The UN peacekeeping body in South Sudan, UNMISS, has distributed over 5,000 indigenous tree seedlings across schools and other public centres in collaboration with the South Sudanese government, to support its continuing efforts to counter climate change.
South Sudan’s natural habitat has seen its fair share of ruin during five years of civil and ethnic fighting, which began barely two years after a 20-year battle for independence from North Sudan. According to the Climate Change Vulnerability Index (2017), South Sudan is among the five worst performing countries, with recent studies projecting that the global warming in South Sudan will be 2.5 times higher than the global average. As part of UNMISS’s commitment to fighting climate change and raising environmental awareness, it is hoped that the distribution of indigenous trees – such as mango, lemon, guava and teak – will help to facilitate environmental recovery in areas most damaged by conflict, while the warring parties are committed to peace.
The move comes as part of the celebrations attached to the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict (November 6th), which has been an annual event since a declaration by the UN General Assembly in 2001. While the causalities of war are usually measured in the losses and destruction of human life, this day commemorates the strategic role environmental resources play both in causing and intensifying conflict. As found by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 40% of all internal conflicts over the past 60 years has been linked to the exploitation of high-value or scarce natural resources, with such conflicts being two times as likely to relapse.
For South Sudan, power over its oil-rich northern states plays an integral role in the politics of peace-keeping. Many of the African nations comprising the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), who have the deciding vote in UN actions such as an arms embargo, have independent vested interests in South Sudan’s resources, and back the side of the Sudanese conflict which would offer them the best access. This reduces the likelihood of unanimous votes from IGAD – without which, countries such as China and Russia will not act.
Beyond being a catalyst for conflict, damage to environmental resources is often used tactically to intensify the destruction of warfare – whether through military herbicide to farmland, or contamination of water sources. As highlighted by the UN; there can be no durable peace if the natural resources that sustain livelihoods are destroyed. “We must use all of the tools at our disposal, from dialogue and mediation to preventive diplomacy, to keep the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources from fueling and financing armed conflict and destabilizing the fragile foundations of peace” (Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon).
By sowing the seeds of indigenous tress in areas damaged by the civil conflict, UNMISS is hoping to not only practically reduce harmful greenhouses gases that contribute to climate change, but also raise awareness of the importance of the environment among the younger generation of South Sudanese. Perhaps a desire to protect and save the environmental future of South Sudan will be a cause behind which all sides of the conflict can unite, and these trees will have the chance to grow alongside the world’s youngest country.