While the crisis in Darfur is often characterized as an ethnically motivated genocide, Stephan Faris argues in April’s Atlantic Monthly
(available online to subscribers only) that the true cause may be climate change. Severe land degradation in the region has been blamed on poor land use practices by farmers and herders, but new climate models indicate that warming ocean temperatures are the culprit behind the loss of fertile land.
“Given the particular pattern of ocean-temperature changes worldwide, the models strongly predicted a disruption in African monsoons. ‘This was not caused by people cutting trees or overgrazing,’ says Columbia University’s Alessandra Giannini, who led one of the analyses.”Furthermore, Faris points out that the violence is not necessarily merely between Arabs and blacks, but between farmers (largely black Africans) and herders (largely Arabs). Historically, the two groups shared the fertile land. Now, however, farmers—who once allowed herders to pass through their land and drink from their wells—are constructing fences and fighting to maintain their way of life on the diminished amount of productive land.
If climate change is the real cause of the conflict, Faris concludes, the solution must account for this reality and address the environmental crisis in order to make peace. And he calls on all of us to accept some of the blame for the crisis:
“If the region’s collapse was in some part caused by the emissions from our factories, power plants, and automobiles, we bear some responsibility for the dying. ‘This changes us from the position of Good Samaritans—disinterested, uninvolved people who may feel a moral obligation—to a position where we, unconsciously and without malice, created the conditions that led to this crisis,’ says Michael Byers, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia. ‘We cannot stand by and look at it as a situation of discretionary involvement. We are already involved.’”That said however, researchers at the African Centre for Technology Studies an international policy research organization based in Nairobi, Kenya, say that while environmental changes have decreased agricultural production, these problems must be examined within the wider context of a long history of discrimination and governance problems: “The legacies of colonialism, political discrimination, and lack of adequate governance in Darfur should not be underestimated in favor of an environmental explanation-particularly as it serves the interests of some actors to use environmental change as a non-political scapegoat for conflict.” (forthcoming ECSP Report 12)