P232 – The Coming Ecological Crunch in Africa: Growth Narratives vs Local Environmental Realities
9 July, 14:00 – 15:30

Abbink Jon / African Studies Centre Leiden


This panel invites reflections on the tension between economic development trajectories and local environmental-demographic realities in Africa. The continent’s image today is one of economic growth and opportunity, a feature that both tune in to the continent’s potential as well as to its full insertion into the global economy. But environmental concerns are utterly secondary, and perhaps their long-term seriousness is underestimated. While traditional environmental management and sustainability features of African rural societies should not be idealized, states and donors often bypass ‘traditional’ economies, interests and management practices, seen as inefficient and inhibiting ‘growth’, even when they deliver. But in many regions the seeds might have been sown for lasting environmental crises that will affect local societies that have little opportunity to claim accountability from the state or investors. The latter’s alliances with new local elites further subvert alternative policies on environmental management. Likely, the ground for future environmentally-based and demographically fueled conflict and contestation movements is being laid. In many areas these have already arisen, and can develop into armed protest. Cultural traditions of mediation or conflict resolution will likely not be sufficient to always prevent or solve them. Papers will discuss the clash of developmental narratives, emerging interest groups, environmental NGOs, protest movements and conflicts induced by environment/population pressure, on the basis of field case-studies or policy analyses. Theoretical parameters are neo-Malthusian approaches, governance and ‘accountability’ structures of the African state, (ethnic) elite politics, and diverging cultural narratives on land and ‘rights’.

La crise écologique à venir en Afrique: récits de croissance par rapport aux réalités environnementales locales

Ce panel rassemble des contributions réfléchissant à la tension entre les modèles économiques du développement et les réalités locales, environnementales et démographiques, en Afrique. L’image du continent est en ce moment majoritairement celle de la croissance et des opportunités économiques, partant de son important potentiel autant que de son insertion dans l’économie globale. Mais les problèmes de l’environnement ou de la pression démographique ne sont pas suffisamment problématisés, voire même sont largement sous-estimés sur le long terme. Il ne convient pas d’idéaliser la gestion traditionnelle de l’environnement dans les sociétés rurales africaines, mais l’État africain autant que les investisseurs et bailleurs de fonds ignorent généralement les économies et les pratiques coutumières présentes dans les sociétés locales, les considérant comme inefficaces ou désuètes, même si elles fonctionnent. Pourtant, on peut prédire une crise écologique sur le long terme, affectant ces sociétés et populations locales qui n’ont guère la possibilité d’interroger l’État et de lui demander des comptes. Il est probable que les problèmes écologiques croissants et l’évolution démographique conduisent ainsi à plus de conflits locaux, que les traditions culturelles intermédiaires ne suffiront pas toujours à prévenir ou à résoudre. Les contributions vont porter sur l’opposition entre  divers discours sur le « développement », ceux des ONGs environnementales ou des mouvements de contestation, et s’attachera à réfléchir sur les conflits produits indirectement par les pressions environnementales et démographiques, à partir d’études de terrain ainsi que d’analyses des politiques gouvernementales. Les concepts théoriques pris en compte seront ceux du néo-malthusianisme, de la gouvernance et des politiques étatiques en Afrique, de la politique des élites (ethniques), et les différentes approches culturelles sur la terre et les « droits ».

Paper 1

Buckner Margaret / Missouri State University

Cash for Cashews: Does it add up? (Guinée-Bissau)

For over twenty years, I’ve been carrying out anthropological fieldwork in the Manjako village of Caio, in northwestern Guinea Bissau. There I’ve been witnessing the switch from traditional rice cultivation to cashew production as the main economic activity. Policymakers call cashews the best chance for Guinea Bissau to fight poverty and develop, and, indeed, the Guinea Bissau government has earned foreign capital from the export of raw cashews. Rather than growing their own rice, villagers now grow cashews and trade them for imported rice. Every square foot of bush is being turned into cashew orchards, and rice fields are reverting to mangrove swamps. And so, as has happened over and over in Africa, a self-sufficient, locally-controlled, sustainable, environmentally-friendly subsistence economy has been turning into an unsustainable, mono-crop economy that depends on fluctuating global markets and is wreaking havoc on the environment. However, in the last two years, people seem to be quietly refocusing efforts on rice farming, which could signal a questioning of the government and NGO-backed “development” schemes.

Paper 2

Koot Stasja / Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University

Giving Land (back): The Altered Meaning of Land for Southern Kalahari Bushmen Hunter-Gatherers in Modern South Africa

In many cases, indigenous hunter-gatherers have been, and still are, evicted from conservation areas. The Bushmen of Southern Africa are no exception. In this paper, we analyse the return of land to the South Kalahari Bushmen (≠Khomani) who were evicted from the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in South Africa. We follow Ingold’s dwelling perspective, an ecological approach in which hunter-gatherers do not see themselves as owners of the land, but as custodians of their environment. The dominant narrative of growth (as used by NGOs, the state, donors and private actors), focuses on land simply as a resource base, thereby overlooking the dwelling perspective. Furthermore, narratives of genealogy justify land claims, but in the dwelling perspective genealogy is not decisive. However, many advocates have used these narratives in support of the Bushmen’s land claim. Although we argue that grabbing land from the people can have disastrous effects, this does not mean that ‘giving it back’ automatically solves these issues. There are two plain, but often overlooked, reasons for this. First, the people that the land was taken from are not the same as those it is returned to. Second, the meaning of the land today is not the same as the meaning of the environment that was originally taken away. This leaves us to argue for another starting point in the narrative of land claims: ‘give land’, based on marginalisation, instead of ‘give back land’, based on indigeneity.

Paper 3

Djohy Georges / Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology, Georg-August Universität Göttingen

Pastoralism facing Weeding Technology Appropriation in Northern Benin

This study shows how socio-technological change over the last decades has influenced northern Beninese pastoralism. It uses actor-network theory’s concept of “translation”. This describes the adoption of technology as a negotiation and adaptation process through which actors attribute to it different meanings and uses, differing from what its designers or promoters envisaged.
The Beninese herbicide supply chain was traced, analyzing its effects in light of ongoing use of the landscape not only by farmers but also Fulbe pastoralists. This shows its translation from an agricultural technology to a tool of contestation.
Herbicides allow farmers to extensify maize and cotton cultivation in labour-constrained situations. Farmers and absentee landholders use such cultivation to lay and maintain claim to the seemingly ownerless lands surrounding farmers’ fields. Thus, through seasonal clearing and the new found ease of agricultural production, new urban actors enter farming and land transactions have increased.
However, such herbicide use has reduced the extent of rangelands and poisoned cattle grazing on sprayed lands or drinking polluted water, increasing farmer-herder conflicts. Many herders have left the region for neighboring countries such as Togo and Ghana, with economic consequences as a result of decreased livestock marketing and dairying. Herbicide is thereby translated from a weed control technology into a tool used by farmers to contest land conflicts with Fulbe herders.

Paper 4

Gabbert Echi Christina / Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle/Saale

Globalizing Environments in the Lowlands of Southern Ethiopia: Terra nullius, Home, Sacred Space, Grabbed Land, Commodity or Resource?

In Southern Ethiopia today we see a dilemma symptomatic of a globalizing world: land used for centuries by agro-pastoralists for subsistence economy is being been bulldozed into market schemes to be used for intensified, often large-scale, agriculture. Politics about and research on use of pastoral areas have transcended concerns on climate change, environmental management and food security into new hypes of land grabbing, ‘development’, ‘investment’ and advocacy, and a step back is necessary to understand underlying dynamics. Collective & long-term ‘connection to one’s land’ also feeds back in economic-environmental aspects of land use. As to sustainable resource, the traditional management systems based on local authorities and long-term commitment/responsibility for community land can have significant advantages to land investments by investors/elites who regard land as a commodity. On the basis of a case study of the agro-pastoralist Arbore in S. Ethiopia, located in their place of origin, subsistence economy and spiritual home within a spatial, ritual and socio economic network of numerous ethnic groups, I gather notions about S. Ethiopia from the perspectives of investors, policy makers, churches, economists, NGOs, etc. and apply the “global neighbourhood concept” for an approach which treats all neighbours (” stakeholders) in the new scramble for land and resources comparatively and seek points of convergence and divergence in viewpoints on land use and environment.

Paper 5

Llopis Jorge C. / Center for African Studies, University of Copenhagen

Climate Change, Development and Nature Conservation. Perceived Realities and Prospects in Madagascar

With unabated high population growth rates and acute impoverishment of rural communities in many African countries, neo-Malthusian explanations for the perceived environmental degradation trend are gaining momentum in the international developmental and environmental policy-making spheres.
This paper relies on a case study from the new protected area Ranobe PK32, created in the southwest region of Madagascar, to show, beyond the traditional population pressure-poverty-environmentaldegradation equation, the complexity of the challenges that environmental governance and poverty alleviation objectives face in the context of changing climatic conditions. The temporary protection status was granted to the area in 2008, with the objective of conserving the spiny forest in the region while allowing the sustainable exploitation of natural resources by the rural inhabitants. The area has been suffering one of the highest rates of deforestation in the country while receiving the recurrent impact of droughts and cyclones that further reduces the alternatives that rural populations have to pursue sustainable livelihood strategies. The research deepens into the diverging narratives deployed by the different actors involved in the management and use of the natural resources to enhance our understanding of the social-ecological processes taking place in an area historically bypassed by development projects.

← Back to list