Sudan has a great deal in common with Afghanistan. Both countries are horrendously overpopulated relative to their carrying capacity, and have exploding populations — Sudan’s population of 40 million people is doubling every 25 years and that rate is not slowing, raising the spectre of its population topping a half billion by the end of the century. Both Sudan and Afghanistan are also desperately poor, with only 7% of Sudan’s land and 12% of Afghanistan’s capable of supporting agriculture. What’s worse, over-farming, over-grazing and global warming are producing chronic drought, which in turn causes massive famine and desertification. Encroaching desert has already halved arable land in Afghanistan since 1975, and the same phenomenon  is happening in Sudan. Both countries have long legacies of brutal and repressive dictatorships, foreign occupation, savage and interminable civil war, lawlessness, genocide and, in the case of Sudan, slavery. And both countries provided safe harbour for Osama bin Laden.

What is happening now in the Western Sudanese provinces of Darfur is merely a continuation of a centuries-long legacy of misery, poverty, conflict and violence. In this week’s New Yorker Pulitzer Prize winner Samantha Power reports from Darfur, with first-person interviews with government and rebel leaders and the victims caught eternally in the middle. Some of the information she reveals in telling the agonizing story of this impoverished and hopeless nation:

  • The military dictatorship that governs Sudan is desperate to end US sanctions so that its newly-found oil, which came onstream only five years ago, can start generating revenue for the bankrupt nation, so much so that it agreed to end its long and savage civil war against the rebels in Southern Sudan (where the oil is), and exempt Sudanese Christians from Sharia law.
  • That Southern war has cost two million lives, and the Bush Administration was active in brokering the peace for three reasons: (a) many of the casualties were Christians, which led to pressure from American evangelical churches, a bastion of Bush support, for US action, (b) the US would have access to an additional source of much-needed oil and (c) peace would have allowed Bush, in an election year, to portray himself as a peacemaker as well as a ‘war president’.
  • Plans to announce the peace were undone when the Western Darfur provinces, suffering from horrendous drought, rapid desertification, increasing tension between Arabs and non-Arabs for scarce land, and long government neglect, began to clamour for independence (Darfur was an independent Sultanate until Britain annexed it into its Sudanese colony); the government, tapped out militarily and not wanting to jeopardize the possible end of sanctions, responded by outsourcing military retaliation against Darfur’s six million people to local Arab sheiks, warlords and tribal leaders, who they financed and armed heavily and supported with aerial bombing raids in key areas occupied by the pro-independence Sudanese Liberation Army.
  • These local Arab leaders used this power and military might to launch a genocidal attack on all non-Arabs in Darfur, deputizing murderous gangs of Arab bandits called janjaweed, whose intimidation tactics include burning whole villages, gang-raping women, decapitation, burning children alive, mass public executions, ransoming community leaders, burying victims of atrocities and precious wells in sand, and kidnapping women and children. The bandits steal everything of value in the destroyed villages as compensation for their ‘enforcement’ of government authority. As a consequence over a million Darfur residents have fled their villages to massive refugee centres elsewhere in the provinces, where there is at least safety in numbers (50,000-75,000 per camp), and in neighbouring Chad.
  • USAID estimates that the death toll from genocide, starvation and disease will, even with humanitarian and peacemaking intervention now, exceed 300 thousand and could, without intervention, top one million by the end of this year. The UN has already established a food program that has reached 900 thousand of the 1.5 million affected in Darfur, but the threat to the safety of both Darfur natives and humanitarian workers is severe.
  • There are all kinds of reasons for Western reticence to get involved: Darfur is an all-Muslim area, so the genocide is ethnic, not religious, and it is resource-poor, unlike the oil-rich South. European leaders, not wanting to give Bush a smokescreen for his foreign policy blunders and rebukes of its allies, have been perversely reticent to support US humanitarian efforts in Darfur. Arab sheiks and tribal leaders in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan have announced they will consider any intervention by the West in their ‘internal dispute’ as an unwanted foreign invasion, which they will liken to the US invasion of Iraq, and will use it to recruit zealous young Arabs to kill all foreigners, including humanitarian workers and peacemakers, producing a fiasco similar to the one that occurred in Somalia. One recruiting brochure says “We call upon you to head immediately to Darfur and dig the ground deep for the mass graves of the crusader army”. Darfur’s refugees say that bringing peacekeepers from the African Union won’t work either, because “African troops are too susceptible to bribes”. And the Sudanese government is probably both unwilling and unable to rein in the local sheiks and warlords and the rogue janjaweed gangs. And the only non-Sudanese body with authority to bring thm to justice for genocide is the International Criminal Court, which the US government has repudiated.

What can be done? Samantha argues that, despite the danger, we have a global responsibility to bring in peacemakers and protect the people of Darfur (and, if the detente with the Southern provinces falls through, which appears likely, the people of the South as well). But, just as in Rwanda ten years ago, how can that be done over the violent opposition of the ruling government of the country? You can only make peace where there is a desire from both sides to achieve a workable peace. Without that, peace efforts will constantly be sabotaged by the side uninterested in peace, which will produce retribution and escalate into full civil war.

What about invading Sudan? Its government is much more popular, at least in the North, than the government of Afghanistan, and the end result of an invasion would inevitably be the same as what we see in Afghanistan: Tyranny replaced by anarchy, the retrenchment of the power of local warlords, massive resentment by the locals of the invading force’s inability to bring order or build infrastructure to allow even the promise of a normal life. Intractible civil war and strife. And quagmire for the invaders.

Should we arm the non-Arab people of Darfur so they can defend themselves? After all, the weapons used in the genocide against them came from the West and from Russia, so can two wrongs make a right? And we can’t disarm the janjaweed — in Sudan, as in Afghanistan, there are so many weapons that disarmament is an impossible objective. This was, of course, how we dealt with the earlier problem in Afghanistan — providing arms to the Taliban and other extremists to allow them to defend themselves from the invading Russians. We all know how successful that was.

Should we relocate a million or two million people to Chad, and pay Chad to take them in, and protect their borders? This was how we dealt with the persecuted Jews after World War II, helping them build a new homeland in Israel. That, too, has been a political nightmare. Why would the people of Chad, itself overpopulated and struggling, be willing to give up part of their homeland to accommodate a huge exodus of destitute foreign refugees?

The sad reality is that there is no answer. The problem is that there are too many people and not enough land, water, or resources to support them. Throughout human history, the maximum sustainable population has been 160 people per arable square mile (1 person per 4 arable acres), which would mean that Sudan should have no more than 11 million people, a quarter of its current population. By the end of the century it could have fifty times this maximum sustainable population, and if desertification isn’t halted, it will be even worse. If we think democracy, ‘free’ trade, education and technology are somehow going to prevent this situation from being catastrophic, we’re wildly deluding ourselves.

What’s happening in Sudan, now, is foreshadowing what will happen worldwide by the end of this century if we don’t address massive overpopulation, unsustainable resource consumption, and all the consequences that these two excesses produce: famine, war, destitution, lawlessness, epidemic disease, terrorism, tyranny, oppression, suffering, genocide, and ecological collapse. Sudan is a country out of control, and while we must of course provide humanitarian aid to its needy masses, and do everything we can to persuade its government to allow us to help it broker a lasting peace, this is only a stop-gap. We must convince the government and the people of Sudan that it must reduce its population and start stewarding its resources in a sustainable and responsible way. Otherwise the next war, the next genocide, the next famine, the next epidemic, the next oppressive government, will be incomparably, unimaginably worse. They say you can’t get blood from a stone, but there seems to be no limit to how much blood can be wrenched from an ocean of sand.

Photograph of a Darfur refugee camp from this remarkable online portfolio by Bruno Stevens at New Yorker online.

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  1. Rob Paterson says:

    I suspect that your link between Sudan today and the west tomorrow is correct. There appears to be a tipping point where the population/carrying capacity drives societies into a race for the last cup of water and handful of grain.I recall that Easter Island suffered the same process. The issue is surely one of scale Dave isn’t it? At the base of our “problem” is that there are just too many people. On Easter Island the imbalance corrected itself leaving just a handful of survivors back in the stone age and with a habitat that still cannot support much else. Scary to think like this – especially with children and maybe grandchildren on the way.

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