Small Wars Journal

Environmental Peacebuilding and civil-military engagement in the Sahel: Turning a threat multiplier into a force multiplier

Sat, 06/05/2021 - 3:11pm

Environmental Peacebuilding and civil-military engagement in the Sahel:

Turning a threat multiplier into a force multiplier


By Philip Schrooten and Jolan Silkens


The acacia tree as a tool for conflict mitigation in the Sahel region. Photo Kenyon Gerbrandt


The new buzz

As leaders of the Sahel convened in Chad’s capital N'djamena to discuss flaring jihadist violence, Chadian President Déby announced on 15 February 2021 the deployment of an additional 1,200 soldiers to the border zone between Niger, Mali and Burkino Faso.[i][ii] French President Macron also ruled out a withdrawal of forces despite dwindling domestic support for French operations in the region.[iii] Crisis Group expert Hannah Armstrong says one year after France stepped up its military presence in the region, it is as clear as ever that conventional military engagement has failed to deliver a knockout blow to armed jihadist groups.[iv]


Among proponents of the causality between climate and conflict, environmental peacebuilding has become a new buzz term in discussions concerning the future of military operations in the Sahel.[v] Although this correlation cannot be dismissed theoretically, there is less empirical evidence supporting a causality between environment and peace and without a coherent framework, environmental peacebuilding remains a difficult process with methodological flaws and variations.[vi] [vii] Within NATO, for example, environmental issues and climate change are identified as emerging security challenges. However, the organization’s focus lies mainly on strategic issues regarding climate resilience and energy supplies among its adversaries as well as mitigating its own operational footprint.[viii] Still, environmental peacebuilding offers opportunities that could feed an effects-based methodology within the existing Defence, Diplomacy and Development (3D) strategies while reinforcing the civil-military aim for comprehensiveness.[ix]  


In Cooperation and Conflict, Dresse, Fischhendler, Østengaard Nielsen and Zikos start from a tentative but unelaborated idea that environmental peacebuilding rests on the assumption that the biophysical environment’s inherent characteristics can act as incentives for cooperation and peace.[x] The current debate on environmental peacebuilding tends to simplify internal dimensions and discord within local communities.  Like most of the military initiatives undertaken by European allies in the Sahel, the focus within these models lies on an inter-state regional approach from a top-down perspective; a perspective that over the years has proven to be counterproductive.[xi] [xii]  

This publication acknowledges the opportunities linked to the study and practice at the intersection of environment and conflict. However, the focus of this approach should be at the grass-roots level, be human domain inspired and follow a bottom-up approach. Not only are local communities best placed in effectively managing natural resources as well as mitigating environmental conflicts, it is at the community level that we identify the key takeaways and tools supporting effects-based thinking and improvements in comprehensiveness. [xiii]  Think about the prioritizing of resource allocations and the protection of resource rights as tools for finding common ground, gaining increased accessibility amongst actors in the Sahel and countering jihadist recruitment efforts in the long term.


An opportunity for civil-military engagement

The situation in the Sahel is often characterized by its volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous nature. Insecurity, an explosive demographic growth and a pressing age pyramid are challenging the economic reliance on farming and pastoralism. Driven by historical, geographical and political elements, rather than by the climate, issues such as desertification are intensifying factors potentially contributing to an escalation of the existing conflict and increasing the pressure on livelihood and food security.[xiv] Climate change creates conditions outside the control of the local population that cause vulnerabilities that are heavily exploited by various actors in the conflict, including violent extremist organizations (VEO).[xv]


Consequently, environmental peacebuilding is an interdisciplinary concept that aims not so much at the source of conflict but rather possesses conflict resolution potential if – and only if – it involves the underlying low-level human interactions besides political and social settings.[xvi] In our interpretation of environmental peacebuilding, the concept starts from western partner nation soldiers exploiting the very same local vulnerabilities and involves anticipating disasters, developing bounce-back capabilities and mitigation in a stressed social system.[xvii] Indeed, environmental issues have already been included in military analysts’ lists of concerns. The attention given to climate and climate change is however limited to awareness and understanding, without turning this knowledge into military effects. Here we identify both opportunities and tools for a human domain centric approach, as discussed in the next paragraph. The central idea is that by operating at the crossroads of diplomacy, development cooperation and military operations, environmental peacebuilding as a methodology by default requires human factors analysis, influencing capabilities and civil-military cooperation.[xviii]


A toolbox for effects-based thinking

To illustrate environmental peacebuidling as a force multiplier in the Sahel, we refer to Kalilou’s study of a lesser-known local feature at – literally – the very grass-roots level: the Senegalese acacia tree.[xix]  This tree is considered a shared natural resource, characterized by the natural resin it generates – gum Arabic – and valued for its multiple purposes: pastoralists eat the seeds, use the wood for fire and feed the leaves to their animals.[xx] A recent study supports the idea this tree is a valuable tool for conflict mitigation in Niger.[xxi] The production of gum Arabic from the tree aligns with the community stakeholders’ conditions-based fears linked to climate change. It offers a tool to exploit their shared grievances by finding common ground on climate change mitigation, adaptation and resilience. The key premise of environmental peacebuilding is that “mutual knowledge of resource depletion and a positive aversion to such depletion leads to cooperation” (SALEEM, 2021).[xxii]


Not only is the acacia tree a tool with which to build confidence between and within disputing local communities.  It is a means to increase popular support and accessibility amongst the local population. In the Sahel, with its remote and tribal character, access to the local population is a precondition for military success, as it is a vital factor in intel-driven operations and influencing activities. This accessibility is however both hampered and a priori exploited by armed groups, having the benefit of being both part of the local population as well as sharing their likely grievances and possible greed.  When assessing people’s motivation to support armed groups, peace and conflict research theories differentiate two major incentives: justice-seeking (grievances) and loot-seeking (greed).[xxiii] Given its political, historical, geographical, ethnic and cultural preconditions, the Sahel is a stage of such grievance-driven insurgencies that are evolving into a greed-based conflict. Once more, it seems that the grievances are the root cause of conflict, whereas the greed - nevertheless the main focus of conventional military presence - is an intensifying factor. Therefore, by contributing to the identification of local grievances, environmental peacebuilding could offer crucial opportunities to increase access to both psychologically and physically distant groups within the local population.


Accessibility is a key element as the closeness of multinational troops to the local population presents implications for contemporary peacebuilding. Therefore, a careful balance between maintaining a robust posture and interfacing with and within the local population helps to strengthen confidence-building measures.[xxiv] As such, incorporating both societal and personal grievances offers not only a risk-assessment tool but also a screening tool to detect and measure sentiment, concerns and radicalization, which in turn is supportive to the effects-based thinking and allows for a continuous process of identification and evaluation of new actors.[xxv] Hence, as the Gum Tree example shows, low-level environmental peacebuilding through discussion groups offers military opportunity to exploit genuine vulnerabilities.


Lastly, creating environmental resilience via environmental peacebuilding could have a promising second order effect in the Sahel region, being the disruption of VEO recruitment potential. Environmental peacebuilding not only opens the doors to identifying local population’s vulnerabilities – by increasing accessibility and popular support – it also offers the tools to exploit these vulnerabilities to influence the local population’s behaviour and judgement.[xxvi] This is, to influence the way they think and feel about local armed groups and the way they act towards them.


Since 2013, popular support for armed groups has been a main challenge in the Sahel with military efforts focussing on how to avert the recruitment of youths by violent groups, including organized crime cartels.[xxvii] Youngsters being a vital source of support for the armed groups, guaranteeing their operational continuity by fulfilling roles ranging from fighters to cooks.[xxviii] It would be a mistake assuming they are all forcibly recruited, trafficked or kidnapped. As Darden points out, youngsters might join voluntarily, sensitive to the appeal of a group-based identity, perceived grievances, cultural threats or the prospect of economic stability, reputation and respect. [xxix] These vulnerabilities are reinforced by a multitude of factors, including environmental conditions. To state it simply: climate change contributes to rising food insecurity, slows down economic development and promotes poverty amongst youngsters in the Sahel, making them more susceptible for armed groups’ narratives based on the prospect of owning cattle, money and respect. Environmental peacebuilding as a research field offers an approach by which we can exploit these very same vulnerabilities. Again, we question the causality between climate and conflict. Still, environmental peacebuilding offers a complementary perspective on conflict resolution efforts. Gum Arabic cultivation initiatives are therefore not to be considered addressing the root cause of conflict. Nevertheless, they contain the instrumental opportunities that support conflict resolution programs from an effects-based angle.[xxx]



The Sahel hosts multiple conflicts, studied by civilian academics and military analysts from multiple perspectives, over the years, focussing on conflict lines, layers and actors. Widening the scope to its fullest, the conflict has been thoroughly examined and dissected into its geographical, generational, societal, religious, economic and political components. Prevailing environmental issues are commonly considered only an intensifying factor, not a root cause. The same can be said for demographic conditions and culturally anchored values as clientelism, paternalism and nepotism. Although environmental causality in conflicts can be questioned, environmental issues can still be viewed as playing a constituent role in civil-military engagement – regardless of whether they are part of the original conflict.


As discussed in this brief, environmental peacebuilding contributes to strategic effects via tactical level relationship-building actions that are focussed on the identification of common environmental threats, mutual knowledge of resource depletion and a positive aversion to such depletion leading to cooperation. It is an approach to reducing violence and local conflict by finding common ground to address environmental challenges. As such, it is an underexplored research field within a military context, yet offering the tools to connect the “low politics” of micro-level cooperation around environmental management to the “high politics” of war and peace.[xxxi]


[i] Agence France Presse, ‘Le Tchad envoie 1 200 soldats aux confins du Mali, du Niger et du Burkina Faso pour lutter contre le djihadisme’, in Le Monde (Paris, 2021) (link)

[ii] By the time of publication, REUTERS communicated the death of  Chad’s President Idriss Déby, reportedly being killed on the frontline against rebels in the north of Chad on 19 April 2021.

[iii] Christophe Chatelot, ‘G5 Sahel: une opération « Barkhane » inchangée, mais des objectifs réaménagés’, in Le Monde (2021) (link)

[iv] ‘Weekly Update 22 February. On our Radar: Conflict Trends as seen by our Analysts’, Crisis Group (2021) (link).

[v] Tor Benjaminsen, ‘Does Climate Change Cause Conflict in the Sahel?’, in: The End of Desertification?: Disputing Environmental Change in the Drylands (London, 2016) 99-116. (link)

[vi] Anaïs Dresse, Itay Fischendler, Jonas Østergaard Nielsen, Dimitrios Zikos, ‘Environmental Peacebuilding: Towards a Theoretical Framework’, in: Cooperation and Conflict (Berlin, 2018) 1-21.

[vii] Cfr. ‘Concept on Peace Meditation’, working document of the European External Action Service, (link). Florian Krampe, Elise Remling, The new EU peace mediation strategy: a step in the right direction on climate issues, (Stockholm, International Peace Research Institute, 2020) (link). Event ‘Adapt to defend: The security dimension of climate change’, (The Hague, Clingendael, 2021) (link).

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Costas Constantinou, Sam Opondo, ‘Engaging the ‘ungoverned’: The merging of diplomacy, defence and development’ (Nicosia, 2015) 307-324.

[x] Dresse, Fischendler, Østergaard Nielsen, Zikos, ‘Environmental Peacebuilding: Towards a Theoretical Framework’, 1-21.

‘Adapt to Defend: The security dimension of climate change’, in: Clingendael Webinar (link). 

[xi] Marianne Kettunen, Dominique Noome, Johanna Nyman, Reinforcing Environmental Dimensions of European Foreign and Security Policy (Brusselles, 2018) (link)

[xii] An example of this top down approach is the recently (2018) updated EU foreign policy framework which recognizes the important role that environmental stability and well-functioning ecosystems play in conflict situations. Following the recommendations made by the Institute for European Environmental Policy, this strategic vision must be implemented in practice, through the means of environmental and climate diplomacy and pushing forward the environmental security agenda on the international level. (link)

[xiii] Tobias Ide, Carl Bruch, Alexander Carius, Ken Conca, Geoffrey Dabelko, Richard Mattew, Erika Weinthal, ‘The past and future(s) of environmental peacebuilding’, in: International Affairs, Volume 97 (London, 2021) 1–16. (link)

[xiv] Benjaminsen, ‘Does Climate Change Cause Conflict in the Sahel?’, 99-116. (link)

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Ousseyni Kalilou, ‘Climate Change and Conflict in the Sahel: The Acacia Gum Tree as a Tool For Environmental Peacebuilding’, in: International Affairs (2019), 201-218.

[xvii] Pierre Dehaene, ‘The Localization Strategy: Strategic Sense for Special Operations Forces in Niger’ (2019), 29.

[xviii] See NATO AJP-3.10, Allied Joint Doctrine for Information Operations, AJP-3.10.1 Allied joint doctrine for psychological operations, AJP-3.4.9 Allied joint doctrine for Civil-Military operations

[xix] Kalilou, ‘Climate Change and Conflict in the Sahel: The Acacia Gum Tree as a Tool For Environmental Peacebuilding’.

[xx] Valérie Heuze, Hélène Thiollet, Gilles Tran, Philippe Hassoun, Denis Bastianelli, François Lebas, Gum arabic tree, (Paris, 2016) (link)

[xxi] Kalilou, ‘Climate Change and Conflict in the Sahel: The Acacia Gum Tree as a Tool For Environmental Peacebuilding’.

[xxii] Ali Saleem, The role of the military in environmental peacebuilding, (London, 2018) (link)

[xxiii] Mucha Witold, ‘Exploiting Local Grievances for the Sake of Rebel Defeat: How the state instrumentalised Self-Defence Militias during civil war in Peru and Sierra Leone’, in: Institute for Development and Peace (Düsseldorf, 2013) 2.

[xxiv] Ann Fitz-Gerald, The Civil-Military interface with local populations: impact on peacebuilding strategies (2018) 85-91.

[xxv] Ahmed Ajil, ‘Politico-ideological violence: Zooming in on grievances’, in: European Journal of Criminology (Lousanne, 2020). (link)

[xxvi] Pierre Dehaene, ‘The Localization Strategy: Strategic Sense for Special Operations Forces in Niger’, (2019) 29.

[xxvii] Thibault Ricci, ‘Crise sécuritaire sahélienne: dynamiques régionales’, in : Revue Défense Nationale N° 837 (Paris, 2021), 115 – 122. (link)

[xxviii] Jessico Trikso Darden, ‘Tackling Terrorists’ Exploitation of Youth’ (American Enterprise Institute, 2019) (link)

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] Associated Press, ‘Millions of youth's [sic] in Africa's Sahel could be recruited by terrorist groups, UN envoy warns’, in: Daily Telegraph, 25 Nov. 2015, (link)

[xxxi] Ali Saleem, The role of the military in environmental peacebuilding, (London, 2018) (link)

About the Author(s)

2nd Lieutenant Jolan Silkens works as a Human Domain Analyst in the (BEL) Civil-Military Engagement Group (Ci-MEG). He holds a Bachelor’s degree in History (KU Leuven, BEL) and a Master’s degree in European Studies (KU Leuven, BEL). Prior to joining the Belgian armed forces, he worked as a trainee in the European Parliament and on security policy issues at Airlines for Europe.

Captain Philip Schrooten currently serves as a Human Domain Analyst at the (BEL) Civil-Military Engagement Group (Ci-MEG). He was deployed three times in the Sahel region as a CIMIC team leader and analyst, including a tour as Human Domain Advisor in support of the Belgian Special Forces Group.  He holds a Master’s degree in Cultural Studies (Maastricht University, NLD).



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