Most Sudanese families depend on women’s farming for their food and income. Women are also responsible for collecting fresh water and fuel wood for their families. In recent years, climate change and environmental destruction have degraded the quality of Sudanese soil, placing a tremendous burden on rural women. Overgrazing of livestock has turned much of Sudan’s fertile land into desert, while slash-and-burn agriculture has destroyed two-thirds of the country’s forests. Near major rivers, soil erosion has increased flooding, contaminating drinking water and spreading water-borne illnesses, such as cholera, that can be fatal to people already weakened by malnutrition.
Environmental destruction exacerbates long-standing political conflicts in Sudan. For more than 50 years, a civil war raged between Sudan’s Northern and Southern regions. Although a peace treaty was signed in 2005, war broke out in the western Darfur region in 2003. These conflicts have displaced millions of Sudanese families, including four million southern Sudanese who remain reluctant to return home in the face of food shortages and a suffering economy. As a result of mass migration within Sudan, larger groups of people are coming to depend on smaller tracts of land, further tightening tensions over scarce natural resources.
Much of the mainstream media point to “ethnic tensions” as the chief cause of political strife in Sudan. But many Sudanese families describe the uneven distribution of resources between pastoralists and farmers as the root of the problem. Inequality and the resulting conflicts are perpetuated by a repressive and corrupt national government that pits communities against one another in a bid to maintain power.
Since March 2003, hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children have been murdered in Darfur, western Sudan. In July 2004, the US Congress declared that the mass killings in Sudan were genocide, but since then the US has done little to protect the people of Darfur. Instead, the Bush Administration has preferred to focus on nourishing a relationship with the Sudanese government in return for intelligence for the "war on terror." Meanwhile, communities are under attack by government-supplied janjaweed militias, who kill entire families, systematically rape and mutilate women and girls, burn down villages, destroy food crops, and poison wells. The death toll is over 450,000. In addition, over two and a half million people—half of them children and teenagers—have been made homeless.
Years after the fighting began, most displaced families continue to subsist in overcrowded, dangerously unsanitary camps without sufficient food, water, or basic health care. Despite the horrific conditions, people remain in the camps because they are afraid to return to their villages, where they face ongoing attacks by the militias.
An Ethnic War?
- Mainstream media's portrayal of the crisis as an ethnic war between Africans and Arabs obscures a more complex reality. Because ethnicity is a fluid, partial, and somewhat subjective facet of identity, ethnic divisions are sometimes created (not merely reflected) when ethnicity is invoked to mobilize people for political ends.
- In Darfur, the Sudanese government has fomented an ideology of Arab supremacism, siding mainly with "Arab" nomads against "African" tribes. Arabism was appealing to Darfur's nomadic communities because of their extreme poverty. In reaction to Arabism, opponents of the government gradually adopted the "African" label.
- All of Darfur's communities are Muslim, black, Arabic-speaking, African and indigenous to the region. While historical differences do exist between "Africans" and "Arabs" in Darfur, these are as much political as ethnic labels, delineating communities that have been pitted against each other by scarcity and an abusive national government.
The Roots of the Crisis
- The roots of the conflict lie in competition over land and water between "Arab" nomadic communities who turned to farming in the 1980s and 1990s and "African" agrarian tribes fighting to keep resources for themselves. Sudan's government exploited this conflict in a divide-and-rule strategy aimed at preventing Darfur as a whole from seeking redress for decades of neglect and under-development.
- Since 1989, Sudan has been ruled by an autocratic clique of generals, more committed to perpetuating their own power than to the Islamist ideology they claim to espouse. In recent years, the US and Europe have pressed for an end to a 20-year civil war in Sudan, engineering peace talks between the Sudanese government and the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA), based in southern Sudan.
- Political parties representing Darfur demanded participation in the peace talks. When the government refused, the Darfurians concluded that their grievances would only be addressed if they took up arms like the SPLA. In early 2003, Darfurian rebels attacked a government army base. The government deployed the janjaweed militias to crush the Darfur rebellion, triggering mass killing and displacement.