April 6, 2003 - Personal Web Site: Burundi RPCV Shannon Englad writes about Exploring the Relationship Between Environmental Scarcity and Violent Conflict: A Case Study of Burundi (Part 2)

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Burundi: The Peace Corps in Burundi: April 6, 2003 - Personal Web Site: Burundi RPCV Shannon Englad writes about Exploring the Relationship Between Environmental Scarcity and Violent Conflict: A Case Study of Burundi (Part 2)

By Admin1 (admin) on Sunday, April 06, 2003 - 3:02 pm: Edit Post

Burundi RPCV Shannon Englad writes about Exploring the Relationship Between Environmental Scarcity and Violent Conflict: A Case Study of Burundi (Part 2)

Burundi RPCV Shannon Englad writes about Exploring the Relationship Between Environmental Scarcity and Violent Conflict: A Case Study of Burundi (Part 2)

Ethnic Violence Begins Again

The violence started when several units of the Tutsi dominated army stormed the Presidential Palace on the night of October 21, 1993, and abducted, and subsequently killed, President Ndadaye. They also killed the President and Vice President of the National Assembly and three cabinet ministers. When news of the assassinations got to the communes, Hutu supporters of the FRODEBU party reacted with rage. Every Tutsi in sight, as well as Hutu UPRONA supporters, were seen as legitimate targets for attack. Tens of thousands of innocent Tutsi civilians lost their lives in fighting that was originally contained in the Northeast and Central parts of the country. Men, women, and children were hacked to death with machetes and Tutsi houses and fields were burned. The subsequent retaliation by Tutsi soldiers was equally horrific: entire Hutu communities were attacked by soldiers with machine guns. The coup of October 1993 ultimately failed but the damage had been done. An interim government ruled for a while and another military coup eventually displaced the ineffective 'transition government' in July of 1997.

Burundi is now locked in civil war and has been since 1993. Burundi is ruled by a military-controlled dictatorship lead by former President Buyoya, who came once again to power in the coup of July, 1997. Recently, the government has taken to requiring Hutu to live in 'regroupement' camps in the interior of the country. This aids in solving the problem the army had faced in controlling the rural population over the past few years. "Hutu rebels" had continued to prevail in the communes and fight against the military, which controlled most of the towns. Conditions in the rural camps are said to be "horrific" in the words of one aid worker. The prevalence of disease and malnutrition is high. Sporadic violence continues throughout the country and several hundred people are killed every day. Very conservative estimates place the number who have been killed in the range of 160,000- 200,000 people. The conflicts in neighboring Rwanda and Zaire have also affected the situation in Burundi. Rwandan Hutus' systematic massacre of over 500,000 Tutsi has made many Burundian Tutsi reluctant to ever reconsider liberalization or democracy. They literally define the "problem" as a matter of Tutsi ethnic survival. The possibilities for a solution to the current crisis between Hutu and Tutsi seem limited at best and bleak at worst.

The reasons that the Tutsi military ended Burundi's experiment with democracy in 1993 originate with two facts: 1.) Buyoya was planning to reduce the Tutsi presence in the military and to allow a more equitable representation of the population prevail, and 2.) Buyoya planned to return land to Burundian refugees who had fled Burundi in past years. The Tutsi hard-liners realized full well that the lands would come from current Tutsi occupiers and they felt that this was unacceptable. The actions of two units of the military were unfortunately enough to spark the violence that has consumed the country to this day.

Hypotheses Linking Environmental Scarcity & Conflict in Burundi

It is clear that a multitude of factors were evident in the pattern of violence that has dominated Burundi since independence. A look at several trends over time in Burundian society, with the political situation as a backdrop, can perhaps shed some light on the situation. Several hypotheses of how conflict might interact with environmental scarcity in Burundi should be presented at this time. They include the following:

Hypothesis #1: Hutu eruptions against Tutsi control were the result, at least in part, of increasing environmental scarcity due to both population growth and environmental degredation. Competition for these scarce resources forced Hutus to revolt against increasingly repressive Tutsi control. Revolts were "triggered" in part due to Tutsi appropriation, through the mechanisms of the state, of those same scarce resources.

Hypothesis # 2: Conflict between Tutsi factions was a result of decreasing economic viability of the country's resource base due to environmental scarcity. Tutsi competitors viewed the state as a mechanism for gaining access to increasingly scarce resources, with the end result being violent conflict.

Hypothesis # 3: Because resources were becoming increasingly scarce, episodes of killing by the Tutsi against the Hutu population were motivated in part by the Tutsis' desire to obtain access to Hutu resources.

The evidence in support of these possible hypotheses will be examined in the sections to follow.


Burundi is in the early stages of the demographic transition. While death rates from disease have fallen over the past 50 years or so, birth rates have not slowed enough to prevent the population from growing exponentially. This increase in population has contributed greatly to the pressures on the land. As mentioned earlier, Burundi is one of the densest nations in Africa at 230 people per square kilometer. If only arable land is considered, Burundi's population density approaches 551 people per kilometer squared. The trends in crude birth and death rates over the past fifty years in Burundi are presented in Chart 10. This has resulted in the exponential growth noted previously in Chart 1. Burundi's population growth trend best fits an exponential curve. If current growth continues, Burundi's population will approach 12,000,000 by the year 2030. (See Chart 11). If this happens, Burundi will have a total population density approaching 470 people per square kilometer. Clearly Burundi must find a way to maintain a sustainable population by lowering its birth rate before this happens. To date, this has not been the case. Burundi's total fertility rate is very high at 6.8 children on average per woman. Both Burundi and Rwanda have had little success in lowering their fertility rates. As is evident in Chart 12, there has been little change in this rate since 1950. Today less than 1% of Burundian women say they use birth control at all. Changing this fact is crucial to Burundi being able to maintain a healthy population. The population is not divided evenly in Burundi. Map 3 shows population densities in Burundi by province.

Agricultural Sector: Food

Burundi has been able to maintain increases in food production since 1961. Chart 13 shows the food production index for Burundi between 1961 and 1995. The index is based on 1979-1980 crop production. As is evident from the chart, production in 1994 was 30% higher than in 1979. Burundi also compared favorably with both the World and with Africa in terms of raising production levels. This growth was obtained primarily through improvements in agricultural practices, such as increased us of fertilizers. Chart 14 depicts the growth in total fertilizer consumption in Burundi.

The growth in production is misleading, however, when you consider Burundi's population growth and its relationship to total available land. Chart 15 illustrates the fact that almost all of Burundi's arable land that is currently being used for farming. As is evident in the graph, there has been almost no increase in arable or permanent cropland since 1969. Chart 16 shows the decreasing farmland available per person. The decline began in 1970 and has been dropping ever since. The net result is that per capita food production has also been steadily declining since 1979. (See Chart 17.) The precipitous drop in 1995 probably reflects disruptions in the agricultural season due to ethnic conflict. Burundi, although historically self-sufficient in food, is becoming increasingly unable to feed its people. It is interesting to note also that although the world on a whole has been producing more food per person since 1979, Africa has done worse during that same time period.

Agricultural Sector: Coffee

As noted earlier, coffee makes up 80-85% of Burundi's foreign exchange currency. The crop is also the main source of income for the majority of Burundians. Fluxuations in price or climate quality for growing coffee beans can seriously threaten Burundi's economy. The world price of coffee dropped in the 1980's. The effect of this drop is clearly apparent in Chart 18 which shows a steady but very slow growth in the GNP from 1980 through to the present. Charts 19 and 20, Gross Domestic Product Per Capita and Gross National Product Per Capita, both illustrate that the economy as well, did not keep up with the country's population growth. Since the early 1980's, the average Burundian has been getting poorer and poorer over time. There is little evidence to suggest, however, that environmental degredation led to decreased coffee production. Chart 21 shows the production of coffee from 1971 to 1989. Although coffee production has fluctuated over time, in response primarily to changes in world coffee prices, there is no evidence to suggest a trend of decreasing coffee production over time.

Agricultural Sector: Cattle

Cattle production is important culturally to many Burundians. Cattle in Burundi generally are not exported, they are stored as wealth or they are eaten at festivals, weddings, and parties. Chart 22 examines cattle stocks in Burundi since 1961. In 1980, total stocks of Burundian cattle started to decline rapidly. The reason for the precipitous decline in cattle production is unclear. The government of Burundi states only that "counts are inaccurate" and that "people seemed to be slaughtering more of their animals for cash." One possible explanation might be the decrease in available land as more marginal grazing land was converted to food production. Another possible theory might be that as coffee incomes dropped, rural farmers began relying on their cattle as a "saving account" to support them in hard times. The data could, however, simply reflect a change in reporting or data collection methods. The data are somewhat interesting but it should be noted that 98% of Burundi's total food supply comes from crop foods, and only 2% from cattle. Although cattle are culturally important to Burundians, the issue of cattle production is unlikely to have affected the majority of Burundian in the same manner that crop food production would have


Fish are taken from Lake Tanganikya by Burundian fishermen at a fairly low rate considering the size of the population in Burundi. The data in Chart 23 shows a somewhat cyclic pattern to annual fisheries catches from the lake. There appears to be no evidence, however, that overall stocks have declined. Data from tow separate sources show very disparate findings, an illustration, perhaps, of the variability and inconsistency of the data. Fish are also not likely to play a large role in ethnic conflict in Burundi as they account for less than 1% of Burundian's food production or diet.


The final data I proposed examining showed that despite the fact that deforestation may be a problem in Burundi, it is one that happened well before independence. Forest cover is currently less than 2% of Burundi's land and it has stayed at that level for approximately the past 30 years. FAO data report that Burundi has approximately only 85,000 hectares of forest cover left, mostly in national parks that are poorly maintained and at risk for people seeking firewood. Changes in access to forest resources, however, are unlikely to have had much effect on ethnic violence in Burundi, as they have been low and relatively constant until quite recently.


The initial analysis showed that, if any renewable resources are likely to have played a part in Burundi's ethnic violence, that resource was access to land. The data also highlight the fact that population growth has played a tremendous role in environmental scarcity in Burundi.

Conservative estimates for ethnic violence, when plotted against population growth as in Chart 24, and cropland per person, Chart 25, do appear to show a somewhat positive correlation between violence and scarcity of land. The sharp increase in population that began in 1970 corresponds with the sharp increase in violence noted in 1972. Additionally, there was a marked decrease in available cropland that immediately preceded the violence of 1972.

What about the spatial data? Did violence occur in Burundi in areas where scarcity of land was a problem, or was there no association at all? Results from studying maps of outbreaks of violence in Burundi (See Map 5.) shows that in the earlier periods of violence, 1965 and 1972, there appears to be little correlation between where the violence began and where population densities were highest. In 1965, violence did erupt in the two most densely populated provinces, Bujumbura and Muramvya, but politics probably played a much greater role in this than environmental scarcity. Bujumbura was the capital city and Muramvya was the site of the deposed monarchy. In 1972, violence began when Hutus in exile from the repression of the late sixties attacked from across the border of Tanzania. The outbreaks of violence were initially focused, therefore, in the South and East of the country, areas with relatively low population densities. It should be noted, however, that the violence in 1972, although it began in the South and East, quickly spread to encompass all of Burundi. Some historical evidence indicates, moreover, that Tutsi were in fact appropriating land from Hutus during the massacres that occurred at this time.

In the more recent outbreak of violence, there appears to be a higher degree of correlation between violence and population densities. (See Map 6.) This higher degree of correlation in 1993 would be appropriate, given that over time land has become increasingly more scarce (as per capita land availability has decreased). In 1991, violence erupted to a smaller degree in Cankuzo and Cibitoke, areas with medium population densities. One more interesting correlation may be noted in Map 7, which shows the results of the Presidential elections of 1993. There appears to be a loose association between population density and discontent with the ruling UPRONA party. Those provinces with the highest population densities were also the ones most likely to register discontent with the status quo and to vote for the opposition party of FRODEBU. Map 8 displays population density, election results and violence on one map.

I also studied a map of coffee production by province, as it has been suggested that in 1988 it was not, in fact, access to agricultural land which caused distress in Burundi's Northern regions, but in fact, declines in world coffee prices in the Eighties. The map presented shows that Burundi's two largest producers of coffee in 1988 were Karuzi and Kayanza, neither of which were the location of the outbreaks of violence in 1988. (See Map 9. ) Violence was most serious in 1988 in Kirundo and Ngozi provinces. It does seem probable to suppose, however, that decline in coffee prices in the Eighties, which led to governmental financial difficulties, was the cause of the Tusti elites fight for power and the Coup d'Etat of 1987 that placed President Buyoya in power. It was the "forced retirement" of several Tutsi military elites that sparked the coup. The uncertain period which followed probably contributed to the likelihood of violence and tension that resulted. Violence was highest, however, in areas where there was the most pressure for land.

Based upon the small amount of evidence presented, therefore, I believe there is support for Hypothesis # 1 and Hypothesis # 3, but not Hypothesis # 2. Most Tutsi were dependent upon the state for their income and resources. The financial viability of the state was and is dependent upon coffee production. Total production of coffee did not appear to be declining throughout the 1960 - 1993 time period. On the contrary, coffee production (See Chart 21), continued to rise throughout the 70s and 80s, although in a sporadic manner. The stagnation of income by the government, and hence the Tutsi, therefore, probably had less to do with environmental limits and much more to do with international market forces.

Hypothesis # 1 and Hypothesis # 3 may also have both been salient possibilities for explaining the violence in 1988, 1991, and in 1993. In 1993 this is especially the case because the violence began when the government was in the process of handing both land and positions within the military to long neglected Hutus. As Homer-Dixon's theory correctly predicts, Burundi has experienced an increase in the amount of violence as environmental scarcity has grown. The theory also predicts the nature of the violence that plagues Burundi today. Violence in Burundi is diffuse and sub-national. It also resulted in first a decline in the ability of the government to control its territory and now an even greater militarization of political and social life in Burundi.

V. Discussion

Policy Implications

The results of this analysis highlight, I believe, a number of important issues in attempting to break the cycle of escalating violence in Burundi. The first notes the role that the international community can play in Burundi. The fact that democratization and liberalization happened in response to international pressure must not be forgotten. The international community has disassociated itslef from Burundi since the coup d'etat placing President Buyoya in power once again. Imports and exports from Burundi have been stopped. I believe that this strategy is misguided in light of evidence that economic deprivation is only likely to heighten tensions in Burundi. Coffee exports in particular should be resumed.

The international community also, I believe, has a responsibility to actively prevent further tragedy in Burundi. It is not unrealistic to suppose that a similar level of violence to that of Rwand in 1994, where over half a million people were killed, might also happen in Burundi. An international peace-keeping force could prove invaluable in stopping the immediate violence from escalating. If Burundi's army continues to be controlled by the Tutsi, any future prospects for peace seem unlikely. Indeed, the prospects for peace decline with each new death. Violence and human rights abuses continue daily in Burundi and must be stopped by the international community if massive and large scale massacres are to be avoided. The fact that many Hutu males have been placed in "regroupement" camps by the army is ominous, especially in light of the 1972 massacres in Burundi.

Long term solutions to Burundi's problems include an increased focus on holding those responsible for the killings accountable. An effort to improve the judicial system in Burundi is essential, and a public and honest accounting for past crimes is the only way to ensure futrue security and to build trust in the political system.

An increased focus on population issues must also be incorporated to help solve Burundi's long term problems. Access to agricultural land is only likely to decrease, and ignoring the reality of demographic pressures is irresponsible. Efforts should be made to improve access to contraceptives as well as to improve the education of women in an effort to lower the very high fertility rates of Burundian women.

Finally, improvements in agricultural productivity are essential for Burundi's long term stability. It is clear that Burundi will be forced to improve the productivity of the land if the country is to survive. Although some improvements, such as fertilizer use, have occurred, there is tremendous potential to be explored. Research is urgently needed to develop integrated, sustainable systems capable of producing greater yields from the land. This research should take into account the physical limits inherent in Burundi's climate and geographical location.

Problems with the Analysis and Directions for Future Research

The most serious problems with the analysis in this paper stems from the fact hat accurate information about violence in Burundi is difficult to obtain. There have been very strong incentives for the government of Burundi to hide evidence of massacres and deaths. The international community has been unable to document adequately even past abuses from 1972. More recent violence, because it is still continuing today, poses its own problems in terms of locating accurate information.

Information about ethnicity and access to property or land would also be invaluable in an expanded analysis of this topic. For political reasons, discussion of ethnicity was banned for many years in Burundi. It is only recently that the Tutsi elite have begun to speak about ethnic differences, usually in an attempt to defend the need for a Tutsi dominated army to "protect" them as a minority in a majority Hutu country. Further research would look at issues of land ownership in Burundi and specifically at transfers of land titles from Hutu to Tutsi or vice versa.

Finally, although there does appear to be a correlation between environmental scarcity an the more recent violence in Burundi, it is difficult to prove causality. This problem was mentioned earlier in connection with Thomas Homer-Dixon's analysis of violence and environmental scarcity. Case studies of the correlation between environmental scarcity and violence are only ne first step towards proving the possible links.



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By Carl Durand (prprmb01bba-ac03-54-18.mts.net - on Thursday, October 16, 2003 - 8:42 pm: Edit Post


I am doing a project on Burundi in the year 1980 (and a year before and after). Does anyone know where I would be able to find information of the events of this year? Thanks in advance!

Carl Durand

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