Both those who argue for and those who refute climate-conflict links draw on Darfur to support their case. New analysis of political bias behind the environmental narratives and their critiques adds much-needed nuance to our understanding of when drought is – and is not – relevant to the conflict.
Both those who argue for and those who refute climate-conflict links draw on Darfur to support their case. How come?
The Darfur crisis was the subject of widespread popular activism that overpowered the relatively limited contextual analysis. Darfur burst into popular public awareness around the time of the tenth anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, with op-eds like Samantha Power’s “Remember Rwanda but take action in Sudan”. Comparing Darfur to Rwanda, at the time of acute violence, commentators focussed on government agency for the violence and demanded that Khartoum should be held to account.
By contrast, others, seeking a more collaborative strategy in the aftermath of the worst violence, responded to Ban Ki Moon’s “A climate culprit in Darfur” op-ed, which advocated a strategy of constructive engagement with the government of Sudan. Ban’s follow up op-ed “What I saw in Darfur” was a clear call to address local conflict dynamics and establish an inclusive peace process.
This pattern has continued. Activists promoting a strategy that confronts the government about the violence focus on the national level of conflict between government forces and rebel groups. Conversely, actors promoting a strategy of political engagement at the national level draw attention to more complex issues within Darfur and the need to convene numerous actors in pursuit of peace.
The academic discourse around the impact of drought on the conflict is split along similar lines. Some writers point to the time lag between the droughts of the 1970s and 1980s and argue that this has no relevance for the major conflict in the 2000s. These writers make the important point that an environmental narrative should not be used to mask government culpability for the violence. Even so, their explanation of the conflict is inadequate, often entirely ignoring the violent political tensions within Darfur since the 1980s, to which the droughts certainly are relevant.
To understand the impact of drought on the timing of conflict, the war between 1987 and 1989 - known as the Arab-Fur war - is more relevant than the later outburst of violence in the early 2000s. The occurrence of droughts in the 1980s provided an opportunity for Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to stir up tensions that were already high, as people were coping with widespread livelihood deterioration. Gaddafi sent drought relief convoys to Darfur that also brought weapons and an aggressive ideology that polarised the herder-farmer conflicts along ethnic lines. In the aftermath of droughts, farmers had increased their enclosure of rangeland, threatening the livelihoods of transhumant herders. But the violence took place along ethnic lines, with these livelihood dynamics interwoven.
My paper in the Journal of East African Studies draws on such detailed historical understandings to avoid both of these simplistic narratives, as it investigates the complex interplay between livelihood and ethnic dynamics in the patterns of violence in Darfur. It examines links with higher-level political contests, and how the pattern of drought is – and isn’t – relevant to Darfur’s turbulent political history. The article draws attention to the need to understand the patterns of bias in statements about natural resources and conflict in order to establish a better basis to support peacebuilding initiatives.