The independent resource on global security

Climate change, land and security

As world leaders gather at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this week, the effects of climate change have already created serious security threats in many parts of the developing world. While slowing climate change is an unavoidable responsibility, from a security perspective the most pressing challenge for the international community in the next five years is dealing with the impacts of climate change on vulnerable regions. With or without an international regime, the world is already responding to climate change in ways that do not always foster cooperation and stability.

One recent example is northeastern Uganda, where more frequent cycles of drought have led to greater competition for scarce water resources and pastureland, failing crops and an increase in cattle raiding to pay for food. According to Romano Longole, a local peace facilitator, ’The violence this dry season is unprecedented’.

Climate change does not directly cause violence, but it interacts with and exacerbates existing problems. Northeastern Uganda is already volatile due to the wide availability of small arms, interethnic animosity, and underperforming and discriminatory state institutions. Armed violence is not new to the area, but the current level of climate-related hardship is pushing more people to take extreme measures to survive.

Scarcity-induced conflicts such as that in Uganda are usually relatively localized, but a case like the conflict in Darfur shows how quickly disputes over resources in times of environmental stress can be politicized on a national level and contribute to civil war. And the security risks associated with climate change are not limited to fragile developing countries. For example, feelings of injustice towards richer nations for failure to act on climate change can provide ammunition to violent extremist movements in the developing world. In speeches Osama Bin Laden has already used the inequity of climate change, and the USA’s role in particular, to boost his authority.

Also, as climate change renders new tracts of land inhabitable or people are forced from their homes by competition over dwindling resources, growing numbers of environmental refugees are likely to intensify tensions associated with international migration. Rising sea levels and melting icecaps could well lead to escalating territorial disputes, for example between the arctic nations.

Responses to climate change involve intense political negotiations and, in some cases, struggles over access to resources within and between states. Whatever happens in Copenhagen, the fact of the matter is that both climate change mitigation and adaptation are usually local, land-based processes that can have a deep impact on rural peoples’ lives.

This is exemplified by the contribution of the climate crisis—in conjunction with unexpected interdependent food, water and oil price shocks—to what has come to be known as the ‘global land grab’. This refers to the rapid acquisition, by governments and private entities, of land resources. The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Switzerland projects that new global demand for land could amount to over 500 million hectares by 2030—about the size of the Indian subcontinent.

More than half of this land would be for biofuel production. The global market for biofuels grew sharply when the European Union and the governments of Brazil, China, India and the USA enacted mandatory targets for the use of biofuels in transportation, partly in order to reduce net carbon emissions and partly to diversify their sources of energy. The remainder of the land would be for food production, and this demand is also to a certain extent driven by climate change. Climate change is expected to reduce the fertility of land in many parts of the world. In addition, increasingly water-scarce but cash-rich nations, particularly in the Middle East, are seeking to acquire and invest in land overseas in order to ensure their own food supplies.

The predicted demand for land would far exceed the 250–300 million ha of additional arable land estimated to be available, most of it in the global South. While agro-industrial investment and land acquisitions could benefit all parties, particularly in view of the low level of investment in agriculture in the developing world in recent decades in the developing world, UN agencies have raised concerns that land deals could also yield less desirable results. For example, the head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Jacques Diouf, has warned against ‘neo-colonialism’, with poor states producing crops for richer overseas consumers at the expense of their own hungry people.

Foreign acquisitions of land declared as ‘idle’ by national governments have already sparked protests by people who live off the land but often have no legal title to it in countries as diverse as Colombia, Egypt, Indonesia, Mozambique and Pakistan. In Madagascar, a land deal between the government and the Korean company Daewoo was one of the catalysts of the successful coup earlier this year. Another potential hotspot is Sudan, where private and public investors from Asia and the Middle East are multiplying contracts to obtain long-term rights to arable land. In 2008 the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) called for a moratorium on the expansion of large mechanized farms in Sudan’s central semi-arid regions, warning that it was a ‘future flashpoint’ for conflict between farmers and pastoralists.

Minimizing the impact of climate change on instability in the developing world will require changes in the way climate change adaptation and mitigation are handled in the international climate change regime, in particular as they affect land use. The main sticking point in the present negotiations has been the financial support that the world’s wealthiest countries should provide, over and above their current development budgets, to help poorer countries respond to climate change. Of course, finance is important, but equally important are the mechanisms through which the support is channeled to vulnerable groups, how community access to ‘carbon finance’ is ensured and to what extent local user rights are protected.

These considerations need to be built into exciting mechanisms such as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which was set up under the Kyoto Protocol to allow industrialized nations to invest in ventures that reduce emissions in developing countries. For example, the designated national authorities that validate CDM projects in developing countries could be turned into inclusive platforms for discussion and decision making that uphold the principle that land deals should never be made without the prior free and informed consent of the affected communities.

Also, the new mechanism Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), which is likely to be adopted at the Copenhagen summit, needs to contain strong guarantees that protect forest users’ rights and ensure that benefits from carbon trading not only accrue to national governments, but trickle down to the communities that depend on the forests. This can be in the form of compensation for lost income or in the form of remuneration for acting as custodians of the forest. In Papua New Guinea, forest users are already voicing concerns over the lack of transparency and dominance of their government in negotiating carbon-trading deals with foreign parties.  

On the adaptation side, international finance may need to be conditional on countries implementing reforms that provide tenure security to small landholders, enhance the diversification and resilience of their livelihoods, and prevent the marginalization of the most vulnerable. In addition, adaptation should go beyond conventional rural development goals and include disaster preparedness and response. The role of the security sector, including national armies and international peacekeepers, is of vital importance. Unfortunately, climate summits have kept away from discussing the roles and responsibilities of these actors for fear of raising sensitive issues of national or territorial sovereignty or of ‘securitizing’ the climate change agenda.  

Any new commitments concerning emission reductions and adaptation that are negotiated in Copenhagen will be only the first steps in a long process to avert the security risks associated with climate change. Many of these security risks relate to land and territory and to who has access to the resources and benefits that derive from it. Adaptation and mitigation measures taken under the international climate change regime must at the very least protect vulnerable resource users against exclusionary state and private land acquisitions. The impacts of climate change are already inequitable. Our responses should not—and need not—be so.