By Geoff Dabelko, Director, Environmental Change and Security Program, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
The vista of Ethiopia’s ancient Rift Valley, speckled with shimmering lakes, stretches before me as our motorized caravan heads south from Lake Langano, part of a study tour on population-health-environment issues organized by the Packard Foundation. Sadly, the country’s unrelenting poverty and insecurity are as breathtaking as the view—Ethiopia currently ranks 170 out of 177 countries on the UN Development Programme’s Human Development Index. These numbers become quite personal when child after child sprints alongside the truck, looking for any morsel. Here, I don’t need to read between the lines of endless reports to see the country’s severe population, health, and environment challenges—they are visible in the protruding ribcages of the cattle and the barren eroding terraces in the nation’s rural highlands. When analyzing environment, conflict, and cooperation, scholars and practitioners most often focus on organized violence where people die at the business end of a gun. We commonly set aside "little c" conflict where the violence is not organized. However, while the Ethiopian troops fighting the Islamic Courts in Somalia garner the most attention, we should not miss the quieter—yet often more lethal—conflicts.
For example, Ethiopia, like much of the Horn of Africa, continues to be beset by pastoralist/farmer conflicts over its shrinking resource base— increasingly exacerbated by population growth, environmental degradation, and likely climate change. In today’s globalized world, these local conflicts may also have larger "neighborhood" effects, contributing to wars and humanitarian disasters, as in Sudan’s Darfur region. Another classic example of local environmental conflict lies in Ethiopia’s national parks, which successive governments carved from inhabited land in the mid-1960s and 1970s.
Those disadvantaged by the parks often took their revenge on the state by burning buildings, cutting trees, and hunting wildlife. Some resettled the parks, bringing cattle and cultivating sorghum. This conflict presents a terrible dilemma, but also an opportunity: If the government and its partners can offer residents secure livelihoods tied to sound environmental practices—such as jobs as park rangers or in ecotourism—"parks versus people" might be transformed into "peace parks".
Practitioners, policymakers, and scholars alike must not forget the carnage of these "little c" conflicts. Against this backdrop, the 12th issue of the Environmental Change and Security Program Report includes commentaries from eight African leaders and scholars write about their continent’s struggle with resource conflict—and the possibilities for peace that population and environment initiatives may hold. According to 2004 Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai, poor governance and mismanagement of resources spur the violence that plagues many countries in Africa: "Below the thin layer of racial and ethnic chauvinism, religion, and politics, the real reason for many conflicts is the struggle for the access to and control of the limited resources on our planet." But she also sees hope: "When we manage our resources sustainably and practice good governance we deliberately and consciously promote cultures of peace."
Geoff Dabelko is director of the Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. "Don’t set aside 'little c' conflicts" was first published as the foreword of the recently released ECSP Report 12, 2006-2007.
Along with the Report from Africa, the ECSP Report includes reviews of recent publications on population, environment, and security; as well as dotPop, which this year gathers recent reports and data sources on the world’s water crisis. Formerly a monthly feature in ECSP’s e-newsletter ECSP News, dotPop is now part of ECSP’s new blog, The New Security Beat, where readers will find information and commentary on the latest news and reports on environmental security and population issues.
Published in: ECC-Newsletter, June 2007