By Alexis Akwagyiram and Ryan McNeill
MAKURDI, Nigeria, Dec 19 - A Reuters analysis of land use data shows how a massive expansion of farming in Nigeria's Middle Belt has cut access to grazing land for nomadic herders and fuelled persistent violence.
If the coming dry season in Nigeria follows the pattern of previous years, violence will soon erupt between herders in search of water for their cattle and farmers determined to protect their land.
In the past, authorities have blamed the violence on religion or ethnic divisions. But a close examination of the changes in land use in central Nigeria shows just how much it comes down to a simple clash over resources.
The stakes are high. Amnesty International said the violence has killed more than 3,600 people since 2016, most of them this year.
Clashes between herding and farming communities in 2018 have killed more people than the conflict involving the Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.
Reuters journalists have tracked long-term land trends in Nigeria by analysing United States Geological Survey data.
The analysis of data released publicly only in 2016 shows open grazing land available in Nigeria's Middle Belt declined by 38 percent between 1975 and 2013 while the area dedicated to farming nearly trebled.
That means less land for nomads to feed their cattle, supporting the view of local people that the conflict is based on the availability of land rather than ethnic or religious differences.
The shift towards farming not only reflects Nigeria's rapid population growth, but also successive governments' efforts to diversify the economy away from its heavy reliance on oil.
Violence involving Fulani herders and farmers from other ethnic groups has been widespread since 2011 but most frequent in Nigeria's Middle Belt, a region where the mostly Christian south converges with the Islamic north.
For a graphic on changing land use click on https://tmsnrt.rs/2GrBm9U
In 1975, grazing land was plentiful. It made up 52 percent of all land in Nigeria, while farmland made up 23 percent. In the Middle Belt, grazing land was even more plentiful - 61 percent was grazing land, while farmland accounted for 14 percent.
In 2013, Grazing land decreased to 38 percent of the Middle Belt and farmland increased to 42 percent. The trend was similar across all of Nigeria.
Reuters found that between 1975 and 2013, Nigeria's Middle Belt lost about 84,000 square kilometres of land available to herders.
"There is no single kilometre you go through without seeing farmland, unlike what used to happen in the '50s when the population was less," said Samuel Ortom, Benue state governor, referring to the impact of Nigeria's growing population.
The United Nations predicts it will reach 400 million by 2050, more than double the present 190 million.
USGS data reveals that almost half of the 176,000 square km that changed from grazing land to farmland from 1975 to 2013 in Nigeria was in the Middle Belt.
The central states make up about one third of Nigeria's land area. But the Middle Belt is not strictly defined. Add another 50 km around the borders of these states and the Middle Belt accounts for almost two-thirds of the nationwide switch from grazing land to farmland.
Many of the farmers are Christian and the herders are mainly Muslim, but locals see the land issue as paramount.
"It's a competition for limited land, it's not about ethnicity or religion," said Baba Othman Ngelzarma, National Secretary of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders' Association of Nigeria.
NOMADIC WAY OF LIFE
Some argue that anti-grazing laws punish the herders' centuries-old nomadic way of life, which can be seen as cattle and herders traverse the Middle Belt's roads and dusty bush paths. The herders are usually young men and boys - some as young as 9.
Herders travel by foot with their animals - usually cows. They can walk hundreds of kilometres over the course of a few months, often crossing the porous borders that separate Nigeria from its neighbours: Benin, Niger and Cameroon.
But land use has changed, even if herders' customs have not.
The Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast has helped to push herders into central Nigeria, say analysts, while changes in the north's climate also encourage nomadic herdsmen to move further south.
Herders start to move out as fertile land turns into desert because of over-exploitation and drought.
Springs and streams have dried up across the far northern Sahelian belt, prompting large numbers of herders to seek other pastures and sources of water for their cattle in the savannah of Nigeria's central and southern states.
Farmers say their crops have been destroyed by the herders' cattle. As the fight over fertile land has intensified, so too have disputes over crop damage, water pollution and cattle theft.
The violence between herders and farmers has forced thousands to flee their homes and huge camps have sprung up in Benue and Plateau states. In one outbreak of violence, more than 200 people were killed during a weekend in June.
"We were just cooking. Before we knew it, some gunshots from nowhere," said Kangyan Dankye, a resident in a camp in Plateau, describing an attack on her home by herders.
"We just ran away," said Dankye, who lost five relatives in the violence.
(Ryan McNeill reported from London Additional reporting by Joshua Inuwa in Jos and Paul Carsten in Abuja Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram Editing by Giles Elgood)
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