ECC Platform Library


Growing Land Scarcity and the Rwandan Genocide of 1994

Type of conflict
Intensity 4
Eastern Africa
Time 1994 ‐ 1994
Countries Rwanda
Resources Agricultural / Pastoral Land
Conflict Summary The causes of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda are manifold and controversially discussed. While acknowledging the importance of factors, such as colonial legacy,...
Growing Land Scarcity and the Rwandan Genocide of 1994
The causes of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda are manifold and controversially discussed. While acknowledging the importance of factors, such as colonial legacy, economic decline, structural adjustment policies, internal opposition to the government and the disengagement of the international community, there is a wide body of literature, which highlights the role of growing land scarcity in aggravating inter-ethnic tensions in Rwanda. Since 1994, the Rwandan government has achieved remarkable progress in security and human development. Yet, important social, environmental and economic challenges lie ahead.
Conceptual Model

Intermediary Mechanisms

The reduced supply of arable land led to rural poverty and food shortages. Government elites exploited the dissatisfaction of rural Hutu by blaming their Tutsi neighbours, and by exacerbating fears that returning Tutsi refugees, who had fled the country during the civil war, could claim their land back. Violence against Tutsi was further encouraged by the promise that land from killed Tutsi would be distributed to landless Hutu.

Fragility and Conflict Risks

Although there are several complex causes for the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the role of growing land scarcity has been acknowledged as an aggravating factor in inter-ethnic tensions. As many as one-million Rwandans, mostly Tutsi, were killed from April to July 1994.

Climate ChangeEnvironmental ChangeIntermediary MechanismsFragility and Conflict RisksSocial and Economic DriversIn-migration leads to demographic change.Demographic changes lead to changes in land use.Economic developments lead to changes in land use.Economic activity causes pollution.Changes in land use reduce available/usable land.Land scarcity hampers agricultural production.Land scarcity undermines the livelihoods of agricultural producers.Pollution reduces available/usable land.State elites strategically use livelihood insecurity for political advantage/power.Reduced availability of/access to natural resources leads to distributive conflicts between societal groups.Use of resource, livelihood, and health pressures for political advantage/power increases tensions between groups.Voluntary or involuntary movement of people from one area to another.Migration patternsChange in population density, age structure, or ethnic makeup.Demographic ChangeA change in the usage of environmentally relevant land.Land Use ChangeA broad concept to cover economic growth in general but also specific economic changes or changes of incentives.Economic DevelopmentPollution and degradation of ecosystems, such as coral reefs.Pollution / Environmental DegradationReduced availability of/ access to land.Increased Land ScarcityReduced availability of essential natural resources, such as land and water.Change in Access / Availability of Natural ResourcesA threat or destruction of livelihoods dependent on the availability of environmental resources / goods.Livelihood InsecurityUse of resource, livelihood, and health pressures for political advantage/power.PoliticisationNon-violent or violent tensions and conflicts between different societal groups.Grievances between Societal Groups
Context Factors
  • Insecure Land Tenure
  • Unequal Land Distribution
  • Eroded Social Contract
  • Food Insecurity
  • Group Focused Enmity
  • High Unemployment
  • History of Conflict
  • Low Level of Economic Development
  • Political Marginalization
Conflict History

In the late 1990s, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (FPR), a rebel group of predominately Tutsi exiles in Uganda, organized an armed invasion into Rwanda to overthrow the economically and politically weakened regime of President Juvénal Habyarimana. After the attacks, two years of recurring hostilities and negotiations between the government and the FPR eventually led to a ceasefire in July of 1992. The groups also initiated a power-sharing agreement in August of 1993. These accords were vehemently opposed by Hutu extremists in the government, which exploited Rwanda’s economic crisis to exacerbate anti-Tutsi resentments among impoverished rural Hutu and derail the peace process. On 6 April 1994, the death of Juvénal Habyarimana when his plane was shot down marked the beginning of the Rwandan genocide. From April to July 1994, until the FPR could defeat the genocidal regime, as many as 1 million people were killed, mostly rwandan Tutsi, and over 2 million people had to flee to neighbouring countries (UN, 2015; Auswärtiges Amt, 2014; Verpoorten, 2012). The 1994 genocide had also wider regional implications, including the 1996 civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the presently unstable situation in the Great Lakes Region.

The aggravating role of land scarcity and rural inequalities
The causes of the 1994 genocide are manifold and controversially discussed (see Moodley, Gahima, and Munien, 2010). Most accounts emphasise the antagonism between Hutu and Tutsi, inherited from Rwanda’s colonial past. Yet, while acknowledging the importance of factors such as economic decline, structural adjustment policies, internal opposition to the government and the disengagement of the international community, there is a wide body of literature, which highlights the aggravating role of growing land scarcity and rural inequalities in Rwanda (Homer-Dixon and Percival, 1996; Gasana, 2002; Bigagaza, Abong and Mukarubuga, 2002).

Historically, Rwanda has experienced a myriad of problems relating to land scarcity.  When the genocide began, Rwanda was Africa’s most densely populated non-island country with population densities reaching up to 843 persons per square kilometre in certain rural areas. More than 90% of the population relied on small-scale farming, and population growth rates had exceeded 3%. Land scarcity was further amplified by an unequal distribution of land in favour of political elites and their rural relatives (Verpoorten, 2012; Bigagaza et al., 2002). Gasana (2002) estimates that, prior to the genocide, 43% percent of poorer families owned just 15% of cultivated land, whereas 16% of land rich families owned 43% of cultivated land.

Environmental degradation and economic decline
Population growth and the appropriation of the most productive land by influential men worked in conjunction to push the rural poor onto acidic soils and steep hillsides that were extremely vulnerable to excess rainfall and soil erosion. Furthermore, land already under cultivation became heavily degraded. The continuous expansion of agriculture in Rwanda between the 1960s and the 1980s had been realized at the expense of fallow systems and other soil conservation strategies. Facing increased demand and reduced supply of quality arable land in the 1980s, the previously-flourishing Rwanda was suddenly facing rural poverty and food shortages, which were further exacerbated by the drought of 1988-1989 (Bigagaza et al., 2002; Homer-Dixon and Percival, 1996; Gasana, 2002).

Hutu extremism and state exploitation
Resentment of the rural poor added to mounting pressures on Habyarimana’s regime, facing internal opposition from southern elites, as well as structural adjustment policies and external pressures to democratise. Matters were further compounded by a sharp decline in world prices for coffee and tea, Rwanda’s main export earners, seriously curtailing the regime’s ability to accommodate its supporters and combat rural poverty. In this context, hardliners within the government exploited anti Tutsi resentment dating back to the colonial period, turning the dissatisfaction of rural Hutu against their Tutsi neighbours. They exacerbated fears related with the imminent reintegration of FPR-forces within the regular army and the return of Tutsi refugees from Uganda and Tanzania, who could claim their land back. Violence against Tutsi was further encouraged by the promise that land from killed Tutsi would be distributed to landless Hutu and organised through the creation of paramilitary Interahamwe militias that would comprise unemployed rural youth (Bigagaza et al., 2002; Moodley et al., 2010).

The 1994 genocide took place in a unique context, shaped by economic hardship, political divisions and societal cleavages dating back to the colonial period. These had a multitude of causes other than land scarcity. However, loss of livelihoods and rural poverty exacerbated existing tensions and could be exploited by the government to stir anti Tutsi violence. The present government acknowledges the importance of these issues and combines justice and reconciliation programs with ambitious agricultural reforms. 


Resolution Efforts

Since 1994, Rwanda has undertaken efforts to improve their justice systems and foster reconciliation. In November of 1994, the United Nations Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in order to prosecute those that contributed to the planning of the genocide or committed the atrocities. In 2001, the government began implementing Gacaca courts, a participatory justice system loosely based on customary legal institutions, to deal with the over 120,000 cases in a timely fashion. The community-elected judges in Gacaca courts handle all crimes besides those that involve planning genocide. Sentences are decreased for people who seek reconciliation with the community (UN, 2015).       

National programmes and grassroots initiatives
Rwanda has also passed laws against discrimination and divisive genocidal ideology. Established in 1999, the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission has promoted programmes of peace education that teach the population the history and origins of division in Rwanda. The commission also engages in training for political and grassroots leaders, youth and women in trauma counselling and promotes research to foster national unity (UN, 2015).

Many local organisations and faith-led initiatives address issues related to social justice, human rights and the trauma caused by the conflict (See Peacemakers Trust, 2015 and Peace Direct, 2015 for a list).

Economic development and agricultural reform
Recognizing that economic growth is paramount to ensuring peace and stability in Rwanda and the Great Lakes region, the IMF and the World Bank have supported numerous macroeconomic reforms, and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) established a trust fund for capacity building in Rwanda.

More specifically, the Rwandan government has launched a series of large scale reforms centering on land registration and consolidation of agricultural production to improve tenure security, agricultural productivity and food security (Pritchard, 2013).

ICTR and citizen-based justice: A mixed record of successes
Despite remarkable achievement in the domains of security and human development, some challenges still lie ahead. The ICTR and the Rwandan national courts have convicted most of the persons indicted with genocide, yet several accused are still at large (UN, 2015). Officially closed in May 2014, the Gacaca courts have left behind a mixed legacy. Many Rwandans agree that the courts have shed light on what happened in their community during the genocide, even if not all the truth was revealed. They also helped some families finding the bodies of their murdered relatives. The system has also ensued that tens of thousands of perpetrators were brought to justice, and, in some cases, has helped set in motion reconciliation within communities. Yet, the courts have been criticised for their leniency towards suspects and flawed decision-making (often caused by judges’ ties to the parties), as well as for the re-traumatisation of victims and limited chances to get reparations (HRW, 2011; Seay, 2014). Allegations of manipulation by government authorities, false accusations and intimidation of witnesses stain the image of the courts (Vasagar, 2005). It has been denounced that many of the appointed judges were not trained well enough and were vulnerable to corruption, as they do not receive a remuneration (HRW, 2011).

The limits of agricultural reform
Most farmers in Rwanda are in favour of a stronger involvement of the state in the agricultural sector, yet reforms enacted by the government have had a mixed record of success. On one side, the government has increased tenure security by making land registration mandatory, and has spent considerable resources to allow the poorest farmers to afford registration fees. But these successes have often been offset by aggressively enforced consolidation policies, which impose crop specialisation on subsistence farmers. In many cases these have not only made small holders more vulnerable to weather extremes, but also fomented fears of confiscation, thus reducing land tenure and food security (see Pritchard, 2013).

Further challenges
Although less pronounced today, rural poverty and land scarcity are still an important problem in Rwanda. In this context the accommodation of returning refugees represents a major challenge. Some argue that this might be a source of grievances and inter-ethnic tensions (Musahara and Huggins, 2005; Takeuchi and Marara, 2011). The threat of renewed violence is further aggravated by the presence of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) - a rebel army composed of génocidaires - in the neighbouring DRC, which the Congolese army and other international forces have been reluctant to engage (Wolters, 2015).

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

Environmental Influences
Societal Influences

Manifest Crisis
1 000 000
Violent Conflict Yes
Salience within nation National
Mass Displacement More than 100.000 or more than 10% of the country's population are displaced within the country.
Cross Border Mass Displacement Best estimate that more than 100.000 or more than 10% of country population are displaced across borders.
Destination Countries Tanzania, Uganda, Congo (Kinshasa)
Agricultural / Pastoral Land
Resolution Success
Reduction in Violence Violence has ceded completely.
Resolve of displacement problems Displacement continues to cause discontent and/or other problems.
Increased capacity to address grievance in the future The capacity to address grievances in the future has increased.
Grievance Resolution Grievances have been partially 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
Government of Rwanda (prior to genocide)
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleInternal National
Interahamwe Militias
Functional GroupNon-State Violent Actor
Geographical ScaleInternal National
Government of Rwanda (after 1994)
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleInternal National
International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR)
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleExternal
Entry Points for Resilience and Peace Building
3 Transitional justice The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was established in order to prosecute those that contributed to the planning of the genocide or committed the atrocities. In 2001, local Gacaca courts were also implemented to handle all crimes besides those that involve planning genocide.
2 Promoting peaceful relations The National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, as well as several local organisations and faith-led initiatives address issues related to social justice, human rights, the trauma caused by the conflict, and promote peace education programmes.
2 Improving state capacity & legitimacy The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have supported numerous macroeconomic reforms, and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) established a trust fund for capacity building in Rwanda.
2 Strengthening legislation and law enforcement The Rwandan government launched a series of large scale reforms centring on land registration and consolidation of agricultural production to improve tenure security, agricultural productivity and food security.
Further Details opencollapse
Conflict Characterization
Character of the contested good Private good: Can be owned and is depleted from use.
Structure of decision-making power / interdependence Asymmetric: The power to affect the environmental resource is unequal.
Broad conflict characterization Resource Capture is strongly present.
Ecological Marginalization is strongly present.
Data of involved Countries
Resources and Materials opencollapse
References with URL


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Biodiversity & Livelihoods

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Capacity Building

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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.

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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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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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Early Warning & Risk Analysis

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Environment & Migration

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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.


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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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