Abdulrahman Ismail is passionate about education. The retired primary school teacher, turned cleric, is also concerned about changes to the environment he has witnessed in Bakhiet village of Sudan’s East Darfur State where he has lived since his early childhood in the 1970s.
“This village has experienced dramatic changes both in population and in the social fabric. When I was growing up, there were less than 50 households here. Now, it has risen to more than 5,000. Trees, once abundant, have been decimated due to cooking energy demands,“ says the turbaned and bearded grandfather who dons a jalabiya, a long loose-fitting robe with a collar-less rounded neckline.
The environmental changes in Bakhiet are not unique to the village. They are also highly visible in other parts of the semi-arid state, which covers an area slightly larger than Greece—about 52,867square kilometres—and home to about 1.5 million residents.
The state’s residents belong to a number of ethnic or tribal groups, the largest of which are the southern Rizeigat (Baggara cattle herders), Ma’alia and Birgit. They are also predominantly rural and engage in a mix of crop farming and pastoralist livelihoods.
As in many parts of western Sudan, Ismail and other East Darfur residents have for decades lived in a fragile environment characterized by climatic variability and periods of shortage.
Historically, livelihoods, population levels and social structures were adapted to this fragile context, and, while conflict and famine occurred, traditional coping strategies and forms of conflict resolution generally enabled harmonious co-existence between communities and ethnic groups engaged in different livelihoods.
However, in recent years, competition for, and the unsustainable use of, water, forests and land have been exacerbated by the armed rebellion in the wider Darfur region which started in 2003 and remains largely unresolved.
Poor natural resource governance, a high population annual growth rate estimated at approximately 2.8 per cent, and increasing climate variability have only compounded the imbalance between the environment and livelihoods in East Darfur.
“We need to admit that we have a real challenge. The land remains finite, and we lack alternative livelihoods other than livestock keeping or crop farming. We need support from the government and United Nations agencies to raise awareness and to cope with these issues,” says Ismail.
To address the environmental challenges faced by local communities, UN Environment, jointly with the European Union and the UN Office for Project Services, launched the East Darfur Natural Resources Management Project in 2015.
The initiative, currently in its second phase, supports six communities such as Ismail’s, through capacity building to implement natural resource management policy reform.
“The project focuses on strengthening state and local government capacities to deliver livelihood-related services and natural resource infrastructure while mitigating environmental impacts such as declining soil fertility and deforestation. It will also strengthen the capacity of local communities, and women in particular, to participate in natural resource management,” says Abuelgasim Adam, UN Environment Coordinator for the East Darfur Natural Resource Management project.
Nearly three years since the launch of the first phase of the project, which is currently in its second phase, the project is beginning to bear fruit. After a three-year consultation process, the East Darfur State Legislature passed the "Council Act for Coordination and Management of Natural Resource Policies for East Darfur State-2018” in May 2018.
The legislation, which created the state’s Council for Coordination and Management of Natural Resource Policies, is the first of its kind in Sudan and provides a framework for the joint management of resources by both the state government and representatives of various local communities.
“The council is very useful as it will coordinate individual institutional initiatives on natural resource management and harmonize activities of relevant government organs, ” says Kawther Abdelrahman Mohamed, Deputy Chairperson of the Council.
Through a separate piece of legislation passed in September, East Darfur is also working to promote the joint management of water yards, dams and other water sources within its territory.
In 2008, cognizant of the need to make resource scarcity and competition a platform for cooperation rather than conflict, UN Environment established its Environmental Cooperation for Peacebuilding programme. The initiative seeks to address critical knowledge gaps on the role of natural resources in identifying conflict risks and peacebuilding opportunities.
Between 2009 and 2015, the programme co-generated 150 original peer-reviewed case studies by 225 experts and practitioners, covering 12 natural resource sectors across 60 conflict affected countries.
It also provided technical analysis and environmental diplomacy support to Western Sahara, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Papua New Guinea, the Sahel region, Sudan and Nigeria to address ongoing or potential resource disputes.