Climate change fuels violence as hunger drives cattle poaching in East Africa

climate change violence
East Africa's population is increasingly on the sharp end of climate change impacts
The cattle keepers of Karamoja have raided each others' herds for generations: for prestige, to pay dowries and increase wealth. But the thefts are increasingly driven by hunger caused by a changing climate. Jocelyn T Edwards reports from Uganda

Travelling north in Uganda, the land flattens out and becomes drier, turning from tropical to semi-arid. Paved roads change to dirt and after a few hours you reach the most remote region of the country. Home to a semi-nomadic cattle keeping people, the Karimojong, Karamoja is scarred by dry river beds and dotted with manyattas, small settlements made of sticks and ringed by fences of thorns. 

About ten kilometres outside of Moroto, the largest town in the Karamoja, in one of these manyattas, lives Lowakabong Tapem. Crawling through a small opening in the fence, you'll find him and his eight wives and 40 children. Tapem used to be a rich man. He carries a walking stick and wears a navy blue suit jacket over cargo shorts.  Around his wrist is an ivory bracelet that he bought for ten cows. But then last year, warriors from a neighbouring clan came and stole all his animals in a series of raids. He lost 70 cows, 30 camels and 40 goats. 

'I don’t have anything to give my wives; they are the ones who take care of me now, by going and looking for herbs,' Tapem says. The elder blames the drought that has plagued the region of Karamoja in recent years for the theft of his livestock. 'The hunger has increased the raids,' he says. 'Someone sits under the tree for a whole day. He doesn’t have anything to do; he doesn’t have anything to eat. "So he thinks, let me just go for a raid"'.

The hardships of climate change that environmentalists warn of have already arrived in the poorest and least developed region of Uganda.  Three out of the past four years have seen poor or no harvests in Karamoja. But in addition to starving the region agriculturally, climate change is also exacerbating violence in the region. As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said in 2007, 'changes in our environment and the resulting upheavals - from droughts to inundated coastal areas to loss of arable lands - are likely to become a major driver of war and conflict.'

The conflicts Moon spoke of might seem abstract and apocalyptic - too far in the future to worry about. But in Uganda, it seems climate change driven violence is already here. The cattle keepers of Karamoja have raided each other’s herds for generations: for prestige, to pay dowries and to increase their wealth. But today, many in the region say that warriors are increasingly driven by hunger.

Global warming reality

Sitting on a bench in the stark afternoon sunlight, the elders of Tapem’s manyatta agree the climate of Karamoja has undergone a transformation in recent years. 'Previously during this season there was rain and it was green around. Now you look around . . . everything is different. It’s completely changed,' says Apangamea Lobur.

Before, 'we would expect that when you came around here you would find green grass and plants of medium size,' Lokawa Pareo says.

The government of Uganda estimates that the average temperature has increased between 0.2 and 1 degree C in the country since 1974. The semi-arid region of Karamoja, already suceptable to drought, has been particularly affected by this change.

Andrew Achila-Ododongo is the Production and Marketing Coordinator for the district of Moroto. In his office in Moroto town, he gets out a chart showing plunging rainfall patterns in the area. 

'If you look at our crop calendar, by now we should be recording maximum amount of rainfall. This year, we only got three days of rain,' he says. 'It used to be every five years you would get a serious drought, but now, almost every year you get drought.'

It adds up to an undeniable change in Karamoja’s climate, says the official. 'Climate change is aggravating the situation and the impacts are being seriously felt. [Global warming] is becoming a reality.'

And as the environment has worsened, the people`s hunger pangs have sharpened. A 2010 report by the Danish NGO DanChurchAid concluded that in Karamoja 'climate change is worsening food insecurity dramatically.' According to the report, 85 per cent of people surveyed in two districts of Karamoja have only one meal a day.

The change in the environment has meant that families that used to look to agriculture, as an alternative to livestock, to feed themselves are no longer able to rely on that either.

Achila-Ododongo says the drought has decimated harvests. 'Production and productivity are going down every day. It’s been crop failure, crop failure, crop failure for the last four years. There are no bumper harvests like we used to have. We have been relying on food aid for the past four years.' 

Back inside the manyatta, one of Tapem’s wives shows off an empty garden. 'If we plant anything, the sun will just come and burn up all the crops, so we don’t even think of planting. If we last up until the following day, we thank God for that,' says the patriarch.

These days, the people of the manyatta are largely dependent on NGO and government assistance for food. It’s a change from Tapem`s younger years, when the community was more self-reliant. 'We were better off because we didn’t depend on the government so much.  It’s just these recent years and especially this one where we don’t have anything at all,' Tapem says.

Raiding for food

Cattle raids are a tradition in Karamoja going back to before colonisation. When guns proliferated in the region in following the overthrow of Idi Amin, however, they became increasingly destructive. A decade ago, the government of Uganda launched a massive disarmament program designed to stamp out raiding in the area. But despite the army’s collection of over 30,000 guns, the effort hasn’t put a stop to raiding in Karamoja. 

Rather, cattle raids have changed nature. A number of factors, including increased demand for land and high youth unemployment and, of course drought, have resulted in raids of a different type. Instead of the massive ritual raids of the past, today warriors who steal tend to steal only a few animals at a time.

'Cattle wrestling has been transformed into organized crime,' says the DanChurchAid study. That's partly a function of a changing climate. Instead of raiding for prestige or to pay dowries, warriors now steal to feed their families, explains Simon Kiru, food security officer of the community based organization Action for Poverty Reduction and Livestock Modernization in Karamoja. 'If the children have slept for two or three days without food, then a man is forced to go and raid because there is no other alternative.'

Raiding has become a commercial activity and a coping strategy more than a cultural practice, Kiru explains. 'Now the cows they raid are just for survival. They bring them and sell them straight away so that they can buy food.'

Father Charles Omenya, the chairperson of the Catholic church’s Justice and Peace committee for Moroto Diocese, has lived in Karamoja since the 1970’s. 'These people who used to have guns, now they have resorted to arrows and pangas,' he says. 'Now they can’t launch major attacks, so what they do is to go to vulnerable people and [even] take away the food stuffs that they have at home, chickens and utensils.' 

And in spite of the government’s efforts to eliminate the violence in the region, Karimojong continue to die at the hands of their neighbours. At least two or three people die each month in raids in Moroto district, admits resident district chairman Norman Ojwe. And that’s in just one region of Karamoja’s seven.

Only hope

Outside of Tapem’s manyatta, several boys in their late teens are escaping the mid-afternoon sun under a lone tree. These boys used to be charged with keeping their families’ cattle.  But there’s little for them to do since their fathers’ herds were raided.

'I knew all the colours of the animals and when one got lost and was missing, I could find it,' says Lokwango Nachiro, whose father lost his cows in a raid last year.

'[Usually] at this time in the afternoon I would be returning from the grazing area and I would be sharpening my knives to draw the animal’s blood. I don’t have anything to do these days. When we had cows, I would drink their milk and blood but now I have nothing to do but sit under this tree.'

In a society where cattle raids have become a strategy for coping with the changing climate, the future threatens to bring more violence. His friend Lobur Angella recalls the night his family’s cattle were taken. 'We were sleeping and suddenly we heard gunshots. We took off without our shirts or shoes and ran to the bushes and hid. Some people were killed and some animals were injured. It’s only because of the rescue of the soldiers that we were saved.'

The drought means that these boys have given up on agriculture as a means of producing food. 'The weather is not favouring us now.  The soil is not fertile; if it was we would try and grow sorghum,' says Paul Louse. Though their community was devastated by raiding, they see the violent form of theft as the only way to obtain a good life for them and their families. 'The only hope of getting rich would be to go and raid,' Louse says.


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