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African Conflict Is Seen Rooted in Environment

Many conflicts in war-torn Africa are rooted in increasingly parched and degraded land exacerbated by global warming, the first of a series of U.N. regional checkups of the planet's health found.

JOHANNESBURG — Many conflicts in war-torn Africa are rooted in increasingly parched and degraded land exacerbated by global warming, the first of a series of U.N. regional checkups of the planet's health found.

"From food security to health, we see climate change as a very big threat right across Africa," said Crispian Olver, director general of South Africa's Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism.

A new study which highlights the environmental causes of conflict in Africa has added to the sense of urgency and sends out flashing red lights on issues often regarded as "green."

While focused on southern and east Africa, analysts say its findings are relevant to other hot spots on the world's poorest continent, including Nigeria's Niger Delta, where rebel threats to attack foreign oil operations have sent crude prices soaring.

Titled "Southern African Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (SAMA)," it reveals a striking connection between ecological stress and social conflict.


The report, the first in a series launched by the United Nations in 2001, highlights several regions which have three or more environmental problems.

Almost every one has been a flashpoint.

"The correspondence between areas of ecosystem (degradation) and social conflict is suggestive of a link between these two issues, which are usually treated independently," it says. "The link could go in either or both directions: conflict creates conditions promoting ecosystem degradation, or environmental resource depletion could be a cause of conflict."

The problems include water shortages, grain crop scarcity, livestock overgrazing, wood fuel shortages, and deforestation. Scientists say all can be worsened by climate change linked to the greenhouse gas emissions the global Kyoto treaty approved by Russia on Thursday aims to reduce.

"We do see climate change exacerbating these ecological problems we have linked to social conflict," said Dr. Bob Scholes, one of the study's co-authors.

Areas that have three or more ecological stresses include parts of South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal province, where "faction fighting" over scarce land for cattle grazing has killed many.

Political violence in KwaZulu-Natal in the 1980s and 1990s between the now ruling African National Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party left thousands dead.

"Societies in which there is ecological stress are more susceptible to conflict, and northern parts of KwaZulu Natal province do have some of the densest populations in the country," said Tom Lodge, the head of political studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. "Faction fighting there is often related to disputes over land or access to land," he said.

Such stresses are also seen in heavily populated central Nigeria, where nomadic cattle rearers and peasant farmers have been locked in conflict over scarce land for decades as the Sahara Desert encroaches further south.

Related Stresses

Analysts say there are often vicious cycles.

Population growth strains the Earth's capacity to provide, as forests are hacked away and land is overgrazed by livestock, leading to turf wars over scarce resources. Global warming can heat things up by parching an already strained soil.

Throw existing ethnic tensions into the mix and armies of bored young men and the results can be explosive.

The SAMA study shades big parts of Burundi, Rwanda, and eastern Congo in yellow — to signify areas with two major ecological problems — or red, meaning three or more are located there.

All have been wracked by genocide, civil war, and extreme ethnic stress over the past decade.

Large swathes of crisis-ridden Zimbabwe are also shaded in yellow and red.

Move northwest to the steamy oil-rich Niger Delta, and environmental stress also seems to be fueling violence.

"You have very poor people sitting in an area where there is a lot of oil, and all they see are negatives: unemployment, oil spills, and environmental degradation, but no dividends," said Keith Myers, an associate fellow in the Africa program with Chatham House, a British-based think tank. "Environmental degradation is one of many factors contributing to tension in the Delta," he said.

Ten years after Robert Kaplan wrote a seminal article arguing that the environment would emerge as the security threat of the 21st century, the "Coming Anarchy" he spoke of could be creeping across the map of Africa.

Source: Reuters