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The vast Sahelian region of the Liptako Gourma—which spans the three-way frontier among Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger—is in the grips of a complex humanitarian and security crisis that is endangering the lives of millions.

This crisis is the product of intercommunal tensions, deep poverty, a lack of livelihood opportunities, as well as frustration over perceived marginalization by distant capitals that provide little in the way of basic services like health and education. These tensions are exploited by various armed groups, aggravated by the heavy-handed responses from security forces and exacerbated by the growing impacts of climate change and increasing competition over dwindling natural resources.

National governments and the international community have poured money and effort into various initiatives to stabilize the region. However, these efforts often trend towards hard military and counter-terrorism based responses that directly fight jihadist insurgents but that don’t necessarily address the root causes of conflict.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, despite the millions invested, the humanitarian situation in Liptako Gourma is getting worse. Nearly seven thousand people were killed in violence in 2022, eight times as many as in 2017, just five years before.[1] Insecurity has led to large-scale displacement, with nearly 2.5 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and more than 230,000 refugees in the region in December 2022. [2] Aside from the human suffering caused to local communities by the insecurity, the situation in Liptako Gourma carries important risks for the wider region, as insecurity continues to expand southwards towards coastal countries.

The initiative, entitled “Environmental Peacemaking – addressing the root causes of conflict in Liptako Gourma”, which is being implemented by the European Institute of Peace and TrustWorks Global, with the support of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, endeavours to play a small role in addressing the situation.

The project starts from the realisation that, if national governments and the international community want to make a positive difference in the lives of the inhabitants of the region and prevent further destabilisation of the region, they have to invest capacities and funds into interventions that tackle the root causes of the conflict. The impacts of climate change and environmental degradation and disputes over access to land are therefore particularly relevant.

By 2050 average temperatures in the region are expected to increase by three to five degrees Celsius compared to preindustrial times. Rainfall is becoming more erratic, compounding overgrazing and population pressure to increase the impacts of drought. In a region where communities are highly dependent on livestock and agriculture, these impacts will exacerbate already fragile food and economic security, as well as access to resources. Already, disputes over grazing and watering points for livestock are touchpoints for violent conflict, and armed groups have become involved in the exploitation and trafficking of resources such as gold.

This confluence of climate impacts, natural resources and armed actors makes it particularly important that peace processes address the environmental dimensions of conflict. However, security interventions have been underpinned by often counterproductive military and counterterrorism rationales, while some development actors have failed to properly coordinate and integrate local perspectives, leading to a crowded field that can ignore local expertise and capacities.

Our work as part of the “Environmental Peacemaking in the Liptako Gourma” project tries to demonstrate a different approach, focused on working with local actors to support them to address natural resources issues and climate impacts in their own peacemaking work. To do so, the project, which started in March 2022, engages local peace processes in a tailored manner and links the local, national and regional levels.

The first phase of the initiative consisted of a mapping of the main issues and actors in the field, which demonstrated that profound insecurity limits the scope for action and that there is limited appetite for yet another standalone peace intervention. It also highlighted the centrality of land and resource conflict as an underlying constant in the insecurity that is affecting the region. These conflicts are multiple, but our research highlight three categories of conflict particularly associated with natural resources: 1./ Conflicts within and between communities over the use and control of resources, in particular for herding or mining, 2/. Inheritance and succession conflicts, 3/. Conflicts around decentralisation and the redistricting of communities.

Following extensive meetings with actors across the three countries, the initiative increasingly focused on peacemaking actors at community, local and national levels across the three countries. Nine organisations across the three countries have agreed to work with the project.

The EIP and TWG team is supporting these organizations to: mainstream environmental issues in their peace mediation efforts; build networks across the region; develop specific capacities around environmentally-informed mediation; and, move towards peace-positive natural resource management.  Actions range from mapping existing mediation and political processes to supporting local partners to apply an environmental peacemaking lens. In May 2023 project partners will gather for a three-day workshop to share experiences, develop skills in mediation and peace-positive natural resource management and start to think about regional strategies for peace and stability in the Liptako Gourma region.

Building on this, the project’s later phases hope to contribute to an integrated environmental peacemaking strategy for the Liptako Gourma, to build the capacities of key actors, and to support dialogue between national policymakers and the international community as well as the elaboration of more effective natural resource management frameworks.