by Eve Gleeson
The cultivation of crops is a steady and promising source of economic gain for developing states, both through internal markets and international trade. However, these powerhouses of economic success may well serve as a double-edged sword. Lacking robust and well-enforced laws and regulations, the economies and populations of many states have become dependent on, or in some cases addicted to, the success of these crops for their livelihoods and security. This success has precipitated destructive practices in subservience to the crop’s lucrative economic benefits, such as informal governance by militias and the decimation of environmental resources such as land and water.
Circumstances in Yemen and Mexico, in particular, point to these hostile relationships surrounding cash crops. In Mexico, militias are operating through kidnappings and killings, forests and ecosystems are being destroyed for land clearings, and local populations are facing health hazards from excessive pesticide use. In Yemen, the market monopolisation of a non-food crop is exacerbating a famine originally created by war and natural resource scarcity. In both of these cases, environmental pressures have preceded or followed from the urgency exerted by a stressed food system, depicting the inseparable relationship between unsustainable agriculture and compromised social, economic, and political stability.
Yemen’s cash crop drug: conflict, famine, and natural resource depletion
The War in Yemen, a conflict between the Houthi rebel movement, government forces, and a coalition of Arabian states, has resulted in a famine that harbours a much darker backstory than blockades stopping the import of food and water to the country. In addition, the famine has been worsened by the growth of khat (or qat), a stimulant drug that features as Yemen’s superstar crop. It has brought such financial gain to its growers that it has taken priority in farming country over other crops, such as wheat or fruits, that could provide sustenance to its people. Khat is so ubiquitous in the country’s political economy that it has become entwined with the interests of warring factions, further spurring conflict, water depletion, and famine on the peninsula.
The crop is the source of a violent dispute between farmers, a currency for bribe-seeking soldiers, and a dominant figure in the country’s markets, detrimentally crowding out crops that could help soften the blow of Yemen’s famine. It provides a source of funding for both the Houthi rebels and the pro-government forces in the war, as ‘qat traders pay a tax on their qat to whichever side controls their region‘. The crop also consumes close to forty per cent of Yemen’s clean water reserves, thereby further overtaxing water resources already weaponised by warring factions that destroy infrastructure, obstruct roadways, and blockade imports.
To make matters worse, the stimulant drug is also challenging Yemen’s dependence on groundwater reserves that are dwindling under drought, heat, and other climatic irregularities. The government lacks the capacity to enforce modern water rights, which have been rejected by wealthy farmers who regularly exploit their poor counterparts by drilling on their land. Now, farmers freely drill wells without government regulation. As a result, they continue to use highly unsustainable groundwater reserves to feed khat production, with no plan for developing renewable water sources for human or agricultural use as droughts persist and temperatures rise.
‘Blood Avocados’ in Mexico’s Michoacán state
Avocados, known to many in the growing industry as ‘green gold’, account for conflict between rival farmers and traders in Mexico. Cartels, violence, and extortion are just some of the troubling factors behind this cash crop; one that has drained resources– land, water, and capital– from the regions in which they are grown. Major importers such as the United States, the EU, and Japan have driven a $2 billion industry rooted thousands of miles away with little conception of the havoc the efforts have inflicted on the region of Michoacán, where production is concentrated.
In the Michoacán state, four principal narcotics cartels extorting avocado farmers have transformed the region into what Mexican online magazine Clarín Mundo has called Mexico’s ‘Capital of Violence’. Failure to pay ‘monthly protection’ fees to the cartels has resulted in kidnappings, killings, and seizures of farmland. In response, state-funded self-defence militias have sprouted from the local community to combat these gangs, whose narcoterrorism is partially financed by the extortion of farmers. Consequently, the region’s capital of Tacitaro has become militarised: ‘The new force is equipped with armored patrol trucks, and each officer wears full combat gear, including bulletproof vests, helmets, and high-power rifles — all provided for by the state police’.
This industry is also guilty of precipitating deforestation and water depletion (avocados require nearly 320 litres of water per unit) as well as stimulating competition for land that has provoked the intentional burning of wildlife ecosystems. This deforestation, performed illegally, points to gaps in environmental governance. Climatic irregularities, such as droughts and floods, have further troubled soil and land health, compromising the fertility of existing farmland. Given that growing a crop at an industrial scale often requires the heavy use of pesticides, these chemicals have contaminated the water supply in avocado-growing regions and sickened local populations.
The bigger picture: the disparate effects of climate change on developing states
This unmistakable relationship between food and conflict is an increasingly global issue that threatens and is likewise threatened by, the pressures of resource and environmental degradation. Though vastly different in nature, the cases of Yemen and Mexico illustrate how unsustainable agricultural practices, themselves propagated by gaps in governance and commodity demands from rich, developed states, can manifest in a conflict where effective protection of farmers and land is absent, particularly in an era when climatic changes are an increasing threat to security. Similar situations are unfolding in places like Iraq, where desertification and salination of water tables resulting from climatic irregularities are intensifying grievances in an already fragile state.
For this reason, the looming threat of climate change is not a ‘first world problem’. Although developed countries have the technological and financial resources (even if they lack the willpower) to transition to renewable energy, sustainable agricultural practices, and lower carbon emissions, the threat is a less immediate one for many. Wealthier developed countries have the resources for more expensive projects, like desalination of saltwater, if groundwater reserves become exhausted or contaminated. For communities that strive day-to-day for economic, political, and social stability and predictability, climate change can mean compromises to essential crop yields, irreplaceable loss of natural resources, increased conflict, and even displacement.
How can the global community ensure that more vulnerable populations stop suffering from food and nutrition insecurity, domestic tensions and war, contaminated and insufficient water resources, or displacement at the hand of climate change? Addressing climate change is at the forefront of this matter: lowering greenhouse gas emissions and increasing the carbon sequestration capacity of land by repairing broken systems. In the short term, we must consider how the demands and interventions of more developed and often opportunistic states impact the ability for less stable states to ensure food, water, and other basic livelihoods. Grassroots organisations like Soil, Food and Healthy Communities in Malawi and Sustainable Harvest International in Central America are making major headway in creating more sustainable and regenerative practices in communities that struggle with food insecurity. But movements in the West must acknowledge the disparate effects of climate change on vulnerable communities and their impact on international security.
Eve Gleeson holds a Master's degree in International Relations from the Department of War Studies at King's College London. After briefly working in threat intelligence, she is shifting her focus toward sustainable agriculture and food policy. She can be found on LinkedIn or on Twitter at @evegleeson_.