P109 – Contesting Natures: Frontier Landscapes, Power and Agency in North-east Africa
8 July, 16:00 – 17:30

Liz Watson / Department of Geography, University of Cambridge


Landscapes and environments in North-east Africa are being reconfigured in the context of neo-liberal expansion, new waves of development, and concerns about climate change and insecurity. Long treated as buffer zones, previously marginal areas are new frontiers of activity by various actors including the state, private investors and civil society. Different imaginaries of ‘nature’ are the battleground for these processes, be they ideas about the appropriate use of water resources, land, mineral resources, renewable energies, urban environments or climate change. A range of ‘techniques’ – from blueprints, to new technologies, to forms of infrastructure – are being employed in ways that construct appropriate use and appropriate users of those resources. Consequently the nature of the landscapes is transformed, together with the lives and subjectivities of those who live in them. There is an urgent need to examine the nature, scale and impact of the transformations underway, and to explore the ways in which they are being understood, experienced and contested on the ground. Papers are invited for this panel that present empirical research into these changing relations to nature, and the ways in which they are practised and contested.

This panel is supported by the British Institute in Eastern Africa and the Journal of East African Studies

Contester les « natures »: espaces réservés, pouvoir et action en Afrique du Nord-Est
Paysages et milieux en Afrique du nord-est sont en train d’être reconfigurés dans un contexte marqué par l’expansion néolibérale, par de nouvelles perspectives de développement, et par les débats autour du changement climatique et de l’insécurité. Longtemps traités comme zones tampons, ces espaces autrefois marginaux deviennent de nouvelles frontières d’activité pour divers acteurs comme l’État, les investisseurs privés et la société civile. Différentes représentations de la « nature » constituent le champ de bataille de ces processus, qu’il s’agisse d’idées sur la bonne utilisation des ressources en eau, de la terre, des ressources minérales, ou sur les énergies renouvelables, les milieux urbains ou le changement climatique. Une série de « techniques » – allant de prototypes, à de nouvelles technologies, à de nouvelles formes d’infrastructure – sont employées de différentes manières légitimant certains acteurs et certaines utilisations des ressources. En conséquence, la nature des paysages est transformée, ainsi que les vies et les subjectivités de ceux qui y vivent. Il est urgent et nécessaire d’examiner la nature, l’échelle et l’impact des transformations en cours, et d’explorer la manière dont elles sont comprises, vécues et contestées sur le terrain. Les contributions de ce panel présenteront des travaux de recherches empiriques sur ces nouveaux rapports à la nature, et la manière dont ils sont entretenus et contestés.

Paper 1

Kochore Hassan / National Museums of Kenya

The Road to Kenya: The Visions of a Nation and Landscape of Development and Modernity in Northern Kenya

A fundamental change is taking place in the economic and political geography of Kenya. The Northern territory, previously excluded from national development, has been thrust into the center of national development planning. The Vision 2030 economic blueprint and the related discourses about developing the North has become a tool for the Kenyan state to think about and shape the future. In essence, the region has become a site of discussion of development and change and as such an important ‘imaginary landscape’. This paper takes the case study of the under-construction Isiolo-Moyale road (a key project of Vision 2030) as a lens through which to understand how these projects are being perceived and contested on the ground in Northern Kenya. The paper will explore ways through which the residents of Marsabit are making sense and locating themselves within this changing physical and political landscape. I argue that the road in many ways maps out the people’s experience of the post-colony onto the landscape, constructing it as a site of memory, a space for the articulation of history and change.

Paper 2

Elliott Hannah / University of Copenhagen

Plots and Progress: The Coming of Town and an Economy of Anticipation at the Gateway to Kenya’s ‘New Frontier’

In spite of its geographical positioning at the centre of Kenya, Isiolo has historically been imagined as a border town to a land beyond, the beginning and end of a ‘Kenya B’. But in recent years Isiolo has been rebranded as the gateway to a ‘new frontier’ through which northern Kenya is reimagined as a place of economic possibility and potential to be ‘opened up’ through the government’s ‘Vision 2030’ blueprint. While few of the planned development projects have yet manifested in Isiolo, expectations of them are altering the landscape around the edges of the town as the price of land rises and areas that were formerly settled and grazed in customary ways are being subdivided and fenced as plots. This paper examines the everyday manifestations of Vision 2030 plans, focusing on plots and an economy of anticipation that is captured within them. Framing national ‘new frontier’ discourses as a continuation of the north’s historical relationship with a ‘Kenya proper’ rather than a break with the past, it seeks to show how particular ideas of development, progress and the future that development plans (re)evoke are permeating and reconfiguring in everyday life in Isiolo. While plots hold the potential for ‘progress’ and ‘modernization’, the morality of the money they produce is contested, rendering them capable of generating inverse forms of development as residents risk ‘displacement by money’ and exclusion from the city of the future.

Paper 3

Buffavand Lucie / Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology

‘The Land Does not Like Them’: Contesting Government’s Land Grab in Cosmological Terms in Bodi, South-West Ethiopia

The lower Omo River Valley in South-West Ethiopia is being radically transformed as the state implements a sugar-cane plantation of huge proportions. This paper explores the ways the Bodi, a group of agro-pastoralists impacted by the scheme, turn to their cosmology in order to comprehend the changes which threaten their livelihood and to perpetuate a sense of their legitimate belonging to the land. For the governmental elite, the land along the banks of the Omo is ‘empty’; they deem industrialized agriculture as the only proper way to extract resources from the region. The Bodi people, who have settled according to the government’s plan to cultivate their own crop in irrigated fields, have experienced a feeling of alienation: the state-designed fields are not a place for living, only a place of work. The Bodi have rituals related to cattle herding and cultivation; they propitiate the ‘owners’ of the land, the mythical creatures that insure prosperity or provoke disasters. For the Bodi, the careless approach of the government has upset the owners of the land. They see the consequences of this in the social sphere: conflicts between the locals and migrant workers or military escalate. This paper examines the Bodi’s discursive references to the ‘owners’ of the land and to the belief that the latter will ultimately restore the situation in their favour as forms of empowerment.

Paper 4

Greiner Clemens / University of Cologne

Mueller-Mahn Detlef / University of Bonn

Future-making between conservation, intensification and contestation: land-use change, fragmentation and conflict in East Pokot, Kenya

Land-use and livelihood patterns in Eastern African drylands have changed tremendously in recent decades. Ethnographic data from East Pokot in Kenya’s Baringo area illustrate these changes and point to relevant drivers. First, population growth, sedentarization and the spread of rain-fed crop cultivation, have led to increasing shortages of arable land and to processes of land-use intensification. Second, the implementation of wildlife conservation projects. Thirdly, increasing violent conflicts with neighboring pastoralists over territorial boundaries and access to natural resources, fuelled by successful oil-prospecting missions, rumours of unexplored mineral deposits and a range of proposed geothermal power plants. These processes – conservation, intensification and increasing contestation of borderlands – have led to a profound fragmentation and contraction of the former commons and to a rapid demise of customary tenure arrangements. While Pokot society only begins to develop more consistent relations to bounded territories, conflicts around access to and control over land have intensified dramatically. The paper examines the changes in East Pokot in relation to Appadurai´s theoretical reflections on “practices of future-making”, in order to discuss how practices of imagination, aspiration and anticipation of “nature” influence the reconfiguration of landscapes in Africa.

Paper 5

Cormack Zoe / The Open University

Culture as resistance: ‘bio-cultural’ activism in northern Kenya

From oil exploration, new cities and the planned LAPSSET corridor that will dissect pastoral grazing lands, extensive transformations of the landscape are anticipated in northern Kenya. Amidst the uncertainty of this development boom, spaces are being forged from which to contest the far-reaching implications of these developments on pastoralist communities.
Much anxiety about the future trajectory of the region centres on the loss of traditional livelihoods and the loss of pastoralist heritage. In this context heritage is emerging as one lever of resistance and negotiating change. In particular, international and civil society actors in northern Kenya are increasingly deploying the idea that the environment and natural heritage is at least partially mediated through culture. This paper will discuss the use of ‘bio-cultural protocols’ that are currently being developed in Isiolo County. These are instruments that are intended to enshrine the legal basis for customary land tenure and pastoralism as a cultural right and sustainable environmental practice. Attempts to promote ‘bio-cultural’ heritage show how heritage more broadly is becoming a salient category through which to negotiate and contest shifting imaginaries of nature.

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