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Environment Magazine September/October 2008

 

May/June 2008

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Wars over Resources? Evidence from Somalia

When President Siyad Barre fled the Somali capital Mogadishu in January 1991, ending a 22-year rule, the country was flooded with hope for an opportunity to reverse its economic decline and restore a society without oppression and clan patronage. Instead, the government collapsed, and civil strife resulted in mass starvation and as many as 280,000 deaths in 1991–1992. Many observers were shocked by the scale of conflict and brutality in the Somali civil war, which lasted from 1988 to 1993. Two decades later, violent conflict is still evident in contemporary Somalia, and we are left with the question of why a “nation of poets” embedded in traditional and religious institutions turned to one of banditry and civil strife. Africanists have asked whether Somalia constitutes yet another layer of the continent’s worsening social, political, and economic plight. Scholars argue that ethnicity, so commonly invoked as an explanation of conflict in contemporary African states, seems less relevant here. But why did Somalia fall into a bloody civil war after the overthrow of Siyad Barre’s dictatorial regime? Why did a society that is believed to be extremely resilient and adaptive to its harsh environment become vulnerable to natural disasters, such as droughts and floods?

Gaining momentum after the end of the Cold War, but beginning before it, an academic and policy debate has developed over the contribution of environmental factors to conflict and the outbreak of violence. A review of the environmental security literature reveals two opposing arguments. One holds that conflict arises primarily because of resource scarcity; the other, that it arises out of resource wealth and attending economic agendas. Looking to the Somali calamity for answers, we find that areas of resource wealth are often flash points of conflict, but that other factors, such as ethnicity, economic stake in the perpetuation of war, and the fractured nature of clan relations, are perhaps even more important in sustaining violence.

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