Darfur Conflict: Oil, Poverty and Land Degradation

Even though the Janjaweed are considered to be the main perpetrators of the humanitarian crisis in Sudan, Reinhard Baumgarten in his background report identifies further factors at the heart of the conflict.

Even though the Janjaweed are considered to be the main perpetrators of the humanitarian crisis, Reinhard Baumgarten in his background report identifies further factors at the heart of the conflict.

photo: AP
Besides the Janjaweed militias, the Darfur region is in turmoil for other reasons as well

​​Up to 50,000 people have died and more than a million been driven from their homes since ethnic minority rebels launched an uprising early last year against the Sudanese army and its Arab militia allies, leading to brutal reprisals and ethnic cleansing.

Despite the humanitarian drama, booming oil sales are currently enabling the rich in the Sudanese capital Khartoum to line their pockets. The money is also enabling the Arab militia and the Sudanese army to buy weapons, thereby further fuelling the conflict in Darfur.

In Northern Darfur, three thousand, possibly even four thousand camels are on their way to fresh pastures north of the provincial centre of Kutum. The majestic animals are ridden by Arabic nomads of the Maharir tribe. They are accompanied by woman, children and old people. Their entire belongings are strapped onto the backs of the camels.

Arab militia in Sudanese army uniforms

Janjaweed riders – Arab militia – accompany the group. They wear uniforms of the Sudanese army and are armed with Kalaschnikows. The government in Khartoum say they need arms for their own protection. But two African farmers from Kofour tell a different story.

"They came on camels and stole everything we possessed," one farmer says. "Our camels, our donkey, everything. From Kutum to El Lukus, all you see is violence and weapons. They have plundered everything from Maroiout to Beriga."

"Eleven Janjaweed attacked Kufut on foot," another farmer tells us. "Another sat a small distance away and watched from a camel. They attacked us from all sides. We were surrounded."

Slaughter under the eyes of UN observers

It is impossible to ascertain how many camels the Janjaweed stole on this day. The rebels say more than 30 Africans were killed on the occasion. All this happened under the eyes of United Nations observers. Mr Vincent is Kenyan and special United Nations rapporteur. He says that during the event, a Russian-built Antonov of the Sudanese air force circled in the sky.

"The Janjaweed are cooperating with the government, now more so than ever; that's because Khartoum wants to appease them. We are observing that they have stopped burning down houses, but instead they ransack arbitrarily and they intimidate people. It's not an improvement, but old wine in new bottles, if you will."

Estimates of 50,000 people killed

This event is typical of what has been going on during the past months. As many as 50,000 people are thought to have been killed as a direct result of the conflict in Western Sudan. For weeks, the government in Kahrtum has been promising to disarm the Janjaweed.

Sudan's foreign minister on Monday said the 30-day deadline for action on Darfur set by the U.N. Security Council on Friday is 'illogical' and that his country will implement a 90-day program agreed to earlier with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

"My personal opinion is that the government really wants to trick the international community," according to the UN official Vincent. "The very same Janjaweed have returned, only now they're dressed in the official army uniform."

Many of the Janjaweed have meanwhile been integrated into the Sudanese security forces. The only difference is that the villagers are now afraid to go to the police to report and events, because they do not know if they will be reporting to a Janjaweed or a policeman.

Underdevelopment and poverty reasons for Darfur troubles

One way or the other, the disarmament of the murderous gangs would only be a first step towards pacifying the region. Underdevelopment and poverty were the reasons for the initial uprising of the black African population against the central government in Khartoum, which in turn led to reprisals on the part of the Arab militia.

Darfur is hopelessness underdeveloped and the poor house of the impoverished Sudan. Slightly more than six million people live in Darfur, a region approximately as big as France.

Abdurahman Ibrahim teaches at the university of al-Fasher, the capital of the province of North Darfur. He says there are less than 200 kilometres of paved roads there.

No infrastructure in an impoverished region

"The infrastructure is only very weakly developed. Darfur is a remote area, and it is extremely difficult to reach and to travel. In most cases, Darfur products do not even reach the country's central markets."

A cattle market in al-Fasher, the provincial capital of North Darfur. Sheep can be bought here, along with goats, donkey, cows and camels. Despite the crisis and despite the war there is a great deal of animals on offer.

During the last 50 years, the number of cattle in all of Darfur has quadrupled – to the detriment of the region's extremely fragile ecosystem.

Large parts of the region are either desert, semi-arid or savannah. The number of people in Darfur has risen dramatically. Within the space of only two generations, the population from slightly more than one million has risen to over six million.

More than 60 percent of the population of Darfur depend natural resources to survive. They need fire wood, charcoal and grass for the cattle. But the resources are dwindling.

Dwindling natural resources

Despite the fact that the rainy season has already started in Darfur – making it difficult for humanitarian organisations to provide relief aid – bursts of torrential rainfall are getting rarer from year to year.

The amount of rain has dropped during the last four decades from on average 400 millimetres to only 200 to 250 millimetres – a decrease of around 50 percent. Mohammed Sidiq is environmental expert in al-Fasher:

"One of the reasons for the war in Darfur is the exhaustion of the natural resources; the conflict among the tribes, among cattle farmers and ordinary farmers."

During the last 30 years, there have been ten droughts in Darfur. It's a vicious cycle: Less rain means less vegetation, less cattle feed, less crops. The longer the dry spells get, the less chance the vegetation gets to recover.

And less vegetation means less rain. The fact that tens of thousands of people are now squashed together in refugee camps further compounds the problem:

65,000 refugees in and around al-Fasher

"All trees in the al-Fasher region have been felled and been used as fire wood; or the soldiers have sold it. The people in the camps need wood in order to prepare their meals. And there are currently more than 65,000 refugees in and around a-Fasher."

65,000 refugees – that means around 13 thousand households. Every household consumes roughly a tree a month as firewood. The alternative would be gas, but that is not available and the refugees would not be able to afford it anyway.

Every year, the desert in Darfur shifts 5 to 8 kilometres towards the south. Should it not quickly be afforested, then the town of al-Fasher will be surrounded by desert within the next 10 or 15 years.

Those factors need to be taken into consideration in dealing with the current crisis. They run deeper than might appear at first sight.

Reinhard Baumgarten


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