ECC Platform Library


Land Grabbing and Protests in the Tana River Delta, Kenya

Type of conflict main
Intensity 1
Eastern Africa
Time 2007 ‐ ongoing
Countries Kenya
Resources Fish, Biodiversity, Agricultural / Pastoral Land, Water, Ecosystem Stability
Conflict Summary Large scale land acquisitions by Kenyan and foreign companies in Kenya’s Tana River Delta are reducing available pastures and farmland for local communities....
Land Grabbing and Protests in the Tana River Delta, Kenya
Large scale land acquisitions by Kenyan and foreign companies in Kenya’s Tana River Delta are reducing available pastures and farmland for local communities. Forced to give way to biofuel and export crops, local communities have engaged in public protests against these projects and the involved state authorities. Moreover, the reduction of available resources and the fear of forced displacements add fuel to existing land use conflicts between the Delta’s different communities.
Conceptual Model

Intermediary Mechanisms

Increasing resource scarcity, in turn, threatens the livelihoods of local farmers, fishermen, and pastoralists. These dynamics are compounded by changing climatic conditions.

Fragility and Conflict Risks

Communities affected by the land deals are barely involved in the decision making process. Supported by national and international environmental organizations, local communities have started to protest and resist large-scale land acquisitions. Moreover, long-standing conflicts between local communities have been exacerbated by the overall reduction of available resources.

Climate ChangeEnvironmental ChangeIntermediary MechanismsFragility and Conflict RisksSocial and Economic DriversDemographic changes increase pressures on natural resources.Economic developments lead to changes in land use.Economic activity causes pollution.Changes in land use reduce available/usable natural resources.Pollution / Environmental degradation reduces available/usable natural resources.Reduced availability of/access to natural resources undermines resource-dependent livelihoods.Livelihood insecurity fuels grievances between groups.Livelihood insecurity leads to growing discontent with the state.Change in population density, age structure, or ethnic makeup.Demographic ChangeGrowing scarcity of essential natural resources.Natural Resource ScarcityA broad concept to cover economic growth in general but also specific economic changes or changes of incentives.Economic DevelopmentA change in the usage of environmentally relevant land.Land Use ChangePollution and degradation of ecosystems, such as coral reefs.Pollution / Environmental DegradationA threat or destruction of livelihoods dependent on the availability of environmental resources / goods.Livelihood InsecurityNon-violent or violent tensions and conflicts between different societal groups.Grievances between Societal GroupsChallenge to the state's legitimacy, ranging from peaceful protest to violent attempts at overthrowing the government.Anti-State Grievances
Context Factors
  • History of Conflict
  • Low Level of Economic Development
  • Weak Institutions
Conflict History

The Tana River Delta is one of Kenya’s most important wetlands providing farmland and dry season pastures for local communities (Munguti, 2014). Despite important variations in rainfall and water levels, the Delta is viewed as a fertile area and has recently attracted important investments from different Kenyan and foreign producers of biofuels and export oriented crops such as oil seeds, sugar, maize and rice. Backed by the Kenyan government large scale land deals target more than 300,000 ha of land in the Delta and adjacent terraces, strongly reducing available resources for local communities. Publicly denounced as “land grabs”, these commercial farming projects have become the target of protests and lawsuits (GRAIN et al., 2014; Neville, 2015). Moreover, they have added fuel to existing land-use conflicts between local communities such as the Orma and Pokomo (see Farmer-herder violence in the Tana River Delta).

Threatened livelihoods and public contestation
Land deals in the Tana River Delta where the Kenyan government has granted titles for large swathes of land to large agricultural companies have repeatedly been criticised for their negative environmental and social impacts. Intensive cropping of biofuels is highly water consuming and often entails massive loss of topsoil and destruction of biodiversity, which negatively affect local fishermen and farmers (Nunow, 2011). It also reduces the mobility of local pastoralists and hence their ability to cope with droughts. Hence, rural communities in the Tana River Delta perceive large scale agricultural projects as a major threat to their livelihoods and food security (Nunow, 2011; GRAIN et al., 2014).
In addition, public criticism is directed at the way in which land deals are concluded and projects implemented. Land titles are often awarded to companies without following official procedures and Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs), lack transparency, and are often conducted in ways which exclude good practice or even outright ignore the law. Local communities are rarely involved in negotiations with agricultural companies and often envisaged to leave their land without proper compensation (GRAIN et al., 2014; McVeigh, 2011; Gogineni, 2012). As a result, public contestation against large scale land acquisitions has grown in the Tana River Delta.

The Tana Integrated Sugar Project
In a prominent case, local communities and environmental organisations have gone to court against a joint venture between the Kenyan Mumias Sugar Company and the state-owned Tana Athi River Development Authority (TARDA), which provides for 20,000 ha of land to be converted into sugar plantations for ethanol and biomass production. The project is expected to have a detrimental impact on local livelihoods and the Delta’s ecology, with the possible eviction of more than 25,000 famers and pastoralists (Temper, 2010; Munguti, 2014). Most importantly, land has been allocated without consulting affected communities, despite its official status as trust land, and feasibility studies for the project have ignored charges for water extraction levied under Kenyan law (Nunow, 2011; GRAIN et al., 2014). 

A fragile ecological and social context
Commercial farming projects in the Tana River Delta, are conducted in an already fragile ecological and social context, which makes their consequences all the more worrying. Besides the requirements of commercial farms, water demand in the Delta is also rising due to a growing population, which has quadrupled between 1962 and 2006 (GRAIN et al., 2014). Increasing diversion and abstraction of water puts mounting pressures on local ecosystems and resources, which are simultaneously challenged by climate change, deforestation, soil erosion and pollution by agro-chemicals from the upper catchment of the Tana River (Njoroge, 2012).
Moreover, abuses by officials and large agri-businesses highlight the weakness of national legislations and contribute to historical grievances in the Tana River Delta (Neville, 2015). The majority of the Delta’s settlers do not have titles to their ancestral land. This makes them particularly vulnerable to land grabs by persons and institutions with the means to influence the local administration, which holds the land in trust (Nunow, 2011; Temper, 2010). Poverty and low levels of literacy in the Delta (33.7 %) further restrain the possibilities of local communities to act on projected deals and impact assessment studies (GRAIN et al., 2014; Gogineni, 2012).

A potential for tension
While it is unlikely that these grievances will escalate to the point of triggering open violence against the Kenyan government, the changing dynamics of land allocation in the Tana River Delta are nevertheless aggravating local disputes. As pointed out by Nunow (2011), fears of future expulsions have encouraged local communities to secure land for their part. Given the Delta’s past record of communal conflicts such reactions are likely to spur inter-ethnic tensions and potentially violent conflict. 

Resolution Efforts

In reaction to the adverse environmental and social consequences of large scale agricultural projects, local communities and environmental organisations have mobilised in the Tana River Delta. Their actions have involved public campaigns and court cases against some of the largest projects.

Campaigns and court cases against large scale projects
In 2008, villagers and environmental organisations filed a court case challenging the deed for the Mumias/TARDA sugarcane project and obtained an injunction of the project until 2009. When the court ruled in favour of the developers in 2009, community representatives filed a second case in the Kenyan High Court, which focussed more generally on land use planning. The case was postponed several times until 2013 when the court finally ruled in favour of local communities. The ruling halts existent projects until land use plans are developed “with full participation of the community as well as the agencies and other stakeholders who have interest in the Tana Delta” (Neville, 2015; Munguti, 2014).
These legal measures were accompanied by public campaigns, which raised awareness for the detrimental social and environmental impacts of agricultural development projects in the Tana River Delta. Spearheaded by Nature Kenya and supported by BirdLife International, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and Nature Canada these campaigns were brought to the home countries of the developers and motivated some of them to abandon their projects, such as G4 Industries (United Kingdom) and Bedford Biofuels (Canada) (GRAIN et al., 2014). Nature Kenya and the RSPB further commissioned a cost benefit analysis for the TARDA/Mumias sugarcane project, showing that costs were underestimated and other issues such as fees for water extraction and compensation for lost livelihoods downright ignored. Nature Kenya also successfully advocated for the designation of the Tana Delta as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention (GRAIN et al., 2014).

Facilitating community involvement in land use planning
At the insistence of Nature Kenya, the Ministry of Lands with involvement of other agencies coordinated by the Office of the Prime Minister started preparing a Land Use Plan (LUP) for the Tana River Delta to guide decision making on future development of the Delta. The LUP is subjected to Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) to ensure sustainable development and the LUP process is based on extensive stakeholder consultations at the local, county and national level. To further encourage community participation, a Tana Planning Advisory Committee (TPAC), made up of four district government and 21 community representatives, has been created and specific village land use plans have been drawn in more than 100 villages in the Tana Delta (GRAIN et al., 2014). These measures address some of the villagers’ main concerns and pave the way for a resolution of conflicts between companies and communities in the Tana Delta. Yet, they do not address underlying issues such as resource scarcity and livelihood insecurity, which are an important source of grievances and a reason why conflicts and protests erupt in the first place.

Adapting to land scarcity and livelihood insecurity
Local communities in the Tana Delta Orma have adapted to the decreasing availability of grazing land in several ways. Herding strategies and livestock preferences have changed to meet the demands of industrial cattle farming. The access to high value fodder to fatten the animals has gained in importance. Decentralized livestock sale yards have been created, opening up economic opportunities for transporters providing shipment of the animals from local sale yards to the various end markets. In addition, local pastoralists have demarcated corridors to secure important grazing passages from land grabbers (Nunow, 2010). However, as noted by Nunow (2011), these strategies are mainly used by wealthier herders, which can afford private water facilities and ranches, leaving less wealthy herders with small chances to evade the consequences of growing land scarcity. As inequalities and destitution increase within communities this can revive ancient feuds with neighbouring communities and become a source of violent conflict for land (see Farmer-Herder Violence in the Tana River Delta).

Campaigns and legal actions by local communities and NGOs such as Nature Kenya have brought international attention to the issues related to large scale agricultural projects in the Tana River Delta. Actions be the Kenyan High court and the Kenyan Government now ensure that local residents have a greater say in projects with an immediate impact on their livelihoods. However, participatory approaches will not necessarily overcome problems related to inequality, livelihood insecurity and conflicting claims of ownership in the Tana Delta (Neville, 2015). Until these issues are not addressed in a consistent manner, the Tana Delta will remain a fragile environment, both socially and ecologically.    

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

Environmental Influences
Societal Influences

Manifest Crisis
Violent Conflict No
Salience within nation Regional
Mass Displacement None
Cross Border Mass Displacement No
Fish, Biodiversity, Agricultural / Pastoral Land, Water, Ecosystem Stability
Resolution Success
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.
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 Kenya
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleInternal National
Tana Athi River Development Authority (TARDA)
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleInternal Grassroots
Mumias Sugar Company
Functional GroupCommercial
Geographical ScaleInternal Grassroots
Nature Kenya
Functional GroupCivil Society
Geographical ScaleInternal Grassroots
BirdLife International
Functional GroupCivil Society
Geographical ScaleExternal
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB)
Functional GroupCivil Society
Geographical ScaleExternal
Nature Canada
Functional GroupCivil Society
Geographical ScaleExternal
G4 Industries
Functional GroupCommercial
Geographical ScaleExternal
Bedford Biofuels
Functional GroupCommercial
Geographical ScaleExternal
Entry Points for Resilience and Peace Building
3 Mediation & arbitration Community representatives filed a case with the Kenyan High Court focusing on land use planning in the Tana Delta. The court eventually ruled in favour of local communities and established that existing and future projects must develop land use plans with the full participation of local communities, as well as any other stakeholders with an interest in the Tana Delta.
2 Social inclusion & empowerment A Land Use Plan was created by the Ministry of Lands with the involvement of other agencies coordinated by the Office of the Prime Minister, and is based on an extensive stakeholder consultations process at the local, county and national level. Furthermore, a Tana Planning Advisory Committee (TPAC) was established to further encourage community participation, and involves representatives from the district government and affected communities. Lastly, local pastoralists have demarcated corridors to secure important grazing passages from land grabbers.
2 Improving infrastructure & services Decentralized livestock sale yards have been created, opening up economic opportunities for selling local livestock on more distant end markets.
2 Improving resource efficiency Local communities have adapted their herding strategies and livestock preferences to meet the demands of industrial cattle farming. The access to high value fodder to fatten the animals has gained importance.
2 Promoting social change Public campaigns spearheaded by Nature Kenya and supported by BirdLife International, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), and Nature Canada sought to raise awareness to the detrimental social and environmental impacts of development projects in the Tana River Delta. Such campaigns were able to motivate some developers to abandon their projects and successfully advocated for the designation of the Tana Delta as a as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention.
Further Details opencollapse
Conflict Characterization
Character of the contested good Common-pool resource: No one can be excluded from use but the good is depleted.
Structure of decision-making power / interdependence Asymmetric: The power to affect the environmental resource is unequal.
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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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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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.


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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