Can The Environment Explain Central Africa's Rift Valley Political Instability?

The heart of Africa is rejuvenating. The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) Nyamuragira volcano is currently spewing jets of molten-rock hundreds of meters into the air, deep from within the earth’s mantle. Unsurprisingly, such geological activity is attracting tourism, though to see this volcano, visitors must trek through one of Africa’s most politically unstable regions. This ongoing volcanic formation of virgin, fertile land has also initiated a local population boom, which when combined with historical racial segregations, acts as a driver responsible for fuelling the horrific fighting that tarnish this region. 

The geography of Central Africa has allowed for a distinct ecological range, due to the rending of the continent’s eastern flank by tectonic actions. Heaving eastwards, the Horn of Africa is straining the gash that juts down the DRCs eastern border – the Great Rift Valley: 30 million years ago, such movements resulted in modern Arabia; 30 million years from now, similar motions will lead to Somalia and Kenya establishing a larger sibling to Madagascar. Today, the Rift Valley is intact and ranges from forested mountains to the Great Lakes that intersperse the valley. Between these extremes are tropical forests, grasslands, moors, and wetlands.

Due to the productiveness of this volcanic landscape, the Rift Valley has one of the highest human population densities in Africa; though few would consider this area a tropical paradise. Often portrayed as a disaster zone, the temperamental borders of the DRCUgandaRwanda, and Burundi creep across the valley’s surface. The dynamic and verdant geography led to unsustainable human demographics and land scarcity – antagonized by existing ethnic divisions, this catalysed the erupting social-political turmoil over recent decades.

History can help explain this troubled region: When 19th century Europeans carved up the Rift Valley, they devised a classification system to distinguish negligible differences in race. Colonialists considered the area's most productive farmers to be of a more superior race, the Tutsi, while the remaining communities, the Hutu, comprised the rest of the populace. Germany and Belgium used these divisions to segregate the people of their colonies, with Belgium issuing identification cards to indicate racial group – these would help decide who would live or die during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

It is geography that determines ecological distribution and species adaptation in this abundant landscape, which in turn enticed human settlers, initiating population explosions and the subsequent socio-political chaos. As Western tourists gaze at the Congolese volcanoes and the new land they create, the surrounding jungle throngs with rebel groups fighting for land, using ethnicity as a convenient means for easing territory competition.

During the 1970s and 1980s, ethnic divisions escalated, prompting rebel uprisings and governmental militias; in Burundi and Uganda alone, the Hutu and Tutsi death toll is somewhere in the hundreds of thousands, with equal numbers of displaced people to neighboring nations. By the mid-1990s: thousands of Burundi Tutsis were massacred following the assassination of their Hutu president; Rwandan Tutsis violently overthrew their Hutu state, leading to genocide, nearly a million deaths, and as many displaced refugees; some 5.4 million people died during the Second Congo War, which involved several adjoining countries. Insurgence fighting, corruption, malaria, and AIDS epidemics are further problems present in the Congo Basin.

High rainfall and fertile ground provide prime conditions for cultivation. Increased agricultural yields produce more food, allowing more mouths to be fed, which entices population increases. More people need more farmland, which requires stripping more forest, clearing more savannahs, and draining more wetland. Combined population booms and disruptions to spatial ecology have now reached levels that make land a scarce resource. During the late 20th century, dilapidated soils, lack of available land, and unsustainable human populations incurred regional anxiety and rising tensions. The ethnic divides established in history were convenient targets for frustrated and uneasy societies under social and environmental pressure.

A natural marvel, the Congolese volcano brings positive international coverage to an otherwise troubled region, and tourism helps bolster weak local economies. As the volcanic lava cools, it forms new land, assisting the African continent in wrenching apart. With high rainfall, nutrient-laden soils, and diverse ecosystems, this land provides an optimal setting for an array species, including humans and the agriculture that is fundamental to our success as a species. Even so, conditions can be too good, which makes us greedy and we soon take advantage. The volcanoes can only make so much land at a given time. Could the erupting volcano and the problems that surround it reflect the dominance of nature and all our positions within it – lessons that could prove invaluable with the environmental uncertainties that lie in the not so distant future?

Photo CreditWikimedia Commons

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Jonathan Booth

BSc in Marine Biology, MSc in Sustainable Engineering and PGCE/MEd in Secondary Science. Travelled and worked across East Asia, Oceania, the Middle East and Africa.

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