Karuna Center for Peacebuilding on the front lines of climate conflict in Nigeria

  • Polly Byers, the executive director of the Karuna Center For Peacebuilding, with her dog Bodhi at her home in Conway. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • An interfaith peacebuilding expert with Karuna Center, Imam Muhammad Sani Isah, speaks at the National Conference on the Management of Farmer-Herder Relations in Nigeria, co-hosted by the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding in August. CONTRIBUTED Photo

  • A farmer and herder speak at the National Conference on the Management of Farmer-Herder Relations, co-hosted by the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding. The conference was held at the Nigerian government’s Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution in the capital city of Abuja in August. CONTRIBUTED

  • The National Conference on the Management of Farmer-Herder Relations, co-hosted by the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding. The conference was held at the Nigerian government’s Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution in the capital city of Abuja in August. CONTRIBUTED

  • Polly Byers, executive director of the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding, speaks at the National Conference on the Management of Farmer-Herder Relations in Nigeria, co-hosted by the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding. The conference was held at the Nigerian government’s Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution in the capital city of Abuja in August. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Attendees at the National Conference on the Management of Farmer-Herder Relations in Nigeria, co-hosted by the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding. The conference was held at the Nigerian government’s Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution in the capital city of Abuja in August. CONTRIBUTED

For the Recorder
Published: 10/8/2022 10:51:29 AM
Modified: 10/8/2022 10:51:18 AM

As some countries around the world experience an alarming increase in flooding, erosion, droughts and desertification, experts agree these effects of climate change are exacerbating conflict and threatening global security.

According to Polly Byers, executive director of the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding, this is evident in Nigeria, where the nonprofit has been working for four years to help stem the rising and often brutal violence between farmers and cattle herders as they compete for dwindling arable land and water.

“Climate change is a huge issue in Nigeria,” said Byers, who’s from Conway. Over the last 30 years, the Karuna Center, based in Amherst, has been working in several countries around the world, and Byers said the effects of climate change have never been as important to its work.

Indeed, experts at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have identified Nigeria as a climate change “hot spot.”

The largest country in Africa, Nigeria stretches from the southern fringe of the Sahara Desert to the Gulf of Guinea. It faces a triple threat from climate change with encroaching desertification on northern pastures, erosion from rainfall on farmland in the east and flooding from the Atlantic Ocean on the southern coast.

Agricultural activities make up a large part of the country’s economy, with 70% of Nigerians working in the agricultural sector, predominantly at a subsistence level, says the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Countries dependent on agriculture are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, as effects including shifting growing seasons, crop damage, cropland destruction, water shortages and a rise in agricultural pests can greatly reduce food production, increasing the potential for poverty and hunger.

The United Nations Environmental Programme says that 70% of the countries most vulnerable to climate change are also among the most politically and economically fragile.

In the context of global security, climate change is seen as a “threat multiplier” that exacerbates existing economic, social and political challenges, which can increase the likelihood of instability or conflict.

This creates what Byers calls a vicious cycle, as impacts of climate change put significant pressure on Nigeria’s already weak governance systems, which in turn make it harder to manage existing challenges, or to adequately mitigate or adapt to climate-related changes.

“The same thing is happening in a lot of different countries,” she said.

Conflicts surging

A 2021 report produced by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies states that while disputes between farmers and herders are not new, violent conflicts have been surging in West and Central Africa over the past 12 years.

Since 2010, there have been more than 15,000 deaths resulting from these conflicts, with half of them occurring since 2018. Amnesty International reports that in the two years between 2016 and 2018, farmer-herder conflict in Nigeria caused the deaths of 3,641 people.

“It has become very violent, and it is a major destabilizing issue in the country,” said Byers, as she detailed incidents of farms being burned, cattle stolen and people being kidnapped, maimed and killed.

The International Crisis Group, a transnational non-governmental organization, reports hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and that farmer-herder conflict has become “Nigeria’s gravest security challenge (that) now claims more lives than the Boko Haram insurgency.”

It is in the north and middle belt of the country where violence between herders and farmers has intensified. Here, increased drought and desertification intensified by global climate change have forced pastoral herders in northern and central Nigeria to travel farther south to access grazing land and water for their cattle.

Farmers accuse herders of trampling fields of crops whose yields have already been dramatically reduced by warming temperatures and irregular rainfall.

Meanwhile, rapid population growth in the country has increased demand for farmland. This has often resulted in farmers settling on tracts of land that herders have traditionally used for seasonal grazing routes.

“These are the people at the leading edge of climate change,” Byers said, referring to both groups. “They live it every day — it directly affects their livelihoods every day.”

Complicating the competition for shrinking natural resources are ethnic, regional and religious differences. While most farming communities are made up of Christian denominations of various ethnic groups, herders are predominantly Muslim-Fulani. As pressure on the land increases, differences become exploited, fanned into deep rifts and polarization, Byers said.

Distrust between groups and a lack of trust in government security agencies, increased incidents of armed banditry, rumors, political finger-pointing and an overburdened government further exacerbate the conflicts.

“Everyone is talking about how politicized the issue has become and how that is putting these cleavages between people,” she said, noting that Boko Haram and other terrorist groups in the region are using the situation to further recruitment.

The conflict also has been laced with destructive conspiracy theories leading to fake news in social media, which the BBC elaborated on in a 2018 report entitled “Fake news and Nigeria’s herder crisis.”

Byers said violence and misinformation have severely broken down lines of communication making it easier for opposing parties to demonize one another.

“It’s hard to get people to talk with one another when they view each other as the devil,” she said.

Karuna’s work

These are the circumstances under which the Karuna Center and other international peacebuilding organizations are working to strengthen local communities and their resilience to climate-related conflict.

The Karuna Center is working in 18 communities in the states of Benue, Zamfara and Kaduna. Together with the Neem Foundation, a Nigerian-based crisis response organization, they are implementing a project called “Protecting Our Communities.”

This initiative supports rural Nigerian communities at the center of violent clashes between farmers and cattle herders, by sharing peacebuilding tools and techniques to end the cycle of violence. The project has established innovative community-based peacebuilding systems throughout Nigeria’s rural North.

The program trains community dialogue facilitators to support and encourage productive communication between farmers and herders, an effort that has helped the two groups begin working together to advance their needs to the Nigerian government.

While violence in the country persists, Byers said the ability to get some farmers and herders to work together is a giant step forward.

“They don’t see each other as the enemy now,” Byers said. “They actually see that their common enemy is climate change.”

The program also helps to curb violence by helping to establish early warning/early response techniques, so communities can report conflicts, possible attacks or a rise in tensions before worse violence breaks out.

The program also helps communities in countering propaganda, misinformation and fake news.

Byers said outreach efforts such as facilitated community meetings, informational call-in radio shows, and peace- and community-building theater productions have become very popular. For those suffering from psychological trauma, the program also trains community members in mental health counseling and psychosocial support.

Over the last four years, more than 1,000 meetings have been held, which have reached several thousand people. The project is funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Rights and Labor at about $1 million a year.

The Nigerian government’s Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution recently asked the team to host a National Conference on the Management of Farmer-Herder Relations in Nigeria in the capital city of Abuja on Aug. 10. The event brought together state and national government agencies, representatives of security forces, traditional leadership and civil society leaders, and highlighted the project’s bottom-up approach to building peace.

Byers said the goal of the conference was to allow governmental and developmental experts to discuss and share relevant lessons learned, with the hope that Protecting Our Communities can be expanded upon, adapted, and replicated in Nigeria and beyond.

“We have a global responsibility to stop the climate emergency from getting worse, but we also have to support the communities who are already in the middle of it,” Byers told those gathered. “Experience teaches us that developing and lifting up locally rooted solutions creates the most sustainable path forward.”

Karuna Center for Peacebuilding, founded in 1994 by the late Paula Green of Leverett, has supported local peacebuilding initiatives in more than 40 countries. Current and recent projects include collaborations in Nigeria, Rwanda, the United States, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ethiopia and Myanmar.

Climate Change at Home is sponsored by Whalen Insurance.


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