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Analysis: Darfur's environment link

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UNITED NATIONS, Oct. 9 (UPI) -- As the violence in Darfur continues to capture international headlines, and as heads of state from all over the world gathered at the United Nations for a high-level event on climate change, the link between the environment and the violence in Darfur grows stronger.

Last week the U.N. Environment Program held a briefing on its recent report, “Sudan: Post-conflict environmental assessment.”

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Emphasizing the effects of climate change on the country's conflict zone, the 385-page report delineated the main environmental obstacles contributing to the crisis. Among these were the growing impact of desertification, land degradation, displacement and rainfall in the region.

“When we talk about Sudan, it is critical to emphasize the environment as one of the main sources of the conflict,” said Ibrahim Thiaw, director of the Division of Environmental Policy Implementation of UNEP. “It would be difficult to envisage any long-term solution to the problem unless these issues are addressed.”

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Abdalmahmood A. Mohamad, the permanent representative of Sudan, agreed with Thiaw and expressed similar concerns.

“Our issues in Sudan are rooted in economically disenfranchised areas, land degradation, poverty and environmental degradation. This has been going on for a long time,” he said. “Once we agree on the root causes, then we can move forward.”

Heightened competition between Arab farmers and black herders forms the nucleus of the violence. As drought and desertification diminished the availability of land for grazing and cultivation, competition between the two groups replaced their once symbiotic relationship.

Though the conflict has its political dimensions, the root causes, as Thiaw and Andrew Morton, the Sudan project coordinator at UNEP’s Post-Conflict Branch, noted, are environmental.

“Competition for scarce resources has always been the catalyst for conflict between different rural groups,” said Morton, referring to a recent research assessment proving that since the 1920s water and rangeland have been the main sources of conflict in Sudan. He noted, “What's changed is the political nature of the conflict.”

When asked whether the newfound emphasis on climate change as a catalyst for conflict in Darfur would overshadow the complicity of the parties involved, Morton emphasized the goal of the report.

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“Climate change is only one of the contributions to the conflict, and we acknowledge the other causes. Regardless of the controversial nature of the issue, our task was to analyze the environmental factors, which has been proven to be one of the key sources of the violence,” he said.

Listed among the prime causes of the conflict is widespread deforestation in North and Central Sudan and decreasing rainfall, which has led to a significant reduction in the country's food production. These factors, coupled with resource scarcity and a lack of proper land planning, have made the people of Sudan even more vulnerable, and efforts to combat these challenges are limited.

Mass displacement has been another principal source of environmental degradation.

The many camps sheltering Sudan's 5 million internally displaced people, 2.4 million of whom are in Darfur, have contributed to acute environmental stress both inside and outside the camps. Surrounding wells, water plants and agricultural resources have been significantly damaged due to the camps' lack of access to water and rampant food insecurity.

At the crux of these problems is the issue of the pocketbook.

When asked whether Sudan's booming oil industry would facilitate its ability to fund the initiatives recommended by UNEP, as opposed to funding its military activities as many reports have indicated, Mohamad defended his government's commitment to development.

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“There is a power sharing and wealth agreement in the country, which was instituted by the peace agreement, so we cannot fund such activities,” he said. “By investing in development and solving issues dealing with poverty, there is no need to invest in armaments.” Though revenues from the oil industry will certainly buttress environmental initiatives, Mohamad emphasized the need for international aid.

“The needs are enormous. The country is the largest in Africa so we cannot say that our oil resources are enough for the country, but we cannot solely depend on humanitarian assistance because this will only create dependency.”

Notwithstanding, the positive developments taking place in Sudan are a source of hope for many.

While international attention is focused on Darfur, 75 percent of the country is at peace. UNEP reports that major oil revenues continue to flow, much of the wildlife is still intact, and there is widespread local recognition of the importance of environmental resources and their role in perpetuating conflicts.

“There is a good window of opportunity during the post-conflict environment to integrate sustainable development initiatives,” said Morton.

Thiaw repeatedly emphasized the impact of climate change on the region.

“We hope this report will help raise awareness so that when people talk about Sudan they also talk about the environment,” stated Thiaw.

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“If the root causes are not solved, and if investments made for people to have access to water and to ensure proper land planning are not made, then the conflict will simply perpetuate,” he warned.

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(This article first appeared in the MediaGlobal News Service.)

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