In many ways, the conflicts now being experienced in many parts of Africa are influenced by problems rooted in the past. The militarization of societies and the social tensions which these create often linger long after violence subsides, having long-term affects on opportunities for development and improving human well-being.

During the 1960s and 1970s, many countries achieved political independence from direct colonial control. However in several countries, particularly in Southern Africa, western countries continued to play a pivotal role. In several countries, the anti-colonial struggles which endured for many years had a very destructive impact on social and political life, as well as environmental resources. Indeed, current tensions in several African countries cannot be fully understood without reference to these early struggles.

In Angola, for example, three different groups fought for independence since the 1950s and 1960s. With the ousting of the Portuguese president in 1974, the new military government in Portugal declared a truce with those fighting for independence, and entered into talks. However, conflict between the rebel groups continued, and some residents of oil-rich areas expressed a desire to secede. While the Movimento Popular da Libertação de Angola (MPLA) took over government, two other armed groups, the União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA) and the Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) continued to oppose the MPLA, and intermittent but extremely destructive conflict continued right up to the beginning of the 21st century.

The 1980s were the height of the Cold War, and this had an undeniably strong influence on events across Africa (UN 1998). During the 1990s conflict in Angola was increasingly determined by struggles for diamonds, oil and other resources. This is part of a wider trend in Africa and elsewhere, in which the struggle for access and control of high value natural resources has resulted in, or perpetuated, conflicts. With the end of the Cold War and the loss of external funding from superpower rivalries control over these resources have become much more important to insurgents (Ross 2003). Arvind and Vines (2004), for example, found that UNITA financed its war largely through taxes on the illicit trade in diamonds, particularly between the mid-1990s and 2002. From 1999-2002, UNITA is reported to have earned about US$300 million per year from illicit diamond sales. In Sierra Leone, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) financed its war by trading in illicit diamonds. In the DRC, struggles over the control of diamonds, coltan and timber has prolonged civil war (Arvind and Vines 2004).

One part of the Africa region which has received global attention due to conflict is the Darfur region of Sudan where 1.6 million people were internally displaced in the 2002-03 period and 200 000 others forced to flee as refugees into neighbouring Chad. This ongoing conflict has strong links to environmental and natural resource issues (UNEP and OCHA Environment Unit 2004), as is highlighted in Box 5.

Box 5: Darfur – a region in crisis

The Darfur region in the western part of Sudan is a huge area, the size of Kenya. It ranges from arid rangeland with sandy soils in the north, to the medium-rainfall savannah and forested mountains of the resource-rich Jebel Marra of the west, to the woodland plains of the south.

Rainfall has been steadily declining over the last 30 years, which has had negative impacts on farming communities and pastoral peoples. Many pastoralists migrate seasonally with their animals from the drier north, which is part of the Sahara, to the more agriculturally productive south. The region is home to about 90 ethnic groups.

The root causes of the conflict have been identified as drought and creeping desertification, access to land and water, deforestation and local environmental governance:

  • Land: The northern part of Darfur is affected by Sahelian drought cycles. Drought has been almost continuously experienced since 1967, with only short interruptions. This area is widely believed to be undergoing creeping desertification. Environmental stress is increasing due to the combination of drought and high livestock numbers. Increasing stock numbers are related to falls in export prices and, in other instances, to bans on exports. By the 1980s, serious degradation was evident including the clearance of tree cover in water catchment.
  • Water: There is a perpetual cycle of conflict around water provisioning: migrating communities rely on access to water pumps which are usually maintained by local (settled) communities. However, conflict leads to population displacement, and water pumps are, therefore, not maintained. The falling number of water points then contributes to new pastoral movements, which can further exacerbate the conflict.
  • Forests: Deforestation is also a cause of conflict. Nomadic communities are accused by agricultural communities of cutting down palatable trees to allow goats to browse on higher branches. In some places farmland has been encroached on as established migration patterns have changed due to an increasing incidence of drought and desertification in northern Darfur.
  • Local environmental governance: Until the 1970s, access to natural resources was determined according to customary law. However, the government abolished this system in the early 1970s but were not able to effectively implement the new system. In the vacuum that resulted, governance and managerial conflicts emerged: some ignored the traditional regulations and yet at the same time new systems where not full adopted. Changes in village level governance systems were also an important factor. The power of local traditional leaders was effectively curtailed in the early 1980s, when government administrators took responsibility for local affairs. However, these administrators are often seen as inexperienced and lack credibility and have been unable to establish effective laws. For example, in the past, local leaders enforced strict regulations on the timing and route of pastoral migrations; however, these have since broken down.

This conflict has had multiple negative effects on development, human well-being and environmental resources. In addition to displacing millions of people, the following are important areas of concern:

  • Water and waste management issues are critical in some camps;
  • Environmental considerations and available solutions are not consistently integrated into relief efforts; and
  • A relief assistance gap forces internally displaced peoples to deplete natural resources to survive, with significant humanitarian and environmental consequences.

Sources: Gasana 2002, Huggins 2004, UNEP and OCHA Environment Unit 2004