A United Nations (UN) report claiming that “climate change, land degradation and the resulting competition over scarce natural resources are among the root causes” of the Darfur conflict has been met with scepticism by experts on the region. Although these factors contributed, they say, the UN overstates the case.

The 358-page Sudan Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment, released on 22 June by the UN Environmental Programme, is in the main a comprehensive treatise on environmental management. “It seems to have been thoughtfully and professionally done,” says Martha Saavedra, associate director of the Center for African Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

But like many experts, Saavedra questions the UN's spin, which has played up the role of environmental degradation. Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General, stressed this theme in a 16 June article in the Washington Post entitled “A Climate Culprit In Darfur”. His piece painted a tragic picture of resource scarcity triggering conflict between herders and settled farmers who had previously coexisted peacefully.

Do Darfur's problems stem from resource scarcity? Credit: M. KAMBER/REUTERS

“Almost invariably, we discuss Darfur in a convenient military and political shorthand — an ethnic conflict pitting Arab militias against black rebels and farmers,” Ban wrote. “Look to its roots, though, and you discover a more complex dynamic. Amid the diverse social and political causes, the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change.”

Alex de Waal, an expert on Darfur at the Social Science Research Council in New York, agrees that the dynamic is complex — and warns that the environmental argument, too, raises “a danger of oversimplifying Darfur.” Darfurians have adapted to environmental change for centuries, he points out. “Over the past thirty years, change has occurred at a faster pace and on a larger scale,” he says. “But depleted natural resources and livelihood transformations cannot on their own account for armed conflict.”

The true culprit in Darfur is the National Islamic Front, which came to power in Khartoum in a military coup in 1989. It was bent on expanding its political base though ethnic cleansing, using terror as a tactic, says Eric Reeves, an analyst of Sudan at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. “This is not about competition over resources.”

“There will always be conflict, but having good, regular conflict regulating and resolution mechanisms — legitimate governing systems — is key,” agrees Saavedra, adding that although these issues are referred to in the report, the political issues that lie at the heart of the conflict are sidestepped.

A version of the Darfur conflict would have occurred whatever the environmental changes, says Reeves, adding that they cannot be used as an alibi for the international community's failure to prevent the genocide. “You don't have a diminishment in rain, and then an uncontrolled genocidal conflict; this just doesn't correspond to the political realities in Darfur.”