25 June 2007

The Darfur crisis: Are we the cause?

For millennia the herders and the farmers of the province of Darfur in western Sudan managed to get along in relative peace even though they followed different occupations on essentially the same land. Then, in 2003, all hell broke loose. Militias called Janjaweed, formed from among the nomadic herders, descended upon the farmers, committing rape and mass murder and driving millions from their villages. Something terrible had happened.

Various factors were in play. The farmers, after years of neglect by the central government, had risen in revolt. The government, exhausted after fighting a brutal civil war in the south, responded by arming local militia and supplementing them with criminals.

But the underlying question remains. Why would the nomads turn on their agricultural neighbours with such ferocity? What had changed? The answer lies in a shrinking land base. Populations have been increasing, as has the size of herds, straining the land. Meanwhile, the rains have failed and the region subjected to massive drought. The land becomes less capable of sustaining life and the desert creeps down from the north.
In parts of Darfur, precipitation has fallen by a third in the past 80 years. The climate has changed.

The rapists, murderers and pillagers are desperate men, their traditional way of life unravelling in the face of catastrophic change in the weather. To quote The Guardian, "Global warming created the dry tinder. Khartoum supplied the match." And the tinder will become drier. Forecasts suggest that as climate change continues, rainfall will continue to decline and crop yields will drop further, up to 70 per cent in the worst areas.

And who is the principal perpetrator of global warming? Not the Janjaweed, and not the government in Khartoum. It is us, the industrial nations of the West. We are the guilty party.

So the question is what are we going to do about it, other than
letting them kill each other until their populations have been reduced to a level the land can carry. The only response offered so far is stopping the violence. It goes without saying this is the first priority, but it is obviously not a long-range solution. We could immigrate the surplus populations, but this may be far from optimum for either them or us. The answer lies in dealing with global warming. In the medium term, this means dramatically reducing the amount of greenhouse gases we vent into the atmosphere, and in the short term, instituting massive land reclamation projects in the affected regions. In other words, we need to give them their land back, the land we are stealing from them with our profligate use of fossil fuels.

Darfur may be the first climate-change war, possibly the first of many -- yet another challenge to add to our global warming agenda.

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