On a continent where a man's worth is often measured by his cattle, rivalry for the beasts and the degraded land they graze on is sparking lethal conflicts across Africa. Observers say the violence is rooted in increasingly parched soil which has been battered by overgrazing, erosion, population growth and global warming, exacerbating struggles among human communities with ancient and blood-stained histories.
JOHANNESBURG On a continent where a man's worth is often measured by his cattle, rivalry for the beasts and the degraded land they graze on is sparking lethal conflicts across Africa.
Observers say the violence is rooted in increasingly parched soil which has been battered by overgrazing, erosion, population growth and global warming, exacerbating struggles among human communities with ancient and blood-stained histories.
Last week cattle rustlers in northern Kenya massacred dozens of villagers, sparking brutal reprisals in a lawless region near the Ethiopian border. The death toll from the mayhem was 80.
Those clashes were the most recent in a cycle of clan killings between herders in Kenya over land and scarce water in the arid north.
On the other side of the continent in mostly desert Niger, nomadic herdsmen and crop farmers are locked in age-old battles.
Explosive population growth has increased pressure on land, forcing farmers to sow crops on "corridors" traditionally used by migrating herders for access to rivers, further stoking conflict.
"This the age-old farmer/herder conflict, the old Biblical tale of Cain and Abel. The struggle over resources between people who are using them in different ways," said Henri Josserand, the head of the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organisation's Global Information and Early Warning System.
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, compiled by U.N. agencies and other groups, says drylands occupy more than 41 percent of the world's land area and are home to more than 2 billion people, some of them the world's most impoverished.
In three key regions of Africa -- the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, and southeast Africa -- severe droughts occur on average once every 30 years. These droughts triple the number of people exposed to severe water scarcity at least once in every generation.
"The correspondence between areas of ecosystem (degradation) and social conflict is suggestive of a link," a U.N. assessment of ecological hotspots in Africa said last year.
"Conflict creates conditions promoting ecosystem degradation, or environmental resource depletion could be a cause of conflict," it said.
END OF NOMADIC LIFE?
In Niger, drought has forced herders to drive their livestock onto planted fields, where they destroy crops, as has happened during the latest drought that ruined the October harvest. In May at least 11 people were killed in the Boboye region, 100 km (60 miles) east of the capital Niamey, when rival groups clashed over land.
"The friction between the two has become more frequent especially in years when there is drought, forcing animals to go to crop areas where there is water," Josserand told Reuters by telephone from his Rome office.
The problem, researchers say, is compounded in Niger by judicial corruption and inefficiency that hampers the equitable settlement of land disputes.
"The political authorities are incapable of resolving some very serious conflicts," said sociologist Boureima Alpha Dado, a senior research at the University of Niamey. "If it's badly handled, it ends in bloodshed."
"We don't think the nomadic way of life, wandering around in search of pasture, has a future," he said. "We have to have a more intensive system, with food stocks for the animals, a modern system like in Europe."
Environmental damage compounds the problem.
In central Nigeria, nomadic cattle herders and peasant farmers have been warring over a scorched landscape as the desert creeps southward.
In the central state of Plateau, communal violence last year killed hundreds, leading to a state of emergency being imposed on the area.
Disputes over land erupted into religious conflict, underscoring the dangers posed by combining a stressed environment with spiritual or ethnic faultlines.
"For a while the media will continue to ascribe riots and other violent upheavals ... mainly to ethnic and religious conflict. But as these conflicts multiply, it will become apparent that something else is afoot," wrote Robert Kaplan in a seminal article published in 1994 in the Atlantic Monthly.
"It is time to understand the environment for what it is: the national security issue of the 21st century," he wrote.
(Additional reporting by Matthew Green in Dakar and George Obulutsa in Nairobi)