In the Central Albertine Rift, which runs from the northern end of Lake Albert to the southern end of Lake Tanganyika, “environmental factors are increasingly an underlying cause of instability, conflict and unrest,” says a new report from the Institute for Environmental Security, Charcoal in the Mist
, which outlines environmental security issues and initiatives in the Albertine Rift region.
Part of the larger Great Rift Valley, the Central Albertine Rift encompasses portions of Uganda, Tanzania
, Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The area is one of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots, but is also a geopolitical hotspot, producing critical natural resources for a number of nations recently emerging from devastating civil wars. Lake Victoria, the birthplace of the Nile River, sits in this region, which means that the watchful eyes of its riparian states are trained at all times on the politics of the area. The Albertine Rift is also home to Africa’s Great Lakes
, each of which straddles multiple nations and provides significant income to surrounding communities. Questions of access to these waters only heighten existing geopolitical tensions.
Charcoal in the Mist cites armed rebels, illegal mining, and a growing population’s increasing demands for food and energy as threats to regional environmental security. Virunga National Park, an internationally prized wilderness preserve in the DRC, has fallen victim to these pressures. Rampant poaching and illegal mining, as well as conflicts in the DRC and Rwanda, have left park authorities unable to protect the 7,800 square kilometer park. A timeline from National Geographic dramatically illustrates how violent conflict has disrupted conservation efforts in Virunga.
The “interconnectedness between natural resources, development and security” in the Central Albertine Rift region reinforces the need for innovative approaches to address these issues. For example, according to the report, population density around protected areas in this region is far higher than in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, and the continually growing population already exceeds the capacity of local resources. The area’s population swelled with thousands of refugees fleeing the civil war in Rwanda in the 1990s, and simmering tensions continue to push people away from conflict zones and toward the relative calm of the Albertine Rift. Similarly, conflict stemming from the civil war in DRC, which lasted from 1998 until 2003, has beset North Kivu province. Rebel armies continue to clash in the region, restricting the ability of development organizations to work there and limiting the livelihoods of the local population.
The authors of Charcoal in the Mist call for more comprehensive mapping and monitoring of the Central Albertine Rift ecosystem in order to promote effective policies to address the region’s challenges. They also advocate for enhancing property rights to address fundamental conflicts over land, strengthening environmental law, dampening the illegal natural resource trade, and more aggressively protecting Virunga National Park. They believe that transboundary environmental cooperation has the potential to preserve both the ecological integrity and political stability of this important region.