Environmental Scarcity and Violent Conflict: The Case of Rwanda

Journal of Environment and Development 5, September, 1996
by Valerie Percival and Thomas Homer-Dixon

On April 6, 1994, President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane exploded in the skies above the Kigali region of Rwanda. Violence gripped the country. Between April and August of 1994, as many as 1 million people were killed and more than 2 million people became refugees. Until this recent violence, Rwanda had a population of 7.5 million, a population growth rate estimated at about 3%, and a population density among the highest in Africa. Ninety-five percent of the population resided in the countryside, and 90% relied on agriculture to sustain themselves. Land scarcity and degradation threatened the ability of food production to keep pace with population growth. Rwanda can be described as a country with severe demographic stress, relying for subsistence on a limited resource base. Although environmental factors were significant development issues, environmental scarcity had at most a limited, aggravating role in the recent conflict.

Some commentators have claimed that environmental and demographic factors were powerful forces behind the recent civil violence in Rwanda. We believe that much of this commentary has been too simplistic.

It is true that Rwanda is predominantly a rural-based society that relies on agriculture to sustain its economy and consequently is vulnerable to the effects of environmental stress. Environmental degradation and population growth are critical issues in Rwanda; before the recent violence, they clearly threatened the welfare of the general population. On first impression, therefore, the recent genocide in Rwanda appears to be a clear case of environmental and population pressures producing social stress, which in turn resulted in violent conflict. But on closer study, this is not an adequate explanation of the genocide. Environmental degradation and high population levels contributed to migrations, declining agricultural productivity, and the weakening of the legitimacy of President Juvenal Habyarimana’s regime. However, many factors were operating in this conflict, and environmental and population pressures had at most a limited, aggravating role.

We begin with an overview of the recent violence in Rwanda and an outline of the theoretical relationship between environmental scarcity and violent conflict. We analyze the social effects of this scarcity and then discuss the evolution of ethnicity in Rwanda. We present three hypotheses outlining some possible links between scarcity and conflict in the Rwandan context and show how these hypotheses cannot fully explain the events following the 6 April assassination of the president. We conclude by offering a fourth explanation that identifies a more limited role for environmental scarcity and places it in the context of the many other factors that led to the genocide.

Overview of the Rwandan Case

Civil War: 1990 – 1992

The recent violence within Rwanda had its origins in the October 1990 attack by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) from their bases in Uganda. Predominantly of Tutsi origin, many of the members of the RPF were refugees, or descendants of refugees, who fled Rwanda during the postcolonial establishment of a Hutu-dominated government in the early 1960s. The RPF proved to be a skilled fighting force; its leadership and soldiers had gained valuable military experience fighting with Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army in western Uganda. After the expatriates from Rwanda participated in the successful overthrow of Ugandan leader Milton Obote in 1985, they created the RPF. The Front’s leaders timed an invasion of Rwanda from Uganda to exploit growing domestic opposition against the regime of President Habyarimana. After some initial setbacks, by 1992 the RPF had captured a significant portion of northern Rwanda.

The RPF’s invasion and the subsequent two years of civil war placed a great deal of stress on the Rwandan government and its citizens. At the same time, international lenders forced the government to implement a structural adjustment policy, which, coupled with a drought in the early 1990s, fueled domestic opposition to the Habyarimana regime. Simultaneously, therefore, the government faced a threat from the RPF and growing pressure for democratization within Rwanda spurred, in part, by the structural adjustment policy. It systematically arrested anyone suspected of anti-government sentiments; over 8,000 people were arrested immediately after the invasion. The slow movement toward multiparty democracy ended; local authorities began to actively promote and lead attacks on Tutsi and all those who opposed the government. By 1992, the civil war had displaced one-tenth of the population, and the RPF controlled key tea-, coffee-, and food-producing areas, which greatly reduced government revenues.

As the civil war continued in the north, opposition to the government increased in Kigali. International donors also placed Habyarimana under significant pressure to increase democratization measures and begin a dialogue with the RPF. Habyarimana responded in two ways. First, he introduced a multiparty system and a coalition government in April 1992, but he was able to juggle alliances to retain control of the state apparatus. Second, he conspired with the two political parties that he controlled, the National Republican Movement for Democracy and Development (MRND) and the Hutu-extremist Committee for the Defense of the Republic (CDR), to undermine the democratization and peace processes. Together they formed militias known as the Interahamwe (those who attack together) and the Impuzamugambi (those who have the same goal). The militias received weapons from the army and killed hundreds of civilians suspected of antigovernment activities.

Negotiation and the Arusha Accords, 1992-1994

On 31 July 1992, a precarious cease-fire came into effect in the civil war and negotiations between the RPF and the government began in earnest in Arusha, Tanzania. These negotiations were concluded in August 1993, and the agreement provided for the formation of a broad-based transitional government. The RPF and the Rwandan army together would form a smaller, united national army. Although Habyarimana would remain president during the transition period, specified ministerial positions were allocated to members of the RPF and other political parties. Elections were scheduled to be held twenty-two months after the transitional government took office. Many members of the Habyarimana government, including the CDR, were unhappy with the results of the Arusha negotiations. The accords gave the RPF much power: RPF members would control key ministries and would hold a great deal of influence in the army.

Habyarimana continued his two-track policy: he appeared to cooperate with international efforts to implement the Arusha Accords while simultaneously working to maintain his hold on power through the militias. Habyarimana and the CDR used every possible opportunity to increase social cleavages to create animosity toward the RPF. Two events were exploited to their fullest to incite anti-RPF and anti-Tutsi sentiments. The October 1993 massacres in Burundi were used to create and fuel fears of the RPF – the killings were to a large degree carried out by Burundi’s Tutsi-dominated army. And on 21 February 1994, Felicien Gatabazi, the leader of Rwanda’s Social Democratic Party, was killed by assassins. In retaliation, a senior CDR official in Gatabazi’s hometown was murdered. The CDR quickly organized violence in Kigali; CDR members killed several hundred people, and the majority of those targeted were Tutsi.

Genocide: April to July 1994

On 6 April 1994, Habyarimana’s plane exploded in the skies above Kigali. Although those responsible for Habyarimana’s death have not yet been identified, Belgian peacekeepers reported seeing two rockets fired toward his plane from the vicinity of a camp belonging to the Rwandan Presidential Guard and army commandos. Within hours of the plane crash, the Presidential Guard, the army, the Interahamwe, and the Impuzamugambi mounted roadblocks. They attempted to exploit the death of Habyarimana and to use it as a spark to ignite an anti-Tutsi backlash. The army and militias began a systematic sweep of the city, killing members of the transitional government and other civilians. The killings had three goals: to eliminate the opposition, to eradicate the country of all Tutsi, and to continue fighting the RPF. The UN forces, present in Rwanda to monitor the implementation of the Arusha Accords, lacked the mandate to act decisively and were refused permission by the UN Security Council to intervene in the massacres. Forced to withdraw from the streets of Kigali, they could only provide shelter and food, but not necessarily protection, for Rwandans hiding from the government troops. Much of the United Nations’ attention became focused on establishing a cease-fire between the government forces and the RPF, rather than on stopping the massacre of civilians by the militias and their followers.

From Kigali, the violence spread quickly throughout the country- planned, ordered, and encouraged by the army and Rwandan government officials. The RPF responded with an offensive from the north; by July it had taken control of most of the country and established an interim government, which included many members of the transitional government initially established by the Arusha Accords. Members of the former Habyarimana government, the army, and the militias fled first to the zone established by French troops in the southwest of the country and then to the refugee camps in Zaire and Tanzania.

The Refugee Camps: August 1994 to Present

The former government claims that it is the only body able to represent the predominantly Hutu refugees. At a meeting in early October in Bukavu, Zaire, members of the former government, the former Rwandan army, and the militias decided to take control of the camps. The new Rwandan government and the United Nations have made significant efforts to encourage the two million refugees to go back to Rwanda, yet the refugees are afraid to return. Those refugees who have expressed the desire to go back have been threatened or killed by the militias. The militias also instill refugees with the fear that they will be killed by the RPF upon their return. In the absence of consistent or solid support from the international community, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other aid groups have been forced to accept the authority of the militias. The militias have taken control of the distribution of humanitarian relief and constantly harass and threaten aid workers. In late September 1994, Care Canada withdrew from the refugee camps in Katale, north of Goma, when its staff received death threats. On 15 November 1994, Médecins Sans Frontières left five camps that had been taken over by approximately 30,000 Hutu troops threatening aid workers and brutalizing refugees.

Reports from Rwanda and refugee camps in Zaire and Tanzania suggest that extensive violence may soon explode again. Médecins Sans Frontières has reported that open military training activities and stocks of arms continue to appear in the camps. They conclude that the former Rwandan forces are preparing for a military offensive in the near future. This conclusion is shared by the UN secretary-general, who stated in a recent report: “It is believed that [the militias and former army members] may be preparing for an armed invasion of Rwanda and that they may be stockpiling and selling food distributed by relief agencies in preparation for such an invasion.” Reports also indicate that the RPF’s control of its troops in the Rwandan countryside is precarious and cite instances of backlash attacks by some RPF members against Hutu. The RPF and the transitional government established by the RPF are finding it difficult to police or stop these revenge attacks due to a lack of resources and insufficient support from UN troops. The Rwandan government, backed to a certain extent by the UNHCR, is promoting the closure of refugee camps to ensure that the spring planting is completed and to promote stability. The UNHCR has already shut down one camp in southwestern Rwanda; reportedly, all the residents moved to a neighboring refugee camp, rather than return home. It remains to be seen whether Rwanda can peacefully absorb the return of over a million refugees, some of whom are armed and have the intention of destabilizing the new government, if and when the remaining camps are closed.

Environmental Scarcity in Rwanda

A Theoretical Overview

The environmental effects of human activity are a function of, first, the vulnerability of the ecosystem and, second, the product of the total population and that population’s physical activity per capita in the region. Homer-Dixon uses the term “environmental scarcity” to refer to scarcity of renewable resources, and he identifies scarcities of agricultural land, forests, water, and fish as the environmental problems that contribute most to violence. However, these scarcities contribute to violence only under certain circumstances; there is no inevitable or deterministic connection between these variables. The nature of the ecosystem, the social relations within society, and the opportunities for organized violence all affect causal linkages.

Environmental scarcity arises in three ways: demand-induced scarcity is a result of population growth in a region, supply-induced scarcity arises from the degradation of resources, and structural scarcity occurs because of the seriously unequal social distribution of these resources. These three types of scarcity are not mutually exclusive; they often occur simultaneously and interact.

Environmental scarcity produces four principal social effects: decreased agricultural potential, regional economic decline, population displacement, and the disruption of legitimized and authoritative institutions and social relations. These social effects, either singly or in combination, can produce and exacerbate conflict between groups. Most such conflict is subnational, diffuse, and persistent. For conflict to break out, the societal balance of power must provide the opportunity for grievances to be expressed as challenges to authority. When grievances are articulated by groups organized around clear social cleavages, such as ethnicity or religion, the probability of civil violence is higher. Under situations of environmental scarcity, where group affiliation aids survival, intergroup competition on the basis of relative gains is likely to increase. “As different ethnic and cultural groups are propelled together under circumstances of deprivation and stress, we should expect inter-group hostilities, in which a group would emphasize its own identity while denigrating, discriminating against, and attacking outsiders.”

The Development of Environmental Scarcity in Rwanda

Ecosystem Vulnerability. Rwanda’s ecosystem is extremely diverse, which makes it difficult to generalize about its vulnerability to population pressures and resource degradation. Rwanda is part of the Great East African Plateau; from swamps and lakes along the Tanzanian border, the plateau rises toward the highlands in the northwest and southwest. The country has a moderate climate, with temperature varying according to altitude. Precipitation is sporadic in the east but is more regular in the west. The steep slopes of the western region are vulnerable to erosion, and some of Rwanda’s worst environmental degradation is found in the southwest. The central area of the country has been settled and cultivated for centuries, whereas the eastern portion of the country was traditionally the cattle-grazing area and has only recently been brought under cultivation. Due to the low precipitation in this area, agricultural production is unreliable.

Population Size and Activity. Until the recent civil violence and mass refugee flows, Rwanda had a high population density and growth rate. In 1992, Rwanda’s population was 7.5 million, with a growth rate estimated at 3.3 percent per year from 1985 to 1990. The population density was roughly 290 inhabitants per square kilometer – among the highest in Africa; the per hectare density was 3.2 people in 1993. If lakes, national parks, and forest reserves are excluded from this calculation, the figure increases to 422 people per square kilometer. However, the 1990 census determined that the birth rate was declining sharply. It dropped from 54.1 to 45.9 per thousand, as couples delayed marriage and decided to limit the number of their children. Poor and deteriorating economic circumstances due to worsening land shortages, few opportunities off the farm, and declining agricultural productivity influenced decisions to have fewer children. The decline in birth rates was most dramatic in the southwest and northwest.

Before the recent violence, most Rwandans relied almost exclusively on renewable resources, such as agricultural land, to sustain themselves. Ninety-five percent of the population lived in the countryside and 90 percent of the labor force relied on agriculture as its primary means of livelihood. Rural-urban migration was not significant; only 6 percent of Rwanda’s population lived in urban areas in 1990, and the annual urban growth rate decreased from 5.6 percent in the period 1955-60 to 4.9 percent in the years 1985-90.

Effects of Environmental Scarcity in Rwanda

With a large and dense population dependent for its livelihood on extraction of natural resources from a deteriorating resource base, Rwanda clearly exhibited both demand- and supply-induced environmental scarcity; structural scarcity was not serious, since land was quite evenly distributed throughout the population. Supply-induced scarcity resulted from falling levels of soil fertility, degradation of watersheds, and depletion of forests. Demand-induced scarcity was caused by too many people relying on Rwanda’s low supply of land, fuelwood, and water resources.

Prior to the recent conflict, soil fertility had fallen sharply in some parts of Rwanda. Half of the farming in Rwanda occurred on hillsides with slopes of more than ten percent; these areas were vulnerable to erosion, particularly under conditions of intense cultivation. On the steepest slopes, heavy rainfall eroded more than eleven tonnes of soil per hectare per year with twelve million tonnes of soil washing into Rwanda’s rivers every year. Although erosion was serious in some parts of Rwanda, soil character in other parts of the country kept erosion moderate. In general, rather than erosion, overcultivation appears to have been the principal factor behind falling fertility. Grosse notes that “the major perceived cause of decreasing soil fertility in Rwanda is depletion of soil nutrients by cultivation rather than erosion. Even in Ruhengeri, where erosion is the most severe, farmers mention soil exhaustion as a problem much more often than erosion.”

Forest and water scarcity were also serious. Forests cover only 7 percent of the country. Although deforestation rates decreased in recent years, in 1986 the Forestry Department estimated that Rwanda was annually using 2.3 million cubic meters of wood more than it was producing. Ninety-one percent of wood consumption was for domestic use, and the scarcity of fuelwood for cooking was evident as peasants substituted animal manure and crop wastes for fuelwood. Although the Rwandan government began a reforestation campaign, the tree usually planted was eucalyptus, which consumes large amounts of water and nutrients. Water resources were further constrained as watersheds and wetland areas were lost. These problems were compounded, especially in the southern regions of the country, by several droughts in the 1980s and early 1990s. The impact of water scarcity on agriculture was harshest in arid regions, but in other areas water shortages became critical for personal, domestic, and industrial needs.

These environmental scarcities began to cause the social effects Homer-Dixon identifies: agricultural production started to decrease, migrations out of areas of intense environmental stress were commonplace, and the state began to lose legitimacy.

Declining Agricultural Production. By the late 1980s, environmental scarcity caught up with Rwandan agriculture. Supply- and demand-induced scarcity gravely stressed the ability of food production to keep pace with population growth. The agricultural frontier had closed. There was little land available for agricultural expansion, and the number of people placing demands on existing cropland increased. Farmers were forced to increase the intensity of agriculture, and they began to cultivate their fields two to three times per year.

In terms of per capita food production, Rwanda was transformed from one of sub-Saharan Africa’s top three performers in the early 1980s to one of its worst in the late 1980s. Food output had risen 4.7 percent annually from 1966 to 1982, outpacing the average population growth rate of 3.4 percent. But much of this rise resulted from an expansion of cropland area and a reduction in fallow periods, not from an increase in technical inputs, such as fertilizer and improved seeds. These trends continued in the 1980s: Rwanda’s cropland area increased by 12.9 percent between 1981 and 1991 and fertilizer use remained negligible. By the late 1980s, however, most available land was under cultivation, as rural migrations had established a relatively even distribution of population across the countryside. As the agricultural frontier closed and population continued to grow, per capita agricultural output began to drop. Although total output increased by 10 percent from the early 1980s to the early 1990s, per capita output fell nearly 20 percent.

As a result of these factors, there was not enough food in the southern and western parts of the country. In 1989, 300,000 people, predominantly southerners, needed food aid due to crop failure. Analysts anticipated another food crisis in 1994:

The US Embassy estimated in early April that 1994 production would fall 9 to 17 percent below the 1990-93 average of 4.38 million metric tons because of drought and that the total 1994 food crop shortfall could run to 150,000 to 320,000 metric tons. Output of bananas was estimated at 8 to 15 percent below average. According to the Embassy, the drought has been hardest on crops normally planted in the September through January growing period and worse in the southern prefectures, including Cyangug, Gikongoro, Butare, southern Kibuye, and western Giatarama. USAID officials calculated in late April that more than 500,000 people were already receiving food aid, primarily beans and corn, from relief organizations.

It is important to incorporate the regional nature of agricultural production into any analysis of environment-conflict links in Rwanda. Farmers in the northwest were able to maintain higher productivity and to grow higher-value produce, such as white potatoes. They also received favorable development investment because of the regional bias of the central government (President Habyarimana’s home region was the northwest). Consequently, the situation in the northwest was less critical than that in the southern portion of the country.

Migration. After independence, internal population movements in search of better land and livelihood became common. From 1978 to 1991, 76 percent of all rural communes experienced net out-migration; however, as the agricultural frontier closed, the rural zones of in-migration became few and were mostly of marginal agricultural potential. Environmental scarcity caused people to move to ecologically fragile upland and arid areas. Urban areas had few opportunities for employment, and rural-urban migration was restricted after the onset of the civil war. Migrants had little choice but to move to and settle hillsides, low-potential communes adjacent to western parks and forests, wetlands requiring drainage, and eastern communes near Akagera Park.

Decreasing Government Legitimacy. The Rwandan government based its legitimacy on its ability to provide for the needs of the population. The Habyarimana government was responsible for securing a great deal of international development assistance that allowed it to build a sophisticated infrastructure, undertake anti-erosion and reforestation projects, and maintain support among the population. However, as noted, most of this assistance was channeled into the northwest, the president’s home region, causing resentment in the rest of the country. In addition to the decline in per capita agricultural output and the lack of opportunities in both rural and urban settings, the Rwandan economy was seriously affected by decreases in coffee and tea prices in the late 1980s, the structural adjustment policy implemented in 1990, and the civil war. Ninety percent of export earnings came from 7 percent of the land and was mainly derived from coffee; declining coffee prices therefore debilitated the economy. The government’s increasing inability to solve the country’s problems created a crisis of legitimacy. Opposition parties formed and organized peaceful protests against the regime. Much of this opposition was based in the south and central parts of the country, the areas most affected by environmental scarcity and least aided by government funding.

For these grievances to cause civil violence, opportunities to channel and articulate them had to exist. Rwanda had historical ethnic divisions, which might have provided instruments for mobilizing grievances.

Ethnic Cleavages in Rwanda

The recent violence has been described as a tribal war between Hutu and Tutsi, rooted in centuries-long competition for control of land and power. But a close examination of Rwanda’s history shows that the terms Hutu and Tutsi were largely constructed social categories representing differing socioeconomic positions within Rwandan society rather than objective biological or cultural differences. The Hutu-Tutsi distinction derives from a precolonial social structure that distinguished between cultivators and pastoralists. Before the growth of central power and colonial domination, the boundaries between the Hutu and Tutsi were fluid. A variety of criteria determined ethnic affiliation: birth, wealth, culture, place of origin, physical attributes and social and marriage ties. Perhaps the greatest determinant of ethnicity was the possession of cattle; those who possessed cattle were Tutsi, and those who did not were Hutu.

With the growth of precolonial state power, Tutsi and Hutu became important political categories. With the establishment of colonialism, the boundaries of ethnic categories were thickened; it became increasingly difficult to alter one’s social status or ethnic grouping. The disadvantages of being Hutu and the advantages of being Tutsi were sharpened under first German and then Belgian colonial rule. Virtually all the chiefs appointed during this period were Tutsi, and the power of the chiefs grew with the imposition of colonial institutions. These shifts created the popular view that being Tutsi was synonymous with having wealth and power, while being Hutu was synonymous with subordination. Political consciousness and discontent developed among the Hutu. The Hutu leadership articulated and channeled this frustration, producing the Hutu uprisings of 1959 and eventually Rwandan independence in July 1962. Political power remained in the hands of the Hutu majority. Independence was followed by heightened ethnic violence between Hutu and Tutsi, causing flows of Tutsi refugees from Rwanda to Uganda, Tanzania, Zaire, and Burundi.

The perception within Rwanda that independence was an ethnic struggle between Hutu and Tutsi for control of the state apparatus – a “Hutu revolution” – set the tone of politics up to the present. Ethnic categories were fostered and manipulated by the Hutu-dominated government to maintain power and popular support. Identity cards were issued; due to the high rate of intermarriage among Rwandans, it was impossible to establish ethnic identity without them. Employment and education opportunities were limited for Tutsi because of an unofficial quota system introduced in 1973.

The ethnic nature of the recent conflict is undeniable; although significant numbers of Hutu were killed, the Tutsi population was undoubtedly the target of most of the violence. Below we outline four hypotheses that identify possible links between environmental scarcity and the outbreak of this conflict, which seems, prima facie, to be derived from ethnic animosities.

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2017-09-08T17:46:48+00:00 September 1st, 1996|Academic, Case Studies, Conflict, Conflict and Conflict Resolution, EPS Case Studies|