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Ecology and the Politics of Genocide: Rwanda 1994

Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa. And in 1994, as we all know, Rwanda was also e site of a horrific genocide, in which over half a million people were killed in less than three months. The conjunction of these two observations has led some observers to link these two phenomena directly

Robert Kaplan's article, published in the Washington Post ten days after the genocide began, is illustrative. Having noted that "Rwanda is one of the most densely populated countries in the world," that its population "will double in 20 years," and that "even the tragic slaughter...will have a minimal statistical effect on the population growth," he then notes that "Rwandas [ie, similar genocides] are endemic, built-in, even to the world we inhabit." These are not primarily political issues, Kaplan implied, but simply part of the landscape; "We must therefore view these places less as countries than as crisis regions."

What is fundamentally at issue here is the characterization of what he evocatively refers to as "new-age primitivism," where dense population and a high birth rate make such conflict "endemic." Politics, people, and policy explicitly do not factor into any explanation or understanding of such "crisis regions."

Positing a deterministic relationship that "overpopulation" leads directly to massive and inevitable violence is a simplistic approach and frees the observer from having to account for the circumstances giving rise to genocide. More importantly, by implying that no other pathways exist, it also frees the perpetrators from being held accountable for their decisions or their actions.

But the politics of genocide were much more complicated than can be accounted for by a simple equation of overpopulation and genocide. As one observer points out: "An apparently Malthusian outcome has occurred from more than merely Malthusian processes."

Recent Demographic Trends in Rwanda

Located in Central Africa, Rwanda is, by any standard, a land of dense human settlement. UNESCO figures from 1979 posit 336 persons/km.(2) (860 persons/mi(2)) for the country as a whole, and in some prefectures the figures went as high as 457/km.(2) (1170/mi.(2)). But average figures veiled significant differences among the ten administrative districts, where population densities vaned from 188/km.(2) to 457/km.(2), and of course local variations were even more marked.

However, differences in access to land were even more important than broad figures on regional population densities. In 1984, for example, 40% of the families in Kibungo Prefecture had access to less than one hectare (about 2.5 acres), but for Gisenyi Prefecture, a full 74% were in that situation. The figures for families with less than one-half hectare showed even greater disparity: 16% in Kibungo Prefecture, and 45% in Gisenyi. By 1993 in some areas of Gisenyi, 70% of homesteads held less than one-half hectare and a full 45% had less than one-quarter hectare -- a 25% increase over five years, even as the number of households with greater than one hectare also increased by 50% over that same time.

Nonetheless, postulating a direct, linear relationship of demography and genocide veils the fact that the intensity of the killings did not always vary with population density. Some of the earlier and ugliest killings, for example, took place in the area of lowest population density (Kibungo Prefecture). By contrast, the inhabitants of one of the most densely populated region (Butare Prefecture) refused to participate in the genocidal pogroms. For two weeks the local leaders -- of both Hutu and Tutsi extraction -- held out against the admonitions and remonstrations of the central governmental leaders, before militias from outside were sent to carry out the killings.

Recent Economic Factors in Rwanda

The population density figures take on special significance in a country where the population has always been over 90% rural. As one of the least urbanized populations in Africa and with few economic resources outside agriculture, Rwanda depends on agricultural production, largely through family production units, both for domestic consumption and state revenues. Even those who live in the towns often depend on supplies sent from their families in the rural areas. Consequently, over the last 20 years, the combination of rising land inequality and decreasing possibilities for off-farm income has led to a veritable disaster. Estimates of those with a daily consumption of less than 1,600 calories rose from 9% in 1982, to 40% in 1990, and still increased markedly in the following years.

Furthermore, jobs in the rural areas, but outside of direct agricultural production, often depended on such production. In rural areas, virtually all economic life -- whether as retail shops, transport, construction, or the production of building materials such as bricks or planks -- was directly tied to the disposable income of an agricultural clientele. Consequently, when disposable incomes were low (or falling) the economic repercussions in these rural areas were substantial. However, agricultural production was important not only for family and individual incomes, government revenues also depended on agricultural exports: coffee and tea production alone accounted for up to 80% of national exports, and 60% of government revenues. Several factors came into play in a dramatic fashion at the end of the 1980s.

Commodity Price Fluctuations

First, during the late 19805 coffee commodity prices dropped rapidly and deeply -- by over 50% over several years, but particularly abruptly in 1989. Government revenues from coffee exports are said to have declined from US$144 million in 1985 to $30 million in 1993. Consequently, the government had to reduce the price it paid for raw coffee -- the principal income for 60% or more of Rwandan families, thus abrogating the president's longstanding promise that coffee price would not fall below 125 Rwandan francs. In the wake of a 40% currency devaluation in 1989 and rapid inflation after 1990, this severely undermined popular confidence in the state.

The Structural Adjustment Program

Associated with the crash in commodity prices, a Structural Adjustment Program was imposed on the country by the World Bank. As a result, during a sharp decline in personal income, social service expenditures were either curtailed or significantly reduced. Furthermore, as gasoline subsidies were removed, rural prices increased substantially; because in many regions farmers were net purchasers of food, they were vulnerable to inflationary prices combined with dramatically shrinking incomes and rising social expenditures (eg., school fees, health care, water).

To complicate matters, a drought in the southern regions and fewer resources for maintaining soil productivity meant that people were more dependent on off-farm income for food purchases than normal. In these conditions, drought turned into famine and this accentuated the economic disparities. Forty percent of those affected by the famine were in female-headed households (twice the average for this region) and 96% had holdings smallerthan .5 ha. (74% less than .25 ha.). The people may not have known the statistics, but they saw thereality which was symptomatic of how much the government had abandoned the rural areas. They saw the famine as simply the logical extension of such neglect. Finally, the terms of the SAP required that many government services be more economically self-sustaining: the cost of health care rose; school fees increased; even water now became a commodity to be bought at the community spigot. This, at the time of decreasing income and increasing inflation.

The Effects of War

From October 1, 1990, following an invasion by a refugee force based in Uganda, Rwanda was at war. This both drained government resources and led to rapid army recruitment: the army increased from 5,000 men to almost 40,000 in six months. Such a policy reduced unemployment, but this was a short-term palliative: it reinforced the power of the hardcore military faction within the Rwandan government, with disastrous effects over the next few years. In addition, by 1993 some 800,000 people had fled the war zone and moved to camps just north of Kigali, where land was already at a premium and whose economy was already under multiple threats. This proved a severe additional drain on government resources. The internally displaced population came from the "breadbasket of the country," a source of substantial food supplies to the urban population; the loss of their production only exacerbated the external factors contributing to inflationary pressures.

The Effects of Multiplying Political Parties

Political pressures also played a role in these tensions. A program of political reform, resulting from a combination of external pressures and a growing internal "democratization" movement threatened those in power, through two channels.

One was the formation of new parties. Ironically, though seen as a threat by those in power, few of these gained the confidence of large numbers of rural producers; to the contrary, many peasants saw the new parties as an expansion of the political elite without any broad effect on rural lives. Many felt that none of the parties truly spoke with sincerity and commitment to the increasingly urgent needs of the peasants.

A second channel of political change was an increase in popular opposition. People demanded more educational opportunities and fair prices for their goods; they criticized official corruption and they resented the increasing land acquisition by the elites. These grievances were forcefully articulated through a popular radio program on youth culture, which openly aired concerns common to many rural citizens. In addition, Kinyamateka, the premier Kinyarwanda newspaper of Rwanda, published a series of hardhitting articles critical of official corruption. The government responded in September 1990 by prosecuting the editor of the paper, the late Andre Sibomana, and his staff, for having "devalued and dishonored the political authorities of the state."

The Kinyamateka trial was emblematic of the degree to which the people were invested in such outlets; they made this trial their own and established themselves as popular jury by the attention they gave it. Sibomana and his colleagues arrived at court with massive amounts of documentation on the inequalities of education, land holdings, and wealth. They established the kin ties involved in such appropriation and made public the means by which the government had attempted to muzzle the press. In effect, they turned their trial into a trial of the government itself.

However, more important than the accusations brought against the government in the course of the trial, was the reception it received among the people. Both within the court and massed outside, crowds gathered to offer powerful encouragement to the defendants, so much so that the judge threatened the audience with prison sentences of their own. Finally the judge simply curtailed the proceedings, dismissed the charges, and adjourned the court. It was a shortlived "victory of the people," but a victory nonetheless.

(And for Andre Sibomana it was but a momentary opening in the struggle against inequity. After having published similarly probing reports on conditions in postgenocide rural Rwanda, Sibomana, a Catholic priest, was removed from his position as editor of Kinyamateka and denied permission to seek medical care abroad; he died in February 1998.)

The Politics of Genocide

Thus three factors were involved in the central planning of the genocide. One was the recruitment of large numbers of youth to the army and to the locally organized militias, often associated with the radicalized factions of the government. Surely this was a response to the rural crisis, for these recruits were those without land, education, jobs, or hope; the ecological and demographic crisis was critically important in creating this context. But rural anger was nonetheless channeled through the politics of the day and manipulated by the decisions of those in power. In a context of growing class differentiation, that meant not among the victims of rural crisis. Ecology was surely a factor in this complicated equation, but it was not the sole explanation of genocide.

A second element in the politics of genocide was the fact that the country was at war, fighting against an army formed mostly of refugees from outside, seen as sons of the monarchy overthrown during decolonization. The members of this force had grown up in Uganda and their political position had become increasingly insecure in the evolving politics of post-Idi Amin Uganda. Their leaders had formerly been close associates of the President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, in his long struggle for power. But as it became clear that his association with the Rwandan refugee community had turned from a political asset to a political liability, these leaders, who were principally trained as soldiers, turned their attention to new objectives.

Ecological issues played an important role here as well. While the refugees felt increasingly threatened over land in Uganda, the Rwandan government argued -- with some validity -- that there was insufficient land to accommodate such numbers in Rwanda. In these circumstances, a military strategy gained support among both leaders and commoners within the refugee community. This again was not a predetermined path from ecology to violence. Political factors played an important role here too. The decision to go to war was expedited by the training and support this force had received from Uganda. And the attack on Rwanda by (mostly) Tutsi refugees led to targeting all Tutsi within Rwanda -- a pattern that had occurred before.

Within Rwanda, political pressures also moved toward war. An increasing segment of the government and military felt that they stood to lose if the conflict were resolved and multiparty elections were held. Furthermore, the recently recruited youths -- who would have been the first to be demobilized -- often had little to return to. Their sole training was in warfare; their sole hope was in continuing to fight. Finally, the population had replaced hope for the future with despair for the present. Their attitude toward the government was more cynical than supportive; they had lost confidence in the president, who was increasingly isolated as he slowly negotiated an end to the war in the north and an end to single party rule within the country.

In short, the army stood to lose; large segments of the government administration stood to lose; most of the population had long since lost any hope in the government or respect for its leaders; and the global economy had abandoned Rwanda, in fact, it had condemned Rwanda to instant penury. The economic disaster, failed multiparty initiatives, and the people's withdrawal from the political arena all combined to open the way for a group of well organized radicals to carry out their political agenda -- to seize power and forestall gains by the new parties. They were able to do so not only by their mobilization of disaffected youth and the wartime context, but by the desertion of the political arena by the population in general. There was no organized internal opposition to the genocide; individuals had to act alone against the power of the state. On April 6, 1994 the President of Rwanda was returning from a trip to Tanzania where he had been involved in long drawn-out negotiations on ending the war when his plane was shot down as it approached Kigali airport.

Within several hours of the assassination, the killing started. While scattered rural violence against Tutsi had taken place before April 1994, it is significant that the first victims of the violence on any large scale were members of the Hutu political class, opponents of those in power, rather than Tutsi. Only later did the genocide, targeting all Tutsi, move into the rural areas.

Even then, the motives for these atrocities were complex and diverse. While rural distress was real, this was not first and foremost a struggle over land, nor was it essentially a rural uprising to seize land; many of those killed were not large landowners, the poor and defenseless were often the principal targets, and even some wealthy Hutu landowners were attacked. Instead this struggle was over power. It originated as an internal coup d'etat; planned and directed by a faction of the political elite seeking to retain their privileged positions.

Beyond the organizing clique, however, the killings drew on the combination of many grievances, ambitions, fears, angers -- as well as outright greed. At the local level, many accounts note the importance of personal relations, class issues, religious affiliations, and commercial competition, along with ethnicity, associated with the patterns of killing (or of reprieve). To be sure, this was genocide, but in varied forms. In particular, while land issues, ecological factors, and economic distress created the climate of dissatisfaction, they were not the only factors at work, nor were they the factors most directly related to the killings.

Thus, the relation of population pressures to social violence is more indirect than most outside observers tend to recognize; the figures themselves do not account for the timing or the form of the political struggle, nor do they explain the fact that the genocide was designed and directed by those in power. Those targeted were sometimes wealthy and in relatively privileged positions, but many were also the poor and relatively defenseless. As a political act, ethnic scapegoating took little account of economic position or relative wealth. So population pressure and rural poverty are only part of the more complicated matrix, one that includes international factors as well as material and local issues.


Equating ecological crisis directly to political violence is misleading. Such statements assume too much because they obscure the intervening steps by which rural distress is translated into political action. At the same time, they say too little because they neglect the fact that ecology is political, and that human relationships with the `natural' world are guided by questions of power, resources, markets, and prices -- all politically charged categories.

Indeed, in this rural society, politics and ecology are each embedded in the other: politics is an integral part of ecology, and ecology is a central feature of political perception and practice; when we talk of ecology and politics, we are not referring to different things, but to differing facets of the same phenomenon.

Arguing that ecology determines political violence avoids the nature of the context, the interpretive frameworks of political action (or how local actors see their world and judge their options), the character of political decision-making, and the accountability of those who undertake policies of ethnic cleansing. Simply put, taken alone, ecological crisis is too blunt an explaination of political and social patterns that define the world of today. There is a difference between societal `land pressure' and the individual decision to go out and kill one's neighbors and it is the interstitial steps that need our attention.

It is clear that land frustration combined with lack of off-farm income was an essential part of the culture of violence that emerged in Rwanda after 1990. But it is also clear that in the horrendous events of 1994 in Rwanda, there was no automatic stimulus-response mechanism at work in the form and timing of the genocide, for ecology itself is part of politics. Access to land, productivity of the soil, decisions on crops, commodity prices, marketing possibilities, and access to pasture or green manure -- are all tied to the political sphere. The range of violence, therefore, reminds us of the diverse ways that political power affects people's lives. This was political conflict. But ecology, economy, and ethnicity are also part of the political arena; they reflect political decisions and power relations just as much as political decisions and power relations affect them. Surely, ecology, economy, and ethnicity need to be factored into our understanding of political conflict, but at the same time, they cannot be seen as substitutes for political understanding.

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