The Environmental Impact Of War And Conflict: Uganda’s Experience

The relationship between war and conflict, and their environmental threat is long established. In times of war, environmental regulations are often de-prioritized in exchange of the immediate short-term interests of civilians. This results in the unsustainable use of natural resources, harming non-human and long-term human interests alike. Uganda is a country with an ecosystem that continues to especially suffer from these impacts.

The country experienced a nearly twenty-year long conflict inflicted by the Lord’s Resistant Army (LRA), lasting from the late 80s and continuing through to 2006 when the organisation was expelled from the country. Aside from the horrific direct impacts, including the abduction of around 30,000 child soldiers and the displacement of over a million Alcoli people, the environmental impacts were immense. According to the Ugandan Acholi Times, in 2014, it was reported that Amuru and Gulu Districts’ forest cover had been almost halved since 1990. In “From disaster to devastation: drought as war in northern Uganda,” Adam Branch recounts a scene of survivors returning to villages and overgrown landscapes, ruined homesteads, water sources destroyed, as well as large trees, essential for boundary demarcation or orientation. Of most importance, people were returning to their land without cattle of whom entire families depended on for their survival.

The humanitarian cost on the environment as a result of the conflict continues to be seen to this day. Posiano Biemy of the London School of Economics argued that the response required in treating and aiding displaced communities in the north of the country, placed pristine ecosystems, such as the River Agogo, under immense stress. In his analysis, he noted that “although countless lives were saved by this humanitarian intervention, these activities were conducted without any scientific or expert guidance, and the river was stretched beyond its ability to recover naturally to its previous stable state.” A culmination of the unsustainable overfishing of the river and the destruction of wildlife on the banks of the rivers to make way for camps led the river to dry up. This resulted in only further overfishing as more accessible practices such as spear fishing provided easier means for these displaced communities to feed from.

Conflict across Uganda’s borders have also resulted in deforestation which environmental concerns fuelled further conflict. South Sudanese refugees fleeing conflict have taken residence in crowded refugee camps in the north, resulting in unsustainable deforestation for fuel, house building and charcoal. As the Guardian’s Samuel Okiror reported, over 1.1 million refugees have fled to Northern Uganda. Joel Boutroue, representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), stated that “a refugee cuts [down] around 20 trees per year. [Locals] see their own environment being depleted increasingly.” As a result, the UNHCR has claimed that refugees have suffered abuses at hands of Ugandans who also crave the natural resource.

Some solutions have been offered. Okiror notes how the UNHCR attempted to address the immediate concern of deforestation by promising to plant 20 million trees by the end of 2019 to abate community infighting. However, progress of this campaign is still to be seen. The UNHCR has also promoted energy saving stoves to mitigate the need for timber wood. However, refugees have reported that they were not provided with fuel so were forced to turn to timber wood again.

Community learning strategies have also been offered to limit damage in regions such as the Agogo district in the north of the country. Social engagement programmes were introduced with the aim of educating environmentally protective behaviour patterns. As Bimeni stated, “evidence suggests these prove to be a better source of innovation than government laws, policies and governance structures. It is for this very reason that interventions focused on ‘engaging,’ ‘educating,’ ‘empowering’ and ‘encouraging’ deliver better outcomes.”

However, these strategies entail a perception of wrongdoing on the side of the displaced and already vulnerable, failing to address more damaging environmental practices. The programmes that Bimeni and Okiror scrutinise reflect a wider ill-informed strategy amongst humanitarian agencies in developing world contexts that assume that local populations fail to use ecological sources in a ‘sustainable’ manner. They propose the answer to be in educating an efficient and respectable approach amongst the refugees, whilst also instilling environmental values that they lack.

This assumption is damaging, failing to appreciate the fundamental issues at hand. The social learning approach “assumes the local community to be the primary actor in ecological degeneration” Bimeni continues. “This assumption risks unintentionally placing blame and responsibilities on affected communities for actions or inactions they are otherwise not responsible for,” failing to highlight the government’s role in embarking in destructive development projects. “International humanitarian and government actions and inactions during and after the war present far greater implications for the environment. Unless interventions take this perspective and understand context specific to the community, there is a risk of unintentionally blaming communities for actions they are not responsible for.”

Government interventions have also been scrutinized by Branch as he assessed the impacts of the Ugandan civil war on the delivery of the government’s efforts against climate change. Critiquing the country’s 2015 National Climate Change Policy, he states that the policy neglects the role of the war in contributing to pervasive drought and deforestation across the country. He argues that “the dominant understanding of the relation between climate change and conflict remains one of cause and effect: climate change is proposed as the cause of conflict.” As noted with the ecological impacts of war that preceded this policy, war has played an important role in damaging the country’s ecology, hampering efforts to address climate change.

This is because government actors benefited, and continues to benefit, from this environmental destruction. As Branch continued, the government played a central role in the trade of commodities including charcoal, as well as land grabs for commercial farming and conservation tourism. These were directed from the top and made possible by the involvement, sometimes direct, of the state and the Uganda’s army, the UPDF.

Branch depicts a story of corruption at the highest level, influencing contemporary approaches to Uganda’s environmental plights. Adequately addressing the impacts of the Ugandan conflict will involve addressing this coordinated control over the country’s valuable environmental resources, as well as the significant support that the Ugandan government has received from international donors over the past two decades, making possible the conflict and contemporary militarization.

Countries and populations with a long history of civil upheaval and conflict, such as Uganda, are home to populations that are often already vulnerable and predisposed to environmental threats. Short term strategies such as re-planting trees, and providing alternative fuel sources, and community learning projects, fail to address the structural environmental exploitation enacted by large-scale industry and government inaction in these contexts. Further, looking at the Ugandan government’s own failure to address the role of the past conflict in its climate change mitigation planning, displays an inherent problem amongst the key actors in addressing focal environmental issues. Addressing the role of conflict, and the actors that continue to benefit from it, will be essential in the successful implementation of efforts to protect both human and non-human life alike.

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