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The Ecology of Genocide

As refugees from Darfur pour into Chad, the fragile ecosystem buckles beneath the extra load, raising tension and desperation.
 
 
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Stony hills give way to patches of desert, golden grassy meadows and parched fields of sorghum and millet in the North Darfur region of Sudan. Villages of circular huts made of mud and straw are spread thin across the vast, empty countryside, spaced to allow residents to maintain their delicate balance with the scarce resources of their environment. Many of the villages look like tiny moonscapes of above-ground craters, with only the circular mud brick walls of their huts left standing. Inside, the huts are charred, their straw roofs turned to ash, while spent bullets and foot-long mortar shells lie strewn across the village.

Ripples of calamity from Darfur are reverberating across the border into Chad. With more than 200,000 refugees living in camps there and 90,000 East Chadians now displaced by increased violence, mass displacement has wreaked havoc on the already fragile ecosystem.

"The environmental impact from the influx of refugees [to Chad] has been pretty devastating," says UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) spokesperson Chad Mathew Conway. With severely limited public services, the livelihoods of people in East Chad and Darfur revolve around the collection and consumption of three natural resources: water for drinking and farming, firewood for cooking and grass for grazing livestock. Conway says all of these have been dwindling rapidly in East Chad since Darfuris were forced to move to refugee camps there. "The already fragile environment has been pushed well beyond its carrying capacity," he says.

Areas around several of Chad's northern camps have hardly enough water to support both refugees and the local population. "Receiving 200,000 people has had a significant impact on the ability of the water tables to come back up to their regular level," says Jessica Hyba, assistant country director of CARE, an international nonprofit group working on environmental issues in Chad.

Chad's largest and northernmost camp, Ouri Cassoni, is an expanse of dusty tents and mud shacks that houses almost 30,000 Darfuri refugees, and is surrounded by nothing but sand and scant shrubbery. UNHCR's environmental officer in Chad, Daniel Roger, says the area originally supported no more than 5,000 inhabitants. He says the area's water and firewood simply cannot support both the refugees and the local population much longer. Excessive deforestation has forced refugees to travel 18 miles in search of dead wood.

A major cause of the rapid environmental deterioration, says Roger, has been the abnormally large concentration of people into very small areas, creating a heavy strain on people's resource base and exacerbating tensions. "[Chadians] have the impression that they are being invaded by these people who came from Sudan," he says. "These refugees also have basic needs to satisfy. They are consuming much more than nature is producing and it has created an imbalance."

Most of the tensions between refugees and local Chadians have fallen on women, says Hyba. "Wood and water collection is normally assigned to women. They have to travel quite a far distance, leading to incidences of sexual- or gender-based violence."

In Treguine, another of East Chad's 12 camps, a refugee and 20-year-old mother of two whose name has been withheld for her protection, says she and other women are too afraid to collect wood anymore. "I was beaten by a group of men while I was searching for wood," she says, downcast eyes searching the sand floor of her shack. "There were three of them and they had a gun. Then after they beat me, they raped me."

The appointed leader of Treguine camp, Ishaq Haron, speaks with poise and self-assurance when describing atrocities in Darfur, but when he talks about the refugees' current situation, his voice cracks. "In Sudan, the Janjaweed [Arab militias] would attack women, beat them, and rape them, and here we deal with the same thing."

Liz Lucas, spokesperson for the international relief agency Oxfam, which works on water sanitation in Chad and Darfur, says both Darfur and East Chad face the same environmental challenges. A recent report coauthored by Oxfam says climate change impacts Africa more than many other regions of the world because of widespread poverty, disease and people's daily dependence on natural resources. "Climate change is where it begins," Lucas says. In Darfur, increasingly drier climates and desertification have forced the mostly Arab nomadic pastoralists to graze their livestock on the agricultural lands and pastures of the mostly black non-nomadic populations, leading to repeated conflicts over the past 30 years.

But Lucas says there is more to the current crisis. "The Darfur conflict is not happening because of resource scarcity, but it intensifies [the problems in] the already troubled region." According to refugees, when armed rebel groups rose up in Darfur demanding that the Sudanese government end the political and economic marginalization of their people, President Omar Al-Bashir exploited the pre-existing resource conflicts by arming, financing, and training Arab tribes to target civilian populations. "The drier and the worse it gets there," says Lucas, "the more these already marginalized groups will have to fight for their livelihoods."

CARE's Hyba says in East Chad it is only a matter of time before resource competition between locals and refugees erupts into inter-communal conflict. "In a couple of years, if the refugees are still here, I would imagine that a lot of the peace-building activities would probably be around deadwood collection," she says.

The border between Sudan and Chad is becoming increasingly undefined as the Darfur crisis pulls Chad further into its fold, according to UNHCR's Conway. "In certain areas, Darfur has arrived in Chad," he says.

In Darfur, bombs have been dropped on huts and rape used as a weapon. Some 200,000 to 400,000 have been killed and more than 2.5 million have fled and still hope for immediate return. In the end, the solution to the looming environmental crisis in Chad and Darfur is the same one that will stop the genocide. The Sudanese government has to agree to a just peace that will allow people to safely return home and spread once again across the delicate landscape.

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