Scarce, degraded land is spark for Africa conflict
By Ed Stoddard
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – 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
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
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
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
“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
Organization’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
“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
“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
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)