No Water, No Peace: Beyond the Ethnic Battle in Darfur

Article excerpt


A COMPLEX RELATIONSHIP has always existed between humankind and nature. The development of entire cultures has been dependent on environmental factors: the ease of collecting food, the shifting of seasons, the availability of building materials. Developed nations, with their instant climate control and millions of miles of highways, are often apt to forget this relationship; we trick ourselves into believing that we are independent of our environment, and we ignore the millions of pounds of pollutants we spew into the atmosphere and water each year. Every so often, though, an event takes place that reminds us that we can never truly disassociate ourselves from nature. As our world becomes more and more industrialized and environmental problems increase in severity, the importance of acknowledging this relationship becomes clearer than ever, a fact proved only too well by the crisis in Darfur.

Many people have never heard of this region in western Sudan at all, and those who have often possess only a vague understanding of the conflict there. Usually, the situation is attributed to ethnic tension between Sudan's Arab government and African villagers and rebels. While this is certainly a part of the problem, race can't account for it completely; decades of intermarriage have turned "Arab" and "African" into ambiguous titles that are chosen primarily by the bearers, according to Emily Wax, East Africa bureau chief for the Washington Post. Nor can the fighting be traced to religious differences, since both sides of the conflict are Muslim. The true roots of Darfur lie in a different arena, in the relationship between farmers, traditionally labeled African, and nomadic herders, usually described as Arab. According to a 2007 Atlantic Monthly article by Stephan Faris, these two groups coexisted peacefully for years, with farming villages often permitting nomads to use communal grazing lands and wells. However, a number of environmental factors caused this relationship to disintegrate, creating the circumstances that allowed political and ethnic tensions to explode into what the United States is now calling genocide.

In the 1970s and '80s periods of severe drought began gripping the region. Traditionally, nomadic groups had spent much of the year in northern Darfur, migrating to the southern farmlands during the dry season. At the onset of the droughts, however, the herders started traveling farther and farther south in search of water and grazing grounds. Desertification made arable land a precious resource, the value of which was further increased by the growing human and animal populations.

In the dry conditions, the spirit of cooperation and interdependence between farmer and pastoralist slowly shriveled up and died. Many African farmers, some of whom were expanding the size of their operations through new agricultural technology, fenced off their lands. At one time they had welcomed the nomads and their herds for the fertilizer and method of transportation that the animals provided; now, they were only interested in keeping them out. An influx of Arabic nomads from nearby countries exacerbated the problem, as did the use of nomadic grazing grounds by farming tribes who also dabbled in livestock. At the same time, according to Faris, some herders started grabbing land for themselves, occasionally using race as a way to rationalize taking it from African communities. Tensions developed into a tragic series of African-Arab, farmer-pastoralist conflicts in 1987, leaving three thousand dead and hundreds of villages burned.


The situation continued to worsen after that, with sporadic fighting continuing throughout the 1990s--often with the government backing the Arabs. In 2003, Darfurian rebels attacked a military outpost, citing the government's policies of ignoring the region and favoring Arabs as reasons for their discontent. …