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How Environmental Disaster Is Making Boko Haram Violence Worse

Drought, population explosion, and poverty are aggravating conflict in Nigeria. Climate change will likely add fuel to the fire.

| Tue Jun. 10, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Some of the schoolgirls Boko Haram kidnapped in mid-April.

Blessing sits on the floor, knees into chest, in an empty room in Bukakotto village in eastern Nigeria. She's "40 something," but looks 25, and her face is scarred with tribal markings razor cut into her face as a baby. Just the day before, her sister was murdered. She went to her farm to look for firewood, Blessing says through a translator, and she was knifed to death by nomadic cattle herders with machetes. "They hacked her all over."

A pink and white scarf hangs off Blessing’s head, and she arranges and rearranges it as she speaks, looking straight ahead into nothing. "We picked up her corpse and buried it yesterday."

Blessing's sister is another casualty in Nigeria's long-running battle between mostly Christian farmers and mostly Muslim cattle herders over access to land. This increasingly violent clash is playing out alongside the Boko Haram terror campaign that has captivated the world since the group kidnapped more than 300 schoolgirls in April. On the surface, the two conflicts—which have both resulted in thousands of deaths over the past few years—appear unrelated. One is centered around Islamic fundamentalism, the other around grass and water. But look a bit further and you find that both conflicts are deeply tied to a massive ecological crisis that is breeding desperate poverty in the north of the country.
 

For centuries, the nomadic Fulani people drove their cattle east and west across the Sahel, the expanse of land just south of the Sahara desert. With the onset of a string of droughts in the early 20th century, Fulanis began to shift their migratory routes north to south. Land battles between nomadic Muslim cattle herders and Christian farmers were first reported about 60 years ago. The clashes have intensified since the start of another series of droughts beginning in the late 1960s that parched the land up north, driving more farmers and herders south for longer periods of time.

"They come [south] because of the nature of the climate in the north," says Mohammed Husaini, a Fulani herdsman and official with Nigeria's cattle breeder trade association. He's seated on a plastic lawn chair inside his spartan cattle vitamin shop in the eastern Nigerian town of Garaku. Just outside the open front door, a young man chants the Koran into the afternoon heat.

"The period of time that northern Fulani nomads used to spend in the middle of the country used to be December to May," he says. "Now it's December to June or July, and some nomadic Fulanis decide to just stay here." Why? Because, he explains, the grasses up north "don't grow totally" any more.

Mohammed Husaini's cattle vitamin shop in Garaku, Nigeria. Erika Eichelberger

Along with drought, Nigeria's population explosion—about 125 million new people over the past half century—has overburdened the land and caused 136,000 square miles to turn to useless dust. Thirty-five percent of the land that was cultivatable in much of northern Nigeria 50 years ago is no longer arable.

And Lake Chad, which is perched along Nigeria's northeasternmost edge, and whose waters once supported vast swathes of farming and grazing land, has lost more than 90 percent of its original size. Part of this shrinkage is due to recurrent droughts, though they have become less frequent in recent years. Just as important, humans have drained Lake Chad at an alarming rate; between 1983 and 1994, failed irrigation efforts were responsible for half of the decrease in the lake's size.

Climate change has also contributed to the environmental changes in northern Nigeria, though it is not yet clear how much. Scientists are unsure, for example, how global warming has affected rainfall over the past few decades. What is clear is that the air over Nigeria has warmed by about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since the mid-20th century, and even more in the north of the country. Hotter temperatures mean that water is evaporating more quickly from Lake Chad, according to Chris Lennard, one of the lead authors of the most recent massive report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—though he says the effect of evaporation is relatively small compared to the devastation caused by droughts and irrigation.

The dying lake has collapsed the fishing industry and starved grazing lands and crops, displacing tens of thousands of Nigerians.

Hassan Garaba, a 24 year-old farmer and cattle herder who spends part of the year in the north of the country, calls the farmland up there "bakyau"—unfavorable. Three years ago, he harvested 30 bags of corn. This year, only 20. "The crops have been getting bad," he says through a translator. "Some just died off."

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Over the past three years, the production of corn—which is largely grown in the north of the country—has fallen by 1.6 million metric tons, due to "unfavorable climactic conditions" and Boko Haram violence, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Yields of wheat, which is also mostly grown in the north, fell by 15,000 metric tons over the same time period.

The depleted northern soil has pushed both farmers and herders down south. According to Husaini, migration southward by Fulani nomads has increased roughly 50 percent in his region over the past few years. But, as the leader of one nearby farming community put it, "the land is not expanding." Last year, competition for land led to the first clash between farmers and herders that Husaini's community has ever seen. It lasted a month.

That was when 10 of Yakubu Mama's uncles were slaughtered by farmers from the Eggon tribe. Mama, a 42 year-old Fulani herdsman, says through an interpreter that the Eggon militia knifed his relatives to death, "one by one." And since the victims' families were too afraid to go and collect the corpses, the bodies were eaten, Mama says, "by pigs and dogs."

Ten members of Yakubu Mama's family were knifed to death last year. Erika Eichelberger

Husaini says about 200 Fulani herdsmen were killed along with Mama's uncles during the January 2013 violence. There were heavy casualties on the Eggon side, too. Fighting between farmers and herders—which can also take on religious, ethnic, or political veneers—has killed a total of about 8,000 people since 2005, according to the International Crisis Group.

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