The Securitization of Environmental Policies

Grasping the Nexus? The Darfur Case

South Darfur Landscape
The Securitization of Environmental Policies : Grasping the Nexus? The Darfur Case - Maria Raquel Freire, Paula Duarte Lopes and Daniela Nascimento


In light of the political identification of Darfur as the first climate change violent conflict, this paper analyzes the Darfur case within the environmental securitization framework, discussing the underlying dynamics of the current situation. The paper argues that the environment-security nexus has to be analyzed in the domestic-international border and that the a-securitization of environmental policies with due regard to Darfur has been a fundamental, conceptual and operational obstacle to progress towards peace. Therefore, the internalization of this dialectic relation in politics and action is here understood as an essential step to address the root causes of violent conflict in Darfur.

“The root of the Darfur conflict is a struggle over controlling an environment that can no longer support all the people who must live on it.”

- Environmentalist Wangari Maathai, 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Winner


Environmental issues have been increasingly associated with security issues. From the twenty-first century water wars to issues of national self-sufficiency to spill-over effects of uncontrolled migration, environmental concerns became incorporated into security agendas. This process, particularly after the end of the Cold War, has been discussed and theorized within the framework of the Copenhagen School on the securitization of issues, which traditionally had not been thought of as a security concern. Securitizing the environment changes the national dynamics towards environmental policies, because these same policies become a matter of security, with all the implications this exceptional categorization implies. The securitization of the environment, or of any other issue for that matter, changes not only the policies but also the instruments and the personnel available to deal with the new “security threat.”

Several, however, such as Daniel Deudney,1 have criticized the linkage between environment and security. The danger of securitization is the militarization of all aspects of life. Moreover, the efficiency of the military to protect and conserve the environment is highly questionable. Since the environment is a highly complex ecosystem, “guarding” the environment by controlling access and use may make sense from a theoretical and even administrative point of view, but from an ecosystemic point of view it is illogical. There are too many variables and connections for an efficient military approach to be able to predict and control for all the relevant possibilities. It may bring relief momentarily, but in the medium- to long-run, the problem will not be solved, efficiently managed or even its consequences mitigated.

Others, such as Thomas Homer-Dixon,2 have presented evidence indicating that this link may make sense domestically, but not internationally. There has been no actual record of international environmental violent conflict. The environment has been an aggravating factor in some cases, but never the trigger or root cause for the violence. Domestically, however, one can find examples of local violence related to access and use of certain environmental resources. Therefore, in certain circumstances, and for certain issues, the environmental dynamics do affect traditional security concerns and policies. Furthermore, these domestic dynamics have the potential to spill over across borders and create security concerns for neighboring countries, becoming an international security issue.

Darfur has been identified as the first violent conflict resulting from climate change.3 Several have acknowledged the link between the Darfur crisis and environmental stress, including the United Nations Secretary-General.4 The issue, however, is that the Darfur crisis is not just a result of a typical struggle for resources. This struggle, which exists in so many other contexts, has been gravely exacerbated “through a changing climate.”5 The roots of the conflict go back to the drought in the northern part of the country that has been aggravated due to climate change,6 and the subsequent migration of northerners to the Darfur region. With no domestic policy or management of the situation, Darfurians thus had to share their dwindling environmental resources with an increasing population. In fragile ecosystems, any increase in the rate of human consumption can disrupt their ecosystem’s equilibrium, especially if it is accompanied by escalating environmental scarcity conditions due to a changing climate.7 Consequently, the absence of an environmental management approach along with a facilitating migration stance resulted in an over exploitation of the Darfur environmental resources, namely water and croplands, threatening the livelihoods of Darfurians, both southern farmers and northern migrants alike. This situation has been exacerbated by the violent approach the northerners have adopted in trying to guarantee access and use by force and forcing southern Darfurians’ displacement to facilitate their first strategy.

In this setting, this paper starts by presenting the theoretical framework for linking environment and security and the criticisms that have ensued from this approach. It specifically discusses the securitization process of the environment and the different arguments for and against it. In light of the political identification of Darfur as the first climate change violent conflict, the paper analyzes the Darfur case within the environmental securitization framework, discussing the underlying dynamics of the current situation. The paper argues that the environment-security nexus has to be analyzed in the domestic-international border and that the a-securitization of environmental policies with due regard to Darfur has been a fundamental, conceptual and operational obstacle to progress towards peace. Therefore, the internalization of this dialectic relation in politics and action is here understood as an essential step to conveniently address and eventually overcome the root causes of violent conflict in Darfur.

The Environment-Security Nexus

The over-concentration on military security throughout the Cold War decades excluded other security areas from the political agendas. Despite their existence, these areas were simply irrelevant in a context where the focus on militarization prevailed. The end of the bipolar rivalry and the fundamental systemic changes after the collapse of the Soviet Union allowed these various security areas to have a different expression in politics and actions. The security sectors proposal of the Copenhagen School reflects well the broadening and deepening of the conceptualization of security and the multiple understandings that are implied in its complex designs.8 By acknowledging a multi-level framework for analysis, the authors expand explanatory variables to include both systems and units. In addition, in these differentiated levels of analysis, the security agenda emerges as a diversified proposal, where mapped sectors allow for an aggregated look at security. These include military security, political security, economic security, societal security and environmental security.9 The latter is defined as concerning “the maintenance of the local and the planetary biosphere as the essential support system on which all other human enterprises depend.”10 At the basis of this conceptualization is the acknowledged need to achieve sustainable development.11

This inclusion of environmental issues in the securitization framework allows a differentiated look over the implications and consequences of environmental dynamics on conflicting scenarios, such as the case of Darfur. In addition, it allows for the analysis of how environmental matters are gradually securitized, gaining a renewed expression in the political-security agendas. Thus, advancing further with the concept of securitization, Buzan, Waever and de Wilde argue that security is “a self-referential practice, because it is in this practice that [an] issue becomes a security issue—not necessarily because a real existential threat exists but because the issue is presented as such a threat.”12 Thus, securitization occurs when an issue is taken out of the realm of “normal politics.”13 “The exact definition and criteria of securitization is constituted by intersubjective establishment of an existential threat with a saliency sufficient to have substantial political effects.”14

In a process of securitization there are the referent objects, those referred to by the securitization actor as constituting a threat, and functional actors, those who influence decisions in the process, but are not securitization actors. In this formula, it “is always a political choice to securitize or to accept a securitization.”15 Therefore it implies for its empowerment the recognition of the securitization actor’s authority, and the general understanding of the issue as a threat. This underlines the need for a convincing approach able to mobilize an audience.16

When rules are violated and this violation is tolerated on the basis of a convincing argument of security urgency regarding an existential threat, we stand before a case of securitization. This means that the analysis of political rhetoric and discourse, along with political interactions and the international context where these take place are relevant elements in the securitization process. The reversal of the process is the return of the securitized issue to the realm of “normal politics” defined as the process of desecuritization. And this is “the optimal long-range option, since it means not to have issues phrased as ‘threats against which we have countermeasures’ but to move them out of this threat-defense sequence and into the ordinary public sphere.”17 However, the re-securitization of an issue might occur whenever it is recapped and brought again into the exceptional dimension by an act of securitization.

In the case of Darfur it is possible to identify all these elements in the securitization equation—referent objects, securitization actors, functional actors— though the political actors in the country have remained uncommitted to the process of securitization of environmental matters. Looking at environmental resources in particular, this sidelining of what has become a central security issue from the security agenda has been an enormous obstacle to addressing the root causes of the conflict in Darfur. The implication arising from this distancing is the treatment of environmental issues as “normal politics” and therefore an absence of these matters from the country’s high level political agenda. As such, the political establishment remains focused on ethnic-political and factional factors as explanatory variables for the conflict. This treatment of the conflict keeps the instability at a high level with “the streets of Khartoum (…) pervaded by a combination of fear and anger—fear of what might happen if war resumes and anger over alleged intrigues and broken commitments.”18 Factional political disagreements clearly overplay environmental concerns.

However, the linkage of security and the environment is not a linear one. Daniel Deudney draws attention to the abusive appropriation that might result from a securitization process, with a militarized response.19 This is an extreme case response, though. In the case of Darfur this could mean a distortion of the problem – scarce environmental resources—to a politicized use and abuse of power. Again, the environmental problematique would remain secondary to power control clan-based arguments. Moreover, with regard to the nature of environmental matters, in general these cross borders and require a joint-shared approach. This transnational character adds to the relevance of environmental security, as not only having domestic impact, but also international consequences. In this regard, Homer-Dixon advances with a proposal over examples of local violence related to access and use of certain environmental resources.20

Environmental Scarcity and Violence

Thomas Homer-Dixon21 has researched the nexus between environmental scarcity and violent conflicts, to conclude it was positive. He and his team argue that environmental scarcity may result in or exacerbate existing violent situations.22 Homer-Dixon defines environmental scarcity as “scarcity of renewable resources, such as cropland, forests, river water, and fish stocks.”23 This scarcity is a result of an increase in demand and/or a decrease in supply of these resources and/or their unequal distribution. These changes can lead to endemic poverty, large scale migrations, growing social tensions and, consequently, to a weakening of social and political institutions, rendering them institutionally fragile and therefore more conducive to instability. And it is this instability that can result in violence or exacerbate an existing violent conflict. In Darfur, one can easily identify these dynamics. First, in the North, there was a decrease in food supply due to persistent drought as a result of climate change, which determined mass migration to the southern part of Darfur. There, supply had also diminished as a result of changing climate and this situation was aggravated by an increased demand coming from the northern migrants. This situation was further exacerbated by the resort to violence to guarantee access and use of the diminishing resources, creating an unequal distribution system based solely on sheer violent force.

Thomas Homer-Dixon clarifies that the relation between environmental scarcity and violence is not direct, i.e., environmental scarcity is neither a necessary nor even a sufficient condition to trigger organized armed violence. The relation between environmental scarcity and violent conflict is a two-step causal relation.24 Environmental scarcity interacts with economic, social and political conditions, which in turn determine the peaceful or violent development of the conflict in question. The author identifies five types of violent conflicts,25 although he concludes that the most likely types of conflict due to environmental scarcity are “ethnic clashes arising from population migration and deepened social cleavages due to environmental scarcity,” which again sheds light on the Darfur crisis, and “civil strife (including insurgency, banditry, and coups d’état) caused by environmental scarcity that affects economic productivity and, in turn, people’s livelihoods, the behavior of elite groups, and the ability of states to meet these changing demands.”26 He further specifies that these types of dynamics will take place primarily in developing countries, since these are the least ready to face these changes and overcome them in a peaceful manner.

It is also crucial to diagnose the other end of this process: the causes of environmental scarcity. What are the factors that can result in an increase in demand or decrease in supply of environmental resources or exacerbate the unequal distribution of those resources? These factors include increasing population, either by birth or by migration; decreasing availability of resources due to environmental degradation and natural or human-induced dynamics, such as climate change; and resource allocation regimes that may determine or facilitate an unequal distribution of those resources.27 The most updated reports on climate change provide us with scenarios that include these factors, further reinforcing the probabilities of the nexus between environmental scarcity and violent conflicts. The 2007/2008 Human Development Report recognizes that it will be impossible to directly attribute any specific event to climate change, identifying, however, “transmission mechanisms” through which climate change can contribute indirectly to exacerbating and creating violent conflicts.28 Climate change can result in a decrease in agricultural production and/or water availability creating environmental scarcity. This process can lead to increased pressure on the existing resources, challenging their allocations systems, and/or trigger mass migration to other regions, which, in turn, will also increase pressure on that region’s resources. These dynamics lead clearly to situations of environmental scarcity as identified by Homer-Dixon. The Report recognizes, just like Homer-Dixon, that “none of [the] separate drivers will operate in isolation. They will interact with wider social, economic and ecological processes.”29 Analyzing the Darfur crisis through these lenses contributes to “untangling the knots of a complex crisis,” as stated by the United Nations Secretary-General.30

One of the most vulnerable regions exposed to environmental scarcity identified in all reports on this topic is Africa, more precisely, Sub-Saharan Africa. The causes of these complex situations are clearly identified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Reports as including “structural inequalities, resource mismanagement, predatory States,” “land distribution and land scarcity.”31 Sudan is explicitly mentioned in both the Human Development and IPCC reports. The Human Development Report specifically includes Sudan in the group of countries where it is considered that “changed climate patterns will become drivers for conflict,” but that this is occurring already “against the backdrop of a long-term decline in rainfall” for the last 40 years.32

The Darfur Case

As seen before, environmental scarcity is increasingly being seen as contributing to violent conflicts in many parts of the developing world. These conflicts are probably signs of an upsurge of violence in the coming decades that may be induced or aggravated by scarcity.33 As we shall see below, Darfur can be considered a very clear example of such a trend.

The Origins of the Darfur Conflict

The human tragedy in Darfur is no longer new. Since it started in 2003 until today, the dramatic situation in the region has not changed significantly. After some euphoria motivated by the recent acceptance of a hybrid military force (composed of United Nations and African Union soldiers),34 responsible for keeping peace in the region, the promises of peace and the true commitment by the belligerent parties seem increasingly void. In fact, with a significant deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Darfur and the many stalemates in a complex peace process involving the main belligerent parties and the highest representatives of the international community, with several peace agreements signed and violated, the crisis seems far from being solved. Violence in Darfur worsened when rebel groups in the region tried to get some peace dividends from the peace negotiations between the government and the southern rebels related to power and wealth sharing,35 with reports from humanitarian organizations drawing attention to massacres and forced displacements being committed against Darfur populations, and perpetrated by government-supported armed militias, janjaweed. There were also reports of confrontations between the two main rebel groups in the region— Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM)—contesting decades of political and socio-economic marginalization by the central government.36

In a broader framework, the current crisis has part of its roots in historical conflicts and disputes over resources and power that have been persistent in Darfur. At times one of the most prosperous regions of Sudan, Darfur was progressively subject to political and economic neglect by the successive governments and regimes, but in particular by the dictatorial and sectarian government of Beshir, in power since 1989.

During the colonial period, the British sought to rule the territory by co-opting the traditional leadership, one ethnic group at a time, by awarding a tribal homeland to each group and giving them jurisdiction over the civil affairs of the territory. It was administration on the cheap, with only minimal health and education services provided,37 mostly limited to privileged elite members. This led to the replacement of fluid social relations and ethnic boundaries, which had been traditional and common in the territory, with a strict and rigid form of “native administration.” Sudan’s formal independence in 1956 did not change the situation significantly and the ruling elites were replaced only to continue a strategy of neglect of the Darfur region. With the 1972 Addis Ababa peace agreement,38 the central government delegated responsibility for basic services to the region, but not the revenues or revenue raising capacity: resources were still retained and redistributed by the central government.39 During this time, the central government continued failing to provide Darfur with the necessary financial and material resources to deal with displacement and famine relief. It had also previously abolished the structures of tribal administrations, whose authorities had routinely negotiated and regulated seasonal and temporary movements of persons and livestock.

Against the backdrop of environmental degradation, government weaknesses and manipulation of the ethnic fabric of the region gradually produced an alarming shift in the nature of conflict, with ethnicity becoming a major mobilizing factor.40 By labeling this conflict as tribal and, therefore, inevitable, the various Sudanese governments (especially the current one) reinforced this view and were able to continue a policy of total political and socioeconomic neglect of one of Africa’s poorest and driest regions through a violent military strategy against the rebels. The problem is that besides being a markedly multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, Sudan is also one of the most racist countries in Africa, with social relations being based on deeply discriminatory laws. This geographic, ethnic and religious complexity also contributes to political complexity fed by a current central government clearly favoring pro-governmental Arab groups and simply interested in maintaining power and the status quo. Therefore, the divide-and-rule governmental strategy, repression, political and socio-economic marginalization of large sectors of the Sudanese population and a deeply fundamentalist vision of Islam applied blindly in the whole territory, have all created instability and deep discontent of many groups who found in armed rebellion the only way to contest and resist the government policies. As a result, dominant interpretations and justifications of the Darfur conflict have tended to focus on the opposition between Arabs and Africans competing for scarce resources and political and economic power.

In our view, however, this is a very simplified interpretation which distorts attention from the multiple and much more complex causes and variables at the root of this conflict. In fact, although Darfur (and Sudan as a whole) is in reality home to a great variety of distinct ethnic groups, it is also true that these distinctions have also been made less clear or important as a result of centuries of inter-group marriages and fluid relations. In this sense, it is our assumption that the current conflict must be read and interpreted in a much broader framework of violence and instability that has been affecting Sudan (and Darfur) at least since its independence. As Prunier wisely states:

“as we dig through the layers of causation of this complicated war, we will come to see it as a deeply sad story about the struggles of resilient people, poor even by Sudanese standards, who have been pitted against each other by a forbidding environment, a long history of political neglect and a ruthless national government.”41

The Environmental Factor

Besides this political and economic marginalization and neglect, Darfur has also been frequently affected by intense and recurrent droughts that have destroyed, in certain areas irreversibly, an important part of its agricultural and cattle grazing activity. According to some recent computer modeling, it is suggested that “rain patterns over Africa are influenced not by the over-grazing practices of the people who lived in the region, but rather by rising ocean temperatures, which reflect global warming and the rise of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”42 The implications of global warming are thus far-reaching. Besides the economic and ecological consequences, there is the prospect that as global warming’s effects become more severe and widespread, it will lead to more conflicts, as groups who have coexisted until now begin to feel a sense of urgency over the diminishing resources of water and land.43

Adding to the political and geographical complexity of Sudan in general and Darfur in particular, the sharp decline in rainfall throughout the 1970s led to the erosion of soil and the depletion of croplands in the region of Darfur.44 This desertification process affected northern Darfur at first, but moved progressively southwards. The northern nomadic herders fled to the southern areas in huge numbers, intensifying the ongoing process of desertification and causing inter-tribal discord. Due to the deteriorating environmental conditions, the cattle movements from South to North were limited and the animal grazing areas have been increasingly turned over to cultivation as alternative sources of income for farmers.45 This was further complicated by the refugee movement from Chad in the West,46 as many armed nomadic people resettled in Darfur during the Chadian clashes.47

The threats to peaceful coexistence and the social cohesion of the entire community and the subsequent competition between settled pastoralist farmers and nomads ended up inciting local tensions and the emergence of relatively violent resource-based conflicts in Darfur. In fact, an International Crisis Group report states that over the last three decades, “traditional” conflicts over resources or livestock have occurred both within the major Arab and non-Arab groups as well as between them.48 Again, this escalation of violence is usually attributed to the region’s underdevelopment and the deliberate strategy of the Sudanese government to weaken the traditional administration systems that had always helped Darfur’s tribes regulate their affairs and conflicts.49

It seems, however, that scarcity of water, deforestation, claimed inequality in the distribution of available resources, and the lack of domestic securitization of these issues have increasingly been contributing to the Darfur conflict. According to a United Nation Environmental Program Report, after an 18 month study of Sudan, it was concluded that the conflict in Darfur has been driven by climate change and environmental degradation, which threaten to trigger a succession of new wars across Africa unless more is done to contain the damage.50

The Securitization of Environmental Policies in Darfur: An Assessment

The ongoing drought in the north of Sudan has had two main direct consequences, which have contributed to the conflict in Darfur. First, the drought forced people to move south, changing the demographics in Darfur. Currently, there are about 2.4 million internally displaced persons51 in Darfur, exacerbating the pressure over already scarce resources. Second, this drought determined a change in the livelihoods of northern people, who were forced to switch from nomadic to sedentary life, in search of better living conditions. This change led to an increased pressure over cropland. These dynamics interacted with the already unequal distribution of resources mainly due to mismanagement, poor governance, corruption and armed militias, further aggravating scarcity and poverty. The combination of increased population, decreased available resources and their unequal distribution constitute “transmission mechanisms” clearly aggravating and contributing to Darfur’s violent conflict.

Despite the existence of an identifiable threat—environmental scarcity—the potential securitization actors, namely at the decision-making level, as well as functional agents with the capacity to influence the securitization process, have not yet taken steps accordingly. This means that the environmental-security nexus is neither recognized nor acted upon, constituting a fundamental obstacle towards addressing the root causes of the Darfur conflict. In addition, and following the Copenhagen securitization framework, there is no audience in Sudan consciously aware of this connection either ready to mobilize or be mobilized. Nevertheless, there are international actors who acknowledge this link. For instance, the European Union recognizes in its Report on Climate change and international security that “[c]limate change is best viewed as a threat multiplier which exacerbates existing trends, tensions and instability. The core challenge is that climate change threatens to overburden states and regions which are already fragile and conflict prone.”52 This conclusion reflects the need for internalizing environmental threats as security issues. Although international securitization actors do exist on this matter, and despite all the dynamics already explained, environmental scarcity is still not considered a vital element of the security equation in Sudan. The situation in Darfur is still very much driven and approached from a power politics perspective. Security concerns as a result of environmental scarcity seem to be a non-issue for political authorities in the country.


In this scenario, the future of Darfur remains uncertain. It seems clear, however, that a durable and sustainable resolution of the armed conflict will have to involve a capacity to recognize and respond to the deeper and multiple causes of violence and, at the same time, to guarantee that all parties are truly willing and committed to putting an end to the conflict. The recognition of and response to the deeper and multiple causes of violence in Darfur rest with the acknowledgement of the role environmental scarcity has in this context, implying the widening and deepening of the identified causes beyond the usual narrative of ethnic conflict. This is not to say that the ethnic dimension is to be disregarded. It just means that the ethnic clashes and power politics are only a part of the explanation for violence. In Darfur, environmental scarcity exacerbates ethnic fractures, which has added to unequal access to resources, and increased pressure over these has led to an aggravation of tensions and outbreaks of violence. In order to break this vicious cycle, the internalization of the security-environment nexus in politics and actions is fundamental. This would mean that the securitization of environmental scarcity seems to be an essential piece in the incomplete Sudanese peace puzzle.