Sunday, September 09, 2007

Here is no water but only rock

I'm reading this book, A Desert Dies, by Michael Asher, an Englishman, about his travels in northern Sudan in 1982-85. It's quite interesting, and puts me in mind of my earlier post about how humans preserve our habitats. I am beginning to think that Jane Jacobs is overly optimistic in (at least) two ways: she professes a belief that humans are able to preserve habitat in the long run, and she doesn't count genocide as one way we reduce pressure on our habitats.

Desertification is a huge problem in sub-Saharan regions, partly due to climate change but also because of human activity. I first really saw the impact of this when I visited Timbuktu, a city that once was one of the richest in Africa and now can barely sustain itself because the desert has crept down around it and buried it. Overgrazing, changes in plant species and other agricultural techniques, and climate phenomena such as drought or major erosion of topsoil work together to create desert out of fertile land. In Africa, the hardest hit area is the Sahel, the area between the barren sand-sea of the Sahara and the fertile jungles of the south, as shown on this map. The effect is even more clear on this satellite map of Sudan. The dry, yellow north blends into the soft, green south along a ragged border.

Interestingly, if you look at maps of the current genocidal conflict in Darfur, the areas of conflict neatly line up with the area where the desert meets arable land.

There are obviously more factors involved in the Darfur genocide than only the presence or lack of water. Religion is a powerful force in the region, as it is everywhere. The north of Sudan is primarily Muslim, while the south is a more diverse collection of animists and Christians, who are less fond of sharia law. There is a significant ethnic divide between the southern black African tribes and the northern Arab-African tribes. This ethnic divide has a long history: before European colonization, Arabs took black Africans as slaves, and Asher wonders whether the practice continues clandestinely. The party of Arabs with whom Asher traveled always refers to their non-Arab countrymen as 'slaves.' On top of that, the northerners are primarily nomadic herders, while the southerners are primarily farmers. This economic division may be the most severe.

Asher quotes one older member of the party:
I do not like this country. These slaves stop us watering our herds. They hold us back at the watering-place and say, "The wells are dry!" or they tell us, "Pay us money and we will let you water!" Curse their fathers! In the old days the Kababish would not come near this land of blacks! The grazing was good in the north then. .... The best ranges are gone and we come further south every year. ... Every day we remain here, we run the risk of losing stock [to theft]. Those [farmers] have no honor and they do not fear God.
This makes me think that no one division can be separated from the rest. If the racism were eliminated, the religious bias would remain. If the religious bias were eliminated, the economic bias would remain. If the economic bias were eliminated, the historical injustice would remain. And if all else were eliminated, still the desert would remain. It is entirely possible to view the situation as an environmental correction, as evidence that the current population cannot be supported on the failing land, and the pressure on the habitat is causing the culture to burst at the seams.

Which raises the question: should we try to stop the genocide? Can we even hope to stop it, try as we may? If desertification leads to war, should our efforts go to peace or to responsible stewardship of the land? Or perhaps, instead of trying to broker a peace deal so that all tribes can live peacefully together, should we forbid anyone from living in this area? If the pressure that causes conflict is so fundamental to the area, perhaps the only way to solve it is to remove everyone from the area until the land can recover. If our natural impulses that work to preserve the land are too horrific, maybe humanity as a community needs to approach the problem rationally instead of instinctively, and consider major changes to the way we deal with crises of all types.

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