About six million trees have been cut down in one Darfur municipality, some of them by security personals. As a result, observatory bodies have noted increased desertification and land degradation. With the participation of armed men. Citizens in Darfur have been forced to engage in volunteer campaigns to pressure the government to immediately stop all deforestation in the region.
Food shortages possible due to land degradation and lack of rainfall
Sitting on an elevated patch and overlooking his land in Darfur, western Sudan, fifty-year-old farmer Issa Ali does not know if this year’s harvest will meet his expectations or under-produce, as it has over the past decade. “The soil in this region was rich and produced abundant crops, but now it seems that the entire region is suffering from the effects of climate change,” he observes.
Issa grows beans and cereal in Umm Zaifa in South Darfur. Like millions of others in western Sudan, his livelihood consists of agriculture and herding. He must earn enough to support his family of thirteen.
“The decrease in our yearly harvest worries me,” he says. “One acre of land used to produce about 30 to 40 burlap sacks of beans, but in recent times production has decreased to about 12 to 15 sacks. It is the same for our millet, which has also decreased from 10-20 sacks to 5-10.”
Issa is not the only one who to notice the degradation of fertile land in Sudan. According to the Supreme Council of Natural Resources, over the past decade 12% of arable land has become infertile as a result of desertification stemming from excessive deforestation.
“Darfur is definitely one of the regions most affected by desertification,” says Doctor Mona Abdelhafeez, head of the Desertification Department at the Supreme Council for Environment and Natural Resources, adding that the deterioration has spread across agricultural terrain, pastoral grazing routes and forests.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN, the proportion of forest in Sudan has shrunk by 50% in the last 20 years alone. “Entire forests were completely removed in the far south of Darfur. Our observation is that the removal of said forests contributed to the deterioration of agricultural lands in Darfur and led to climatic changes.”
Abdelhafeez concludes by mentioning that government agencies expect a food shortage in Darfur, especially in the north, where harvests have recently been poor due to a lack of rainfall.
Deforestation a problem the government can’t, or won’t, handle
Deforestation is endemic in Darfur. As a result of the war here and the financial insecurity it engendered, many young Sudanese people have resorted to chopping down trees to sell timber and use wood for energy and heat. Although (feeble) deforestation legislation does exist, the leniency of the authorities has led to millions of trees being cut down every year in different areas of Darfur.
Noticing the adverse effects of deforestation on agriculture, some citizens in Darfur have carried out popular campaigns to protect the environment. Residents of Umm Zaifa in Id Al-Fursan, South Darfur, organised a sit-in that began in March 2021 and lasted for more than 45 days. The first of its kind in Darfur, its purpose was to pressure the authorities to prevent the felling of trees. One aspect that particularly angers civil society is the participation of military personnel in this felling.
Ibrahim Zakaria, an environmental activist in Darfur and one of the sit-in’s organisers, says that about six million trees have been cut down in his municipality over the last few years, prompting him to take action.
“Experts are telling us that the significant decrease of rain in the region, as well as the land degradation and the increase in temperatures, are all linked to deforestation,” he explains. “The aim of the environmental sit-in was to put pressure on the authorities to intervene, apply the deforestation legislation and help locals find alternatives to cutting down trees.”
According to International Monetary Fund statistics, about 47% of the population of Sudan lives below the poverty line. Those figures are even more grim in Darfur, at 61%. It is also the third most densely populated state in Sudan, after the capital Khartoum and Gezira.
Ahmed Suleiman, a long-time Darfur resident, cites economic hardship as the main spur for deforestation. “Many people completely ignore the effects on the environment of cutting down trees. The state needs to work intensively to raise awareness, apply its own laws and create jobs for young people, to encourage them to abandon the cutting down of trees.”
Changing climate only adds to competition for resources
Ahmed Al-Sharif, an expert at the Ministry of Agriculture, says rainfall has decreased significantly in Darfur as a result of climate change.
“This year’s autumn season came late and ended early as a result of climate change, and that will greatly affect this year’s harvest,” he explains. “The vast majority of rain in South Darfur mostly comes in early July and ends at the end of September, but in 2021 the rain fell in August and ended in mid-September.”
South Darfur covers about 24 million acres, three-quarters of it arable. However, only about 8 million acres is actually exploited. An official in South Darfur, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the state targeted cultivation of more than 10 million acres this year, but that due to the lack of rain and the deterioration of agricultural land, that target was not achieved.
Most land in Darfur depends on rain-sustained agriculture, as is the case throughout Sudan, where 93% of the arable land depends on rain. In addition to the decrease in rainfall, temperatures are rising all across the country. Climate data from the seven meteorological stations in Sudan show that both maximum and minimum temperatures increased everywhere except Khartoum and Kadugli.
For Ismail El Gizouli, former head of the UN International Professional Committee on Climate Change, the effects of climate change on the troubled region go back to the Darfur conflict.
“A large part of the Darfur problem came as a result of climatic changes – in fact, the heart of the conflict that occurred in Darfur was a dispute over resources. It is clear that as natural resources began to decrease, the conflict in Darfur exploded,” he said, underlining that climate change is not only an environmental problem but also an economic, social and security problem.
The region was the scene of a war that lasted for more than 20 years, killed more than 300,000 people and displaced more than two million, and was recognised as a global humanitarian catastrophe. And some of the causes of the conflict of the early 2000s have re-emerged over the past year.
According to reports, violence increased in Darfur in autumn, as a result of conflict between farmers and herders over agricultural land. A security source says that more than 250 people are killed annually in Darfur due to direct disputes over arable land. They added that the decrease in the proportion of arable land and the increase in the effects of climate change will lead to a significant increase in violence in the region.
The Environmental Outlook Report expects that population growth in Sudan is projected to increase from 44.43 million to 57.3% million by 2030. That kind of population growth will lead to increased competition for natural resources and an increase in conflict, if durable strategies are not immediately implemented.
This publication was made possible by the Candid Journalism Grant 2021,supported by the Federal Foreign Office of German.