Land Degradation, Climate Change, Forced Migration, Emerging Conflicts

2 September 2015
The continuing cycles of ecological, economic and political crises have put humanity on red alert. Climate catastrophes, hunger, poverty, unemployment, crime, conflicts and wars seem to be hurtling us towards social collapse.

Whether it is the rise in violence in Punjab in l984, or in Syria and Ni- geria today, the conflicts originate in the destruction of soil and water, and the inability of land to sustain livelihoods. Unfortunately, however, the conflicts are not seen in their ecological contexts and are relegated instead to religious motives, with violence and militarisation offered as solutions.

Aggressive economies and anti-democratic politics feed on and fuel vulnerable cultures and identities. Historically cultures have been shaped by the land, and cultural diversity has co-evolved with biological diversity. The land provides people with a sense of identity.

As people are displaced and insecurities grow, identity is transformed and destroyed. Among these vulnerable cultures and identities, terrorism, extremism, and xenophobia take virulent form. Vicious cycles of violence and exclusion – cultural, political, economic – predominate.

While the dominant paradigm reduces the growing conflicts in the world to ethnic and religious violence, in addition to land grab, land degradation is very often at the root of these conflicts.

It has been said that if you want to destroy a people all you need to do is to destroy their soil. When people are dislocated from their territo- ries the intricate web that links peoples and communities to the soil is broken and can be irretrievably lost. According to the UNCCD, 40% of the intrastate conflicts over a 60 year period were associated with land and natural resources. There are strong linkages between many of the intrastate conflicts we see today and the control and allocation of natural resources by states. The exposure of more and more people to water scarcity and hunger opens the door to the failure of fragile states and regional conflicts.

In sub Saharan Africa, the combined challenge of an increased popu- lation, demands on natural resources and the effects of climate change (particularly drought) on food and water supplies are likely to lead to tension, which could result in conflict.

The convergence of financial, food, climate and energy crises impact soils and peoples in many ways. Coupled with wars these translate into waves of internally and externally displaced persons. Uprooted persons are vulnerable to other exploitations and the soils they once knew and defended are open for appropriation, despoliation and general harm.

1 – Desertification vulnerability in Africa

2 – Conflicts and food riots in Africa 2008 2007-2008

3 – Terrorist Attacks 2012

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These three maps of vividly show the concentrations of past terrorist attacks, food riots and other conflicts in areas thatare vulnerable to desertification.Desertification – Inaction, recipe for international political and economic chaos (Source – UNCCD)

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Lake Chad – decrease in area 1963, 1973, 1987, 1997 and 2001. (Source – UNEP22)

In rural areas where people depend on scarce productive land resources, land degradation is a driver of forced migration. An estimated 42% of households intensify their seasonal mobility in the event of poor harvests, while 17% migrate when there is crop destruction and 13% leave in the case of strong climatic events such as extreme droughts. By 2050, 200 million people may be permanently displaced environmental migrants.

Before the Syrian uprising of 2011, 60% of Syria’s land experienced the most severe and prolonged drought, causing crop failures in the land where agriculture began in the Fertile Crescent some 12,000 years ago. Extreme events like intense droughts are one aspect of global climate change. The impact of the drought was aggravated by non-sustainable use of land and water through promotion of non-sustainable agriculture. More than 80% crops failed, more than 75% livestock died, wiping out livelihoods and forcing a mass migration of more than a million farmers and herders to cities contributing to social instability and the country’s civil war.

This has created 6.5 million refugees internally, and 3 million refugees who have moved to neighbouring countries.

In Nigeria Boko Haram is presented as an extremist religious movement. However, as Luc Gnacadja, the head of the UNCCD has attested, “the depletion of Lake Chad helped create the conditions for conflict. In much of northern Nigeria, Muslim herders are in competi- tion with Christian farmers for dwindling water supplies. The so-called religious fight is actually about access to vital resources.

It is not just about Boko Haram, in the Sahel belt, you will see almost the same challenge in Mali and in Sudan. Furthermore, men who were or would have been gainfully employed as farmers, fishermen, fish sellers and pastoralists have now been conscripted into Boko Haram with many of them participating in the deadly night raids of the terrorist group. Without a minimum of security of access to the land, restoration of land through investment is not possible. Peace is a prerequisite”.

The energy crisis coupled with peak oil has led to extreme extraction including hydraulic fracturing otherwise known as fracking. The literal scrapping of the barrel for crude oil means that any territory where the product is found is fair game for the exploiting oil companies and speculators. In other words, no territory is sacred.

The call for leaving fossil fuels untapped remains mere calls as oil companies dig in to shore their profits, extend the used of their infrastructure and keep piling unaccounted for costs on the soil. Soil pollution from mining and crude oil extraction has made farming impossible in previously arable land.

The future of humanity is based on how we care for the soil and the land. The well-being of the soil shapes the wealth and well-being of society. A non-sustainable and violent relationship with the land is creating violence in society. Reducing nature to resources for exploita- tion for economic growth, and not assessing the costs of the extractive economy, has brought humanity to the brink.

Our common survival demands that we make a transition from vicious cycles of violence to virtuous cycles of nonviolence; from negative economies of death and destruction to living economies that sustain life on earth and our lives; from negative politics and cultures that are leading to mutual annihilation to living democracies which include concern for and participation of all life.

We can choose another path. A path that leads to a new vision of planetary citizenship and a new pact with the Earth based on reciprocity, caring and respect, on taking and giving back, on sharing the resources of the world equitably among all living species.

The land and the Earth are inviting us to participate in a grand renewal and restoration of humus, and through it the potential of our humanity.


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‘Terra Viva’ — Our Soil, Our Commons, Our Future