Environmental Crimes Change Face of Sub-Saharan Africa

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By  Wachira Kigotho

Oct. 5 — The refugee crisis that has sent hundreds of thousands of people from the Middle East and Africa to Europe this year is overwhelmingly fueled by civil war, threats from terror groups and poverty.

But another factor is exacerbating the crisis: New evidence suggests that environmental crime—including pervasive exploitation and illegal trade in natural resources—is helping to push some people out of sub-Saharan Africa.

According to the United Nations Environment Program's executive director, Achim Steiner, intense competition for extraction of environmental resources is fueling violence and creating desperate conditions on part of the continent. 

The alarming pace of brutality and level of sophistication of illegal and unsustainable exploitation of natural resources by organized local and foreign criminal syndicates is now a key element toward intensifying flows of migrants from Africa to Europe, Steiner said.57982059202

Adding to Instability.

The Geneva-based International Organization for Migration estimates that 200,000 migrants from sub-Saharan Africa alone will to try to enter the European Union this year. While they are generally fleeing political upheaval, Gavin Hayman, director of campaigns at London-based Global Witness, pointed out how the scramble for natural resources in Africa has increased instability.

Illegal logging and mining have not only been destroying environment in the Congo Basin, but are also funding illegal arms deals in the region that have been fueling bush wars in Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, Hayman said.

Other countries in sub-Saharan Africa where illegal and unsustainable competition for natural resources has sparked population upheavals leading to internally displaced persons, intra-African refugees, stateless persons, asylum seekers and potential economic migrants include Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Senegal, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan.

The main African countries of origin of migrants recorded in Italy from January to June of this year were: Eritrea (30,708), Nigeria (15,113), Somalia (8,790), Sudan (7,126) and Gambia (5,514).

According to statistics cited in the IOMs  Missing Migrants Project, between January and September this year, 2,870 migrants died trying to reach Europe through the Mediterranean Sea, most of them from sub-Saharan Africa and Horn of Africa.

Many of the rest were also sub-Saharan Africans, noted the briefing report. Notably this meant that about 70 percent of illegal migrants seeking entry to Europe were from sub-Saharan Africa.

Environmental Crimes.

International organizations such as UNEP, the United Nations Inter-Regional Crime and Justice Research Institute and Interpol say environmental crimes today typically involve illegal logging, wildlife poaching and trade in endangered species, illicit trade and dumping of hazardous wastes, unreported and unregulated fishing, and smuggling contraband.

Most of those problems in sub-Saharan Africa hinge on illegal exploitation and trade in natural resources that benefit organized criminal groups, and ruling party head and senior government officials.

Hayman said extensive forest destruction in sub-Saharan Africa has created severe social and economic consequences for indigenous communities, leading to civil rights violations and harsh repression by governments, insurgent rebel groups and illegal logging companies.

For instance, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the second-largest country in sub-Saharan Africa, there are 25 to 49 active militia groups with a combined force of about 8,000 fighters, reaping $13.2 million a year from their control of the supply chain of the illegal trade in logs, minerals, wildlife poaching and trafficking, and other environmental crimes.

While minerals such as gold, diamonds, tungsten, cassiterite and coltan are some of the most lucrative commodities of the illegal trade in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Interpol said there is vast and uncontrolled exploitation of wildlife, mainly for bush meat and ivory.

Cycles of Violence.

According to a  report UNEP, the UN Great Lakes Framework and the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the DR Congo (MONUSCO) released in April, which had inputs from Interpol and other UN agencies in Democratic Republic of Congo, rebels' earnings from the illegal trade enables defeated or disarmed groups continuously to resurface and destabilize the region. As a result, DRC has one of the highest numbers of refugees and displaced persons occasioned by resource-related conflict in the region.

Other countries in sub-Saharan Africa where natural resource-related battles and intense violence against civilians incessantly occur include Nigeria, Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia, said Caitriona Dowd, a senior manager at Armed Conflict Location Event Data Project (ACLED).

According to an ACLED  study on political violence across Africa between 1997–2014, natural resource-related conflicts have not only displaced large populations throughout the continent, but also have increased the number of economic migrants from the continent.

Whereas migrants from Somalia flee from armed conflict and the poverty wrought by damage of environment, migrants from Eritrea are reported to be running away from compulsory military service, which has been described as cheap labor used to exploit natural resources for the benefit of senior government officials, ruling party and military chiefs.

According to Amnesty International, all students exiting secondary education in Eritrea are conscripted into the military at Sawa camp in a program that is scheduled to last 18 months. But the period of service is frequently extended indefinitely and many conscripts are assigned to work as laborers on farms for companies owned and operated by the military or ruling party elites, Amnesty International said in a  report, Eritrea: Twenty Years of Independence but Still No Freedom.

Resource-Related Conflicts.

Eritrea's population of 6.6 million is shrinking as more of its citizens try to seek asylum in European countries and Israel. Besides conscription, many of them also are fleeing from human rights abuses perpetrated by environmental crimesinvolving land and water resources, according to the report.

In addition, while Africa's large-scale civil wars of the 1990s have receded, there has been an upsurge in terrorist attacks and political insurgency. Violent events against civilians in Africa are on the rise again, said Francisco Ferreira, the World Bank's chief economist for the Africa region.

According to Ferreira, the problem of internally displaced persons, refugees and economic migrants is on the rise as a result of intense competition for natural resources.

Somalia continues to have a high number of directly resource-related conflicts, largely driven by al-Shabaab, the al-Qaida affiliated group that is fighting the government in Mogadishu, as well as battles between clan militias over control of land and water resources.

Beyond access to land rights and water points, Somalia is engulfed in a massive charcoal-producing trade that is not only the primary source of income for al-Shabaab Islamists but also the single biggest cause of land degradation in that country. The UNEP estimates that al-Shabaab is earning between $38 million and $56 million from charcoal exports.


Because Somalia now is sparsely forested, massive charcoal production has taken a toll on the country's slow-growing acacia trees and has effectively contributed to devastating environmental damage. Based on calculations in a  report from the United Nations Security Council's Committee on Somalia and Eritrea, the production of 24 million sacks of charcoal in 2012–2013 would have required 10.5 million trees.

Given the average density of 60 acacia trees per 2.5 acres in Somalia, the area of deforestation would cover 676 square miles, which is larger than the city of Houston, Texas, in the United States, committee chairman Kim Sook said in the report.

Although the Security Council has banned Somalia's charcoal exports to the Gulf region, illegal trade continues, said George Ward, editor of the nonprofit Institute for Defense Analyses.

The charcoal from Somalia is highly valued in the Gulf States for its slow burning and aroma, said Ward, who is also a former U.S. ambassador in Namibia.

Somalia ranks first in sub-Saharan Africa and third in the world as the country with the largest number of refugees and displaced persons. As of 2014, more than 1 million Somali refugees have fled to Kenya, Yemen, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Tanzania and Uganda in addition to another 1.1 million internally displaced persons.


The number of economic migrants from the Horn of Africa also has steadily increased as a result of ethnic conflicts that are often triggered by disagreements on sharing of natural resources. According to ACLED, the South Sudan government and various rebel groups are fighting for control of oil deposits in the country.

Sudan also has been experiencing resource-related conflicts in the Darfur and Abyei regions over disputed oil fields, forests and pastoral land. As a result, a significant number of African economic migrants are seeking asylum abroad in the European Union and Israel. According to Human Rights Watch, economic migrants from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan, currently comprise more than 90 percent of about 50,000 asylum seekers in Israel.

If people don't have livelihoods at all, they are not going to sit and die of hunger, they are going to look for greener pastures. 
— Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, head of the African Union Commission

In West Africa, most economic migrants destined for Europe are from Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal. Nigeria especially has exhibited high levels of resource-related conflict, much of it revolving around oil in the Niger Delta.

Climate Change.

Many in the international community would like to see the United Nations Security Council urge the African Union to exert pressure on countries whose citizens are fleeing their homelands in large numbers. These countries should be encouraged to resolve issues related to human rights and land ownership, they say.

The issue also has gained attention heading in to the end-of-year UN climate conference in Paris, where the world's nations hope to reach agreement on fighting climate change.

There are increasing indications, there is evidence to the fact that the climate is exacerbating already existing challenges in many regions, particularly in the region where many of the refugees, migrants are coming from, Janos Pasztor, the UN's assistant secretary-general on climate change, said Sept. 17 at the United Nations. We hope that that will also be recognized as an additional reason why we need a strong agreement in Paris.

Environmental Crimes and Migration patterns in Africa

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees  has warned that climate change could become the biggest driver of population displacements in the coming years as scarce natural resources like drinking water become even more limited and as food security becomes a bigger challenge.

Economic Development.

Others are calling for a greater push in economic development. A growing number of unemployed youth countrywide are vulnerable to environmental crimes. Developing sustainable business and trade practices would establish a stable economic base for creating more jobs.

The UN Security Council passed a resolution earlier this year mandating MONUSCO to use the necessary force to prevent criminal armed groups from gaining from any exploitation of natural resources in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In addition, African countries are seeking international help to deal with environment crimes. Recently, the African Group petitioned the UN Environment Assembly to engineer global legislation to support previous environmental protection and poverty alleviation actions.

The head of the African Union Commission, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, said in April there are no quick African solutions to the problem. If people don't have livelihoods at all, they are not going to sit and die of hunger, they are going to look for greener pastures, said Dlamini-Zuma.

We have to accept that the challenges still remain and more needs to be done, especially by making conscious effort to address the root causes of these tragedies, said Mustapha Sidiki Kaloko, the African Unions commissioner for social affairs.

Wahade Belay, an Ethiopian government spokesperson on migration crisis, pointed out the need for a comprehensive and universal response to address and eliminate the abuse, violence and exploitation experienced by migrants. We need to get durable and comprehensive approaches to this situation within the context of poverty eradication, creation of employment and sustainable development, he said.

By Wachira Kigotho

To contact the reporter on this story: Wachira Kigotho in Nairobi, Kenya, at  correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at  ghenderson@bna.com

The Experts Background Report on Illegal Exploitation Trade in Natural Resources Benefitting Organized Criminal Groups Recommendations on MONUSCOs Role in Fostering Stability Peace in Eastern DR Congo, is available at http://bit.ly/1cSmNZx.

Armed Conflict Location Even Data Project report, Real-Time Analysis of African Political Violence, April 2014, is available at  http://bit.ly/1JoJBPg.

The International Organization for Migration's Missing Migrants Project is available at  http://bit.ly/1Jyz9hD.

The United Nations Security Council's Committee on Somalia and Eritrea (S/2013/413) report is available at  http://bit.ly/1HUcJq4.

Amnesty International's report, Eritrea: Twenty Years of Independence but Still No Freedom, is available at  http://bit.ly/1kz5kEP.

The UN Refugee Agency statement warning about climate change and population displacement is available at  http://www.unhcr.org/4b2910239.html.

By  Wachira Kigotho