Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Another chapter for Darfur

Sometimes it's hard to believe that Lydia Polgreen and I live on the same continent. The stories from this New York Times reporter based out of Dakar has always appeared hell bent to prove that in in West Africa the glass is half full. This may say more about her choice in story assignments than her intellectual bent. If there's a war, any sundry tragedy, an airplane crash, she's usually one of the first American reporters filing stories for her newspaper. In her defense, there is plenty of tragedy to go around a handful of West African countries: Nigeria, Liberia, Cote d'Ivoire and Guinea. Throw Sudan and its blood-stained region of Darfur, where most of her datelines appear, one must wonder if she's gunning for a spot in the Baghdad bureau. Throw out the Darfur stories and my question has always been: Isn't there more to life in West Africa than kidnappings and greedy warlords?

This week she deserves kudos for single handily dousing some of the high spirits accompanying the announcement of a giant underground lake found beneath the northern part of the Darfur region in Sudan. Researchers who found the lake – and some groups observing the Darfur crisis from afar, including the United Nations – argue that the crisis is built around environmental issues that could be rectified by this new bountiful water source.

Don’t bet on it, Polgreen says.

That hope is built upon an argument, advanced by a United Nations report released last month and an opinion article in The Washington Post by Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, that environmental degradation and the symptoms of a warming planet are at the root of the Darfur crisis.

“There is a very strong link between land degradation, desertification and conflict in Darfur,” said the United Nations Environmental Program report, which noted that rainfall in northern Darfur has decreased by a third over the last 80 years. Exponential population growth and related environmental stress have created the conditions for conflicts to be triggered and sustained by political, tribal or ethnic differences,” the report said, adding that Darfur “can be considered a tragic example of the social breakdown that can result from ecological collapse.”

The idea that more water — unearthed through a thousand wells sunk into the underground lake — could neatly defuse the crisis is seductive. Messy African conflicts, from Congo to Liberia, from northern Uganda to Angola, have a way of defying all efforts to solve them.

Instead, they seem to become hopelessly more complex as they drag on, year after agonizing year. A scientific explanation for the problem (environmental degradation) along with a tidy technological solution (irrigation) gratifies the modern humanitarian impulse.

But the history of Sudan, a grim chronicle of civil war, famine, coups and despotism, gives ample reason to be skeptical.

Polgreen backs up her argument by skirting environmental issues and investigating the human roots of the Darfur crisis, taking readers through the bloody tour of Sudan’s colonial and post-colonial history. It's a wonderfully clear-eyed and educated analysis. As a reporter based in West Africa, she still relies too heavily on Western scholars in her work – no Africans were interviewed for this story that appeared in the Week in Review. I’d like to see her get a little more creative with her choice of story assignments, starting with visiting a few different countries and increasing her datelines in, say, Mali, Mauritania, Ghana and Burkina Faso.

Anyway, all this mucky-muck aside, Polgreen brings a healthy dose of reason to this issue.

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