Food, water, shelter, clothing. Every human being of the 7 billion that live on Earth today must satisfy basic needs to survive. In grade school, we learn that we all depend on limited natural resources. In the lush Great Lakes region of Africa and the dry landscapes of the Middle East, scarcity of natural resources is both directly and indirectly a major cause of violent conflict.
According to the Global Policy Forum, 40% of all intrastate conflicts in the last sixty years have some connection to natural resources. And in a recent address UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon said:
“Since 1990, at least 18 violent conflicts have been fuelled by the exploitation of natural resources such as timber, minerals, oil and gas.“
The landscape of the Great Lakes region and that of the Middle East could not be starker in contrast. The rich highland soil and substantial rainfall across Rwanda and Burundi create the perfect environment for growing crops for food and materials needed to build shelter. The demand for the most important resource in this area, land, grows as rapidly as the population and the number of refugees returning home.
Under the shadow of the Virunga Mountains in Rwanda, sits Donat Singirankabb’s small plot of farmland. Donat’s hands are wrinkled and cracked from the hard labor of more than 50 years of cultivating. The hair on his chin is speckled with gray and the creases around his eyes get deeper every year, but he continues to tend to his crops, even at 61 years old.
Rwanda and Burundi are both slightly smaller than the state of Maryland, with 12 million and 10 million inhabitants, respectively. The two nations are the most densely populated countries in Africa, with 90% of inhabitants completely dependent on subsistence agriculture for survival.
“Land is everything,” Rebecca Besant, our Regional Director for East Africa said, “and its importance becomes even more evident when inheritance comes into play.” In Rwanda, the fight for land and land rights is the main driver of violent conflict, with few policies and authorities able to monitor fair distribution.
To avoid conflict within his own family, Donat divided his land equally amongst his children, keeping a small portion for himself. “After I pass away, they will also inherit the small plot where I grow my own food,” he said.
The majority of violent conflict surrounding land in this region occurs between family members and neighbors. Though equal distribution may seem like the obvious solution, the lines of inheritance become blurred when polygamy and having children out of wedlock are common practices. The generational practice of passing down land also means that every generation has less and less than the one before.
Seraphine Uzamushaka is the mother of three children in the Eastern Province of Rwanda. When her husband married other women, he forbid her and their children from harvesting the crops. “He’d beat and chase me away when I’d come to harvest,” she said. “Local authorities wouldn’t help because they are all friends with my husband.” As a result, Seraphine’s eldest son left school to help the family make a living.
A recent article published on our blog states that over the last ten years, more than 500,000 ethnic-Hutu refugees came back to their homes in southern Burundi, from neighboring Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Conflicts between residents and returnees who are claiming their land back after a decade-long absence are becoming more commonplace.
Rwanda is making notable steps to move towards a positive future. The Rwanda National Resource Authority recently implemented land mapping and registration to reduce the number of disputes around certainty of ownership. In an effort to quell the tensions and provide land and resources to returning refugees, Rwanda reduced the size of one of its biggest national parks to accommodate the added influx of people re-entering the country. Akagera National Park is now a third of the size it once was in the mid-90s. “Reducing the size of a nationally protected park might seem like replacing the land scarcity issue with a conservation issue, but it’s a hard line to draw when people have nowhere else to go,” Besant said.
The connection farmers have to land means they are often the first to notice major changes in climate patterns, based on how it affects their crops. Both local and international communities have noticed how climate change is affecting these two countries.
“Rainy seasons have changed in length and time of the year and it’s much harder for people to predict the weather patterns that follow crop growth efficiency,” Besant said.
In a recent discussion held at The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Mike Jobbins, our Senior Program Manager for Africa said:“Climate change is going to have a startling effect on Burundi. Between the 3% per year population growth and soil degradation, there is a problem in terms of how people can feed their families, and how they can live.“
In an effort to reduce the amount of land being needed for farming, we are leading educational projects to foster the entrepreneurial skills of young Rwandans and Burundians, so that they can choose from a wider range of career paths to support themselves and their families. “Search produces weekly radio programs and television shows that inform citizens on everything from registering a business, to providing knowledge about the options outside of agriculture,” Anaïs Caput, our program officer for East and Southern Africa said.
As refugees from Rwanda and Burundi begin to assimilate to the place that was once home, the same cannot be said for Syrian refugees taking shelter in neighboring countries across the Middle East. In Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, the lack of resources, funding and even space, is causing tensions between host communities and refugees.
This week, the United Nations asked Western countries to open their borders to the thousands that still continue to leave Syria every month. In the four years since the beginning of the revolution, roughly half of Syria’s 22 million people have either fled the country or been forcibly displaced from their homes.
Lebanon is a third of the size of the state of Maryland and currently home to just over 4 million people. 1.2 million of them, roughly 25% of the total, are Syrian refugees. This dramatic, sudden increase in population has brought about significant disruptions to the Lebanese economy, infrastructure, demographics, and society. In addition, refugees are often concentrated in already economically underdeveloped regions of Lebanon. As a result, Lebanese youth in these areas suffer from high levels of unemployment and feel marginalized in their own country. Marginalization on both sides leads to a vicious cycle of more resentment and pre-conceived stereotypes being perpetuated; all the while, the strain on natural resources is exacerbating tensions to a tipping point.
“The Lebanese initially welcomed the refugees with generosity, but the sheer number is now threatening to tear a fragile social fabric in some already deprived communities,” Emily Jacquard, our Country Director for Lebanon, said. Our offices in Lebanon are working in eleven local communities in collaboration with two regional partners to strengthen inter-group relations between Syrian refugees and the Lebanese host communities. Through roundtable discussions with attendees from both sides, sporting events, summer camps and youth targeted activities, the areas that we work in have seen positive changes in the attitudes towards hosts and guests.
Training sessions to strengthen existing local capacities for conflict resolution are empowering communities to take initiative in the peace process. More than 200 Lebanese and Syrian community leaders will attend trainings focused on community mediation and rumor management. Eventually, these leaders will establish local mechanisms for resolving ongoing neighborhood conflicts, such as the ones involving access to water, shelter and food. “In the 1970s we too sought refuge in other countries during our own war,” Khalil Harfouch, the mayor of the Lebanese town of Jezzine, said. “I am a firm believer that dialogue is the way to solve conflict, especially in our case, where displaced people are hosted by local communities,” he said.
The World Economic Forum’s latest Global Risks Report states that interstate conflict is most pressing and devastating issue we are facing today. Despite its precedence over the water crisis, weapons of mass destruction and spread of infectious diseases, like Ebola, there is an obvious piece of the puzzle we are not connecting. Violent conflict is not separate from these issues, but deeply connected to all of them. In order to eliminate violence, we must look at the stressors that contribute to its inception.
Environmental devastation and resource scarcity are among the most damaging of these stressors. Our projects on land conflict mediation, and our trainings to offer sustainable livelihoods to people who don’t have access to resources, are tackling a part of the problem. The solution, though, needs a concerted effort from governments, international organizations, civil society groups, and citizens alike, to find constructive solutions to resource management, pollution control, and conservation that include the voices and meet the needs of all parties. Respecting the environment doesn’t just mean living on a cleaner planet, but also helping sustain peace and coexistence, all across the world.
Nabila Khouri is an international Communications intern at Search for Common Ground in Washington, D.C. She recently graduated from the University of Richmond where she studied journalism.