As land and water become scarce, competition
for these vital resources intensifies particularly between
the wealthy and the poor and dispossessed. With population
growth comes a shrinkage of life-supporting resources. This
shrinkage threatens the living standards of millions of people.
Access to land is a prime source of social tension. Expanding
world population has cut the grainland per person in half, from
0.23 hectares in 1950 to 0.10 hectares in 2007. One tenth of
a hectare is half of a building lot in an affluent U.S. suburb.
This ongoing shrinkage of grainland makes it difficult for the
world’s farmers to feed the 70 million people added to
world population each year. It not only threatens livelihoods;
in largely subsistence societies, it threatens survival itself.
Tensions within communities begin to build as landholdings shrink
below that needed for survival.
The troubles of Africa offer insight into the pattern of decreasing
resources and increasing social tensions.
In troubled Sudan, two million people have died and over four
million have been displaced in the 20-year conflict between the
Muslim north and the Christian south. The more recent conflict
in the Darfur region in western Sudan began in 2003 and illustrates
the mounting tensions between two Muslim groups—camel herders
and subsistence farmers. Government troops are backing Arab militias,
who are engaging in the wholesale slaughter of black Sudanese
in an effort to drive them off their land, sending them into
refugee camps in neighboring Chad. At least some 200,000 people
have been killed in the conflict and another 250,000 have died
of hunger and disease in the refugee camps.
The story of Darfur is that of the Sahel, the semiarid region
of grassland and dryland farming that stretches across Africa
from Senegal in the west to Somalia in the east. In the northern
Sahel, grassland is turning to desert, forcing herders southward
into the farming areas. Declining rainfall and overgrazing are
combining to destroy the remaining grasslands. Yet the Sahel
has one of the world’s fastest-growing populations.
Well before the rainfall decline, Sudan’s population climbed
from nine million in 1950 to 39 million in 2007, more than a
fourfold rise. Meanwhile, the cattle population increased from
fewer than 7 million to 40 million, an increase of nearly sixfold.
The number of sheep and goats together increased from fewer than
14 million to 113 million, an eightfold increase. No grasslands
can survive such rapid continuous growth in livestock populations.
The situation is similar in Nigeria, where 148 million people
are crammed into an area not much larger than Texas, overgrazing
and overplowing are converting grassland and cropland into desert,
putting farmers and herders in a war for survival. Unfortunately,
the division between herders and farmers is also often the division
between Muslims and Christians. The competition for land, amplified
by religious differences and combined with a large number of
frustrated young men with guns, has created a volatile and violent
situation where finally, in mid-2004, the government imposed
Rwanda has become a classic case study in how mounting population
pressure can translate into political tension, conflict, and
social tragedy. James Gasana, who was Rwanda’s minister
of Agriculture and Environment in 1990–92, warned in 1990
that without “profound transformations in its agriculture,
[Rwanda] will not be capable of feeding adequately its population
under the present growth rate.” Although the country’s
demographers projected major future gains in population, Gasana
said that he did not see how Rwanda would reach 10 million inhabitants
without social disorder “unless important progress in agriculture,
as well as other sectors of the economy, were achieved.”
In 1950, Rwanda’s population was 2.4 million. By 1993,
it had tripled to 7.5 million, making it the most densely populated
country in Africa. As population grew, so did the demand for
firewood. By 1991, the demand was more than double the sustainable
yield of local forests. As trees disappeared, straw and other
crop residues were used for cooking fuel. With less organic matter
in the soil, land fertility declined.
As the health of the land deteriorated, so did that of the people
dependent on it. Eventually there was simply not enough food
to go around. A quiet desperation developed. Like a drought-afflicted
countryside, it could be ignited with a single match. That ignition
came with shooting down of a plane, on April 6, 1994, outside
the capital Kigali, killing President Juvenal Habyarimana. This
unleashed an organized attack by Hutus, leading to an estimated
800,000 deaths of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 100 days.
Many other African countries, largely rural in nature, are on
a demographic track similar to Rwanda’s. Tanzania’s
population of 40 million in 2007 is projected to increase to
85 million by 2050. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo,
the population is projected to triple from 63 million to 187
Africa is not alone. In India, tension between Hindus and Muslims
is never far below the surface. In the middle east, tension grows
between Muslim and Arab, Arab and Kurd, and Sunni and Shiite
Muslim. As each successive generation further subdivides already
small plots, pressure on the land is intense. The pressure on
water resources is even greater.
Adapted from Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, available
online at www.earthpolicy.org