04 Oct 2018 Story Disasters & conflicts

Environmental cooperation as a pathway to resolve Nigeria’s deadly farmer-herder conflicts

REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

Nigeria’s central Middle Belt region is home to a diverse cultural population of semi-nomadic cattle herders and farming communities. For decades, the region has experienced increasingly violent attacks that have been partially attributed to direct competition over access and use of natural resources.

According to a report released by the International Crisis Group in July, the violence between Nigerian farmers and herders killed at least 1,300 people in the first half of 2018, claiming “about six times more civilian lives than the Boko Haram insurgency”.

The report, titled Stopping Nigeria’s spiralling farmer-herder violence, stated that the decades-long conflict has been aggravated, by among other factors, by “climate-induced degradation of pasture”.

The transformation of contemporary society through expansion of industries, loss of arable land to drought, sedentary agriculture, housing and other commercial activities, as well as climate change have diminished the availability of pasture. This has led to conflicts between pastoralists and sedentary communities in Nigeria and other countries.

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, speaking during his country’s 58th Independence Day anniversary on 1 October, highlighted concerns about the impact of the conflict and climate change-induced environmental degradation, on human security.

“The age-long conflict between herders and farmers that was being exploited by those seeking to plant the seeds of discord and disunity amongst our people, is being addressed decisively… This being a transhumance issue, we are working with countries in our region that are also facing similar difficulties to complement our common efforts,” said the President.

“We are one of the countries in the world most affected by environmental degradation, as a consequence of climate change… The consequences on lives and livelihoods of the shrinking of Lake Chad, and the pollution caused by oil exploitation activities alone make it mandatory for us to be at the forefront of the struggle for a safer and more sustainable environment. We will continue to mobilize international support for our efforts in this regard,” he added.

Nomadic and semi-nomadic herders such as the Fulani (also known as the Fula or Fulbe) have a long history of migrating and building relationships with various sedentary farming populations in West Africa. These contacts have ranged from coexistence to cooperation or competition and even to conflicts over shared natural renewable resources, namely fresh water and land.

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Fulani herders cross the Niger river on the outskirts of Mopti, in Mali. The Fulani are one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa but because they are scattered, they are a minority in most countries of the region. Photo by REUTERS/Florin Iorganda.

In Nigeria, a substantial percentage of cattle are owned by the Fulani ethnic group who also constitute the core of the country’s traditional pastoralists.  Initially, conflict was mostly confined to the Middle Belt states of Taraba, Benue, Kaduna, Plateau, Nassarawa, and Adamawa. However, clashes appear to have spread to other parts of the country in recent years, including states in the north, and southern regions such as Zamfara, Rivers, Ekiti, Enugu, Ogun, and Bayelsa among others.

In 2008, cognizant of the need to make resource scarcity and competition a platform for cooperation rather than conflict, UN Environment established its Environmental Cooperation for Peacebuilding programme. The initiative seeks to address critical knowledge gaps on the role of natural resources in identifying conflict risks and peacebuilding opportunities.

Between 2009 and 2015, the programme co-generated 150 original peer-reviewed case studies by 225 experts and practitioners, covering 12 natural resource sectors across 60 conflict affected countries. It also provided technical analysis and environmental diplomacy support to Western Sahara, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Papua New Guinea, the Sahel region, Sudan and Nigeria to address ongoing or potential resource disputes. In February 2015, the UN Department of Political Affairs and UN Environment jointly published Natural Resources and Conflict: A guide for mediation practitioners.

“It is critical that countries place the environment at the very centre of preventing, responding to and resolving resource conflicts. We should intensify our efforts to address environmental degradation and to improve resource management as a pathway to build more resilient and peaceful societies,” says David Jensen, Head of Environmental Cooperation for Peacebuilding at UN Environment. 

“Unless we mitigate the impact of climate change through steep and drastic cuts in emissions, the fever which our planet is currently undergoing will worsen. As the global population continues to rise and the demand for resources continues to grow, we need to collaborate to make natural resources a cornerstone for peacebuilding everywhere,” says Jensen.

In April 2018, The Environmental Law Institute, UN Environment and other partners launched the Environmental Peacebuilding Association which provides a multidisciplinary forum to address issues related to environment, conflict and peace.

The Environmental Peacebuilding Association seeks to identify best policy practices, as well as foster knowledge and data exchange while training environmental peacebuilders. It also aims to foster collaboration among scholars, practitioners, decision makers, and others across disciplines, genders, geographical locations and various stages of professional development.

Learn more about UN Environment’s work the environmental causes and consequences of disasters and conflicts.