IV. Environment and Conflict in History The database of conflict and environment cases shows a broad variety if issues but at a high level of inspection

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Environmental Breadth


General Resources


Climate Change

Climate change is an ongoing factor in the relationship between environment and conflict. It was largely responsible for the war that lasted for 20,000 years or more between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals. Climate change was an essential element in the later conflict between European Vikings and Native Americans in North America.

Climate change creates new ecotones or areas of habitation by differing groups with differing technologies and economic subsistence patterns. The conflict in Niger is a classic case of ecotone shift. The Sahara desert, the largest arid area on the planet, moves periodically in a north-south line and has so over millennia. This ebb and flow of desertification brought differing people into confrontation. This line between habitable and inhabitable moves not only through Niger, but also the countries of Ethiopia, Somalia, Chad, Nigeria, Niger, Mauritania, Chad, Sudan and other parts of Africa (see Figure IV-3).

Climate change today is magnified with the precarious balances between environmental supply and demand in some parts of the modern world. This is especially the case in Africa. There are changes in long-term cycles, as was the case with the end of the last Ice Age 50,000 years ago. These long-term cycles may involve changes in ecotones that involve large portions of the planet. There are also shorter ecotones that occur, such as the cooling in the North Hemisphere in the 1500-1700 AD Period. Climate and weather conditions in fragile zones over the short-term can have extreme consequences for inhabitants used to seasonal and yearly migration patterns.

Climate change is decomposable by time and geography. There are long-term climate patterns but there are also shorter-term patterns that people ordinarily refer to as “weather”. Weather is the cycles of climate change limited to the lifespan of an individual and perhaps some stories from parents and grandparents, or perhaps a span of 100 years. Within certain climates and micro-climates changes in weather can be significant over the short-term.

Figure IV-3

Africa and the Approximate Limit of the Sahara and the Beginning of the Sahel

The southward drift of the Sahel during a dry period pushed Fulani tribe nomadic herders south towards greener pastures. Unfortunately, this encroached on lands of the Zarma, who were sedentary agriculturalists. These two groups clashed over diminishing pasture and water resources for economic and food subsistence.

In 1997 in Niger seven people were killed and 43 wounded in separate clashes between Fulani herders and Zarma farmers in the sectors Téra and Birni N'Gaouré. State radio (La Voix du Sahel) reported seven deaths occurred near the village of Falmaye (Birni N'Gaouré), southeast of the capital Niamey.45 Zarma villagers allegedly attacked a Fulani camp, seeking revenge for the death of a Zarma in an earlier fight with Fulani herders. At least three of the victims were burned to death inside their straw huts. Later, there was fighting between Fulani herders and Zarma farmers in the Téra region, northwest of Niamey. There were no deaths, but 35 people were wounded, 19 seriously.46

The problem spread beyond Niger. “Water comes next to grazing land in importance among the pastoralists in Nigeria. The Fulani see the provision of water as an antidote against the predicaments of marginal environment.” Water rights accrue to the people who “dig the well, make a path to it, or rid the site of predator animals and harmful objects.”47 Sedentary groups do not recognize these rights.

Niger’s people have dealt with climate change in both the short and the long term. In ancient times the climate in Niger was temperate. “During the Holocene period of the past 10,000 years there was a ‘warm’ climatic optimum roughly 5,000 years ago. At that time, more humid conditions generally were markedly contracted. Lakes existed even in parts of the central Sahara. The current state of climate was reached roughly 3,000 years ago.”48

The movement of the Sahel shows alternating patterns of global warming in the middle-term. “Observational records show the continent of Africa is warmer than it was 100 years ago…The 5 warmest years in Africa have all occurred since 1988, with 1988 and 1995 the warmest years. This rate of warming is not dissimilar to that experienced globally, and the periods of the most warming – the 1910s to the 1930s and the post-`1970s --- occur simultaneously in Africa and the world.” Africa’s precipitation patterns also show longer-term variations. The period 1800-50 was relatively dry, similar to today, 1850-1895 was much wetter and then another drier period ensued.49

Several diverse ethnic groups in Niger live in three different climactic zones in Niger. The three zones are divided by latitude and degree of intersection with the Sahara. The northern part of the country is the Sahara desert. To the south is a transition zone (the Sahel) characterized by a combination of desert and scrub. Nomads and sedentary groups inhabit the Sahel. Herding and animal husbandry characterize the livelihood of nomads. As animal stocks increase, grazing demands on the fragile ecosystem near the desert exhaust grassland supplies. These extra stresses on the vegetation, in addition to the changes in climate, can heighten impacts.

The Zarma are farmers who live in the Sahel. They live primarily in Western Niger, but there are also some pockets in Burkina Faso and Nigeria. The Zarma grow subsistence crops, such as millet, sorghum, rice, corn and tobacco and cash crops, such as cotton and peanuts. This production mode requires some irrigation.

Milk is an important part of their diet and culture of both the Zarma and Fulani. The Zarma own cattle, but it is the Fulani or Tuareg people who tend the animals. This complex rental system is an outcome of both economy and culture. When mature, cattle are driven to coastal cities of West Africa for processing and trade. The Zarma were once skilled with horses, but this skill has been lost. They now specialize in raising cattle.50

Animal husbandry remains one on the main economic activities of Niger. Livestock products include cattle sheep goats and dromedaries. The Fulani, also called Peul or Fulbe, are a primarily Muslim people found in many parts of West Africa, ranging from Lake Chad to the Atlantic coast, with concentrations in Nigeria, Mali, Guinea, Cameroon, Senegal, and Niger. The typical Fulani are nomads, but after many years of integration with other cultures, and the depletion of their herds to environmental conditions, they now rely on farming for livelihood. The nomads make temporary camps of portable huts, exchanging dairy produce for cereal foods. The Fulani rarely kill cattle for meat. “Because animals need water, the demand for it among the Fulani exceeds that of the rural people.”51

Archeologists believe there is a tendency of the Sahara desert to “move” according to a prescribed model -- the pulse model -- and result in waves oscillating over thousands of years, leaving socio-economic impacts on the peoples living in its path. Archeologists found evidence of social clusters of communities that are grouped around Timbuktu but were not an integrated community. Archaeological findings combined with geological dating techniques suggest a "pulse" pattern to Sahara desertification. Every time a pulse period occurred, settled societies were uprooted.

Research shows pulses of climate and weather changes occurring 10,000 years ago. Oscillations correspond to apparent changes in the archeological findings and societal identity of Late Stone Age people. The longer a community stays in one place, the more sedentary it becomes. The more sedentary the society the more traditions it develops. When forced to move, traditions are upset or lost and specialization diminishes.

Today, there are a declining number of "microenvironments" that provide for safe haven during periods of weather shifts. French colonization of Niger in the 1920's led to an increase in grazing intensity and cash crop intensity in the Sahel. Change in the use of the environment effectively initiated a socio-economic correlation between human impact and desertification.

Niger's agricultural policy is to achieve food self-sufficiency regardless of climate changes. There are several alternatives, including dry-cropping in rural areas; hydro-agricultural projects including the use of depressions and water-points to increase cultivation; and soil needs that apply nitrogen based fertilizers and manure.

There is some recognition of problems caused by small-scale climate change and efforts to react to these problems. “Over 300 representatives of national, international, and non-governmental organizations have expressed today full commitment to support Niger’s Programme to combat desertification and drought. Participants at the First National Forum to Validate the National Action Programme to Combat Desertification and Drought (6-8 September), evaluated and finalized the document presented by the National Council on Environment and Sustainable Development, that coordinated consultations since 1995.”52

There have been attempts at conflict resolution. “The positive aspects of water extraction include cooperation between the Fulani and the farmers. Mutual benefits accrue when the farmers agree to let the Fulani use the water facilities in exchange for milk or dung.” Sometimes these efforts also fail. “It is not uncommon to find the competing groups or individuals going to the extreme of sabotaging the very public water supplies, so as to monopolize the facility.”53

The Niger government and multilateral aid agencies have been attempting to increase water supplies (small dams and deeper wells, for example) but some warn that the increase in water without the increase in grazing land is a recipe for disaster.” More water attracts more farmers to the arid lands of the Fulani. “Fulani herdsmen around the Tiga Lake and the Kainij Dam in northern Nigeria complain against transient farmers who are building permanent camps around the marshy areas and taking way the grazing land.”54

Is desertification in part a result or a consequence of cultural and subsistence practices? Some point to the long-standing cultural practices as a problem. Fees required to keep facilities operating are usually ignored because of favoritism to kin or a basic belief in the sharing of the resource. Bribery is quite common in obtaining water.

Some blame government policies for the conflict because recognition of Fulani water needs is a recent event. Others blame government policies for unintended consequences. Irrigation and water diversion projects centralize water demand, usually at the expense of the pastoralists. This will also disadvantage wildlife or domestic animals. The competition extends not only to water but also to the grazing lands nearby.”55
d. Comparing and Reflecting on the Climate Cases
There will be more focus on climate change cases in the future. Today there appears to be a relatively high rate of climate change, with people being in part responsible. Climate change impacts people most rooted in the environment and in low-level technological means of subsistence. These are often aboriginal peoples.

Aboriginal (or original) peoples constitute a general term indicating humans who were the original inhabitants of a place. Aboriginal people, generally and specifically, survive in small pockets in many countries. There is some irony in that the oldest people in the place are the most impacted by changes in climate. It is the rapid pace of change which has created this situation.

In the “ancient cases”, the climate change case focused on the historic conflict between humans and Neanderthals that was the result of significant changes in climate extended over extremely long time periods. This was largely the result of the pull factor. The end of the Ice Age brought on an expanded ecotone that invited conflict between competing, though related, species. Humans proved more adept than Neanderthals at changing with the evolution of the climate. The physical re-alignment also requires a social re-alignment, which is then a source of conflict.

A slight change in history might have created a different view on environment and conflict among human species. Aboriginal peoples in Australia, Native Americans in North America, and the Ainu (a Caucasian people living on the island of Hokkaido in Japan) have often survived because of their isolation. What if a small population of Neanderthals survived?

Imagine if Neanderthals had been able to establish a stronghold in an isolated part of Siberia and learn some of the human technologies they no doubt encountered. It is thought that Neanderthal weapons were incapable of killing a mammoth, and this was a great advantage for the humans, especially weapons such as the Clovis-point spear. Perhaps if the Neanderthal survived in this area under their control, so too would the mammoths. Eventually, Neanderthal technology would have advanced.

Perhaps the Ice Age lasted somewhat longer or a disease set back human advance. Perhaps over time Neanderthals might have adopted some basic human tool and agricultural technologies. Siberia has been relatively unpopulated until modern times. For millennia, Neanderthals would have faced limited contact all but Aboriginal Sinoid peoples. As Russia grew as a nation and spread east towards Vladivostok, the tsar’s troops would have encountered them and would no doubt be militarily superior.

After a few violent encounters in which the Neanderthals would lose badly, they may send a representative to sue for peace and the Neanderthal’s swore allegiance to the tsar. The Neanderthals would begin learning more from humans and began moving out of their autonomous region to other parts of Russia. They would eventually learn to wear modern clothes and groom by modern standards.

The Neanderthals might have been protected under the Communist rule which may have regarded them as the ultimate proletariat. When the Soviet Union broke up, the region like others could declare independence. The country of perhaps “Neanderthalia” would emerge and seek admittance to the United Nations.

Current discussion about climate change and the potential for conflict is set on the time horizon of decades. Many researchers acknowledge this is an insufficient time horizon for analysis. The role of climate change in the Viking story is an epic that stretched out over 500 years. This case certainly gives pause to conceiving of such problems over time and the range of impacts and complexities that occur along the way. Such a focus on mega-trends of environment and conflict interaction also becomes more complex. This complexity has a multi-disciplinary flavor and involves considerable feedback between the differing parts of the complexity.

Micro-trends will have less of this complexity and breadth and tend to focus on a small set of key variables. Such problems are decomposable or related to other problems. That is, key cases of environment and conflict can be grouped by the time horizon of the problem, especially if we start from a mega-trend issues that spans 500 years. First, as the findings indicate, there were macro-level climate changes trends even within that larger period, that could be broken down into cycles of 100, 50 or even 25 years.

Second, the macro-level changes in climate no doubt included many micro-level impacts where the differential impact would reveal differing implications for humans. These impacts can be either beneficial or detrimental in terms of human subsistence and economic value. For example, warmer weather in Greenland no doubt meant more trees could grow, which is a benefit as a key building and fuel material. On the other hand, warmer weather may well have caused the walrus to move further north, since it enjoys the colder weather, and no longer available as a food source. There movement would remove a potential food source and force social and technological change.

In the end, the Vikings had little impact on the course of events in North America. With the exception of some limited technology transfer, the epochal meetings of these two peoples, the uniting of humanity once again, the actual connection of east to west would take another 500 years to really compete. “In summary, the Norse Sagas indicate that the Aboriginal People whom the Vikings met in Vinland wished to trade, but that violence ensued as a result of Norse attacks. There is no evidence that the Norse had any recognizable effect on the aboriginal groups they encountered in Newfoundland and Labrador. The Vikings were simply too few to deal with the people who resisted the invasion for their homeland. Non-metal weaponry was not significantly superior to the arrows that used stone.”56

Imagine if events had been different. When the Vikings came to Newfoundland, the weather was warmer and was not to turn cold until several hundred years later. There was ample time to move further south, to build up systems of transportation, food production and infrastructure, and to survive the mini-Ice Age around 1500. At that time, Europe’s population was rapidly growing, and their level of technology was increasing.

At this time, the military technology of the two was about the same. This technological growth is evident from the disparity in military technology at the time of Columbus between the two. “The Vikings looked pretty fierce but they really had no technological advantage at all in military terms.” 57 All of this suggests that the Vikings needed new waves of emigrants to sustain their colonies.

Europe too was weakened by the Dark Ages and the Plague. It took several hundred years but Europeans populations recovered and technology started to become ascendant in the society. “By the 14th Century, things had changed. Due to technological innovations in agriculture, such as the three-field planting system, the population of Europe had risen to a level that it had not seen in millennia, during the Roman Empire. This growth is despite the "Little Ice Age," a period of climactic deterioration and generally colder weather, which would not end until the mid-18th Century.”58

“The irony about the fate of the Greenland Vikings is that if they could just have hung on for another 80 years, they would have probably been all right.” 59 European technology, especially military, made enormous advances in this period and this technology would naturally “escape” to them from other Europeans. Their linkage to this group of nations who were undergoing a Renaissance of change would have given them an enormous advantage over the native peoples of North America. This advantage would have become clear long before 1492. Viking expansion may have advanced down the eastern sea board of the United States and voyages to South America would not be out of the question.

The development of a Norse society in North America in the year 1000 could have produced a different history. An influx of settlers armed with these new technologies would have created Norse colonies of culture and life style, somewhat of a cross between the Old and New Europeans. Imagine a series of Norse colonies along the east coast of North America already in place when Columbus arrived to the south. If things were only slightly different, the United States and Canada might be speaking Norwegian or Swedish today.

The conflict with the Neanderthals was a global cycle of climate change that spanned perhaps at least 10,000 years. The Viking expansion and contraction occurred within a smaller scope of change and thus a smaller cycle of history, perhaps 500 years. This case of the shift in the Sahel is an even smaller cycle of perhaps 20 years. This telescoping of the event (in the number of years it takes) and matching it to the consequence (the changes to an area and the people in it as a result) can be a useful lens from which to judge a variety of environment and conflict issues

These “modern cases” evoke issues that have roots in thousands of years of conflict between human beings over resources. Whether it is general conflict, resource conflict, or used to wage war, the environment is a constantly recurring theme. A similar case involves the Tuareg in a region near the Fulani-Zarma dispute.60 They came into conflict with a farming people, the Gada koi, who were supported by the government of Mali.

The Fulani live in the Sahel but the Tuareg live in the even drier climate of the Sahara. The Tuareg, a people related to the Berbers, played an important historic role as traders between Arab and African worlds, but also were pastoralists. Tuareg independence was only lost to the French in Mali and Niger in the late 19th and early 20th century. Land reform programs in Mail in the 1960s encroached on traditional Tuareg lands and a guerilla war ensured with a severe government reaction. Many Tuareg fled to other parts of the Sahara. A peace treaty was signed in 1991 and violence generally stopped around 1996.

A drought -- a seeming contradiction in a dry land -- between 1968 and 1974 worsened the situation for the Tuareg. Over-grazing of fragile Sahel lands exacerbated the problem. Animosity continued to simmer and conflict broke out again in the early 1990s. The patterns are periodic in nature, and related to the “harmattan”, a period from May to September that brings strong winds that move sand and lead to soil erosion.
2. Arable Land
Arable land has been in great demand since the Agricultural Revolution. The cases of the abandonment of Mohenjo-Daro, the decline of the Mayan Empire and the genocide in Rwanda reveal instances over time where the struggle for control of arable land was exacerbated by ethnic and sectarian strife.

Arable land cases fall under the attribute “territory” is the context of the conflict link in the ICE data base. The arable land cases have a significant relational factor and are part of long-standing tension. The causal representation of these cases is best represented by the red loop in the conflict sub-system. The dominance of the stalemate outcome in this loop is extremely central to behavior. The stalemate is intrusive because it lasts an extremely long period and revolves around long-standing territorial disputes.

The disputes are accompanied by demographic shifts that gradually increase the tension in the cases as the arable land resources become limited. These cases are more medium term in duration, focused on tropical habitats and changes in them, and involve demarcation of border issues. This variable also has a key role in the environment sub-system noted in the causal system (refer back to Figure III-1 and Figure III-2). This loop of causality includes border conflict issues, temperate areas, and stalemate outcomes.

Figure IV-4

Arable Land Causal System (the Red Loop in the Conflict Sub-System)

a. Mohenjo-Daro’s Decline, the Loss of Arable Land and Aryan Invasions

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