Is Environmental Peacebuilding the Answer to South Sudan’s Conflict?

President Salva Kiir and Former Vice-president Dr. Riek Machar posed for a picture after a F2F Meeting in Juba.

Sept 12, 2019 (Nyamilepedia)-by Marisa O. Ensor, September 12, 2019 marks one year since South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and former Vice President-turned-opposition leader Riek Machar signed a new peace agreement. The human and environmental cost of the five-year war it ended has been staggering. Women and girls have often borne the brunt of the violence.

Fighting and displacement have also placed tremendous pressure on the country’s abundant wildlife and natural resources. Militarized cattle raiding and competition over access to traditional grazing lands threaten the country’s tenuous stability. Gender-sensitive environmental peacebuilding promises to be one of the strategies needed to resolve these multiple challenges.

Conflict and Environmental (In)security

Most observers would agree that the cessation of hostilities has more or less held with minor progress in some areas. But it is perhaps not surprising that the peace is tenuous, given how pervasive political instability and armed conflict have been in South Sudan for most of its eight years of independence. The latest war in the world’s newest country killed more than 382,000 people, according to a State Department-funded study. The UN Refugee Agency estimates that more than 4.3 million people have been forced to flee their homes. Most are women and children. Conflict and large-scale displacements combined with drought and failing crops have brought 4.8 million people to the brink of famine, reports the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

South Sudan has long been associated with ivory, and has become a major transit hub for ivory and wildlife trafficking. The increasing global demand for ivory coupled with extreme poverty is also driving poaching, bushmeat hunting, and overexploitation of other natural resources. Logging and rapid deforestation are on the rise; so are illegal exports of mahogany, teak, and charcoal. Trafficking operations exploit the current insecurity and governance vacuum in many areas of the country.

While fighting between the signatories of the peace agreement has more or less halted, violence between local communities has not. Violence against women and girls remains pervasive. Implementation of the broader terms of the agreement has stalled. Steps toward key interim benchmarks—unifying a national army and drawing internal boundaries—are lagging far behind schedule. Allegations of armed forces’ involvement in large-scale wildlife poaching persist. On a more positive note, local groups and international organizations are spotlighting the link between sustainable resource management, gender dynamics and peace.

Cows, Brides, Guns . . . and Elephants

Livestock are critically important in South Sudanese society. This reality has changed little since it was reported by British anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard in his 1940 classic study of the Nuer people. Among the Nuer and the Dinka—the two largest groups involved in the conflict—wealth is often determined by the number of cattle a family owns.
In times of conflict or famine, to increase their cattle-based wealth, pastoral families resort to marrying off their daughters at an increasingly young age. Child marriage in South Sudan is a survival strategy that enables families to obtain assets through the payment of bride prices. A bride price paid in cattle for a girl who is married off early then helps her brother get married.

Bride prices soared in South Sudan as donor money poured into the country after its 2011 independence from Sudan. Higher bride prices encouraged families to treat women and girls as chattel. Many young men could not afford to get married unless they raided cattle from other communities.

At the same time, guns flooded into the country as both sides armed young herders and mobilized them to fight. Militarized cattle keepers started carrying automatic rifles instead of their traditional spears. Cattle raids, a generations-old phenomenon, have often escalated into massacres and endless cycles of revenge killings. Despite a UN arms embargo, weapons are still making their way into South Sudan via Uganda.

The presence of automatic weapons has also impacted the country’s diverse wildlife. Some cattle raiders also engage in poaching. The more sedentary animals—buffalo, hartebeests, giraffes— were nearly wiped out during the 1983–2005 war. Migratory species fared better and many managed to survive. A 2010 National Geographic article on The Lost Herds of Southern Sudan estimated the number of elephants then at 5,000. Because elephants are highly intelligent migratory animals, many fled deep into the bush where they took refuge out of the line of fire. During the most recent war, South Sudan’s remaining elephants were put in serious jeopardy, along with other animals such as giraffes, tiang antelope, and buffalo. Fortunately, this is beginning to change.

Environmental Peacebuilding Offers a Way Forward

South Sudan’s First State of Environment Report was released on June 5 to mark World Environment Day. It examines the role of sustainable resource management as a vehicle for peace. Gender dynamics are an important component. Key policy recommendations are an example of environmental peacebuilding; they draw on the premise that building and sustaining inclusive peace in conflict-affected societies like South Sudan requires consideration of natural resource management.

South Sudan Wildlife Service is already engaged in this type of approach. They have teamed up with the NGO Fauna & Floral International and Bucknell University to train young men – and also some young women—as community wildlife ambassadors. When I visited their facilities in Yambio in Western Equatoria State where hundreds of child soldiers have been recently demobilized, including 48 girls, we discussed how access to meaningful opportunities in conservation can facilitate reintegration and discourage youngsters from re-enlisting.

Another case in point is the work of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Its conservation-security initiatives include joint community-wildlife-police patrolling to protect wildlife and local communities, including preventing cattle raiding and detecting armed group movements. The USAID-WCS Livelihoods Small Grants Program targets young women and men.

Sustainable resource use, conservation, and educational initiatives aim to equip them to better respond to conflict and insecurity.

This past spring, I joined a team of conservationists on an aerial survey of South Sudan’s main national parks and protected areas. Flying low over the Sudd swamp—a large wetland area fed by the White Nile—we saw a large herd that the elephant experts in the group estimated at between 90 and 100 animals. Led by their oldest matriarch, these magnificent creatures are emblematic of South Sudan’s environmental heritage. Effective environmental peacebuilding efforts can address the conflict that threatens their country and help ensure the animals’ survival and that of their human counterparts.


Marisa O. Ensor is an applied environmental and legal anthropologist currently based at Georgetown University’s Justice and Peace Studies Program.

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