High food grain prices could spark political violence in Africa’s crop harvest season
David Ubilava, Justin V. Hastings, Qadir Atale May 22, 2022
We tend to associate riots and mass protests with cities, but rising prices of agricultural commodities can also provoke social unrest in rural areas. This column shows that rising food grain prices create a high risk of violence in Africa, where agriculture represents a large part of the economy. The authors see that attacks on civilians increase during the harvest season and disappear as the year progresses – results that can help identify on an annual basis, when conflicts will worsen and where improved food security and civilian protection should be deployed. .
Rising food prices hit poor people around the world, especially in low- and middle-income countries (Artuk 2022, Chapeliv 2022). And where the rule of law is rarely the primary governing principle for discussion among the parties involved, rising food prices can lead to riots and social unrest (Bellemare 2015, Ubilava 2022).
Although protests and riots are usually urban phenomena, rising prices of agricultural commodities, especially cereals, can lead to conflicts in rural areas due to rising production prices (McGuirk and Burke 2020). In countries where agriculture represents a large part of the economy and employs a significant portion of the population, it is important to understand the nature of the agricultural conflict. Most African countries fall into this category.
An important subtlety of agriculture is its seasonality: Farmers make income when they harvest and then sell their crops. And the seasonality of agricultural income translates into seasonality of conflict.
In our new study (Ubilava et al. 2022), we examined and observed 55,000 attacks between 1997 and 2020 by state forces, insurgent groups, and political and identity militias (ACLED Project, Raleigh et al. 2010). Violence against civilians increases during the harvest season and disappears as the year progresses.1
Seasonal violence in Africa originates primarily from the government’s own political militias: various factions attack their rivals and rivals’ supporters and fight for dominance when they realize their income for years – harvest time. Depriving their rivals of that income is a great way to do the most damage, to keep their own team in a favorable position and, if their militias steal crops, to make money for themselves.
To capture the main findings of the study: In a place with ‘average’ cropland, food grain prices increased by 35% per year – a change observed in March and April 2022 (FAO 2022) – compared to the initial likelihood of violence in African cropland during and after harvest Will lead to a 6% increase in violence per month. Figure 1 illustrates this.
Figure 1 The seasonal impact of food grain prices pushes political violence
As different cereals grow in different parts of Africa, and as the harvest season varies from place to place (Sachs et al. 2010), there may be different hot spots across the continent as the calendar year progresses. Figure 2 gives an overview of the harvesting seasons of major food crops (such as corn, rice, sorghum and wheat) across Africa. For example, the geographical effect of global food price increases during boreal spring may be much different, for example, than the same price increase in boreal fall.
Figure 2 Harvest season of major food crops produced throughout Africa
The study’s key findings, which identify a significant temporal subtlety of income-conflict relationships, are on an annual basis, when the conflict is getting worse: harvest time when money comes to many people in developing countries, but the biggest risk is the moment. Moreover, since pro-government militias may appear to be the culprits, aid to countries may be better directed at governments that have prevented factional fighting.
In short, rising global food commodity prices increase the risk of conflict not only in urban areas but also in rural areas of low- and middle-income countries. Thus, in addition to warnings in urban areas prone to social unrest, protection of citizens in agricultural areas during the harvest season may be required as a way to increase food security or protect food supplies.
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Chapeliyev, M, M Maliszewska and MF Seyara Pereira (2022), “Agriculture and energy importers in the developing world have been hit hardest by the economic collapse of the Ukraine war”, VoxEU.org, 06 May.
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Ubilava, D. J. Hastings and K. Atale (2022), “Agriculture Windfalls and the Seasonality of Political Violence in Africa”, 26 February.
1 This work is undergoing revision and the results are subject to change, although no significant adjustment of the current original results is expected.