Understanding Environment, Conflict, and Cooperation: Lessons and Strategies from Eastern Africa
"Like a disease…a damaged environment, particularly when combined with other stress factors, such as poverty, globalization, poor governance, inequality, and mass migration, can undermine societies and give rise to civil conflicts and failed states," observed William Mansfield of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) at the Environmental Change and Security Project's November 16th meeting, co-sponsored by Heinrich Böll Foundation and UNEP. This nexus between environment and security looms large in Eastern Africa, providing not only challenges but also areas of opportunity. Although endowed with natural wealth and richness in biodiversity, it is a worrying region; as Aseghedech Ghirmazion of the Heinrich Böll Foundation noted, it is "mobilizing resources for war, but not for development." Eastern Africa is wracked by ongoing conflict, food insecurity, and resource diversion. Scholars and activists Patricia Kameri-Mbote, John Murhula Katunga, Bernard Ochieng, and Pauline Riak discussed lessons and strategies for facing and addressing the interaction between environment and conflict in the region.
Environment and Conflict
Patricia Kameri-Mbote of the University of Nairobi drew on her experience in the Great Lakes region and Nile River basin to demonstrate the relationship among environment, conflict, and cooperation in Africa. As part of UNEP's experts group for its Initiative on Environment and Conflict, she is participating in its efforts to mainstream environmental themes into the Great Lakes peace conferences. And, as her experience as Kenya's representative to the Nile Basin Discourse has shown, the need to cooperate in managing the region's scarce resources can act as a catalyst for peace.
Kameri-Mbote described the challenge of bridging the discourses of environment and security: for example, the security effects of environmental destruction are often intermediary and not immediately apparent, so environmental issues tend to fall off the radar screen. Unfortunately, unless this relationship is recognized and addressed, the environment will continue to be a source of conflict in the region and elsewhere. As she stated, "Peace and security is predicated on addressing all causes of conflict, including the environment."
No Blood on My Mobile Phone
Approximately 80 percent of the world's reserves of coltan are found in one of Africa's most conflict-riven countries, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). While most people in industrialized nations have never heard of coltan, many use it every day to run their mobile phones. John Katunga of the Nairobi Peace Initiative calculated that profits from the coltan industry have financed warfare responsible for the death of 3.5 million people in the last four years, while the attendant environmental destruction has risen to the status of "ecocide."
While there have been major UN inquiries and campaigns by international NGOs, illegal coltan exploitation and the violence associated with it have continued. Katunga recommended supporting democracy in the DRC, criminalizing predatory multinationals, and halting the flow of arms into the region to combat the problem. Katunga offered a number of lessons based on the case of coltan in the DRC: first, international intervention is most effective when a single country or NGO takes the lead in global efforts. Second, building democracy and reconstructing fallen states are vital parts of the effort, and most importantly, "ecology has no political boundaries." Conflict and environmental destruction in one location threatens the stability of the entire region and beyond.
Somalia's Path to Peace
Somalia has been marred by 13 years of war and failed peace efforts. However, the 14th attempt, convened in Kenya, has set Somalia on the path towards peace. Facing the spillover effects of conflict from its neighbors, Kenya is now taking on a leadership role similar to South Africa's, acting as a hub for peacemaking throughout the region. This was also the first peace attempt that included civil society and traditional leaders, which may be responsible for its success.
Bernard Ochieng of the University of Nairobi discussed the role played by environmental issues in the Somali conflict and peace process. The coast of Somalia has been completely polluted over the years as warring factions have accepted payments in exchange for dumping toxic waste on the nation's shores, which has impacted the coastal fisheries. As a result of armed conflict, people moved from the north towards the country's only two rivers. Land disputes have flared up as population density increases and people struggle for their livelihoods. Ochieng suggested using Somalia's natural resources to create an agricultural industry that will absorb former militiamen as they are demobilized, reduce livelihood conflicts, and also support economic growth. Therefore, the environment, which plays a role in engendering conflict for land and livelihoods, could also be part of the efforts to build peace and rebuild the nation.
Sudanese Women's Network
As the largest country in Africa, Sudan is a diverse nation with a long history of conflicts over resources. Pauline Riak pointed to the environmental roots of Sudanese conflict, naming competition for the country's oil as the main driver. Like many Sudanese, Riak fled to Kenya to escape the conflict. Once there, Riak found she was not protected by Kenyan laws. Riak joined other Sudanese women to create an association to address their concerns. The women represented 23 different ethnic groups, spoke in 13 different languages, and were from 11 different warring fractions. However, once in Kenya, these women realized that they could not afford to fight amongst themselves in a foreign land, but instead joined together to support a community of more than 8000 people. The women are "refusing to be poor and not to be heard," and are now connected to a women's movement across the region.
Time for a Wake-Up Call
Katunga noted that addressing the region's problems requires collective action. While many are investing their best efforts into addressing these issues locally, concerns have not been sufficiently raised at the international level. Katunga offered a challenge to audience members:
The civil society in the biggest capital in the world should wake up and start interrogating their government and saying we are in solidarity with other people in the world….We are all interlinked. We are all interdependent in this world.
Drafted by Alyssa Edwards.
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
Heinrich Böll Foundation
John Katunga // OSI Africa Policy ScholarFormer Acting Executive Director, Nairobi Peace Initiative