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Food security: The challenges of abundance

Ore Koren, a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota in Political Science and a pre-doctoral fellow at the Dickey Center at Dartmouth College, talks to Ebin Gheevarghese, Editor, African Farming about the strange correlation between food abundance and violent conflict in Africa

AF: How do rebel groups in Africa cash in on higher crop prices to expand territorial control?

I looked at staple crop yields because, in most rural areas in Africa, where civil war happens, the ability to recruit more troops and support them with locally sourced food is more critical to rebel operation than crop prices. During conflict, the ability to trade is severely strained, so securing sustenance for the rebel fighters is essential.

That said many African rebel groups have historically used revenue from maize to support their operations. One great example of this is the Mau Mau in 1950s Kenya. There is evidence to suggest that rebel groups can use agricultural crops to increase revenue, and thus their capacity to push the boundaries of the areas they control. Rebels in the Philippines benefit from higher prices of bananas and IS in Iraq and Syria benefited from barley. Higher crop prices enable these groups to buy more equipment and support more recruits.

So naturally, if some crops fetch higher prices, armed groups (and not only rebels) will make more money when there are high yields, and hence have a greater capacity to fight, and fight harder.

AF: Can you give us a brief idea about your sample size and research methodology?

This study uses a very large set of high-resolution data on agricultural productivity and conflict, as well as other relevant indicators. I used an instrumental variable technique that allows me to isolate the effect of food on conflict, rather than the other way around, at the local level. I analyzed 11 years of data, from 1998 to 2008.

I look how the occurrence of drought-affected agricultural yields in each “cell,” or 0.5 decimal degree grid of approximately 55 km x 55 km (at the equator). I then compare the total annual number of conflict events in each “cell” that experienced drought to cells that experienced lower levels of drought. In years where there is less drought, and hence more wheat and maize productivity, the number of conflict events is higher.

AF: Your finding, food abundance drives up conflict, seems counter-intuitive on the face of it. What evidence do you have to substantiate your claim?

Yes, it seems counterintuitive, but in fact, there is a wealth of historical evidence to support this claim, in addition to the quantitative analysis of detailed local data in this study.

Napoleon famously and accurately said: “armies march on their stomach.” Troops can’t fight without food, and armed groups have historically considered food denial an effective combat strategy. So it stands to reason that rebel groups would resort to violence to gain control over areas with abundant food and food production capacity. By securing reliable access to nutritious food, such as maize, a rebel group increases not only its strength but also morale among its troops.

We’ve seen rebel groups in Somalia and Burundi using violence to take over food aid and agricultural produce. In addition, troops and militias in the DRC are known to partake in looting resources, including crops.

The data on wheat and maize yields used in this study are among the best and most detailed in the field. This data serves as a superior proxy for food production and enable analysis of yield variations over time, making the findings more reliable.

It is important to remember, though, that while we observe this effect in staples and cereals, other food resources might have different relationships with conflict. For example, the evidence is more mixed when livestock, rather than crops, is the focus of analysis. Some studies find a negative impact of livestock prices on conflict, while others see a positive relationship.

AF: What is the way forward to get Africa out of the dog house? What role can great powers play in bringing stability to restive areas?

I think the key thing to take from this paper is that the root cause of violence over food is not necessarily low or high agricultural production, but rather limited access to food and the lack of social safety nets for those who are at the risk of being food insecure. Limited political and economic development means that many armed groups can or must rely on their own strength to enjoy agricultural resources. Increasing political participation can rob some rebel groups of their raison d’être.

Bolstering the government’s ability to enforce property rights in rural, agricultural areas diminishes the need among communities to rely on local militias, which are an especially destabilizing force. Efforts to ensure equal access to water and pastureland, rather than supporting large agricultural producers, can reduce enmities between local ethnic groups.

One role great powers can assume is in investing more in initiatives that help ameliorate the need to compete locally over food resources, such as facilitating resource sharing between different groups. But, ultimately, their biggest impact will be in promoting development throughout the country. Evidence shows, for example, that low economic development is one of the strongest predictors of civil war. Economic investment in infrastructure and private initiatives, commitment to traditional peace-building activities alongside promoting peaceful local sharing of natural resources are still probably the most effective type of help that external power can provide.

AF: What's the quantum of loss in terms of people and money from food-related conflicts?

It’s substantive, but it’s also difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. The overall economic impact, as well as the number of lives lost, injuries sustained, and people kidnapped or forced to migrate, is very high. The effects of food-related violence can be seen almost daily in news reports. I hope this study will shed some new light on certain aspects of the dynamics at play in rural areas.

AF: How does climate change feed violence, according to your findings?

This is a tough question. I think the main problem with the current approach to this issue is in emphasizing one “linear” effect. Personally, I find the notion that climate change will always cause more war and more violence to be problematic. For instance, in my paper, we see that droughts actually have a pacifying effect, rather than causing more conflict.

I think we need to consider climate change-related phenomena in context. For instance, in my own work, I do find that drought can increase the willingness of citizens in developed urban areas within nondemocratic countries to challenge the regime, and hence the level of violence used by governments in these countries. Yet, the same is not true for civil wars, which happen mostly in rural areas. Droughts and prolonged heat waves, like other phenomena related to climate change, have very different impacts on a conflict in different contexts. Going forward, we need to focus more these specific contexts and how they might be impacted rather than on broad brushstrokes.

My findings point to the importance of access. Namely, how able are people living in different areas to enjoy the food they or others produce? Can they access social support from the state when necessary? As access issues relate more to the political and socioeconomic environment, addressing these challenges will probably necessitate more emphasis on improving infrastructure and political representation.

AF: What effects do the conflicts inflict on wheat and maize production?

In general, conflict increases population pressures in the region (e.g., via troops moving in), destroys infrastructure and agricultural land, and causes migration of producers who leave to escape the violence.

The negative effects of conflict on agricultural yields are substantial but were not – admittedly – the focus of my study, which instead uses specific methods to isolate the inverse – the likelihood that high crop yields will lead to increased violence in those areas.

To improve food security and agricultural productivity, to prevent the need of different armed groups to rely on food sourced locally and communities to resort to self-help, the emphasis should be placed on improving the economic and political environment of many countries. It is frustratingly hard to do, but with many smart, dedicated people involved, both those from different conflict-afflicted countries and those from the outside, I remain cautiously optimistic.