Professor John Langmore

Department of Political Science, University of Melbourne

'An environmental and a man-made disaster: The Darfur crisis'

… there is a very strong link between land degradation, desertification and conflict in Darfur.  Northern Darfur – where exponential population growth and related environmental stress have created the conditions for conflicts to be triggered and sustained by political, tribal and ethnic differences – can be considered a tragic example of the social breakdown that results from ecological collapse.

UN Environment Programme, Sudan: Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment, 2007, p 8

1. The present situation

Darfur is the three most western provinces in Sudan.  The people of Darfur have long felt politically, economically and socially marginalised by the ethnically and culturally different Sudanese government.  The conflict has been exacerbated by environmental calamity, political opportunism and regional geopolitics in which the inhabitants of the Nile Valley in the north east and south east of the country receive the bulk of investment.  In 2003 opposition groups from Darfur began a rebellion against the government.  Janjaweed militias recruited from the Baggara tribes, supported with arms and protection by the Sudanese government, responded by attacking the Fur, Zaghawa and Massaleit groups with terrible ferocity against both the rebels and civilians with casualties estimated at between 200,000 and 500,000 so far, and the raping and maiming of hundreds of thousands more.  Around two and a half million people have been driven from their villages and land and these internally displaced people now live in destitution in refugee camps in Darfur and Chad.  Some humanitarian workers attempting to support the refugees have also been killed and harassed.  The Janjaweed’s scorched earth policy has involved widespread destruction of villages, water sources, agricultural land and forests.

2. Precipitating factors

a) Sudanese history and economy

Sudan is divided by religion, ethnicity, tribe and economic activity.  Local clashes about land have occurred throughout Sudan’s history.  The pattern of violence established by imperial repression of rebellion during British rule continued after independence in 1956.  There were civil wars between the so-called Government of National Unity based in Khartoum in the north and the Sudanese Peoples’ Liberation Army based in the south from 1956 to 1972 and 1983 to 2005.  During the second of these wars the government in Khartoum encouraged ethnic division in the south by arming, training and providing logistical support to mounted Arab militias to attack Dinka villages in the south. 

During the civil wars there was intermittent fighting in Darfur.  Competition for pastoral land and water was the motivation for many of these confrontations. In 2003 these sporadic hostilities turned into full-scale military confrontation.  Non-Arab groups which had combined to form the Sudan Liberation Army and the other movements started to attack government outposts in Darfur and in retaliation the central government supported the Janjaweed militias in a scorched earth counter-insurgency campaign.  In January 2005 a Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed between the central government and the southern Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, but this did not include the Darfurian groups and this intense new regional civil war has continued. 

Sudan is a particularly poor country despite having substantial natural resources, and is a net importer of food.  The internally displaced people are highly dependent on food aid.  Oil exploration which only began in the mid-seventies was successful and exports began in 1999.  Rapid development of the oil industry is now enabling Sudan to be one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, but so far the benefits are limited to the northern-based national government, even though the oil reserves are in the south.  

b) Climate Change, Desertification and Deforestation

There has never been a national census in Sudan but the population is estimated to be between 35 and 40 million and to be growing rapidly, at in excess of 2.6 per cent a year.  About 70 per cent live in rural areas and about 30 per cent in the half dozen largest cities.

The north-western regions of the country are part of the Sahara desert with virtually no rainfall.  Sand and dust storms can cover vast regions and last for days. There is a chronic shortage of water; water distribution is extremely unequal; and widespread or localised drought is common.  An irregular but declining trend in rainfall is underway.  UNEP reports that ‘The scale of historical climate change as recorded in Northern Darfur is almost unprecedented: the reduction in rainfall has turned millions of hectares of already marginal semi-desert grazing land into desert.’[i]  There is estimated to have been a 30 per cent fall in precipitation in Northern Darfur during the last 80 years.  This has led to a southward shift in desert climate of 50 to 200 km since the 1930s.  Slowly rising temperatures and declining rainfall have already caused disastrous falls in crop production.  So despite being the largest country in Africa, competition for use of arable land has been intensifying for decades.   

It is important to recognise that the many factors contributing to conflict in Darfur include political, religious, ethnic, tribal and clan divisions, economic issues, land tenure deficiencies and feuds lasting for generations and that many of these have little or no link to the environment or natural resources.  Tensions over rangeland and agricultural land are primarily local but can clearly exacerbate other sources of conflict and can become powerful regional issues as in Darfur.

The environmentally significant factors include: desertification, soil erosion and soil exhaustion; deforestation; population growth; livestock population growth rates; the lack of a just and stable rural land tenure system in an ethnically diverse society.  Taken together, these factors mean that an increasing population is attempting to graze multiple additions to their herds and to grow more food in a steadily decreasing area.  Various coping strategies are tried such as migration to the cities, southerly migration, maximising herd sizes to ensure that some survive; and competition with other groups which often leads to conflict.

c) Consequences of the resulting conflicts

The resulting armed conflict has both direct and indirect consequences.  Direct consequences of war in addition to death, injury, mutilation and rape include destruction of housing, water pumps, trees, crops and pastures – the Janjaweed’s scorched earth policy.  Indirect effects include displacement of people, looting of timber, demoralisation of public services, impoverishment due to the enormity of the cost of fighting and escaping attacks, and the consequent destruction of Darfurian society.  (As a result of all the civil conflict in the Sudan there are over five million internally displaced people there, more than in any other country in the world and creating an enormous increase in intractable poverty.)  The camps for displaced persons also have major environmental consequences as impoverished residents attempt to subsist by overuse and pollution of ground water, deforestation and land degradation due to gathering wood and attempting to grow food in marginal areas.  The Janjaweed have not been penalised for their atrocities nor have their activities been controlled.  

3. International responses

Kofi Annan appointed an International Commission of Inquiry in late 2004 to determine whether genocide was occurring in Darfur.  The Commission concluded that the Government of Sudan and the Janjaweed were responsible for serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law which amounted to crimes under international law.  It did not conclude however that the Government of Sudan was pursuing genocide, as the US State Department had concluded.  The Security Council, with the US abstaining, has referred the names of about 25 Sudanese leaders to the International Criminal Court for breach of international human rights law. 

International engagement in this situation is essential.  This is a situation to which the principle of the international community’s responsibility to protect must be applied.  This principle was adopted unanimously by the UN Global Summit held in September 2005.  Gareth Evans, one of the original authors of the principles, writes that ‘The essence of the ‘R2P’ principle is that state sovereignty is not a license to kill, and that if a state – through ill-will or incapacity – fails to protect its own people from the threat, or reality of mass slaughter, ethnic cleansing or atrocity crimes, then that responsibility shifts to the wider international community’.[ii]  International intervention has been essential since 2003, to help achieve a cease-fire, a political settlement and effective protection of civilians.

A Ceasefire Agreement was brokered by the African Union in April 2004 and an ill-equipped African Union peacekeeping force, the AU Mission to Sudan (AMIS), of about 7000 troops has been trying to contain the conflict since 2004.  The UN Security Council demanded in July 2004 that the Sudanese Government disarm the militias and charge their leaders but this too has been ignored.  A Darfur Peace Agreement in 2006 failed because it had been impossible to include all the parties or deal with many grievances.  In August 2006 the UN Security Council approved Resolution 1706 which called for a new UN peacekeeping force of 20,000 to supplement the AU force.  The Sudanese Government strongly objected, saying that it would regard the force as foreign invaders, and any country which offered to contribute as taking a hostile act, and launched a major offensive in Darfur.  Another African Union attempt at a negotiating conference, sponsored by Libya recently, had to be abandoned because most of the Darfurian groups, which are now deeply divided and at war with each other, would not attend. 

The resistance and prevarication of the Sudanese regime to these and other attempts have made it clear that ‘President Bashir is simply toying with the international community’.[iii] In July 2007 the Security Council passed Resolution 1769 which authorised establishment of a hybrid UN and African Union force, UNAMID with a robust mandate and an effective command structure.  However even this stronger resolution is flawed for it stresses the importance of the Darfur Peace Agreement as the basis for a ‘lasting political solution’ yet the ceasefire which was part of that Agreement is not operative.  The Sudanese Government continues to create obstacles by refusing to accept specialised troops from non-African countries, blocking support staff and materials, withholding access to land for the force, permission for the assignment of helicopters, and approval for night flying.  The UN USG for peacekeeping says that this faces the UN with hard choices: ‘Do we move ahead with the deployment of a force that will not make a difference, that will not have the capability to defend itself, and that carries the risk of humiliation of the Security Council and the UN, and the tragic failure for the people of Darfur?’

The Howard Government declined the request of the UN Secretary-General to contribute to the UN peacekeeping force.  At present that force is inadequately staffed and provisioned.  The commander has requested a dozen helicopters without which forces cannot be quickly moved to conflict sites, yet none have so far been supplied.  An appropriate step for the Rudd Government would be to indicate support to the UN Secretariat and discuss with them the most useful form of a modest contribution.

Tougher measures have become essential.  Targeted sanctions could include travel bans and asset freezes on individuals and businesses involved in the atrocities and targeting revenue from the oil industry and supplies of goods and services.  So far the Security Council has been unwilling to adopt such measures.  China has invested $10 b in the Sudan mostly in oil and had ‘become the major patron of the ruinous Khartoum regime’ writes Joshua Kurlantzick in the London Review of Books.[iv]  Wealthy countries have contributed significant amounts of humanitarian aid but have not mobilised the political will to take effective action.  The AU desperately needs major additional financial, logistical and personnel support.  American observers report that the Bush Administration has been reluctant to impose sanctions on Sudan because the Government cooperated in pursuing groups which the US regards as terrorists, and anyway they are preoccupied with Iraq.  Other developed countries have been reluctant to allocate the funds and personnel.   

Ending of hostilities is a precondition for development, so mediating effort to attempt peace-making is vital. The situation in Darfur is uniquely difficult and requires extraordinarily close and detailed attention including addressing all aspects of environmental disorder.  Establishment of underlying conditions for peace requires implementation of comprehensive environmental plans, a recommendation which is infinitely more difficult to achieve than it is to identify the centrality of the task.  New legislation is required, major strengthening of civil service capacity through education and managerial training programs and improved data collection are essential.  Climate change adaptation measures and ecologically sustainable rural development are needed.  Improvements in health services including reproductive health are vital as are improvements in education.

Preparation of a technical assistance project for camps for internally displaced persons including provision of training, technical advice and guidelines for camp planners and management staff.  Starting major investment in tree planting is necessary to dramatically increase the supply of firewood.  Eventually evaluation of the feasibility of a program of returning displaced people to their areas of origin will be important.

The oil-driven export boom can generate a major increase in funds for improving all aspects of national governance including human services and law and order.

The peace agreement between north and south, the growth of oil exports and the establishment of the UN and African Union peacekeeping mission mean that Sudan is at a crossroads.  Will there now be a committed, sustained attempt by the national government to plan for and implement economic, social and environmental policies which would gradually cope with the conditions causing violent conflict?  Will the international community cooperate and support such programs with aid and technical assistance for peacekeeping and peacebuilding?  Hope for the region depends on a positive response to those questions.

[i] UN Environment Programme, Sudan: Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment, Nairobi, 2007, p 60

[ii] Gareth Evans, “Darfur: What next?’, Keynote address to International Crisis Group/ Save Darfur Coalition/ European Policy Centre Conference, Towards a Comprehensive Settlement for Darfur, Brussels, 22 January 2007

[iii] Evans, ibid.

[iv] Joshua Kurlantzick, Beijing Envy, London Review of Books, 5 July 2007, p 9