Sunday, December 13, 2015
The crisis in Burundi and the urgency for more discussion about human carrying capacity
In 2003 I heard of a new journal, Public Library of Science, Medicine (PLoS Med). Walter Reid, who was helping to run the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, encouraged us to submit our best papers to this new journal. Consequently, I submitted an article on human carrying capacity and health. Gavin Yamey, the founding editor of PLoS Med, liked it, but the reviewer he found did not. Luckily, Gavin over-rode the reviewer, though I remember I still had to go to a lot of trouble to try to explain Keynesian economics in it. The paper has not been cited that much (currently according to Google Scholar, 38 times) but it has been looked at a lot, now over 36,000 times and still 2-300 times every month.
The continuing general silence about overpopulation continues to hinder the capacity of the global health and development community to make adequate progress.
I recently re-read Andre and Platteau's 1998 paper "Land relations under unbearable stress: Rwanda caught in the Malthusian trap". That paper explains, better than any other I have ever read, the underlying ecological and social causes of the 1994 genocide, including land hunger, high population growth, inequality, youth bulges and a lack of remittances and foreign income.
Today, neighbouring Burundi again appears on the brink of civil war. About the time of the Rwandan genocide, a civil war started in Burundi, eventually killing (over 12 years) almost half the number who died in Rwanda in about 3 months. That is, the rate of death in Burundi was less than 2% of that in Rwanda (12,500 every 3 months sustained for 6 years is 300,000, compared to 6-800,000 in 3 months in Rwanda).
An article about the current tension in Rwanda identifies "root causes" of the violence in discontent over the Burundian President unconstitutionally seizing a third round in office, in violation of the 2006 peace accord. However, Burundi, like Rwanda has a persistently high rates of population growth. Unlike Rwanda, which has preserved about 20% of its land mass as forest, Burundi derives no income from tourists watching habituated gorillas. (Though, in 1994 nor did Rwanda). Burundi’s calamity lies, in substantial part, in too many people for its resources, as well as too little social cohesion.
I hope Pope Francis can show as much leadership over population pressure as he has over climate change. The mismatch between resources and population, overlaid by social and political tension is an important factor in the Syrian conflict (as well as climate change) It is likely to also be important in the Sahel, and probably already is a factor in the emergence of Boko Haram.