Peace studies in Sudan: flourishing activism academia combating the climate change-conflict nexus

Suad Badri, PhD

“There is no doubt that impoverishment and human insecurity may arise as a result of climate change, if preventive measures are not undertaken. However, there is missing evidence that global warming directly increases conflict.”

Dr. Vesselin Popovski, Senior Academic Programme Officer and head of the United Nations UniversityInstitute of Sustainability and Peace and Security Section.

During the past decades, we have witnessed growing interest among Sudanese scholars in the field of Peace and Conflict studies. A growing peace research activity covers different areas; from the macro-level, examining the influence of international peace issues; to the micro-level, exploring internal conflict and peace dynamics. Key topics are linked to researching the root causes of conflict and environmental degradation in Sudan. That same era also witnessed the development of several Peace Studies programs, within old and emerging Sudanese universities. Reputable international peace organisations, world universities, and research institutions have supported this trend; including USIP, the Mennonite University, UN University of Peace and others. Academic links and sponsored consultations allowed for multiple program provisions; such as awareness campaigns, research activities and training workshops.

The University of Dilenj in Western Sudan was the first (well before separation) to establish a “Peace Centre”, followed by the University of Juba in the South, as a symbol of national unity between the North and South. Nine more centres followed suit; cohorts were mostly professionals, coming from different backgrounds. Fresh graduates are a tiny minority among those batches, and women are a minority among a minority. It is worth noting that apart from Ahfad University for Women (AUW), which offers peace and conflict courses as part of its gender undergraduate/graduate programs, all those peace programs belong to government universities.

The focus of those peace studies programs include: identifying the root causes of conflict, defining Sudan's identity, and directly addressing the challenges for Sudan to break free from its conflict tradition and achieve peace, democracy and fair distribution of national wealth and power, through sustainable environmental governance.

Sudanese universities have historically served as vital voices for political change and community engagement. They have been the incubators of political change in Sudan, and student unions in particular have retained a tradition of vibrant, and sometimes violent, political activity. AUW is a private, women-only, community-based university. Their peace studies program focuses on meeting the needs of the community by linking peace activism with social change, realising basic human needs, nonviolence, conflict resolution, and post-conflict reconstruction and reconciliation. AUW peace studies program, as a complement of Gender Studies, is centred on teaching students to become peace activists. This emphasis is highly regarded in the field of peace studies, and supported by theoretical frameworks that argue for experimental knowledge and activism. Students master the means of conflict management by analysing the root causes of conflict and its prevention. As well as integrating theory and experiential learning into practice, emphasising contributions of activists, peace researchers and educators.

The insights on the analysis of the linkages between conflict and environment in Sudan; as well as resolving climate change-related conflicts, has so far been largely confined to contributions of local and international environmental studies circles. Those contributions come in the form of field studies and publications covering the impacts of the country’s long history of conflict on its environment, as well as the impact of environmental degradation on instigating conflicts. The most severe consequences - well studied to date - have been the indirect impacts, such as population displacement, lack of governance, conflict-related resource exploitation, and underinvestment in sustainable development. Other studies cover areas such as competition over oil and gas reserves, Nile waters, timber, and land use.

Despite numerous efforts to study the relationship between conflict and the environment there is no consensus on an effective remedy, fit for Sudan. Several writers have listed a number of theories with the notion of remedying resource scarcity; these ignore technological change, scientific means for increasing agricultural yields and the impact on community development. In particular, most of those studies are lacking focus on the link between environmental factors and intertwined range of social, political and economic issues. Those studies shy away from advising the integration of environmental governance into the policies of national and state authorities in Sudan. In particular, they neglect climate change themes, legitimising local management of resources, and how this process can be supported by the government.

From the 1950s, the government of Sudan adopted strategies for conducting basic studies on natural resources as a first step for the development of national and regional plans of action. The majority of those studies are either relatively unknown to current leading research institutions, or not easily accessible. It is fitting that Sudanese peace research institutions locate and help disseminate those studies; this may further strengthen links between research organisations, communities, and the government. The ultimate target is for this link to further emphasise the interaction of traditional leadership, government and community based organisations in strengthening the principle of environmental governance. In other words, this link may influence respective mandates and responsibilities of the groups involved, as key aspect in developing environmental policy, fit for areas emerging from conflict, in which control of natural resources has been one of the causes of tension.

In Sudan some NGOs, such as Practical Action, have gradually begun to integrate peace-building into the design of their environmental programs in Sudan. Their mission is to introduce practical measures to alleviate natural resource degradation, to help contain the current conflict, and to present a viable long-term solution for the development of rural areas. Practical Action is helping to build dams that collect and store Darfur's brief rainy season waters, allowing hundreds of local families to irrigate and farm the connecting lands, often for the first time in generations. The technique of rainwater harvesting goes beyond livelihood security for farmers, and plays an important role in conflict prevention. Through the cultivation of previously underused land, communities negotiate agreements, controlling over-grazing, water and fodder access, and land rights. The planning and construction of the dams brings prosperity to the region, with employment among women, in particular, rising by 300%i. The dams' construction activities are associated by capacity building and training efforts at the community level, that enable women to form their own groups. Through the process of organization and formation of associations, Practical Action provides technical and managerial training to the women groups in lobbying and advocacy, and participation in decision-making. With the simple earth dams technology, people living in poverty turn barren deserts into lush, fertile farmland. Practical Action has supported civil society through forming and empowering community based organisations, to lead the development process with a bottom-up approach and contribute to peace in the area.

Through capacity building of established civil society networks and introduction of locally developed crop production technologies, thousands of households in North Darfur have become food-secure despite the conflict, and have begun to support natural resource regeneration. These approaches have also provided communities with the organisational and technical abilities to negotiate resource access, use and control arrangements with neighbouring groups, in what may emerge as a practical and locally mediated form of grassroots conflict resolution.

Popovski says; “What I would like to see is the five top natural scientists and the five top political scientists together in the same room being asked the same question: how do we develop good governance and reduce both conflict and climate disasters?” . The efforts exerted by research institutions in applying quantitative analysis and then trying to predict the chance of managing future conflict, is problematic, with so many political, social, economic and environmental factors playing a negative role in preventing conflict. The study of environmental causes of conflict comes short of solving the immediate problems in theory, construction, or empirical testing. Much of the doubt about the relationship between climate change and conflict results from the inherent complexities of war and peace; critical studies are valuable in pointing out some of these problems, better still those studies may better serve to advance the field through stimulating more conducive research. Further research is required to fully understand and pin-point the evidence, that is needed to be assembled, in establishing a case. This will probably take many years to compile and require the cooperation of the best experts across a range of disciplines.