On 12th May 2018, President Uhuru Kenyatta launched the National Tree Planting Day under the slogan “Panda Miti, Penda Kenya”. It was another of those Jubilee-ese slogans that ring hollow. The event took place in Kamkunji sub-county at the Moi Forces Academy in the Eastlands part of Nairobi. This was the government’s knee-jerk response to the heavy long rains season that sparked an environmental crisis around the country. There were 32 counties affected and over 300,000 Kenyans were displaced. In his official speech, the President repeated the familiar pledge to achieve at least ten per cent forest cover, as required by the constitution, and to mitigate the effects of climate change.
The news reporting of the event focused on the power politics between Nairobi governor Mike Sonko Mbuvi and Environmental Cabinet Secretary Keriako Tobiko. Two weeks after the launch, news reports were awash with the latest financial scandal. Sh2 billion allocated to establish the green school project in all 47 counties under the auspices of the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) had been embezzled. A task force chaired by Marion Wakanyi Kamau of the Green Belt Movement released a report that revealed that Kenya’s forest depletion occurred at an alarming rate of about 5,000 hectares annually and which implicated KFS personnel. Kenyans, numbed by the numerous other cases of grand theft in the Jubilee government, hardly reacted.
Kenya, the birthplace of the Green Belt Movement and its illustrious founder, Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, remains stuck in the optics of environmental activism. Reforestation is an activity that the media reduces to a “tree planting exercise” and has evolved into an elite pastime where prominent personalities pose for photo opportunities in formal dress next to freshly planted trees. Public forests have been privatised and primed for plunder by those tasked to protect them while corporates, NGOs and politicians plant thousands of trees in cosmetic public relations and corporate social responsibility activities without evoking any of the ecological consciousness that Wangari Maathai dedicated her life to raising. Of the several Wangari Maathai quotes I regurgitate, this particular one sticks:
“Anyone can dig a hole and plant a tree. But make sure it survives. You have to nurture it, you have to water it, you have to keep at it until it becomes rooted so that it can take of itself. There are so many enemies of trees.”
Planting trees is easy. Taking care of them requires a different level of commitment. This was Wangari’s enduring message and the one lesson my country fails to learn. This much I know because I have been involved in an urban afforestation project with Mathare Green Movement (MGM), a campaign of the Mathare Social Justice Centre ( MSJC).
Public forests have been privatised and primed for plunder by those tasked to protect them while corporates, NGOs and politicians plant thousands of trees in cosmetic public relations and corporate social responsibility activities without evoking any of the ecological consciousness that Wangari Maathai dedicated her life to raising.
The two Nairobis
In August 2017, a group of concerned Kenyans from Mathare got together and decided that they were going to plant trees in memory of all their colleagues who fell to police bullets. Over months, the activity evolved into a concerted effort at ecological and social justice using the tree as a symbol of regeneration and resistance to structural oppression.
Planting trees in Mathare is a process and not an event because the soils of this informal settlement have lost their capacity to sustain trees. Mathare Valley is an infamous slum, a crucible of suffering where white tourists arrive in droves to marvel at the resilience of its residents and to photograph the miracle of optimism. The shanty structures, a canopy of rusty brown mabati roofs separated by narrow alleys dropping down precarious rocky slopes, is home to multitudes. Broken souls exist alongside delightful children. Complete despondence rides alongside cheerfulness and the kaleidoscope of intense human interaction has made Mathare a location of extremes with no middle ground to stand on.
The physical environment is devoid of life-sustaining features. The further east you go in Nairobi, the poorer the neighbourhoods become. The absence of basic amenities and greenery and the human congestion and neglect evoke caricatures of a dystopian city. Martin Oduor, a member of MGM, tried to conduct a tree census and came to the disturbing estimate of about one tree for every 1,200 residents.
The Mathare river is turbid, dark grey and sickly – an open sewer that occasionally turns rogue on its residents, sweeping all in its path. The extent of the long-term socio-environmental damage has created the existing spectacle of human suffering that draws in “saviours and observers” from around the world fascinated by the resilience of the residents. Children, accustomed to the white benevolent visitor on a poverty safari, switch character to become entitled beggars peddling the currency of hopelessness.
Mathare is a perfect illustration of Nairobi’s environmental segregation. The informal settlement is surrounded on both sides by a leafy green belt. To get a sense of what I prefer to call environmental apartheid, one only has to shift one’s gaze to the thick wall of green that is the Muthaiga suburb to the west of Mathare.
The wealthy districts of Nairobi abut its poorer districts from where they draw much of their domestic labour: Muthaiga has Mathare, Karen has Kibera, Loresho has Kangemi, Lavington has Kawangware. A similar pattern is observed in the city’s greenery. From an aerial point of view, the classes are separated by a green belt. All of Nairobi’s best-kept public green spaces – Karura Forest, Nairobi Arboretum, City Park – are in the affluent parts of the city and maintain restricted access. The neighbourhoods to the east of the city centre have minimal public spaces and, where available, we find dusty fields with no green cover.
Mathare is a perfect illustration of Nairobi’s environmental segregation. The informal settlement is surrounded on both sides by a leafy green belt.
The reality of trees as the markers of aristocratic privilege in Nairobi’s urban spaces is rooted in the colonial state. Between 1906 and 1926, Nairobi was colonised to serve the interests of the white settler population. Eighty per cent of the city’s residential land was reserved for its white elite. The two Nairobi’s were divided into residential areas for Europeans and Asians, and peripheral housing for African labour as an afterthought. One white half of Nairobi was serviced and the other black half was neglected. The colonial zoning policy created a pattern of racial and class segregation and social stratification that persist to this day.
The 1948 Master Plan for a Colonial Capital and the 1973 Metropolitan Growth Strategy employed segregation principles to maintain racial and class divisions. After independence in 1963, the white neighbourhoods of Karen, Lavington and Muthaiga became accessible to the emerging moneyed African and Asian upper classes who, rather than reverse the social apartheid, opted for the retention of colonial governance structures.
To cater for the unserviced poor masses, an informal modernism emerged in Nairobi, created with the sole intent of exploiting vulnerable city residents. Rural-to-urban migration brought a large influx of people to the city in search of a better life who found themselves trapped in “slums” and denied social mobility by the rigid class structures. The lack of formal housing gave rise to informal settlements operating outside the legal framework and, therefore, subjected to gross violations of rights and a culture of exploitation.
Kenyan filmmaker Tosh Gitonga illustrates the desperation of rural-to-urban migrants and the plight that awaits “shags-modos” in the brutal class-restricted spaces of Nairobi in the captivating film, Nairobi Half Life. Today the primitive accumulation and land expropriation of the post-colonial state has led to 70 per cent of Nairobi’s population of 4 million living on 5 per cent of the city’s land area. Mathare’s 500,000 residents fight for dignity in an area that is barely 3 square kilometres.
In his forthcoming book, Paracitations: Genre, Foreign Bodies, and the Ethics of Co-habitatation, Kenyan scholar Samson Opondo describes the economic security and greenness (which had previously been a manifestation of whiteness) becoming inscribed on a class-based identity complete with a rhetoric of “threat”. When we see trees from the purely conservation ideology of the state, we fail to problematise the socio-economic and historical contexts within which possession and disposssesion and threats emerge.
The environmental culture in Kenya is essentially anti-human. The native continues to be a threat to green spaces and must be forcibly relocated to the reserves and this access to greenery must be monitored. Public forests are protected by armies with guns and access is restricted by high fees. Opondo futher notes in his 2008 paper, “Genre and the African City: The Politics and Poetics of Urban Rhythms”, that Nairobi’s hides (in the open) an ugly history of racial segregation based on the South African model of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City concept where greening of the city corresponded with creation of structures of racial exclusion.
The environmental culture in Kenya is essentially anti-human. The native continues to be a threat to green spaces and must be forcibly relocated to the reserves and this access to greenery must be monitored.
In both South Africa and Kenya, the impoverished masses cluster in shanty towns where environmental rights only come to bear during hostile weather crisis management. Gacheke Gachihi of Mathare Social Justice Centre says, “ Our suffering is invisible.” In Kenya’s election cycle, the slum areas are hotspots that are heavily policed and a ready tinder box of ethnic rivalry, police brutality and gang violence. After every election cycle, we witness the cessation of hostilities, the withdrawal of corporate media from the spectacle of mass violence of poor against poor, state crackdown on protesting poor masses, and lockdowns.
Elections spell death, destruction and despair for the residents of Mathare. In the lead-up to August 2017 bungled elections, Mathare was marked as a “hotspot” that was heavily policed by rogue units who relish brutalising residents under siege. When it all simmers down, the politicians invariably end up negotiating new pacts, leaving residents to fall back on resilence. As soon as they turn their backs, the slow violence resumes, felt only by those within who are invisible to those on the outside – a violence that is exaceberated by an environment that is metaphorically lined with unexploded landmines. The environmentally dispossessed only make the news in the midst of great tragedy and calamities.
In the book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, author Rob Nixon shed lights on the inattention to calamities “that are slow and long lasting, continuously dispensing devastation but without the necessary spectacle required to raise public outrage or sustain the fleeting attention (that) spans breaking news corporate media spectacles.”
Therefore, it is no surprise that the Kenyan public remains unaware of the humanitarian crisis in the form of extrajudicial killings in Nairobi’s slums. The MSJC brought this to light in 2017 after the launch of “Who is Next: A Participatory Action Report Against the Normalisation of Extrajudicial Executions in Mathare”. Between 2013 and 2015, over 803 cases were documented.
The report was the first major concerted effort by a grassroots movement to raise awareness about the reality of extrajudicial executions. Despite the moderate buzz created in human rights spaces, the killings have not stopped. The policing culture persists. In the month of May 2018, for instance, Wilfred Olal of the Dandora Justice Center reported that 15 young men had been gunned down. Justice for the victims is a long shot. Wangui Kimaru, a researcher at MSJC, told me that there have been only 4 convictions despite 9,000 cases being forwarded to the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA).
Human rights defender Kennedy Chindi says that there are between 10 to 15 cases of young men reported missing or killed by police every month in Nairobi’s informal settlements. Cases of police threats and intimidation deter the aggrieved from coming forward with information. “Everyone knows the killers but no one even dares call them by their names,” says Wyban Mwangi, a young musician. Instead, they use a codename, “Mjamaa”, for even in a valley of hundreds of thousands, the walls have ears. The names Hessy of Kayole and Rashid are whispered and the youth live in dread of who is next?
The Bill of Rights in the Kenyan constitution guarantees every person the right to life. Howeve,r in an unequal society, the rights of the poor come with no guarantees. The normalisation of the extrajudicial killings is an existential generational crisis. Amnesty International, Haki Africa and emerging grassroots organisations in Mathare, Dandora and Kayole have harrowing documentation of enforced dissapearances and deaths that are often atrributed to the police.
Encounter killings have turned urban ghettos into legalised hunting grounds, no different from the death match in the dystopian Hunger Games trilogy by American novelist Suzanne Collins. Or perhaps District 9, a South African sci-fi feature by Neill Blomkamp that astutely explores social segregation in a scathing satirical analysis of urban populations treated with the level of vile contempt reserved for pests. In Kenya, Tosh Gitonga’s Nairobi Half Life dramatises this unofficial routine killing of young males in a complex narrative of the cyclical violence of toxic masculinity where the line between the criminal and the police is blurrry.
Researcher Naomi Van Stapele, in her book Respectable “Illegality”: Gangs, Masculinities and Belonging in a Nairobi Ghetto, explained that the killings in Mathare continue without raising any public outrage because the dead are labelled as criminals or thugs, which justifies the executions. “Let the police do their work”, is the divorced public response. No one advocates for the killing of perpetrators of grand theft, but the children of the poor, the petty criminals (vermin) must be eliminated on the strength of suspicion. In the words of Trevor Noah, they are “born a crime”. In middle class circles, a conversation with a journalist friend turned into a sermon heavy on class snobbery. “Kenya’s ghetto mentality is what is holding those people in slums back.” Then he cherry-picked the example of musician Juliani as the mascot of possibility.
No one advocates for the killing of perpetrators of grand theft, but the children of the poor, the petty criminals (vermin) must be eliminated on the strength of suspicion. In the words of Trevor Noah, they are “born a crime”.
Local media has made a profession of reporting poverty through derogatory frames. Therefore, the numerous reports, occasional protests against police harassment and demonstrations do not draw media attention or public solidarity beyond the spectacle of tragedy.
These examples show that the slum ecology harbours systemic and structural violence that is silent. Johan Galtung, the celebrated Norwegian mathematician and sociologist, coined the term “structural violence”, which may be described as a form of violence wherein some social structure or social institution may harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs.
Like soil erosion, the effects of structural violence are not immediately obvious. Because its consequences only become evident in the distant future, there is little incentive for long-term solutions. Zangi, a resident of Mathare notes that it does not matter who comes to power; the problem is the system and the police culture. The problem is also the enabling physical environment that legitimises extrajudicial killings.
The Kenyan version of “electoral democracy” thrives in violent geographies. The problems of social justice are too many, too complex and not sexy enough for short-term political strategists who live for the optics in between elections to sustain popularity. Remedial environmental policy takes years. The benefits cannot be accrued in one political cycle and are certainly not bankable in the transactional nature of Kenyan politics. Article 42 of the constitution confers the right to a clean and healthy environment but is yet to interrogate systemic issues. The issues of the environment may be important but they not urgent.
The Kenyan version of “electoral democracy” thrives in violent geographies.
Therefore, to muster the political will needed to implement real change is difficult in a country where leaders cannot think beyond the next election. There are no immediate political rewards for planning to avert a human catastrophe. In nature terms, no one wants to plant a tree under whose shade they won’t sit or whose fruit they won’t eat. Long-term benefits may accrue for others and that is just not smart business in this instant gratification culture where exploitation and extractation is a privatised enterprise.
It is this context that we have to broaden the idea of what violence is. Personal violence is a consequence of structural violence. Lack of basic resources leads to competition that degenerates into violence in the quest for dominance. Gangs in urban ghettos organise around resources that leverage power and influence. Public toilets, garbage collection, water points, electricity connection and security are centres of frequent conflict. Kenyans awake to the economic and political realities of the 80s and 90s can track back how the slow violence of neoliberal policies began as a benign condition known as Structural Adjustment Program.
Beyond counting and documenting the victims of slow daily violence, the Mathare Green Movement is conscripting nature’s healing powers to challenge and alleviate the long-term effects of and sustain attention towards social injustice causes. Those grassroots environmental activists that Wangari Maathai called “foresters without degrees” are at the forefront of plotting new futures, imagining new worlds and planting ideas of hope. Wangari Maathai underscored the need to keep environmentalism connected to global questions of human rights and social justice.
In a letter smuggled from a Nigerian jail, the writer-activist Ken Saro-Wiwa wrote: “The environment is man’s first right.” That notion seems to have been forgotten in urban ecologies and serves as a focal point in articulating the experiences of oppressed people who are rendered invisible in the national economy and silenced when they demand to be heard.
Seeds of peace
Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement brought a new discourse to the public consciousness, linking the slow violence of environmental degradation to its consequences, while at the same time proposing a public participatory methodology to advance environmental recovery. The Mathare Green Movement’s focus is young men facing the threat of extrajudicial executions who plant trees to reclaim lost life and dignify in the memory of peers labeled as criminal and forgotten after death.
The lesson of the Green Belt Movement is that poverty does not operate in a vacuum. Prof. Maathai’s brilliance was making clear the link between the collapse of the environmental economy and its support systems, on the one hand, and its revival as a strategy for eradicating poverty, on the other. She correctly diagnosed that corrupt exploitation of resources impacted vulnerable masses directly and insisted that environmentalism of the poor is inseprable from redistributive justice
Like the Green Belt Movement, the theatre of the tree gives the Mathare Green Movement a new vocabulary that is loaded with civic duty. Prof. Maathai called it “doing my little thing”. It is fitting that the new millennial generation of her disciples would emerge from Kenya’s marginalised urban spaces. Planting, not merely trees, but the seeds of life, healing, ideas, courage, hope and solidarity.
Prof. Maathai’s brilliance was making clear the link between the collapse of the environmental economy and its support systems, on the one hand, and its revival as a strategy for eradicating poverty, on the other.
The greening campaigns create the connection between environmental injustice and the erosion of social justice; the link between a healthy environment and quality of life. A tree has a right to grow to maturity, to fruit and bloom as every young life does in Mathare.
Planting trees in this spirit is more than a public relations exercise; it is work towards changing spaces so that they are less vulnerable to the elements and the forces that exploit the sense of deprivation. Importantly, it is the deliberate and conscious action of engaging in intergenerational optimism and responsibility, and accepting that we may never sit under the shade of the trees we plant.
Just as violence in Nairobi’s urban ghettos is continous and slow, so does healing through tree planting have to be a continous process. Urban reforestation that is people-centred is the primary symbolic vehicle for demanding ecological and social justice. The slow and deliberate effort of rehabilitating green spaces forces one to examine the systemic challenges that sustain these conditions. These young men choose to be eco-warriors, creating an enabling environment, restoring dignity and demanding the right to life from a state that minimises their existence. Wangari Maathai called it planting “seeds of peace” to stop the poverty profiling that disproportionately targets the poor. The existing structures of slow violence is why politicians consistently exploit the tensions in Nairobi’s slums during election cycles, easily igniting violence because below the surface, old antagonisms linger unresolved.
The Chipko movement, which originated in the Himalayan region of Uttar Pradesh in India in the 1970s, gained notoreity as a non-violent social and ecological movement whose members protected trees by hugging them to discourage loggers.
They are no trees to hug in Mathare. However, following in the footsteps of Wangari Maathai, the young people of Mathare will one day pass down trees of peace that stand for their right to security and protection from a state that terrorises its own citizens.
The lasting solution to ending direct and indirect violence against young lives is by adddressing the conditions that perpetuate the cycle of violence. Planting trees we must, but we can no longer fail to see the forest.
Is Democracy Dead or Has It Simply Been Hijacked?
10 min read. The rise of right-wing populist leaders in many countries across the globe suggests that democracy’s days are numbered. However, as PATRICK GATHARA argues, populism is less a cause of democracy’s demise than a consequence of it.
“Anyone can cook,” declares Chef Auguste Gusteau in the 2007 Pixar classic, Ratatouille, one of my favourite animated movies. The film tells the tale of an anthropomorphic French rat with a passion for haute cuisine, who against all odds, makes it from foraging in the garbage to cooking at a high-end restaurant and being declared “nothing less than the finest chef in France”. It is an inspiring story with valuable lessons about bravery, determination and following one’s dreams. Yet it comes with a caveat, as explained by the funereal critic, Anton Ego, at the end of the movie: “Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist can come from anywhere.”
Across the world today, democratic societies appear to have taken Gusteau’s maxim but not necessarily with Ego’s qualification. In Kenya, the death of popular Kibra MP, Kenneth Okoth, has occasioned a by-election in which the ruling Jubilee Party has fronted a professional footballer who has spent much of the last decade in Europe and who, until a few weeks ago, had never even registered to vote or expressed any interest in politics.
“The world is going the Wanjiku way,” Mike Sonko, the populist Governor of Nairobi declared recently on the Sunday show, Punchline. “Take the example of the Ukraine. The President of Ukraine is currently is a comedian. They voted for a comedian. Because the Wanjikus were fed up with the leadership of that country. They were fed up with the politicians…Go to Liberia. They elected a footballer to be their president. Madagascar for the second time have elected a DJ, Rajolina, to be their president”.
He is not wrong. From Donald Trump in the United States to Bobi Wine in Uganda, there seems to be a growing dissatisfaction with and distrust of career politicians and the nebulous “establishment”. In Kenya, this manifests in a contest between the so-called “dynasties” (the wealthy families that have dominated the country’s politics for nearly 60 years) and the “hustlers” (the political upstarts who claim to not be a part of the establishment). It is evident in the “handshake” between President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga, sons of Kenya’s first President and Vice President, respectively, and their open feud with Deputy President William Ruto, the self-declared head of the “hustler nation”.
The idea that “anyone can rule” is taken by many to be a cardinal tenet of democracy. At its root is a legitimate rejection of the old idea that the ability to govern was only bestowed on some bloodlines, which today has largely been consigned to history’s trash heap.
Yet this democratisation of governance has created fears of its contamination by the unwashed and uneducated masses. A famous quote from the early twentieth century US journalist, Henry Mencken, encapsulates these fears: “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” The quote is taken from Mencken’s piece originally posted in the Baltimore Evening Sun in July 1920 in which he rails against the candidacies of Republican Warren Harding and his rival, James Cox, for the US presidency, which he saw as proof of the tendency of democratic competition to result in a race to the bottom.
The idea that “anyone can rule” is taken by many to be a cardinal tenet of democracy. At its root is a legitimate rejection of the old idea that the ability to govern was only bestowed on some bloodlines, which today has largely been consigned to history’s trash heap.
“The first and last aim of the politician,” he wrote, “is to get votes, and the safest of all ways to get votes is to appear to the plain man to be a plain man like himself, which is to say, to appear to him to be happily free from any heretical treason to the body of accepted platitudes – to be filled to the brim with the flabby, banal, childish notions that challenge no prejudice and lay no burden of examination upon the mind.”
Arguing that “this fear of ideas is a peculiarly democratic phenomenon,” he goes on to assert that as politicians increasingly pander to electorates, then “the man of vigorous mind and stout convictions is gradually shouldered out of public life” and the field is left to “intellectual jelly-fish and inner tubes” – those without convictions and those willing to hide them.
Many recognise the fulfilment of Menckel’s prophecy in Donald Trump’s presidency, though it is notable that it had been applied to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush before him. However, it is clear that Mencken had a low opinion, not just of politicians, but of electorates as well. In fact, in his view, it is the ignorance and stupidity of the masses that, in a democracy, makes morons of politicians. And moronic politicians love ignorant voters as evidenced by Trump’s declaration during the 2016 presidential campaign: “I love the poorly educated.”
Menckel’s view is also echoed by a common maxim spuriously attributed to Winston Churchill: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” So, is the slide into populist idiocy the inevitable fate of democracy? Can anyone cook? Or is Ego right that while good governance can come from anywhere, not everyone can be a great leader?
“Democracy is hard,” notes Kenyan academic and author, Nanjala Nyabola. It “requires constant vigilance—something that we now see is difficult to achieve even under the most ideal circumstances.” For most voters, this constant vigilance is a tough ask. In fact, for most, getting to grips with the issues and personalities is not worth the hassle.
As Ilya Somin, Professor of Law at George Mason University, puts it, “If your only reason to follow politics is to be a better voter, that turns out not to be much of a reason at all… there is very little chance that your vote will actually make a difference to the outcome of an election.”
And that’s not all. Even if one were inclined to be immersed in the policy debates and to investigate candidate platforms, the sheer size of modern government and the scale and impact of its activities means that one could not hope to monitor more than a tiny fraction of what the state gets up to.
Since voters are unwilling to get their hands dirty, they take short cuts, which often means relying on someone else to tell them what’s going on in the kitchen. For instance, when asked, during the 2005 and 2010 referendum campaigns on a proposed new constitution, whether they had read the drafts, a section of Kenyan voters were reported to have responded with “Baba amesoma” (Father has read it). Baba is a reference to Raila Odinga, perhaps the best known politician in the country and the voters, many of whom had little knowledge of constitutionalism, were opting to take their cue from him. Others chose to follow the musings of pundits and other self-appointed “experts” or journalists or even comedians. The problem here, as with following politicians, is you do not know whether what you are getting is the truth, the real truth and nothing but the truth.
However, that turns out to be less of a problem than one might at first suppose. Truth (shock, horror!) is not always the reason one follows politics – or politicians. Prof. Somin notes that political supporters tend to behave very much like sports fans – less interested in the merits of arguments or how well the game is played than in whether their side wins. This is perhaps best illustrated by the phenomenon of electorates voting against their own interests. For example, in the US, older voters tend to support the Republican Party, which takes a dim view of government entitlement programmes like Medicare and Social Security that primarily benefit the elderly.
Since voters are unwilling to get their hands dirty, they take short cuts, which often means relying on someone else to tell them what’s going on in the kitchen. For instance, when asked, during the 2005 and 2010 referendum campaigns on a proposed new constitution, whether they had read the drafts, a section of Kenyan voters were reported to have responded with “Baba amesoma”.
Even the few neutrals out there tend to talk only to like-minded others or follow the game through like-minded media. In either case, there is little scope for voters to have their views challenged or their horizons expanded. As the former British Prime Minister put it, “The single hardest thing for a practicing politician to understand is that most people, most of the time, don’t give politics a first thought all day long. Or if they do, it is with a sigh… before going back to worrying about the kids, the parents, the mortgage, the boss, their friends, their weight, their health, sex and rock ‘n’ roll.”
A civic ritual
If voters don’t care about politics, why do they even bother to vote? According to Prof Somin, “The key factor is that voting is a lot cheaper and less time-consuming than studying political issues. For many, it is rational to take the time to vote, but without learning much about the issues at stake.”
Voting has thus become a civic ritual, much like going to a football game and cheering your favourite team. It provides the satisfaction of participation – one can brandish a purple finger as a marker of having fulfilled one’s duty without actually doing the hard work of wrestling with the issues. Voters pick their teams based less on ideas than on arbitrary considerations, such as ethnicity or place of birth.
The media exacerbates this trend in two ways; both in the content of their reporting and in the manner they do so. By far, the mainstream press is the most important avenue through which people access and organise information about what is happening in the world. Despite the growth of the internet, which has enabled many more people to get in on the act, news is still largely what the media says it is, whether it is an earthquake or a war in some far-off place or the latest tweet by Donald Trump.
However, as Prof Cas Mudde of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia writes, the media tends to report the news, rather than analyse and explain it. The addiction to scoops and “breaking news” and the competition to be first even when every outlet will have the story in the next few minutes and though social media means there is less attention paid to “trends behind the day-to-day news”. Further, in order to attract a larger audience and sell more advertising space or more newspapers, the media prioritises what is sensational over what is important and stays away from anything that cannot be reduced into a soundbite or squeezed into a two-minute news segment.
It also propagates and perpetuates false notions of “objectivity”, presenting itself as a reliable neutral observer rather than as an active participant. Yet through its curating and shaping functions, the media wields tremendous influence not only on how events unfold but also on how on they are perceived. Like a chef, the media takes events and fashions out of disparate events, to be served up to audiences in bite-sized chunks on its many channels.
Brought up on this fast news diet, Prof Somin says, voters come to “mistakenly believe that the world is a very simple place [requiring] very little knowledge to make an informed decision about politics”. And this leads to the embrace of simplistic panaceas for complex problems, and to a preference for populist politicians who deny complexity. If the world is so simple, then fixing it requires no specialised knowledge. Anybody can cook.
It is no wonder then that today there is a lot of angst about the state of democracy and fears that the ship of liberal democratic constitutionalism is floundering on the rocks of populism. The emergence of right wing populist governments and movements in countries as far removed as Brazil, Italy and the Philippines, and in Western countries once thought to hold the high ground for liberal democracy, such as the UK (which is steeped in a constitutional crisis over Brexit) and the US (where President Trump is facing an impeachment inquiry) has many thinking that democracy’s days are numbered.
William Galston has called populism an internal challenge to liberal democracy. Populists, he says, weaponise popular ignorance “to drive a wedge between democracy and liberalism”. Liberal norms, institutions and policies, they claim, weaken democracy and harm the people and thus should be set aside.
Brought up on this fast news diet, Prof Somin says, voters come to “mistakenly believe that the world is a very simple place [requiring] very little knowledge to make an informed decision about politics”. And this leads to the embrace of simplistic panaceas for complex problems, and to a preference for populist politicians who deny complexity.
Populism, though, is less a cause of democracy’s demise than it is a consequence of it. Democracy has been crumbling from within for a long time. Galston blames this on immigration which, he says, has not only upset the “tacit compact” between electorates and elites – where the former would defer to the latter as long as they delivered economic growth and prosperity – but has also profoundly challenged existing demographic and cultural norms, leaving many feeling dislocated in their own societies.
However, it is that compact that is at the root of the crisis, transforming as it does the understanding of democracy from a system where people participate in governance to one where they elect others to govern them. Further, the gnashing of teeth over historic decline in voter turnout blinds many to the fact that, like populism, it is also a symptom and not the problem.
As Phil Parvin notes in his paper, Democracy Without Participation, the decline in political engagement and deliberation by ordinary citizens and the eclipse of broad-based citizen associations by professional lobby groups have resulted in a model of democracy where “politics … is something done by other people on behalf of citizens rather than by citizens themselves”.
In Africa, the “wind of change” that toppled many dictatorships in the 1990s and early 2000s did not result in the empowerment of local populations to do anything other than participate in the ritual of periodic elections. Participation in governance in the periods in between elections is actively discouraged. Those who are dissatisfied with government policies are routinely told to shut up and await the opportunity to do something about it at the next election.
This model of democracy as reality show, where elites compete on who gets a turn at the trough (with the media providing a running commentary and the public choosing the winner) is at the root of the malaise. The professionalisation of democratic participation – outsourcing it to politicians and activists – leads to an increasing polarisation and tribalisation, with everyone claiming to be the authentic voice of the silent and silenced population. Alienation, as political debate focuses on the problems of elites rather than those of the people, becomes inevitable.
It is into this void that the populists have stepped, claiming to do away with the edifice of “the establishment” when in fact, they are seeking to entrench elite rule by doing away with even the appearance of popular consultation. This is what they mean when they evoke the idea of a “strong leader” – one who is not bound by the charade of democratic politics and can thus instinctively channel a pure form of the people’s will. But, as the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, says, this is to ignore the lessons of history. Strongmen, as Africans know from bitter experience, tend to reflect, not the aspirations of their people, but their own.
In Africa, the “wind of change” that toppled many dictatorships in the 1990s and early 2000s did not result in the empowerment of local populations to do anything other than participate in the ritual of periodic elections.
The solution may be to do away with elections altogether as a means for selecting decision-makers. In any case, what is required is not less popular participation, but more. We can no longer afford to continue to treat governance as something voters get to participate in once every election cycle, to pretend that democracy is a fire-and-forget proposition. Constant vigilance requires citizens at all levels willing to get their hands dirty, learn about issues, debate openly and engage with representatives – citizens who collectively insist on being heard and who demand accountability from those in power, not simply wait for someone else to do it on their behalf.
Paradoxically, the internet has dramatically lowered the costs of participation and it has never been easier for people to access information, to express opinions, to participate in petitions and to organise outside the parameters set by the elite or by the state. The question for societies with democratic aspirations should be how to make the voices and concerns of ordinary folks, rather than just their votes, count and not be drowned out by the din of elite politics. How do we truly get to the public interested in the ideal of “government of the people, by the people, for the people”?
How Corruption and Greed Are Destroying Africa’s Forests
8 min read. Africa is losing its forests at an alarming rate, yet the very forces that claim to be protecting them are responsible for their destruction.
“When elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.”
As the trade war between the world’s superpowers continues, the global South is the one getting the short end of the stick. The economy of most African countries depends on massive exportation of raw materials, usually controlled by large foreign companies. The exploitation of the local resources, such as wood, never seems to stop, even if massive deforestation in countries such as Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia is bound to have catastrophic economic and environmental consequences.
Who are the main (local and foreign) players behind the progressive loss of forested areas in East and South Africa? What are the causes and, more importantly, the effects of this apparently unstoppable exploitation of land on local economies and climate change? How much is corruption responsible for this devastation? Are there any virtuous players trying to staunch this wound, or is it just the usual Western hypocrisy that preys on the unavoidable dependence on “development aid”?
Land grabs and exploitation
The Western world’s hunger for African resources, including land, has only grown more intense due tp the increased demand for carbon and biofuels. The whole continent becomes more dependent on overseas trade day after day. Internal trade between African countries is extremely weak, and most of these countries are large importers of pricey finished goods and services provided by other global partners. Most African countries are exporters of raw materials that generate profit margins that are quite small on their own and are made even smaller by the fact that most of the lands where these goods are produced rest in the hands of large transnational companies.
In many countries, such as Ethiopia, the laws that regulate land leases have been extremely generous to foreign investors. The land is leased for negligible rents, especially in remote and sparsely populated areas, and the approval process for investment proposals is superficial at best. In exchange for an alleged economic return that in many cases never follows, national governments exempted foreign companies from repatriated profits on taxes and taxes on imports of capital goods. All these land grabs are notoriously unjust to the original inhabitants of these lands – usually small farmers and pastoralists who, in some cases, have even forcefully been evicted with the help of the army.
The largest African and global development institutions, such as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and the World Bank, always sold this process as a much-needed transformation to help the growth of less developed countries. The idea of shifting toward large-scale commercial exploitation of lands and resources has been presented as the perfect recipe to overcome the stagnation of African economies; a transformation that would bring progress, modernity, and riches to all the impoverished lands and populations of the global South. Now the whole continent has been integrated into the global trade system with a relationship of complete unilateral dependence, chained to the volatile prices of commodities, enslaved by continuous “development aid”, and bent under the weight of totally asymmetrical agreements.
The effects of foreign liberalism
The free market didn’t help low-income to countries flourish; the only economic effect was purely cosmetic in nature. The shift towards large-scale commercial exploitation of lands came with promises of better employment opportunities, improvement of existing infrastructure, new opportunities for development, knowledge transfer, and professional specialisation. We saw this happen elsewhere as well, such as in Central America – all these promises eventually turned out to be empty, and only resulted in more poverty, hunger, and unfair exploitation.
In a continent where the vast majority of the population depends on agriculture for a living, uncontrolled liberalisation is nothing but a recipe for disaster. Even the most developed nations of the West know the limits of free markets very well and keep sustaining their own farmers with generous subsidies.
In many countries, such as Ethiopia, the laws that regulate land leases have been extremely generous to foreign investors. The land is leased for negligible rents, especially in remote and sparsely populated areas, and the approval process for investment proposals is superficial at best.
For example, Ethiopia’s annual GDP growth rate kept increasing by nearly 9% between 2004 and 2014, but very few Ethiopians enjoyed the benefits of this growth. Nearly 80% of the population is still composed of farmers and pastoralists whose livelihoods are even more precarious than before after their land was impoverished – their income still incredibly low, at $0.14 per day in some areas. The rural population has been marginalised even further, and local labour is often hired only on a seasonal basis, leaving very little opportunities for the professional and economic growth of all these vulnerable households. Knowledge is kept in the hands of the Western professionals, and their investments on ameliorating the infrastructure are too minuscule to represent a valid trade-off.
This non-inclusive model largely depends on the constant flow of capital, which necessarily come from foreign investors, creating an unbreakable cycle of dependency. Technology-based land exploitation has caused the environment to be degraded, and has substituted traditional sustainable and labour-intensive agriculture with intensive use of fossil fuels, pesticides, and widespread deforestation. The loss of biodiversity of large-scale monocultures and the destruction of large forested areas weakened the ecosystems against unexpected weather changes and other natural disasters.
Deforestation and greed
The constant demand for crop and grazing land, as well as wood for fuel and construction, have a tremendous impact on soil conservation and weather management. Deforestation, in particular, is one of those problems that, if left unchecked, may cause a planetary disaster.
Africa’s tropical rainforests include the Guinean forests of West Africa and the Congo Basin, which comprise the second-largest forest cover in the world. However, according to Professor Abraham Baffoe, Africa regional director at Proforest, this immense “world’s set of lungs” is rapidly disappearing. At the beginning of the 20th century, Ethiopia’s forest coverage reached almost 40%. Year after year, almost 200,000 hectares of forest were lost; by 1987 it was reduced to just 5.5%, and in 2003 it had gone down to a mere 0.2%. According to Innovation for Poverty Action (IPA), between 2000 and 2010, Uganda lost forests at a rate of 2.6% every year. Over the last century, West Africa has lost almost 90% of forest coverage.
Losing forests has devastating effects on the indigenous population, the local ecosystem, and the global environment as well. Forests are critical to lowering carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, to stabilising the weather, and preventing soil erosion. Among the highest causes of carbon emissions from human activity, deforestation is the second after burning fossil fuels, accounting for approximately 20% of world greenhouse gas emissions.
Soil erosion alone may cause the drying of lakes, such as in the case of the three lakes in the Rift Valley that recently dried up. As the soil is massively washed into the lake, the water is pushed up to a larger surface and rapidly evaporates. Without water, droughts ensue, causing famine, starvation, and poverty.
An estimated 100 million African people rely on forests for support and finding freshwater, food, shelter, and clothing. Forests support biodiversity as well, and many plants and animals only exist in these regions. Without forests, many animal species, such as chimpanzees, are endangered since they can’t survive without their habitat, and entire towns are at risk of rainforest flooding.
Africa’s tropical rainforests include the Guinean forests of West Africa and the Congo Basin, which comprise the second-largest forest cover in the world. However, according to Professor Abraham Baffoe, Africa regional director at Proforest, this immense “world’s set of lungs” is rapidly disappearing.
But the ecological devastation caused by the alleged modernisation of agriculture is not the sole reason behind the massive deforestation occurring in Africa. African forests store 171 gigatons of carbon, and there is a wide range of different interests swarming around them. Everybody wants to put their hands on this gigantic loot, no matter the consequences for the local populations or climate change.
The frequent conflicts that ravage the continent take their toll on forests as well. For example, after the South Sudan crisis in December 2013, nearly one million refugees, mostly women and children, have sought shelter in nearby Ethiopia and Uganda. Once there, they started chopping wood to build their encampments and to fuel their stoves. This had a significant impact on local forests, according to experts.
The impact of corruption on deforestation
Corruption has a tremendous impact on global deforestation. With 13 million hectares lost each year, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has identified the illegal timber trade as one of the principal causes of forest loss. The estimated value of illegal forest activities accounts for more than 10% of the value of worldwide trade in wood products. And corruption in the forest sector may increase the cost of forestry activities by about 20%.
Most countries in Central and Western Africa that are particularly rich in forests and other resources score particularly low on the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), a global index of public sector corruption established by Transparency International. Without a transparent and democratic administration whose framework is built on solid ethical principles, the land rights of local communities and marginalised groups are constantly violated. In sub-Saharan Africa, one citizen in two had to pay a bribe to obtain a land service, such as registering land for his household.
The forest sector is especially vulnerable to grand and petty corruption activities because of the non-standardised but high-priced timber products and low visibility. Government officials often collude with powerful European, American, or Asian companies since they offer forest as a highly valuable commodity in exchange for power and money.
Many indigenous populations have no access to information and justice, cannot claim their rights, and have no chance but to bend the knee when land grabbing laws are enforced by corrupt governments. Foreign companies know how easy it is to violate national regulations and often do so with total impunity knowing that punishment would probably be very light. Funds generated from the profit of the forests are usually embezzled or siphoned out of the continent to be laundered through complex schemes of multi-layered shell offshore businesses. Money that could be invested in social services, jobs, and better infrastructure ends up being devoured by greedy officials, money-hungry corporations, and shady smugglers.
Reforestation and other plans to restore Africa’s forests
Luckily, not all is as bad as it seems. Ethiopia has just started a restoration process that includes a reforestation programme that should replace 22 million hectares of forests and degraded lands by 2030. Even better, in 2018, the government finally revised the National Forest Law to provide better recognition to the rights of local communities and acknowledge their importance in managing lands and crops. The new law also includes much more severe penalties for those who endanger forest ecosystems or who extend farming into natural forests.
Corruption has a tremendous impact on global deforestation. With 13 million hectares lost each year, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has identified the illegal timber trade as one of the principal causes of forest loss.
In Uganda, Project Kibale focuses on restoring the Kibale forest and has managed to restore 6,700 hectares of forest so far. On lands owned by subsistence farmers, the Community Reforestation project coordinates hundreds of small community-based tree planting, education, and training initiatives. Similar projects are in operation in Kenya as well, such as Carbon Footprint, B’n’Tree, WeForest, and the Green Initiative Challenge.
Although certainly commendable, many of these reforestation efforts simply seem to be a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. The core problems – corruption, grossly uneven distribution of power among players, and poorly-designed regulations – are not addressed at all. The handful of trees that get planted only help these parasites to get more wood to harvest in due time.
It can also be argued that many of these brave steps toward sustainability are nothing but green rhetoric spin for Western audiences. Wilmar’s hypocrisy, for example, was exposed back in 2015. The multinational of palm oil had abused human rights in Indonesia for years, expropriated lands with no qualms, polluted the environment, and destroyed crops and forest in large areas. After being named by Newsweek as “the world’s least environmentally-friendly company” in December 2013, the palm oil giant adopted a “no deforestation, no peat, and no exploitation policy” and became a champion of environmentalism. However, this was just window-dressing that was rapidly unmasked in subsequent years by NGOs in Uganda, Nigeria, and Liberia. The icing on the cake? In previous years, Wilmar was financed by none other than the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
When the rules are made by those who dominate the markets, globalisation becomes a source of profound inequalities. The blatant asymmetry in bargaining power between the global superpowers and the global South has all but abolished the few safety nets that national laws could provide. All the regions that are rich in resources and commodities are quickly transformed into no man’s lands where the indigenous populations become unwanted guests to be displaced. Entire ecosystems are ravaged and exploited, no matter the consequences. And when newer, fairer rules are established by a more ethical administration, they are rapidly dismantled by leveraging corruption and bribes.
The word “development” has been mentioned so many times that it is now empty and meaningless. Nonetheless, the only way to shift toward a more sustainable economic system is to focus on the real development of African countries. Reforestation is just palliative therapy that is trying to heal some of the wounds of an already terminally ill patient. Africa can flourish only through a more radical approach that allows Africans to grow, develop, and fully exploit the immense value of their enormous resources instead of leaving them in the hands of foreigners and global corporations.
The Persistence of Small Farms and the Legacy of the Monoculture Mindset in Kenya
12 min read. PAUL GOLDSMITH explores the evolution of agriculture policies in Kenya that failed to recognise the importance of smallholder farming, which has proved to be more resilient than large-scale agriculture projects.
I once drove up the eastern side of Mt Kenya with a manager working in the California horticulture industry. We passed through the Mwea irrigation scheme’s mosaic of rice plots and the smallholder coffee zone in Embu. After crossing the Thuchi River, we transited through the mix of tea farms, coffee plots, and patches of small fields of maize, pulses, and bananas framed by the heavy tree cover blanketing the hills and valleys. The Meru lowlands stretched out to the east, the miraa-dotted slopes of the Nyambene Hills loomed close as we approached Meru town. In the space of three hours we had transected one of the region’s most agriculturally variegated and productive landscapes.
Two days later we drove across the northern saddle of the mountain, leaving the smallholdings created by late colonial-era settlement schemes before cruising past the wheat fields of Kisima and Marania farms and their neighbours. The road carried us past the uniform blocks of horticulture farms and greenhouses stretching across the high plains of the mountain’s northwestern quadrant en route to Nanyuki. Over a plank of some insanely delicious beef at one of the town’s famous local nyama choma joints, my guest tells me she was impressed by the kick-ass agriculture she saw during our trip.
I remarked that we had crossed an area that produces the world’s best tea, some of the planet’s premier Arabica coffee, and the country’s most sought-after potatoes, French beans and other vegetables that grace European tables. I also informed her that we had skirted the range hosting Africa’s most sophisticated agroforestry system, home to the Horn region’s most prized Catha edulis.
“That’s interesting,” she said, clarifying that she was referring to “the area of proper farms we passed through this morning”.
Kenya’s agriculture generates approximately 24 per cent of the country’s GDP, 75 per cent of its industrial raw materials and 60 per cent of the country’s export earnings. Approximately 26 per cent of the earnings are indirectly linked to the sector through linkages to agro-based manufacturing, transport, and trade.
The sector is a major employer, with an estimated 3.8 million Kenyans directly employed in farming, livestock production and fishing, while another 4.5 million engaged in off-farm informal sector activities. Agriculture remains a key economic sector with significant unexploited potential for adding value through post-harvest processing.
The relationship between large-scale and small-scale producers in Kenya continues to evolve. Smallholder farmers generate the larger portion of overall agricultural value; large farms are still critical contributors to domestic food security and export production while pioneering new technologies and marketing arrangements.
Kenya’s agriculture generates approximately 24 per cent of the country’s GDP, 75 per cent of its industrial raw materials and 60 per cent of the country’s export earnings.
The economists and policy-setting bureaucrats at the World Bank and other important financial institutions, however, now question the small farm sector’s capacity to satisfy Africa’s future needs. The experts have tacitly supported the controversial trend of external investors’ acquisition of the continent’s underexploited land to develop capital-intensive plantations and ranches. Agricultural progress means big fields, straight lines, greenhouses, and large grids of sprinklers, as the comments of the manager reaffirmed.
The rise of monoculture
Assumptions about the superiority of large-scale agriculture have remained unchallenged since the migration of Europeans to the Americas, Asia, and Africa. They came, saw, conquered, and converted the wide open spaces they found into plantations producing sugar, cotton, rubber, tobacco, soybeans, and a long list of other crops for export to the industrial world.
When European diseases decimated the indigenous inhabitants in the New World, the planters plundered Africa to replace them. Steam powered the Industrial Revolution; colonial plantations and mines provided the raw materials. The textile mills of Lancashire generated the profits financing Great Britain’s global empire, and America’s South supplied the cotton.
Large-scale agriculture’s global hegemony grew out of military firepower, capital, technology and ruthless exploitation of labour, not superior crop and animal husbandry. The reign of King Cotton, for example, relied on increasing quantities of land and imports of African labour to compensate for rapid soil fertility decline. Southern land owners were poor farmers who added little value to the development of their agriculture beyond the use of the whip and the noose.
Class dynamics also contributed to the rise of the large commercial farm. The working conditions of the working-class adults and children working the looms was only marginally better than that of the slaves producing the fibre. Growing numbers of the freehold farmers in Europe who were driven off their land avoided this fate by crossing the Atlantic Ocean, attracted by the US government’s recruitment campaigns offering access to land. The industry of the displaced farmers powered the nation’s westward expansion. The American Civil War decided the contest over which system – freehold or plantation – would dominate in the virgin lands beyond the Mississippi River.
Large-scale agriculture’s global hegemony grew out of military firepower, capital, technology and ruthless exploitation of labour, not superior crop and animal husbandry.
The outcome was the same. Within several decades, the massive herds of bison were decimated and the indigenous inhabitants reduced to paupers on reservations. Science and technology came into play. The impressive advances generated by agronomic research and mechanisation extended the ascendency of commercial farms and plantations into the modern era. Economies of scale enabled by railways and the steamship extended the dominance of single commodity farming systems across the world.
Relegation of pre-industrial agricultural populations to the status of pre-scientific peasants preceded the imperial occupation of Africa. The Europeans established their plantations and large farms across the continent’s savanna and highlands. Like the colonialists before them, both capitalist and socialist governments’ rural policies were predicated on the need to introduce modern scientific agriculture. The choice was as basic as the difference between a tractor and a short handle hoe.
The Kenya conundrum
A matrix of physical, climatic, spatial, and social factors complicated the installation of large-scale agriculture production in Africa. Agriculture played a singular role in the development of the modern Kenyan economy, but commercial agriculture and ranching developed by European settlers are only partially responsible for the sector’s progress.
Free land and inexpensive labour facilitated the establishment of commercial farms during the early decades of colonial rule. Drought, locust invasions and crop losses to pests and wild animals, and to vector-borne diseases posed a serious challenge. The effects of the latter were minimised by quarantining the locals in native reserves and demarcating the band of ranches that ring-fenced the so-called White Highlands. Not all the white settlers survived; some left to start over in colonies to the south, but those who stayed on prospered with the assistance of the colonial state.
After World War I the government offered land concessions to war veterans boosting the population of approximately 6,000 white settlers in 1917 to 20,000 in 1936. This abetted the diversification of the new estate sector, which came to encompass coffee, tea, cattle, sisal, cotton, wattle, and other export commodities that sustained the colony’s finances. Expansion raised the demand for African labour while fueling frictions over land between settlers and their African neighbours. It also made managing settlement considerably more difficult for the government and civil servants in the countryside.
Indigenous producers evolved intricate mechanisms of adaptation and risk management to shifting environmental conditions and chronic climatic instability. The over 100,000 African squatters on European farms by 1947 demonstrated their resilience in new circumstances. Despite the restrictions they faced, they out-performed the owners in many ways. The surplus reinvested in livestock led to competition for pasture on the estates, and this prompted restrictions limiting the size of cultivated plots and the number of livestock the Africans were allowed to keep. The number of days of labour owed to the estates also increased over time, doubling from 90 to 180 days a year.
Dependence on native labour in effect led to the parallel development of two distinct large-scale and small-scale systems on the same landholdings at the same time. The contradictions inherent in this situation, combined with the political threat of the Mau Mau, forced a rethink that led to the Swinnerton Act in 1954, which opened the way for the production of export crops in the African reserves.
The sectoral duality generated by these developments has vexed Kenya’s agriculture policy ever since. Kenya gained independence committed to preserving the economic stability provided by the estate sector while satisfying the political expectations of its citizens. The latter translated into the transfer of settler lands under the Million Acre Scheme, support for the cooperative movement, and the deployment of small farmer extension services.
The structural inequalities symbolised by the contrast between the landed elite and the masses nevertheless fueled strident opposition to the Jomo Kenyatta government. Kenya’s status as an island of stability in a turbulent region encouraged international support for the development of schemes and projects mirroring a succession of theories and economic models debated by academics and institutional experts.
One critic of international development accurately described these interventions as policy experiments. Some worked and many did not. The funding flowed despite the repeated failures epitomised by the large agricultural projects dating back to the doomed Tanzania Groundnut Scheme. Attempts to rectify flaws in the Bura Irrigation Scheme, the world’s most expensive at the time, proved futile when the Tana River changed course.
How do we explain the failure to acknowledge the results of such “experiments”?
In a 1988 article, Goren Hyden attributed the syndrome to Africa’s monoculture legacy, which he defined as “mono-cropping in agriculture, single fixes in technology, monopoly in the institutional arena, and uniformity in values and behavior.” The rise of hegemonic economic monocultures, he went on to observe, are usually preceded by a period of competition and experimentation.
No such selectionary forces informed the large-scale solutions designed to alleviate Africa’s agriculture malaise. The continent’s initial conditions were different. The unique regional political economies of the precolonial era did not count. The formal protocols governing exchange among diverse communities were obsolete. The need to differentiate between size and scale did not apply.
Small as the new big
Africa’s lost decade highlighted the neglect of small-scale farmers. In an article in the same edited volume featuring Hyden’s monoculture legacy thesis, Christopher Delgado noted, “It is unlikely that more than 5 five cent of current African food production comes from large farms. A 3 per cent growth of productivity of smallholders would be equivalent to a 60 per cent growth of productivity on large farms.”
This point segued into the large body of empirical evidence marshalled in support of a new policy focus on the smallholder sector. But there was a problem, as he and other pro-smallholder analysts recognised: The high variability in conditions and circumstances within and across African countries complicated cost-effective delivery of the services, inputs, incentives, and infrastructure need for the interventions to pay for themselves.
One critic of international development accurately described these interventions as policy experiments. Some worked and many did not. The funding flowed despite the repeated failures epitomised by the large agricultural projects dating back to the doomed Tanzania Groundnut Scheme.
Asia’s breakthrough was an outgrowth of substantial international research supported by national research centres into two basic commodities. The same approach has not worked in Africa because technical enhancements need to contend with multiple crops systems, variations in soils, spatial differentials complicating access to water, markets, and service, local pests and diseases, transport and communications infrastructure, and political variables linked to ethnic constituencies, to name a few of the factors determining the productivity of small farmers.
Research attesting to the more efficient per capita and land unit output of small farms also indicated that there was still considerable scope for raising household incomes by enhancing the productivity of labour. The Kenyan government’s support for small-scale dairies, tea production, and the efficacy of extension services furnished proof. Like the case of colonial squatters before them, smallholder producers began outperforming the large farms and plantations.
Kenya and its bimodal policy frame was often cited as a success story at the time, but was this because government policy focused on concentrating the limited resources available in relatively fertile areas? The failure to replicate these successes further down the ecological gradient invoked a more complicated set of variables.
Other state-supported initiatives, such as smallholder cotton, floundered, and even a tested policy like fertilizer subsidies proved difficult to implement because the cost of delivering the input to small farm households often ended up cancelling out the benefits, especially during years when low rainfall or other external factors reduced output.
During the early 1980s Kenya’s agricultural sector reached the zenith of its development under state control. A matrix of factors, including lower prices and higher market uncertainty, declining civil service terms of pay, gradual closure of the agricultural land frontier, and the highest demographic growth rate in recorded history explain subsequent developments.
Institutional entropy set in. The food security problem became a full-blown national crisis around the same time as government mismanagement of strategic maize reserves exacerbated the impact of the 1984 famine. The food catastrophe marked a turning point, concretising the case for the structural adjustment policies that came into effect during the following years.
The donor-mandated policies included foreign trade liberalisation, civil service reforms, privatisation of parastatals, and liberalisation of pricing and marketing systems, which later involved relaxing control of government agricultural produce marketing and reforming cooperatives.
Increases in quality and efficiency tend to translate into lower commodity prices over time, and the same appeared to hold for institutional reforms. In any event, the policies designed to increase efficiency and decrease state involvement in the economy did not reverse the decline in agricultural production. Declining prices for traditional agricultural commodities and Africa’s terms of trade in general was seen as emblematic of a larger malaise stemming from poor governance and economic mismanagement in Kenya and other African countries.
Although most Kenyans blamed the Daniel arap Moi government, the less than creative destruction wrought by the penetration of capital and primitive accumulation by state-based actors was the real culprit responsible for the economic carnage that followed in its wake. The outcome was “a quasi-stagnant society” qualifying the observation Thomas Picketty offered in his 2014 book, Capital in the Twenty First Century: “wealth accumulated in the past will inevitably acquire disproportionate influence”.
In Kenya, the consequences included the revolt of smallholder coffee farmers in Nyeri, the burning of sugarcane fields in western Kenya, the collapse of cooperatives, an increase of subsistence production on small farms, the commercialisation of livestock raiding in the rangelands, and the rise of cartels that seized control of export commodities and local produce markets.
The situation in Kenya was symptomatic of the forces that eroded the impact of the pro-small-scale agriculture policy framework that had gained traction during the same period.
The release phase and agrarian transition
Subsequent developments in rural Kenya invite us to revisit Picketty’s choice of words in the observation cited above: the reference to “quasi-stagnant” is indicative of a larger dynamic. From an ecosystems perspective, the turbulence arising across Kenya’s agricultural sector and the hollowing-out of state institutions corresponds to the release phase in ecological cycles.
The role of forest fires that remove old growth, allowing regrowth and revival of species suppressed by the canopy of large trees, is the standard example used to illustrate the release function. In the context of human societies and other complex systems, it refers to transitional episodes in “an adaptive cycle that alternates between long periods of aggregation and transformation of resources and shorter periods that create opportunities for innovation.”
For present purposes we can equate Picketty’s quasi-stagnation with the onset of a transitional phase of reorganisation leading to renewal. Support for importation of large-scale capital-intensive agriculture to meet Africa’s future needs, in contrast, correlates with the old school ecological succession model. The degradation of rangelands resulting in the replacement of overgrazed grass and shrubs by less nutritious invasive species is a common example.
The African land grab by foreign investors now taking place in many sub-Saharan countries is in effect a case of replacement substituting for the adaptive processes underpinning indigenous African production systems. The government’s willingness to allocate large tracts of Tana Delta land as an incentive for foreign government investment in the LAPSSET mega-project is an example of this replacement strategy in Kenya.
I was part of a team that undertook a three-year study of commercial agricultural models in Ghana, Kenya, and Zambia. Initially motivated by the problem of large-scale agribusiness investments, the research design focused on three models: large commercial farms, plantations, and contract farming. The team’s general conclusion underscored the emergence of large- and medium-size commercial farms in the three countries.
Although most Kenyans blamed the Daniel arap Moi government, the less than creative destruction wrought by the penetration of capital and primitive accumulation by state-based actors was the real culprit responsible for the economic carnage that followed in its wake. The outcome was “a quasi-stagnant society”…
My personal take was slightly different, and although they may be particular to our Kenya research, two issues warrant mention. The first is the resilience of smallholder households in our surveys and life histories.
Without getting into the intricacies of the data, several factors support this. The time series data showed improved food security for most of the households sampled, and a corresponding decline in conflict over land: only one respondent complained about the ownership of the large farms and plantations in the area.
While the poorer families were hard-pressed to make ends meet, the diversification of income generation strategies indicate that even a small half-acre plot defrays the cost of food purchases while providing a base for participating in the rural economy.
High levels of mobility within the region and a general trend of reversed urban migration add further support to this point. For example, urban unemployment rates of 19.9 per cent for 2009 and 11.0 for 2014 per cent were about double of rural rates.
The process of consolidation underpinning the large farm formation across agro-ecological zones is underway, but it is slowed by the reluctance to sell land and a correspondingly high incidence of leasing land. This is also true for large holdings outside our Mt. Kenya research area, such as the Rift Valley, where owners are holding on by leasing out parcels to smallholders. The successful estates and horticultural firms have developed mutually beneficial links with their smallholder neighbours. This is based on outsourcing production, the sharing of technological innovations from the production of certified seed potatoes to electronic wallets facilitating rapid and verifiable payments to contract farmers, and multi-stakeholder participation in the management and conservation of water sources.
While the poorer families were hard pressed to make ends meet, the diversification of income generation strategies indicate that even a small half-acre plot defrays the cost of food purchases while providing a base for participating in the rural economy.
Our sample divided the household into two categories: those involved with the large commercial farms and those who remained independent. The scores for involved households were significantly higher for crop yields, fertilizer use, income, and most other variables. All of these observations attest to the synergies generated by the large-scale small-scale symbiosis that began to emerge during the final years of the colonial era.
This brings us to the second point – the enduring influence of the monoculture mindset. It resurfaces in the World Bank’s categorisation of both large and small organisational units’ contribution to the continent’s socio-economic transformation. Dualities deceive; learning by trial era works.
The elephantine LAPPSET project, the hallucinatory Galana-Kulala scheme, the government’s Big Four agenda, all suggest that the Chinese version is more of the same.
Written and published with the support of the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI) (www.routetofood.org). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.
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