"Land degradation is a root cause of migration and a trigger of conflicts", says Monique Barbut, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. In the interview, she explains the links between environmental change and violent conflict in Africa. Concrete examples such as the "Great Green Wall" raise hope that conflicts over scarce resources can be successfully addressed and that degraded landscapes can be restored through collaborative efforts.
What are the links between land degradation and conflict?
Land degradation is a root cause of migration and a trigger of conflicts. The link is particularly clear in Africa where we are witnessing the collision of opposite trends: on one side, a demographic explosion and, on the other, the degradation of land. More than a quarter of the continent may become unproductive. These trends are alarming considering that up to 80% of the people rely on natural resources for their survival and that one-third of the population in the continent is already living in drought-prone regions.
Land degradation is a driver of instability in three main ways:
First, when more land is demanded to feed the increasing population, less land is available. As a result the competition over access to resources will increase. Over the last 60 years, between 40 and 60 % of internal armed conflicts in Africa have been linked to natural resources. The pressure is also compounded by the nature of land tenure systems: only 5% of individual properties are listed, as such, in administrative land registers.
Second, 50 million farmers occupy less than 2 hectares. When the land is not enough for the whole family, the first to leave are the young people. Youth unemployment amplifies the risk of radicalization. Extremist groups capitalize on this sense of hopelessness and take advantage of cross-border mobility and abandoned natural resources to increase their base and procure resources independently.
Third, a downside of massive outmigration from rural areas is land abandonment. Abandoned lands and natural resources become, in some cases, a base for the expansion of non-state actors. Natural resources have contributed to the onset or financing of conflict in at least 14 fragile states in the continent.
Can you give concrete examples and how to address them?
Initiatives like the Great Green Wall are proving to be a ribbon of hope in the Sahel, one of the regions that are most affected by conflicts over scarce resources. Huge progress has been made in restoring vast swathes of degraded land since the initiative was launched nearly a decade ago. For example, Ethiopia has restored 15 million hectares of land and Senegal has planted 12 million drought-resistant trees. This has been crucial in creating thousands of jobs in rural areas, boosting food security for millions of families and providing a compelling reason to stay for vulnerable youths thinking of migrating across the Sahara desert and onwards to Europe in search of a better life.
On the 16th November, at the 1st African Action Summit in Marrakech, the African Heads of State endorsed the Triple S initiative on “Sustainability, Stability and Security”. Through this initiative, the African governments have decided to integrate natural resource management into security strategies and migration policy and address the impacts of land degradation on vulnerable communities by adopting drought early warning systems; develop concrete policies and incentives to promote a positive cycle of green growth, including the creation of green jobs and the promotion of investment opportunities for migrants and returnees; strengthen land tenure; track new pastoralist routes to prevent the emergence of tensions over natural resources.
The interview was conducted by Stella Schaller (adelphi).