Campus News

Climate change and Africa focus of Des Forges symposium

A barren African vista featuring a small tree, a bush and cracked, dry earth.


Published April 4, 2019


Human beings originated in Africa about 100,000 years ago and have developed societies during the past 200 years that have contributed to climate change, which risks making the globe uninhabitable for our species and many others.

To enhance our understanding of the impacts of climate change on Africa and efforts to mitigate those consequences, experts from universities and non-governmental organizations will gather at UB on April 10 for a daylong symposium, “Climate Change and Africa: Impacts and Responses.”

The free, public event will take place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in 107 Capen Hall, North Campus. It will be followed by a scholarship fund dinner in Buffalo that benefits students interested in human rights.

The symposium will examine manifestations of global warming in Africa, its differential impacts on African populations, and the successes and failures of African and international institutions as they attempt to mitigate the climate change process, develop sustainable economies and ensure social resilience.

Presenters will range from Jesse Ribot, professor of environmental politics, School of International Service, American University, to Marcos A. Orellana, director of the Environment and Human Rights Division, Human Rights Watch.

Both the symposium and dinner honor the memory of Alison L. Des Forges, a member of the UB community who fought to call the world’s attention to another great humanitarian crisis: the genocide in Rwanda.

An internationally known historian and Buffalo native, Des Forges was an adjunct member of the UB history faculty during the 1990s and received an SUNY honorary doctorate during UB’s commencement ceremony in 2001.

She was one of the world’s leading experts on Rwanda, serving as an expert witness in 11 trials at the United Nations International Criminal Court for Rwanda. Her award-winning book, “Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda,” was a landmark account of the 1994 genocide, and her tireless efforts to awaken the international community to the horrors that occurred earned her a MacArthur Fellowship in 1999.

The symposium will open with registration and welcoming remarks at 9 a.m., followed by panels focusing on “Human Impacts of Climate Change,” “Poverty and Politics: Energy and Food Resources,” and “Human Rights Implications.”

The Human Impacts of Climate Change panel, which runs from 9:30-11:45 a.m., includes the following presentations:

  • Insecurity and Climate Change in Dryland West Africa: Disentangling the Dynamics in the Countryside, Leif V. Brottem, assistant professor of global development studies, Grinnell College.

Protected forest areas have played an important yet overlooked role in the insurgencies that have destabilized large parts of West Africa over the past 10 years. Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and especially Nigeria have experienced violence perpetuated by groups that use forests as places to hide and organize. At the same time, growing resource scarcity is causing pastoralists — groups who raise livestock for a living — to rely on the same forests to provide water and pasture for their animals. This presentation will work toward disentangling this relationship in the context of weak, but often oppressive state institutions

  • Xenophobia under a Changing Sky: Emigration from the Sahel to Europe, Jesse Ribot, professor of environmental politics, School of International Service, American University.

Senegalese farmers are crossing the Sahara on their way to Europe. Along the way, many are taken captive and robbed, sold as slave labor, held for ransom and beaten. Many die in the desert or drown at sea. Yet, knowing the dangers, they choose to go. The media is depicting them as “climate refugees,” but these young men and their families rarely mention the weather as a cause of their plight at home or their decisions to leave. Casting them as climate refugees occludes the multiple forces that move them, and denies the colonial and post-colonial histories of cause, deepening the crisis.

  • Niger Delta, Climate Change and Trauma of the Future

Cajetan Iheka, assistant professor of English, University of Alabama.

Mineral extraction in Africa has exacerbated social conflict and ecological degradation across the continent. This talk focuses specifically on the Niger Delta scene of oil exploration as presented in Michael Watts and Ed Kashi’s multimedia project, “Curse of the Black Gold,” and analyzes the photographs as an ecology of suffering and as a site of trauma.

The Poverty and Politics: Energy and Food Resources panel, which runs from 1-2:30 p.m., includes the following presentations:

  • Re-greening: Recent Progress in Africa and Opportunities to Improve Crop Production and Restore Resilience to Climate Change, Robert Winterbottom, EverGreening Global Alliance.

Climate change is global, but some people are more severely impacted and less able to adapt than others. Smallholder farmers are taking steps to “re-green” by protecting and managing the regeneration of trees and shrubs on cropland.  Proven re-greening practices are being scaled up to have significant positive impacts on crop production, water supplies and poverty reduction, and in helping rural communities in Africa to become more resilient in the face of climate change.

  • Cultural Politics of Energy and Unity in Post-Genocide Rwanda: Methane Extraction on Lake Kivu, Kristin Doughty, associate professor of anthropology and director of the Susan B. Anthony Institute for Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, University of Rochester.

Across much of the African continent, water is at the center of concerns about changing climates, whether through renewed risks of droughts, floods, access to clean water, or declining fishing stocks. Lake Kivu on the Rwanda-Democratic Republic of Congo border is not yet showing these impacts of climate change, but it holds another hidden danger: dissolved methane in its deepest layers that, if disturbed, could explode and devastate the 2 million people living in the lake’s basin. This presentation focuses on newly installed methane-extraction plants, asking questions about the relationships between international scientific and corporate efforts to promote sustainable energy and reduce risk in the face of climate change and broader human rights concerns.

The Human Rights Implications panel, which runs from 2:30-4 p.m., includes the following presentations:

  • Climate Change and Security: Displacement, Scarcity and Increasing Competition for Natural Resources, Marcos A. Orellana, director of the Environment and Human Rights Division, Human Rights Watch.

This talk looks at how climate change acts as a “threat multiplier” of conflict.  Climate change increases human displacement and reduces access to natural resources. It also exacerbates stresses on fragile geopolitical systems and disproportionately hurts vulnerable populations. Two case studies will examine these factors at play: the Horn of Africa and the Lake Chad Basin.

  • Kenya: Mega Infrastructure Projects, Environmental Concerns and Threats to Activists, Otsieno Namwaya, Kenya researcher, Human Rights Watch.

This talk focuses on the ambitious regional project LAPSSET, the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport corridor project, which is the largest infrastructure project in East and Central Africa. It envisions a 32-berth seaport, three international airports, road and railway network, three resort cities and other projects such as a coal-fired power plant. Activists and community residents on the coast have become increasingly vocal about the potential adverse health and environmental impacts of the project, but they have faced obstacles. Kenyan security forces have broken up protests, restricted public meetings and threatened, arrested and prosecuted activists on various charges.

Sponsors of the symposium include the Alison Des Forges Memorial Committee and the Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy; Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering; Department of Comparative Literature; Department of History; Gender Institute; Humanities Institute; James Agee Chair in American Culture; RENEW Institute; Department of Political Science; UB Sustainability; and the Office of the Vice Provost for International Education, all at UB.

Scholarship dinner

A scholarship dinner and discussion after the symposium will support an endowment that funds Alison L. Des Forges Memorial scholarships for graduates from the Buffalo Public Schools demonstrating a strong interest in pursuing studies at UB related to human rights and social justice.

The dinner, which costs $100 per seat, takes place from 6:30-9:30 p.m. April 10 at the Jacobs Executive Development Center, 672 Delaware Ave., Buffalo.

Reservations are required, and guests may RSVP by contacting Kathleen Curtis at 716-645-2077 or