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.