African range wars: Climate, conflict, and property rights

AuthorChristopher K Butler,Scott Gates
Published date01 January 2012
Date01 January 2012
Subject MatterResearch Articles
African range wars: Climate, conflict,
and property rights
Christopher K Butler
University of New Mexico & Centre for the Study of Civil War, PRIO
Scott Gates
Centre for the Study of Civil War, PRIO & Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU)
This article examines the effect of climate change on a type of armed conflict that pits pastoralists (cattle herders)
against each other (range wars). Such conflicts are typically fought over water rights and/or grazing rights to
unfenced/unowned land. The state is rarely involved directly. The rangeland of East Africa is a region particularly
vulnerable to drought and livestock diseases associated with climate change. To analyze the possible effects of climate
change on pastoral conflict, we focus our analysis on changes in resource availability, contrasting cases of abundance
and scarcity. The role of resources is further contextualized by competing notions of property rights, and the role of
the state in defining property and associated rights. We employ a contest success function (CSF) game-theoretic
model to analyze the logic of range wars. This CSF approach emphasizes the low-level, non-binary nature of raiding
behavior between pastoralist groups over limited natural resources. A central contribution of this approach is that the
logic of raiding behavior implies a positive relationship between resources and conflict. This positive relationship is
supported by several studies of the rangeland of East Africa, but is generally dismissed by the literature on the
‘resource curse’. This relationship is contingent on other factors examined in the model, producing the following
results. First, the level of property rights protection provided by the state generally reduces conflict between pastor-
alist groups. Second, if property rights protection is provided in a biased manner, then conflict between pastoralist
groups increases. Third, severe resource asymmetries between two pastoralist groups will induce the poorer group to
become bandits (focusing their efforts on raiding and not producing), while the richer group raids in retaliation.
climate change and security, communal violence, game theory, non-state actor violence, property rights, resources
and conflict
Dealing with impending change has long brought out
the alarmists. Indirectly relevant to the climate change
debate is Thomas Malthus’s (1798/1826) argument that
a geometrically expanding population would outstrip
arithmetically expanding agricultural production, lead-
ing to starvation, conflict, and war. Such alarmist argu-
ments are not unique to the 19th century. With
respect to climate change and conflict, Lee (2009) argues
that interstate conflict (though perhaps short of war) will
be more prevalent at higher latitudes over access to newly
exposed resources while intrastate conflict will be more
prevalent near the equator over scarcer resources.
try to step back from these alarmist arguments by pre-
senting a model that points to situations where we
should expect more conflict as well as situations where
we should expect less conflict.
Corresponding author:
In fairness, Lee does say that conflict due to climate change is not
inevitable, but will depend on how we react to these changes.
Journal of Peace Research
49(1) 23–34
ªThe Author(s) 2012
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/0022343311426166
journal of

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