ECC Platform Library


Barro Blanco Dam Conflict in Panama

Type of conflict main
Intensity 3
Central America
Time 2010 ‐ ongoing
Countries Panama
Resources Agricultural / Pastoral Land, Water
Conflict Summary The Barro Blanco hydroelectric project has been rejected by the communities of the Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous peoples and by environmental organizations. It is...
Barro Blanco Dam Conflict in Panama
The Barro Blanco hydroelectric project has been rejected by the communities of the Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous peoples and by environmental organizations. It is one of the 37 hydropower projects concessioned in this country, according to official data from the National Public Services Authority of Panama (ASEP, 2014) . Despite a lawsuit with the Supreme Court of Justice (2011), authorities have granted permits to continue project construction, considering it in the public interest and urgent. For the indigenous people, this violates their rights, by taking away their ancestral land for this project. The conflict is currently scaling up due to the judicial process in which indigenous leaders are being sued by the Generadora del Istmo S.A. building company (GENISA) for the violent actions taken in February 2014.
Conceptual Model

Intermediary Mechanisms

According to indigenous leaders, the project would directly affect 270 persons living near the Tabasará River basin. Another 3,000 people who depend on the river for various activities would also be indirectly affected.

Fragility and Conflict Risks

From 2010 to 2014, the construction of the project triggered a series of violent confrontations between the government and the Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous peoples. The GENISA company has also brought a criminal lawsuit against indigenous leaders after a violent protest ensued in February 2014.

Climate ChangeEnvironmental ChangeIntermediary MechanismsFragility and Conflict RisksSocial and Economic DriversInfrastructure development facilitates land use changes.Changes in land use lead to migration/displacements.Changes in land use reduce available/usable natural resources.Reduced availability of/access to natural resources undermines resource-dependent livelihoods.Problems related to migration/displacements lead to growing discontent with the state.Livelihood insecurity fuels grievances between groups.Livelihood insecurity leads to growing discontent with the state.Construction of major infrastructure, such as dams, canals or roads.Infrastructure DevelopmentA change in the usage of environmentally relevant land.Land Use Change(In)voluntary long and short-term movements of people within or across state boundaries.Displacements / MigrationGrowing scarcity of essential natural resources.Natural Resource ScarcityA threat or destruction of livelihoods dependent on the availability of environmental resources / goods.Livelihood InsecurityChallenge to the state's legitimacy, ranging from peaceful protest to violent attempts at overthrowing the government.Anti-State GrievancesNon-violent or violent tensions and conflicts between different societal groups.Grievances between Societal Groups
Context Factors
Conflict History

The Barro Blanco hydroelectric project is being built by the Generadora del Istmo S.A. company (GENISA) on the Tabasará River, Tolé district, in the eastern part of Chiriquí province in Panama. The construction gave rise in June 2010 to a series of violent confrontations between the national Government and the Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous peoples. This was triggered by approval of Law 30 of 2010 which reduced requirements for environmental impact studies in projects of this nature and eliminated citizen consultation. This provoked enormous opposition and discontent in broad societal sectors, above all among indigenous peoples, leading to demonstrations and violent protests.

Lack of public consultation
The project’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was challenged by the Environmental Advocacy Center (CIAM) in 2011 before the third division of the Supreme Court of Justice, for its lack of any appropriate public consultation with adjoining communities belonging to the Ngäbe Buglé territory. Indigenous leaders said the Barro Blanco reservoir would directly affect 270 persons living near the Tabasará River basin and another three thousand indirectly who depend on the river for various activities. From 2010 to 2014, the conflict’s mishandling has led to several violent crisis situations.

Discussion attempts
On 25 January 2012, when violence intensified, the government decided to set up a dialogue, and the indigenous party requested involvement of the United Nations Human Rights Rapporteur, along with other parties, as observers and guarantors of this process. The main focus of the discussion, centered on use of water resources in and around their territory reached no agreement. On 1 March 2012, there were new confrontations outside the National Assembly building between Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous people and internal security staff of the legislature, due to a demonstration demanding justice for the death of two comrades and the release of dozens of community members arrested in the violent actions in January and rejecting the hydropower projects pursued by the government.

The United Nations as facilitator
To resume dialogue, Ngäbe-Buglé representatives proposed a move to San Félix, whereas the government suggested moving the dialogue to the Catholic Church headquarters in the capital city. On 2 March 2012, the parties accepted the invitation by the Office of the Resident Coordinator of the UN in Panama to resume discussions at UN headquarters in Panama City. Further, the parties requested for the UN to facilitate the process.

Tensions remain
Despite the agreements and certain actions that were taken (see Conflict Resolution), in February 2014 the indigenous protested violently in “resistance” and disagreement with the negotiations over the Tabasará River basin. The GENISA S.A. building company brought a criminal-law suit against the leaders for jeopardizing the hydropower project’s construction machinery and trespassing on private property. Ngäbe leaders were summoned this November (2014) by the multi-discipline municipal judge of Mûna, and notified in a public ceremony held in the community of Alto Caballero. The public notification in their own community was perceived by the indigenous as “persecution” and they refused to appear to make statements.

Resolution Efforts

UN facilitator team
In 2012, the role of the UN in Panama as a facilitator entailed quickly organizing a team comprising the Office of the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Panama, the Representative for Central America of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and specialists from the Regional Democratic Dialogue Project of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Regional Center for Latin America and the Caribbean. This facilitator team also received support from the environmental team of the UNDP Regional Center and the country office, to advise them on technical issues and coordinate organization and logistics.

Dialogue meetings
Several dialogue meetings were held, resulting in the formation of two sub-groups to better focus on discussion topics: one to jointly draft a new Article 5 for Law 415 about mining concessions in the Ngäbe-Buglé land; and the other to review the Barro Blanco hydroelectric project. On 15 March 2012, the first group reached an agreement among the parties regarding an article that was submitted to the Assembly and unanimously approved. The other group reached a procedural agreement to jointly investigate in order to viably address the conflict over the Barro Blanco project.

UN acknowledgement of the lack of consultation
The group reviewing the hydroelectric project had experts conduct a technical study of the zone up to the altitude of 103 meters (the reservoir’s water line) around the indigenous territory. These specialists were engaged by the United Nations to contribute impartial information to the dialogue. In their report, they stated that “the failure to adequately conduct the consultation about the Barro Blanco project has created a situation of fear and extreme anxiety among local people. The direct and indirect impacts have not been clearly explained and certainly may affect the community, so they must be mitigated” (UNDP, 2013).

Dam construction shelved
The report backed the indigenous position, and they resumed pressure, holding sit-ins outside the project, to which the security forces responded to protect the facilities. By late 2014, construction was 64% complete and the GENISA Company has stated that they will abide strictly by the Constitution and the Law in continuing. The situation suddenly changed on February 10, 2015 as the National Environmental Authority (ANAM) of Panama temporarily shelved the construction of the dam for non-compliance with environmental and human rights (IC Magazine, 2015).

Intensities & Influences
conflict intensity scale
International / Geopolitical Intensity
Human Suffering

Environmental Influences
Societal Influences

Manifest Crisis
Violent Conflict Yes
Salience within nation National
Mass Displacement Less than 100.000 and less than 10% of the country's population are displaced within the country.
Cross Border Mass Displacement No
Agricultural / Pastoral Land, Water
Resolution Success
Reduction in Violence Violence has ceded completely.
Reduction in geographical scope The geographical scope of the conflict has decreased.
Increased capacity to address grievance in the future The capacity to address grievances in the future has increased.
Grievance Resolution Grievances have been mostly addressed.
Causal Attribution of Decrease in Conflict Intensity Conflict resolution strategies have been clearly responsible for the decrease in conflict intensity.
General opencollapse
Country Data in Comparison
ConflictNoData Created with Sketch.
Fault Lines Defining Conflict Parties
Purely Environmental | Cultural   ♦   Occupational   ♦   Economic   ♦   Urban / Rural   ♦   National / International conflict   ♦   Sub-national political

Participation Conflict Party     Conflict Resolution Facilitator
Generadora del Istmo S.A. (GENISA)
Functional GroupCommercial
Geographical ScaleInternal National
Panamanian Government
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleInternal National
Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous peoples
Functional GroupCivil Society
Geographical ScaleInternal Grassroots
Environmental Advocacy Center (CIAM)
Functional GroupCivil Society
Geographical ScaleInternal National
Panamanian Supreme Court of Justice
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleInternal National
Multi-discipline municipal judge of Mûna
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleInternal National
United Nations Resident Coordinator in Panama
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleExternal
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleExternal
United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleExternal
Panama´s Environmental Authority
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleInternal National
Entry Points for Resilience and Peace Building
3 Mediation & arbitration After indigenous leaders requested the involvement of the United Nations Human Rights Rapporteur in dialogue meetings in 2012, the UN in Panama organized a facilitator team. Several dialogues were held with moderate success. Specialists engaged by the UN conducted an impartial technical study that backed the position of indigenous groups by confirming that no consultations with affected communities were conducted. In 2015, the National Environmental Authority (ANAM) of Panama temporarily shelved the construction of the dam for non-compliance with environmental and human rights.
Further Details opencollapse
Conflict Characterization
Character of the contested good Private good: Can be owned and is depleted from use.
Broad conflict characterization Resource capture is not present.
Ecological marginalization is not present.
Data of involved Countries
Resources and Materials opencollapse


Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

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Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

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Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.


Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.


The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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