The vicious cycle of conflict-driven migration

Hugh Biggar
10 November 2017

Investing in rural landscapes may reduce record number of displaced people

(Landscape News) — In northern Nigeria, nomadic livestock herders have been pushed out due to desertification and the loss of traditional grazing lands — their move south in search of a better location resulting in violent clashes with local farming communities.

Such circumstances are emblematic of instability, illustrating how conflict, migration, scarcity of food and water are interconnected and form a pattern of circularity. A lack of resources to sustain livelihoods leads to migration and conflict, then migration and conflict lead to more scarcity and more conflict, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) report in a joint brief.

“Conflicts increase food insecurity and limit the livelihood options of rural populations,” states the brief titled, Conflict, migration, and food security: The role of agriculture and rural development. “Conversely, food insecurity – driven by sudden food-price spikes, dispossession, or loss of agricultural assets – may compound existing grievances and trigger conflict.”

Already, the number of people on the move is enormous, with the world experiencing the largest population of displaced people in history, according to the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR). In 2016, there were 66 million forcibly displaced people resulting from conflicts, an increase of 65 percent from 40 million people in 2011. In the same year, people forcibly displaced due to persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations, included 22.5 million refugees, 40.3 million internally displaced people and 2.8 million asylum seekers.

The FAO-IFPRI brief makes recommendations to help break the cycle of shrinking resources, migration, and conflict, including continued investment in agricultural and rural development, responding proactively to rebuild agriculture after unrest, developing amicable relations with neighboring countries hosting refugees, and ensuring food security is a part of humanitarian aid.

The brief posits that fortifying agricultural resilience and investing in rural development could decrease the number of migrants and help prevent unrest from igniting in the first place. The key is to invest in scientific research to provide people with incentives to stay and ensure adequate access to food rather than uproot.

“We can identify common problems around the globe linked to this dimension,” said David Laborde, a senior research fellow at IFPRI. “In a nutshell, we can summarize them as ‘property rights’ issues regarding land and natural resources. Lack of clear definition, or violation of these rights, leads to many political tensions and conflicts.”

Land use and Conflict

Laborde cited disputes over land ownership and extraction of natural resources such as oil or minerals as two main sources of conflict. At the same time, changes in landscape due to climate change are also exacerbating the issue, he said.

Similarly, the IFPRI-FAO states that, “Protracted conflicts around the world have been a main cause of a rise in global hunger in recent years. Conflicts are also driving the dramatic increase in the number of forcibly displaced people …. But forced movements of people and food insecurity may also fuel conflicts.”

A 2017 World Food Programme (WFP) study found that the greatest numbers of refugees are from countries experiencing armed conflict and the highest levels of food insecurity. The finding suggests that strengthening availability and access to food in troubled countries could reduce the flow of migrants.

Investing in Agriculture and Rural Development

Laborde also stressed the importance of continued support for agricultural and rural development.

“First, let’s make sure to have well-defined property rights on land, and resources above and underground…. it is really a key element,” he said. “Second, guaranteeing that resources and benefits are properly shared between central government and local communities. Third, and from an international perspective, is making sure that international border disputes do not escalate to open international conflicts. Fourth, sustainable management of natural resources, especially land and water, [is vital]. Major land degradation or water scarcity will lead local community to migrate [and] has a high probability to lead to political tensions, and sometimes conflicts.”

On this last point, Laborde noted that climate change will continued to fuel migration and help spark conflicts as has happened with the herders in northern Nigeria.

Going forward, he said, proactive policies such as early warning systems of impending crisis or food shocks, resource sharing and maintaining funding from donors to help pay for land reform and sustainable agriculture are going to be increasingly important.

“To address conflict-driven migrations we must address the roots of conflicts,” he said.

“Geopolitical, ethnic and religious drivers are important and there is no easy solution to address them, especially when looking from a landscape perspective.”

Further Reading

Conflict, migration, and food security: The role of agriculture and rural development

Migration: What happens to the people (and forests) left behind?

The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World

2017 – At the root of exodus: Food security, conflict and international migration