Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Monday, September 24, 2007

Wilson Center event highlights connections between environment and conflict in Sudan

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars hosted a discussion on September 21 examining the environmental links to peace and conflict in Sudan. The speakers, Ibrahim Thiaw and Andrew Morton, presented the United Nations Environment Program’s “Sudan Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment” to a packed auditorium.

Thiaw, director of the division of environmental policy at the UNEP, first highlighted the different environmental landscapes within Sudan: the north is arid and the scarcity of natural resources there leads to competition and conflict, whereas the southern provinces boast a more tropical environment where numerous resettlement communities have flourished – pressing resources as well as the limited infrastructure.

Thiaw also emphasized that the connections among the environment, climate change, and poverty are indisputable and that this relationship – one that is certainly not unique to Sudan – requires greater attention from the international community, specifically in the form of peace-keeping forces.

Andrew Morton, the Sudan project coordinator at the UNEP’s post-conflict branch, presented the research methods and findings of the environmental assessment. He highlighted the positive findings, some of which included the decentralization of the government, the recently signed peace agreement between northern and southern Sudan, the local recognition of environmental problems, and the fact that 75 percent of the country is at peace. Morton also noted the widespread recognition of environmental problems among local Sudanese and their marked commitment to addressing these issues.

Negative findings included desertification in the northern regions, internal displacement of numerous Sudanese citizens, a 30 percent drop in rainfall that led to drought, a 20 to 70 percent decrease in food production capacity, and the absence of substantial policies to address these challenges.

Both scholars addressed the causes for these negative findings, but cautioned against conflating the issues. They cited examples of conflicts between farmers and pastoralists, two groups that have historically practiced reconciliation. However, recent legal reforms no longer recognize the tribal bodies from each group that once served as a forum to settle disagreements, leaving the groups resentful and without political resources.

Thiaw and Morton also highlighted the displacement of people due to certain agricultural practices, such as when groups abandon fields after a few years of planting because it is cheaper to migrate than to rehabilitate the field. These practices simultaneously reduce land availability in Sudan and prevent environmental sustainability. The resultant north-to-south migrations are also creating tensions within urban areas.

No comments were made concerning the difficulties of Sudanese women, who face danger on a daily basis while traveling long distances to collect firewood.

Recommendations (the report cited 85 in total) to remedy Sudan’s environmental problems included a call for investment in environmental management, with funds being directed to the Sudanese government. Morton also pointed out that while it is easy to obtain relief funding, he argued that it is imperative that this short-term funding be transformed into longer-term development funding in order to promote sustainability in the region.

The forum concluded with the assertion that the UNEP cannot and does not strive to solve all the problems in Sudan alone, but rather seeks to initiate dialogue and encourage collaboration with many other groups.

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