New paper on Darfur conflict and natural resources

War in Darfur has intensified – despite all the expert opinion expressed about the causes

King’s Water Member Brendan Bromwich considers the ongoing situation in Darfur and reflects on what we know about the environment, politics, and conflict

Over the course of this month both the UN and the African Union Security Councils are debating the renewal of the mandate of their joint peace-keeping force in Darfur. But if there have been two major peace agreements, why would a major peace-keeping force still be needed?

Perhaps two reasons: firstly, if the agreements were not sufficiently inclusive and representative and therefore rebel movements and militia continued fighting. And secondly, if the conflict is larger in scope and complexity than the agreement allows for. Arguably, both are true in Darfur.

The second of these reasons – the nature of and issues at stake in the Darfur conflict – was the subject of considerable academic and public debate in 2007-2008, and yet, despite the volume of opinion expressed, the peace processes are still not managing to cover all the different arenas of violence that we see today. It seems that the major upsurge in conflict and displacement in recent years may have as much, if not more, to do with unresolved and emerging issues of land as with the high politics of the formal peace process.

Perhaps the debate in foreign policy fora that set up a polemic between political and environmental narratives of the Darfur conflict did not serve those involved in Darfur’s search for peace as well as it might. It seems very reasonable to agree with the outcome of this debate in prioritising the political dynamics over the environmental. Nonetheless, the current violence over land cannot be ignored. There is enough evidence in Darfur for both sides of the conflict and natural resources debate to find support for their position – and in each case the remoteness of Darfur to foreign experts may provide convenient masking of the counterfactuals. Furthermore, control of land is, of course, a political issue, which again undermines the contrast between political and environmental analysis.

This new paper asks how we can move beyond selective reading of the conflict and avoid the trap of pitching politics against environmental determinism. One method, the paper argues, is to examine the debate that took place within Darfur – where the complexity of the conflict and the inconvenient counterfactuals cannot be ignored. The paper draws on material written in Darfur, and elsewhere in Sudan, during the period when the international debate was raging. It acknowledges both a conflict between Darfur and Khartoum relating to political concerns, and a network of local conflicts in which land and natural resources were a factor. The paper then considers the implications for longer term efforts to support peace in Darfur.

In time, a broad and inclusive political process will need to draw together the debate over Darfur’s role within Sudan and the complex resource disputes within Darfur. Governance arrangements across the Sahel are in a state of flux – and conflict seems to be a feature of these wider process of change. An academic debate that trades one priority off against the other is of little benefit to the Darfuris: they continue to be confronted by interconnected environmental and political pressures at the same time.


For more, see:

Nexus meets crisis: a review of conflict, natural resources and the humanitarian response in Darfur with reference to the water–energy–food nexus” in the International Journal of Water Resources Development Volume 31Issue 3, 2015, a special issue on “The Water-Food-Energy-Climate nexus in Global Drylands: the epitome of twenty-first century development?


Brendan Bromwich is studying for an MPhil in Geography and previously worked in Darfur and Khartoum from 2004-2013.