. They assumed the pastoralists were destroying the land by overgrazing. However the pastoralists must know at least a little about sustaining because they have survived all these years. This is a great example of not realizing the whole picture and therefore wasting time, efforts, and money on failed projects.
    In the case of the conflict in Darfur, any solution must be discussed in terms of how it would help each of the social, political, economic, and environmental factors that have contributed to the war. Most importantly if the country is ever going to thrive the government must care about the welfare of its people and prove it through action. Therefore any attempt to resolve this situation must have the cooperation of the government.

  9. Alex de Waal does a great job analyzing the issues in Darfur and relating them to environmental change, specifically the change in climate. It is refreshing to see a point of view where it is analyzed from a different viewpoint. Environmental struggles such as drought and lack of resources can lead to stress and tension on the people living in the area. It seems easy to forget that these tensions combated with lack of government influence can lead to anger, violence, and war. I don’t believe that you can simply look at Darfur and give one reason why the genocide is happening. You can’t look at any troublesome situation for that matter and sum up the problem with one issue. Many factors contribute to Darfurs troubles, however, it is important to keep in mind that a great majority of it results from environmental change; a important issue that seems to be forgotten in the overwhelming issue.

  10. While I do agree that climate change has had a major impact on life in Darfur, I do not feel that climate change can be held singularly responsible for the events that have taken place in Darfur. In my opinion the climate change lead to a drought that caused famine just as had been seen in 1984-85. Because of the starvation many people moved from the drier northern part of Darfur to the wetter southern part. With a large amount of people moving to new areas where they encounter people with different beliefs and ways of life would inevitably lead to tension between different peoples.
    From here on the problem is not the climate change, it is the interactions and the sediments of the groups that are coming into closer contact with each other, and the failure of the government to act in the proper manner. After all climate change did not kill between 200,000 and 400,000 people and displace another 2,500,000. The crisis in Darfur began because of a government that failed to properly recognize all of it citizens as being equal. The Darfur region needed help because of the environmental situation and instead of sending aid the Sudanese government sent bombs.
    The climate change has had a major effect on the planet, including Darfur. But the main problem in Darfur is not the climate. It is the intolerance of people who see others as different. Until there is an ideological change the primary focus for fixing Darfur cannot be placed on the climate but rather on the people.

  11. By identifying the government as the culprit in Darfur, Alex de Waal does a good job of bringing the focus back to where it should be: on the people involved. Climate change does not have to lead to conflict. While climate change can be a catalyst, the interests and reactions of the people involved are what drives conflict. Simply blaming the situation on climate change fails to recognize the conscious decisions made in reaction to the situation. I think this focus on the government is critical for improving conditions. Improved resource management would certainly aid in alleviating a source of conflict, but in order to obtain lasting improvement, the change needs to be in the people that are involved in the decision making process. The government must first take responsibility for its people and its actions in order for improvements in resource management to actually improve the safety and security of the people there. Otherwise, any number of things could simply spark the conflict again.

    I also think another important area for consideration is the social environment changes. Alex de Waal discusses the idea that increasing populations can mean that the environment has the potential for a greater human impact. The people in this area are having to adjust to changing livelihoods, changing environments, and moving to new areas with unfamiliar crowds. Improving understanding and interactions between groups is critical.

    Ignoring climate change and land degradation would be a grave error, but ignoring the social and political conditions of a situation would be even worse. There is certainly a need for resource management improvements, but the people who control the government and resources in an area are a more important focus for immediate resolution. Only after the political and social situation improves can we hope to see lasting progress.

  12. Alex de Waal presents a evaluation of explanations provided to help understand the crisis in Darfur. He shows these through a series of cause and effect relationships, which illustrate the great complexity of the situation. However, he also includes a very compelling argument about the lack of authority in Darfur, which I agree with . One situation presented in the text where government should have stepped in, is during the crisis of famine. During famine, not only does peoples lives hang in the balance, but also economic assets. There needs to be structure provided from the government so the citizens can access the means to get back on track, after this extent of devastation. Not to mention the more obvious notion that the problem itself should be recognized in the first place. For a population in the millions to be effected by complex factors such as climate change, ecological degradation, and famine, and recover without a productive and supportive system of government in place, is a pretty outrageous feat to overcome. It is also an outrageous concept to pinpoint the crisis in Darfur down to a solitary means. Alex de Wall indicates some veracious circumstances that could generate an eruption of conflict in Darfur.

  13. As the world becomes more and more aware of the crisis situation in Darfur, it seems that the forces at work there become more complex and, ironically, over-simplified. Thus, Alex de Waal’s “Is Climate Change the Culprit for Darfur” offers a new framework for viewing violence there, questioning the mainstream view that environmental factors are the main cause of problems. de Waal rightly asserts that “the famine of 1984-5 and the associated social dislocation are important events in Darfur’s recent history and are intertwined with the region’s subsequent descent into war and violent land-grabbing.” However, he acknowledges the complexity surrounding the workings of society, and importantly, the state’s role in those workings, and examines possible strands of cause and effect. Refuting the oft-cited Malthusian belief that famine is a natural population check, de Waal shows how Darfurians were actually poor and food insecure, arguing that the lack of governmental assistance for farm technology was the larger role in the famine. Also, he importantly recognizes the adaptability and “remarkable entrepreneurial spirit” of Darfurians, an image lost on Western media’s portrayal of the region and African pastoralists in general. de Waal also points to the lack of good markets and access, also stemming from governmental inadequacies, as a cause of Darfurian farmers’ poor response in helping with food insecurity. The lack of governmental acknowledgment of famine also played a significant part in worsening of the famine, which coupled with the previously mentioned causes, is closer linked to the problem than general environment and climate change arguments. Significantly, de Waal is raising the cognizance of the world looking in on Darfur for a reason, clamoring for an increased recognition of the complex variables at play in the region, which if nothing else, can lead to greater understanding of the conflict, and hopefully better responses to affect change.

  14. Alex de Waal was correct in identifying oversimplification as a risk associated with analyzing the situation in Darfur. This mistake applies to many other instances of human conflict, either with other humans or with the environment. More often than not, researchers study a particular situation and ultimately conclude that causation may be attributed to any number of forces. In rare cases where scholars maintain that a particular situation was caused by a single force, their colleagues are quick to criticize, their argument often being that the original analysis was too simplistic and did not take into account this factor or that.
    As Tad Homer-Dixon stated in his response to Alex, “policy makers want to know which factor is most important so they can determine where to invest their resources”, and they depend on social and political scientists to provide them with such information. However, if researchers are spending time debating how simple or complex a particular situation actually is, then the people for whom the effort is supposed to be made are in reality not receiving help any sooner. It seems that if experts began to realize that complexity is inevitable and instead concentrated their efforts on identifying solutions which could be applied to multiple avenues of causation, then perhaps relief efforts would prove to be more time- and cost-effective in the future.

  15. While a multitude of factors in this conflict can be cited for causal link—a complexity that is difficult to sort and classify by distinctly individual causes, Alex de Waal’s recognition of social institutions’ role is significant. De Waal identifies that “Social institutions can handle these conflicts and settle them in a non-violent manner” and the failure to react properly in the case of Sudan. This factor alone may be fundamental to understanding how the conflict can be resolved on the short scale. However, the failure of institutions to react to change is only a proximate cause. The many underlying factors, such as the impact of climate change, need to be fully understood in order to properly prepare institutions to identify those factors and deal with them. The underlying factors themselves need to be addressed directly as well, not simply dealt with through institutional adaptation, which can only act with limited speed and effectiveness. Analyses like Alex de Waal’s are critical to understanding this complexity of interaction so that future action can be decided.

    Also, in response to Thomas O’Brien’s Post of July 5, 2007:

    This was a very enlightening reply that brings to light the many divergent factors necessary for a full understanding of the “how” and “why” in social conflict. While a psychological understanding of the atrocities does not necessarily provide an argument for innate causality, it is important to understanding how the involved groups have allowed the situation to escalate to such violence.

    O’Brien recognizes that the Janjiweed and Darfurians share both religion and race to a large extent, both of which are common means of emotional distancing by dehumanization. The important sentence in this line of thought, however, is this: “In most genocides, the perpetrators pick some arbitrary distinction between them and their enemies that (in their minds) justifies their acts.” As long as there is some arbitrary distinction, not necessarily race or religion that can separate the two groups, killing can be justified by dehumanization. The violence labeled as genocide in Rwanda was based on mainly arbitrary distinction that the perpetrators of the violence deemed worthy of dehumanization, possibly in large part because the leaders that incited violence had reason to use the arbitrary distinction in their favor.

    Having said that, I wonder if the Janjiweed could not be explained as performers instrumental violence after all. Do hired mercenaries necessarily commit hostile aggression? O’Brien identifies other important factors that are enablers of killing beyond dehumanization and distance—including diffusion of responsibility, such as the diffusion from a hired militia to its employer (Janjiweed to the government)—which can act on groups to justify instrumental violence. Both explanations offer some explanation of how conflict arose.

  16. I think that something as complicated as the conflict in Darfur cannot be linked to a single cause (climate change). However, I do believe that climate change plays a major role in this conflict. De Waal gives a pretty good argument in my opinion as to how this is. He first states that “man-made climate change caused drought and ecological degradation” (“Is Climate Change the Culprit for Darfur?” page 1). Although this sounds quite logical, he states that there is not enough evidence to link this ‘man-made climate change’ to global warming. The necessary data to prove his statement was just not there. However the fact is that the climate has changed, and degradation and overpopulation have occurred. This leads into his next step where “drought and ecological change caused famine in 1984-85” (page 1). De Waal continues with this thought by saying that farmers and the government were not using the form of technology needed to prevent this occurrence, which is greatly criticized by Homer-Dixon in his response article. He states that “Alex argues that the absence of something… caused an event. But something that doesn’t exist- or never happened- can’t be a cause” (“Cause and Effect” page 2). I can understand how Homer-Dixon wants a real reason or event that caused this tragedy- not a lack of something. De Waal then links the famine to conflict which wraps up his theory that climate change leads to violence in Darfur. My concluding opinion is that de Waal’s argument on how climate change creates conflict in Darfur is believable; however it is necessary to hold not just one factor accountable, but the many other causes (land degradation, unsophisticated technology, overpopulation, government, etc) as large reasons for the conflict in Darfur.

  17. Whether climate change is responsible for the violence in Darfur I think is summed up very well by De Waal; not simple. In my opinion climate change can play a key role in conflict. We see that often, climate change can lead to resource scarcity. This resource scarcity can then in turn lead to conflict. Rather than just a cause and effect model, there are many variables that trigger the events leading up to conflict. Homer-Dixon does a good job of summarizing in the “Cause and Effect” post stating that “We’ve learned from this research that additive models of causation are rarely valid in complex ecological-human systems. Causation is almost always multiplicative (or, in the jargon of social scientists, interactive).” I feel that this comment is very powerful in understanding the link between climate and violence in Darfur. It was not a cause and effect relationship but yet a multi-variable link in which all variables influenced one another.
    To analyze De Wall’s 4th bullet in “Is Climate Change the Culprit for Darfur?” I feel he raises a valid point arguing against a cause-and-effect relationship between climate change and conflict. The time delay in migration and conflict, historic tensions between Chadian and West African Arabs as well as poor government in Darfur are all mentioned to contribute. When combined with the variable of climate change multiple levels of complexion arise. In conclusion I feel that climate change is a part of but not solely responsible for the conflict in Darfur.

  18. One can not deny that fact that climate change is responsible for the violence occurring in Darfur. Alex de Waal explains how environmental factors compelled Darfurians to adapt their livelihoods and migrate. Following these migrations, raiders would move into the areas that were previously habited. These raiders caused a great controversy over land rights. Mr. De Waal also wrote about the drought that occurred during 1984 and 1985, along with the effects that followed. He discussed a Malthusian theory that explained why more than 100,000 people perished due to famine. De Waal felt farmers needed either public sector investments to make their inputs cheap and reliable or have a market that was in good standing, in order to ensure their investments were sufficiently returned.

    Mr. De Waal argues, on the other hand, that the lack of government involvement was the most important factor in the causation of violence. The government failed erect land rights following the climate change that caused the people to initially migrate. The government also deprived the farmers following the drought, where items sold were of far less value than in other regions. Many of these factors created resentment that fueled banditry and insurrection.

    I do, however, agree with Thomas Homer-Dixon on that fact that these causes are multiplicative, as opposed to additive. Alex de Waal makes the argument that government involvement was the most important culprit to the violence. This argument is flawed in the sense that government participation would be unnecessary without other factors being present. Therefore, if one wanted to argue one cause being more important than another, wouldn’t the initial cause (climate change) be of greatest significance?

  19. In determining the cause of the violence in Darfur, I find myself agreeing with Alex de Waal in that it is much more complicated than simply climate change. It is indisputable that climate change led to the droughts in Darfur that resulted in mass migrations to the south, but as de Waal points out the sudden influx of people was not enough to result in conflict. In his fourth point, where he directly confronts the question of whether or not climate change caused the conflict in Darfur, he says how the initial migration only sparked at most “acrimonious disputes” over who controlled certain areas of land. De Waal then goes on to show that the lack of government intervention and a second migration of Chadian Arabs (who were regarded with more distrust than their Darfurian counterparts) were the true spark that was needed to start the conflict. In the end, I believe that it was a combination of social, political, and environmental factors that led to the conflict in Darfur and with regards to which was the main cause, I agree with Homer-Dixon in that one should try not to label one cause as the “most important” cause.

  20. De Waal’s article analyzes the complexity in Darfur that pushes us past the simplistic, conventional, Malthusian logic. I recently attended a lecture by an afro-arab Sudanese who argued that the creation of colonial nation-state model of Sudan created tension among the different groups because they did not collectively associate themselves as a homogeneous group. Neither he nor de Waal ascribe to the belief that ecological devastation is the primary suspect to violence. Instead, de Waal puts the blame on the failure of the government to take action to properly invest in technological inputs to adapt to the changing environment and to provide adequate market infrastructure. Government also failed to “step into the shoes of the sheikhs, omdas, and paramount chiefs” when social structures broke down due to massive migrations. Homer-Dixon made a compelling case that all factors, including the environment, share weight in causing the crisis. But he said that inaction by government could not be a cause. I agree with de Waal that “when government has a both history of acting and a responsibility to act, a non-action is a disruption to the system.”

  21. I agree with Alex de Waal that while climate change does have an effect on the problems in Darfur, it is not soley responsible for the outcomes. I also agree with Homer-Dixon (2007) when he says “in an AxBxC relationship, all causes are equally important” which to me means that one problem leads into another.
    As de Waal stated, research and information on climate change is very meager, so it would be difficult to believe that this was the sole reason for conflict. Because of the shift in climate, mobile pastoralists have had to move to new grazing lands. Rural villager’s herds were being sold for much less than their market value, resulting in famine that had no reponse from the government. The president had too much pride to admit to famine, which in turn, caused people to rise-up in revolt. A farmer’s herd can take years to replace, causing agravation amongst the farmers having to work for paid labor and joined militia forces in order to survive. Instead of coming up with a plausible, thought-out solution to the problems the government responded with military force and automatic weapons.
    Issues such as famine, poor governmental leadership and economic neglect, in addition to climate change, led to the horrific problems surrounding Darfur.

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