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I Am Not Your Negro: The Cultural Problem in China’s Engagement With Africa

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The Middle Kingdom is failing to acknowledge the cultural and racial distance it still has to close with the continent. By OWAAHH

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THE CHINESE DEBT TRAP: A new form of colonialism?
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Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt ~ Sun Tzu, The Art of War

It was a small part of a big story. Easy to miss, yet significant in more ways than one.

At the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR)’s Miritini station, there is a bronze statue on a plinth. The statue is of the great Chinese explorer Zheng He, who travelled to the Kenyan coast in the 15th century. You’ve heard parts of his story, including how one of the ships in his mighty armada was wrecked. A few people survived and swam ashore to Pate Island, where they settled after killing a snake. But most travellers tend to assume that it’s a statue of Chairman Mao. With good reason. Mao is probably the second most recognisable Chinese man in Kenya after Jackie Chan.

But the story wasn’t even about Zheng He the man, but Zheng He the statue. Like everything about our new railway, this statue was made in China and shipped to the Kenyan coast. It was installed by Chinese sculptors. At the time, a group of Kenyan sculptors wondered why they weren’t considered for the job. Hidden within this labour and material question was a much deeper reality – that the Chinese economic conquest is nothing else but. Although it is radically altering the societies it is involved in, China is refusing to acknowledge the cultural distance it has to close. Not only that, China is also ignoring the histories and cultures of those societies, choosing instead a cultural journey that we’ve already been through (and not with good results) in the belief that everything must be made in China, with Chinese money, by Chinese people.

There are several things about the statue that reflect how China’s sees itself and the world it intends to conquer. One is that the Chinese have a racial superiority problem they refuse to acknowledge – not only openly, but even within. For them, racism is a Western problem. You’ve probably already heard the statement “China cannot be racist.” That, or seen the numerous press statements China and her companies have to send out almost every week defending themselves against claims of open racism.

The statue is not the only example of Chinese racism. Another is the signage. Where one could argue that the Zheng He statue was rightly made by China because he is their national hero, there was no such argument for the terrible translations. The notice “Hakuna kipenzi kuruhisiwa” next to the escalator, for example, was translated as “No pets allowed” instead of “No lovers allowed” (when actually it probably intended to say “No petting”). This was clearly a hilarious algorithmic mistranslation that went unnoticed until the signs were mounted. A single Kiswahili speaker, after laughing his or her heart out, would have helped avoid such an embarrassment.

There are several things about the statue that reflect how China’s sees itself and the world it intends to conquer. One is that the Chinese have a racial superiority problem they refuse to acknowledge – not only openly, but even within. For them, racism is a Western problem.

The confusion is not surprising. In China’s quest for global dominance, it has adopted a bland, business-like approach to soft power. Through a global network of Confucius Institutes, China tries to encourage the citizens of other countries to admire Chinese values. It doesn’t seek to adapt itself to those societies at all. It instead sees them in the same way Victorian Britain and her contemporaries saw Africa: as a land inhabited by uncivilised people in need of a model to aspire to. Just like the racism that drove European conquest of other continents, the Chinese believe they are the superior race. Somehow, in both contexts, black people form the base of the racial hierarchy.

China’s current soft power model is ignorant of the complexity of the post-colonial societies it is investing in. Any society seeking to impose its culture on the world should have a plan, at the very least. For the British, it was immolation of any preceding cultures or religions, and the imposition of replacements that sustained the racial hierarchies that were required to entrench their domination. We are still here a century later, albeit traumatised. On paper, China’s plan is simple: to loan money to poor countries to help them build things, not for their own prosperity, but for China’s. How this alters those societies, or how the cultural conquest to make the world Chinese is a foolhardy task, are not things that keep the Chinese up at night. Branded as a partnership rather than a conquest, it is thankfully secular, but the absence of a plan will undoubtedly complicate race relations. It already is.

Several recent events epitomise this. Earlier this year, a racist 13-minute skit aired on CCTV during the Lunar New Year. It had an audience of more than 700 million people. The plotline was something one would expect to see in old British movies about Africa in the 1930s. It featured a black actress, dressed as a train stewardess, who asks a Chinese man to pose as her husband so her mother can stop pestering her to marry. The man’s real wife then appears, but the mum has no problem because, as she shouts for all to hear “I love China!” Simple enough, but the actress playing the mum was Chinese. For her role she wore blackface, a fake chest, and an exaggerated fake posterior. She also had a basketful of fruits on her head, and was accompanied by a black man in a monkey suit. That no one saw the many things that were wrong in these choices shows just how little China has learnt about the history of race globally.

In 2017, an exhibition opened in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province. Titled “This is Africa”, it featured images of Africans juxtaposed with images of animals. The exhibition was closed after an outcry, but the curator defended it, saying that being compared to animals is a compliment in Chinese culture. What he left out is that in Sinology, the animals one would want to be compared with are very specific. The defence also ignored how black people would react to being compared to animals, given the negative history it triggers. It might as well have been a human zoo.

Another example, from 2016, was a detergent ad. A black man with dark paint on his face hits on a Chinese girl, who pushes detergent into his mouth and then pushes him into a washing machine. When he emerges, he is a fair-skinned Chinese man. Presumably, they live happily ever after. The commercial was copied from an Italian ad, which showed the reverse transformation: a scrawny white man transformed into a muscular black man.

China and her defenders were quick to claim that the CCTV skit was not racist. More than one official, including a diplomat in Nairobi, said that the outrage was an attempt by Western media “to drive a wedge between China and African countries”. The implication here is that because China doesn’t have a history of enslaving and colonising black people, it cannot be racist. But China does have a history of enslaving black people, and all its actions in the last two decades smell, walk, and quack like colonialism. 

***

The first black people to enter China were slaves, taken there by Arab traders around the second half of the first millennium. At first, the Chinese saw black people as strange, and added them to folklore as people descended from animals and who possessed magical powers. After these first interactions, black Africans entered Chinese folklore as knights-errant, but as times changed, they became “devil slaves”.

While darker skin Chinese could be “improved” in an economic sense that would raise their social hierarchy and hence, skin colour, these dark Africans could not be. This piece rightly notes that although China has not had as much a history of racism as the Western world, the idea of whiteness is about class rather than mere racial superiority. To the common Chinese, the writer notes, “Africa symbolises poverty; no money.” The Mandarin word for Africa, 非洲 (Feizhou / Fēizhōu) translates to “wrong continent”, or “no state”, or “nothing state”. Its etymology might point to the time when China was closed off to the world, but in a modern world it carries all the connotations of “The Dark Continent”, as reflected in some of the negative responses to the Black Panther movie. These ideas are also shaping Chinese pop culture; one 2017 blockbuster had all the hallmarks of a “white saviour and poor helpless Africans” story.

Chinese understanding of race is based on colourism within its own culture and history. Colourism and racism are different, although related. Colourism is discrimination based solely on skin colour and whatever stereotypes you choose to attach to it. Racism is a construct that often either starts with, or grows into, colourism.

In many societies, lighter skin is seen as a sign of material and social affluence. Among the Chinese and most East and South Asian societies, darker skin implies you are not wealthy enough to not work in the fields. It connotes poverty, while light skin is aspirational. For the Chinese, the racial hierarchy has them at the top, Manchuns and Europeans next, and Africans after whoever you want to add between them and Europeans. This view precedes communism and Mao, and defined how empires fostered cohesion and conquest in the centuries before.

Chinese understanding of race is based on colourism within its own culture and history. Colourism and racism are different, although related. Colourism is discrimination based solely on skin colour and whatever stereotypes you choose to attach to it. Racism is a construct that often either starts with, or grows into, colourism.

Although there are 56 ethnic groups in China, more than 90 per cent of China’s population is Han Chinese. This homogeneity, combined with cycles of conquest and insular pursuits, has worsened colorism. It has also blinded China to changes in how the rest of the world processes race.

As a people, the Chinese see nothing wrong with treating people they consider poor badly. This wouldn’t be a significant problem if it did not define how we do business together. Deals are unfair, unequal, expensive, destructive, and benefit no one but the Chinese. There’s no appreciation of the unique experiences of a society such as Kenya. The only thing China is worried about is its own survival. After Zheng He’s golden age of exploration, China closed itself off again.

The Ming Dynasty destroyed the entire naval fleet; for centuries, the reason offered was that the empire was distracted by excursions by the Mongols. But recent research shows that although the “barbarian” distraction was blamed, it was actually the social and economic shifts within Chinese society that triggered the fallback. Private wealth was disrupting the social hierarchies. During the Golden Age though, Malindi city-state had sent diplomats and gifts to China for two years, and Zheng He had been to the East African coast.

When China reemerged on the global scene after centuries of being an insular society, racism against black people was rife. The earliest African students in China in the 1960s and ‘70s were discriminated against. There were also widespread demonstrations against African students in late 1988 and early 1989 in Nanjing. The main issues included the contact between African men and Chinese women, similar to the “black peril” fears during the colonial decades. Among the solutions to the demonstration was a raft of policies that placed a race-specific night-time curfew, as well as access limits to Chinese girlfriends. Within modern China, there is a growing xenophobia against black Africans, despite official denials. There have been instances, such as a protest in Guangzhou in 2009 after continued police harassment. Africans living in China have also written about being called things like “hei gui” (black devil) and being assumed to be criminals. There has also been racism in Chinese football.

Societies process colour and race differently. A recent example is the reaction to Albert Einstein’s 1922/3 travel diary where he made what, to the modern reader, are racist observations about the Chinese. To the West, the celebrated genius finally had (another) kink in his shining armour; he was a racist. There was the usual sense of shame and catharsis that comes from people in atonement when they recognise what they believe to be wrong in their heroes, based on the realities today. Einstein describes the Chinese as “spiritless” and “peculiar”, adding that “it would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races. For the likes of us the mere thought is unspeakably dreary.”

For the Chinese though, Einstein wasn’t being racist. For them, he was just recording what he saw, and he kept true to it. That Einstein said he found their “houses very formulaic, balconies like bee-hive cells” wasn’t a racist view. Or when he (rightly, when you think about it) wrote that China was a “peculiar herd-like nation” that would one day take over the world. To the modern Chinese in a period of prosperity, in a driven society that only looks back to learn business lessons and not reflect enough, the past is factual, and if the facts are right, then that’s that.

A big part of how China is experiencing blackness (as a concept) now is that which is filtered by the West, especially by Hollywood, or by its own government. In the Black Panther case, marketers were afraid a movie with a majority black cast wouldn’t do well in the second biggest movie market. But they were wrong, which might point more towards the curiosity of a culturally insular people to people different from them than to an appreciation of black people. The social interactions are already shaping China’s inevitable diversity explosion. An example is the marriage between a Chinese man and a Cameroonian woman, which has become an online sensation within the Chinese corner of the web.

***

In much the same way that black skin connotes poverty to the common Chinese, fair skin connotes wealth to the common Kenyan. One example was a photograph of a Chinese man selling roasted maize in Nairobi. The image went viral in 2012, and often had captions, such as the “Chinese invasion” of the informal economy. That same year, there was a protest in Nairobi on the same issue, where one protester said, “The Chinese must go. Let them come and build roads.” It was a response to the increasing number not just of cheap Chinese products in the market, but Chinese businessmen in the informal economy. This has happened before, but when it did, Kenya didn’t exist as an independent country. The Indian labourers who first came to build the railway at the end of the 19th century set up dukas and businesses, and became the middle race in the British colonial hierarchy. As loosely connected networks of related cultures, even Indians today are accused of racism against black people.

China cannot ignore that while they went through centuries of being insular, Africa went through radical transformation. It went through slavery, civil wars, colonial conquest, liberation wars, independence, coups, and democratic revolutions. Its sons and daughters were shackled and taken across seas. They were kept in human zoos and others sent to the cotton fields. At home, millions were caged in concentration camps by people with lighter skin, and killing a black person was considered pretty much the same as killing an animal. When the first white man was being hanged in Kenya, the white community here couldn’t believe one of their own was dying for killing a black man who had thrown stones at his dog. That was in the 1950s, and I am not sure Kenya hanged any other white man until it unofficially suspended executions in 1987.

This history is conveniently forgotten, at least officially. Perhaps the hope is that it will fade into the background, which is impossible. Ignoring the issues of race is essentially also ignoring the issues of class that colonialism built. Even worse, it is downplaying the fact that the debt model China is using is worsening, not helping, the glaring inequality in African countries. As China seeks to transfer its surplus capacity to Africa, it has not only skewed competition and stifled formal markets, but it is also seeking dominance over the informal sector as well. There are small-scale Chinese businesspeople even in agriculture, raising the chances of a new xenophobia.

Since Kenyan elites are personally benefitting from this newfound love with China, they are willing to ignore China’s negative impact on Kenyan society. They are also unwilling to seek any leverage with China that would hurt their pockets. Their hope is that the same way that the Uganda Railway built a country, the new SGR will set Kenya off to a new future. But in its months of operations, and even before, it’s become clear that the railway is a white elephant – a white elephant that barely grows the Kenyan economy because it was made for China. The Chinese built it for the same reason slavers scoured the landscape in caravans, and the British built a railway – to steal from people who they believed to be lesser than them.

***

Unlike the 19th century conquests, when our ancestors were caught mostly unaware of the global order, we are living in a time when we can see it in motion. The Kenyans alive from 1895 all the way to the mid-1960s experienced institutionalized racism. It was ingrained in their psyche that lighter skin was better than darker skin. Our cultural experience has been with the West, hence even a significant part of how we process cultural problems like racism is influenced by the Western catharsis on race issues. For China, as a society united on the basis of being superior to everyone else, this presents an opportunity – one that has become roads and bridges and railways. Buildings and disappearing ports. An opportunity driven by debt, the promise of a future built, funded, and owned by the Chinese.

Since Kenyan elites are personally benefitting from this newfound love with China, they are willing to ignore China’s negative impact on Kenyan society. They are also unwilling to seek any leverage with China that would hurt their pockets. Their hope is that the same way that the Uganda Railway built a country, the new SGR will set Kenya off to a new future.

China’s claims that the Western media is trying to drive a wedge (which it is) between Sino-African relations portray blackness as a point of contention only between white people and Asians. It feels as if black people are kids being discussed, or fought over, in a room by adults. It’s clear in the one-size-fits-all approach to infrastructure projects, where instead of adopting cultural elements to infrastructure projects, China prefers its own model. When it has to translate signage to local languages, it chooses algorithmic translations to human interaction. It also prefers its own professionals and, in most instances, blue-collar workers. With little leverage, economies such as Kenya have acquiesced, choosing to ignore the damage this is doing to the same societies it should be uplifting.

For our new creditors, the Chinese, this reality only exists in conversations they have nothing to do with. For them, blessed as they are with significant ethnic homogeneity and more used to social hierarchy based on class, there’s no need to atone if you treat others differently simply because they are poor. That they happen to be black is actually secondary. And for a business society built to work like the parts of a factory, what matters are emotions based on facts.

The blindness of the Chinese to their own racism presents a chance to the West to reconnect with us – to shift us back from “facing East”, which we only viewed through the lens of economic prosperity, not the cultural challenges. This 2013 study epitomises the Western perspective of Chinese racism and African experience with anti-racism. In this global chess match, we are the piece, the pawns and the merchandise. And that presents itself as a challenge when we have mortgaged our economies and, therefore, the basis of our cultural cohesion as a nation-state. Instances of racism that belong to a time long past are back in the news, but we are processing them differently from those who are racist against us.

For our new creditors, the Chinese, this reality only exists in conversations they have nothing to do with. For them, blessed as they are with significant ethnic homogeneity and more used to social hierarchy based on class, there’s no need to atone if you treat others differently simply because they are poor. That they happen to be black is actually secondary.

By this point, you must be wondering why I haven’t mentioned the most recent cases. I don’t think I need to. At least not about Liu Jiaqi, who confidently and without flinching said, “I don’t belong to here. I don’t like here, like monkey people, I don’t like talk with them, it smells bad, and poor, and foolish, and black. I don’t like them. Why not [like] the white people, like the American?” Or the many other instances, such as the restaurant in Nairobi that refused service to blacks after 5pm. Or the racism, discrimination, and emotional abuse experienced by those not just working at the SGR, but at almost every Chinese-owned or run business in the country. We can’t deport all our Chinese visitors (because we owe them money), but we must remind them that if nothing else, we will not sit and become second-class citizens simply because we happen to be born black.

How should we experience this, as African societies who have been at the bottom of almost every global socio-political hierarchy in recent history? Do we think of ourselves as a global force? Are we proud to be black because we are beautiful, or because we are reacting to those who say we are not? We see ourselves through how others see us, and thus accept this reality unless it directly affects us. Or we have learnt to acknowledge that it is wrong and untenable.

If we didn’t know it yet, here’s the truth. There’s no cultural exchange happening with the Chinese. While their economic conquest is in full gear, it is ripping the fabric of our societies in its wake. Instead of processing this new reality, however, we are reacting in real time, with no real plan. It is not the work of the oppressed to understand the oppressor, but because we still don’t see China as a new conqueror, and we live in a time of forced self-reflection, we might need to. How many more Chinese people can we deport for racism, insults, and being uncouth before we realise the problem is not just with individuals involved? The other side does actually see as stupid, pliable, poor, animal-like lesser beings.

If we didn’t know it yet, here’s the truth. There’s no cultural exchange happening with the Chinese. While their economic conquest is in full gear, it is ripping the fabric of our societies in its wake. Instead of processing this new reality, however, we are reacting in real time, with no real plan.

When we turned East, we should have restarted a conversation we’d already had. That we Kenyans, as a diverse country of mostly dark-skinned people, are deserving of respect as human beings. That we are proud to be black, and we will not accept to be enslaved again or to be made to feel like lesser human beings. There’s enough to worry about as a Kenyan in 2018 without having to deal with yet another group of people who think that because we have less than they do, we can’t think for ourselves. But this conversation needs to start from within, by acknowledging that we are a proud society with diverse cultures, a colourful history, and world-class artisans who are capable of making a statue.

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Owaahh is the pseudonym of a blogger based in Nairobi

Politics

Stealth Game: “Community” Conservancies and Dispossession in Northern Kenya

The fortress conservation model, created with support from some of the world’s biggest environmental groups and western donors, has led to land dispossession, militarization, and widespread human rights abuses.

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Stealth Game: “Community” Conservancies and Dispossession in Northern Kenya
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With its vast expanses and diversity of wildlife, Kenya – Africa’s original safari destination – attracts over two million foreign visitors annually. The development of wildlife tourism and conservation, a major economic resource for the country, has however been at the cost of local communities who have been fenced off from their ancestral lands. Indigenous communities have been evicted from their territories and excluded from the tourist dollars that flow into high-end lodges and safari companies.

Protected areas with wildlife are patrolled and guarded by anti-poaching rangers and are accessible only to tourists who can afford to stay in the luxury safari lodges and resorts. This model of “fortress conservation” – one that militarizes and privatizes the commons – has come under severe criticism for its exclusionary practices and for being less effective than the models where local communities lead and manage conservation activities.

One such controversial model of conservation in Kenya is the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT). Set up in 2004, the NRT’s stated goal is “changing the game” on conservation by supporting communities to govern their lands through the establishment of community conservancies.

Created by Ian Craig, whose family was part of the elite white minority during British colonialism, the NRT’s origins date back to the 1980s when his family-owned 62,000-acre cattle ranch was transformed into the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Since its founding, the NRT has set up 39 conservancies on 42,000 square kilometres (10,378,426 acres) of land in northern and coastal Kenya – nearly 8 per cent of the country’s total land area.

The communities that live on these lands are predominantly pastoralists who raise livestock for their livelihoods and have faced decades of marginalization by successive Kenyan governments. The NRT claims that its goal is to “transform people’s lives, secure peace and conserve natural resources.”

However, where the NRT is active, local communities allege that the organization has dispossessed them of their lands and deployed armed security units that have been responsible for serious human rights abuses. Whereas the NRT employs around 870 uniformed scouts, the organization’s anti-poaching mobile units, called ‘9’ teams, face allegations of extrajudicial killings and disappearances, among other abuses. These rangers are equipped with military weapons and receive paramilitary training from the Kenyan Wildlife Service Law Enforcement Academy and from 51 Degrees, a private security company run by Ian Craig’s son, Batian Craig, as well as from other private security firms. Whereas the mandate of NRT’s rangers is supposed to be anti-poaching, they are routinely involved in policing matters that go beyond that remit.

Locals allege that the NRT compels communities to set aside their best lands for the exclusive use of wildlife.

Locals have alleged the NRT’s direct involvement in conflicts between different ethnic groups, related to territorial issues and/or cattle raids. Multiple sources within the impacted communities, including members of councils of community elders, informed the Oakland Institute that as many as 76 people were killed in the Biliqo Bulesa Conservancy during inter-ethnic clashes, allegedly with the involvement of the NRT. Interviews conducted by the Institute established that 11 people have been killed in circumstances involving the conservation body. Dozens more appear to have been killed by the Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) and other government agencies, which have been accused of abducting, disappearing, and torturing people in the name of conservation.

Over the years, conflicts over land and resources in Kenya have been exacerbated by the establishment of large ranches and conservation areas. For instance, 40 per cent of Laikipia County’s land is occupied by large ranches, controlled by just 48 individuals – most of them white landowners who own tens of thousands of acres for ranching or wildlife conservancies, which attract tourism business as well as conservation funding from international organizations.

Similarly, several game reserves and conservancies occupy over a million acres of land in the nearby Isiolo County. Land pressure was especially evident in 2017 when clashes broke out between private, mostly white ranchers, and Samburu and Pokot herders over pasture during a particularly dry spell.

But as demonstrated in the Oakland Institute’s report Stealth Game, the events of 2017 highlighted a situation that has been rampant for many years. Local communities report paying a high price for the NRT’s privatized, neo-colonial conservation model in Kenya. The loss of grazing land for pastoralists is a major challenge caused by the creation of community conservancies. Locals allege that the NRT compels communities to set aside their best lands for the exclusive use of wildlife in the name of community conservancies, and to subsequently lease it to set up tourist facilities.

Although terms like “community-driven”, “participatory”, and “local empowerment” are extensively used by the NRT and its partners, the conservancies have been allegedly set up by outside parties rather than the pastoralists themselves, who have a very limited role in negotiating the terms of these partnerships. According to several testimonies, leverage over communities occurs through corruption and co-optation of local leaders and personalities as well as the local administration.

A number of interviewees allege intimidation, including arrests and interrogation of local community members and leaders, as tactics routinely used by the NRT security personnel. Furthermore, the NRT is involved not just in conservation but also in security, management of pastureland, and livestock marketing, which according to the local communities, gives it a level of control over the region that surpasses even that of the Kenyan government. The NRT claims that these activities support communities, development projects, and help build sustainable economies, but its role is criticized by local communities and leaders.

In recent years, hundreds of locals have held protests and signed petitions against the presence of the NRT. The Turkana County Government expelled the NRT from Turkana in 2016; Isiolo’s Borana Council of Elders (BCE) and communities in Isiolo County and in Chari Ward in the Biliqo Bulesa Conservancy continue to challenge the NRT. In January 2021, the community of Gafarsa protested the NRT’s expansion into the Gafarsa rangelands of Garbatulla sub-county. And in April 2021, the Samburu Council of Elders Association, a registered institution representing the Samburu Community in four counties (Isiolo, Laikipia, Marsabit and Samburu), wrote to international NGOs and donors asking them to cease further funding and to audit the NRT’s donor-funded programmes.

A number of interviewees allege intimidation, including arrests and interrogation of local community members and leaders, as tactics routinely used by the NRT security personnel.

At the time of the writing of the report, the Oakland Institute reported that protests against the NRT were growing across the region. The organization works closely with the KWS, a state corporation under the Ministry of Wildlife and Tourism whose mandate is to conserve and manage wildlife in Kenya. In July 2018, Tourism and Wildlife Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala, appointed Ian Craig and Jochen Zeitz to the KWS Board of Trustees. The inclusion of Zeitz and Craig, who actively lobby for the privatization of wildlife reserves, has been met with consternation by local environmentalists. In the case of the NRT, the relationship is mutually beneficial – several high-ranking members of the KWS have served on the NRT’s Board of Trustees.

Both the NRT and the KWS receive substantial funding from donors such as USAID, the European Union, and other Western agencies, and champion corporate partnerships in conservation. The KWS and the NRT also partner with some of the largest environmental NGOs, including The Nature Conservancy (TNC), whose corporate associates have included major polluters and firms known for their negative human rights and environmental records, such as Shell, Ford, BP, and Monsanto among others. In turn, TNC’s Regional Managing Director for Africa, Matt Brown, enjoys a seat at the table of the NRT’s Board of Directors.

Stealth Game also reveals how the NRT has allegedly participated in the exploitation of fossil fuels in Kenya. In 2015, the NRT formed a five-year, US$12 million agreement with two oil companies active in the country – British Tullow Oil and Canadian Africa Oil Corp – to establish and operate six community conservancies in Turkana and West Pokot Counties.

The NRT’s stated goal was to “help communities to understand and benefit” from the “commercialisation of oil resources”. Local communities allege that it put a positive spin on the activities of these companies to mask concerns and outstanding questions over their environmental and human rights records.

The NRT, in collaboration with big environmental organizations, epitomizes a Western-led approach to conservation that creates a profitable business but marginalizes local communities who have lived on these lands for centuries.

Despite its claims to the contrary, the NRT is yet another example of how fortress conservation, under the guise of “community-based conservation”, is dispossessing the very pastoralist communities it claims to be helping – destroying their traditional grazing patterns, their autonomy, and their lives.

The  Constitution of Kenyan  2010 and the 2016 Community Land Act recognize community land as a category of land holding and pastoralism as a legitimate livelihood system. The Act enables communities to legally register, own, and manage their communal lands. For the first three years, however, not a single community in Kenya was able to apply to have their land rights legally recognized. On 24 July 2019, over 50 representatives from 11 communities in Isiolo, Kajiado, Laikipia, Tana River, and Turkana counties were the first to attempt to register their land with the government on the basis of the Community Land Act. The communities were promised by the Ministry of Land that their applications would be processed within four months. In late 2020, the Ministry of Lands registered the land titles of II Ngwesi and Musul communities in Laikipia.

The others are still waiting to have their land registered. In October 2020, the Lands Cabinet Secretary was reported saying that only 12 counties have submitted inventories of their respective unregistered community lands in readiness for the registration process as enshrined in the law.

Community members interviewed by the Oakland Institute in the course of its research repeatedly asked for justice after years of being ignored by the Kenyan government and by the police when reporting human rights abuses and even killings of family members. The findings reported in Stealth Game require an independent investigation into the land-related grievances around all of the NRT’s community conservancies, the allegations of involvement of the NRT’s rapid response units in inter-ethnic conflict, as well as the alleged abuses and extrajudicial killings.

Pastoralists have been the custodians of wildlife for centuries – long before any NGO or conservation professionals came along. While this report focuses on the plight of the Indigenous communities in Northern Kenya, it is a reality that is all too familiar to indigenous communities the world over. In far too many places, national governments, private corporations, and large conservation groups collude in the name of conservation, not just to force Indigenous groups off their land, but to force them out of existence altogether.

Pastoralists have been the custodians of wildlife for centuries – long before any NGO or conservation professionals came along.

The latest threat comes from the so-called “30×30 initiative”, a plan under the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity that calls for 30 per cent of the planet to be placed in protected areas – or for other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs) –  by 2030.

The Oakland Institute’s report, Stealth Game, makes it clear that fortress conservation must be replaced by Indigenous-led conservation efforts in order to preserve the remaining biodiversity of the planet while respecting the interests, rights, and dignity of the local communities.

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Politics

Nashulai – A Community Conservancy With a Difference

Before Nashulai, Maasai communities around the Mara triangle were selling off their rights to live and work on their land, becoming “conservation refugees”.

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Nashulai – A Community Conservancy With a Difference
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The Sekenani River underwent a mammoth cleanup in May 2020, undertaken by over 100 women living in the Nashulai Conservancy area. Ten of the 18 kilometres of fresh water were cleaned of plastic waste, clothing, organic material and other rubbish that presented a real threat to the health of this life source for the community and wildlife. The river forms part of the Mara Basin and goes on to flow into Lake Victoria, which in turn feeds the River Nile.

The initiative was spearheaded by the Nashulai Conservancy — the first community-owned conservancy in the Maasai Mara that was founded in 2015 — which also provided a daily stipend to all participants and introduced them to better waste management and regeneration practices. After the cleanup, bamboo trees were planted along the banks of the river to curb soil erosion.

You could call it a classic case of “nature healing” that only the forced stillness caused by a global pandemic could bring about. Livelihoods dependent on tourism and raising cattle had all but come to a standstill and people now had the time to ponder how unpredictable life can be.

“I worry that when tourism picks up again many people will forget about all the conservation efforts of the past year,” says project officer Evelyn Kamau. “That’s why we put a focus on working with the youth in the community on the various projects and education. They’ll be the key to continuation.”

Continuation in the broader sense is what Nashulai and several other community-focused projects in Kenya are working towards — a shift away from conservation practices that push indigenous people further and further out of their homelands for profit in the name of protecting and celebrating the very nature for which these communities have provided stewardship over generations.

A reckoning

Given the past year’s global and regional conversations about racial injustice, and the pandemic that has left tourism everywhere on its knees, ordinary people in countries like Kenya have had the chance to learn, to speak out and to act on changes.

Players in the tourism industry in the country that have in the past privileged foreign visitors over Kenyans have been challenged. In mid-2020, a poorly worded social media post stating that a bucket-list boutique hotel in Nairobi was “now open to Kenyans” set off a backlash from fed-up Kenyans online.

The post referred to the easing of COVID-19 regulations that allowed the hotel to re-open to anyone already in the country. Although the hotel tried to undertake damage control, the harm was already done and the wounds reopened. Kenyans recounted stories of discrimination experienced at this particular hotel including multiple instances of the booking office responding to enquiries from Kenyan guests that rooms were fully booked, only for their European or American companions to call minutes later and miraculously find there were in fact vacancies. Many observed how rare it was to see non-white faces in the marketing of certain establishments, except in service roles.

Another conversation that has gained traction is the question of who is really benefiting from the conservation business and why the beneficiaries are generally not the local communities.

Kenyan conservationist and author Dr Mordecai Ogada has been vocal about this issue, both in his work and on social media, frequently calling out institutions and individuals who perpetuate the profit-driven system that has proven to be detrimental to local communities. In The Big Conservation Lie, his searing 2016 book co-authored with conservation journalist John Mbaria, Ogada observes, “The importance of wildlife to Kenya and the communities here has been reduced to the dollar value that foreign tourists will pay to see it.” Ogada details the use of coercion tactics to push communities to divide up or vacate their lands and abandon their identities and lifestyles for little more than donor subsidies that are not always paid in full or within the agreed time.

A colonial hangover

It is important to note that these attitudes, organizations and by extension the structure of safari tourism, did not spring up out of nowhere. At the origin of wildlife safaris on the savannahs of East Africa were the colonial-era hunting parties organised for European aristocracy and royalty and the odd American president or Hollywood actor.

Theodore Roosevelt’s year-long hunting expedition in 1909 resulted in over 500 animals being shot by his party in Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, many of which were taken back to be displayed at the Smithsonian Institute and in various other natural history museums across the US. Roosevelt later recounted his experiences in a book and a series of lectures, not without mentioning the “savage” native people he had encountered and expressing support for the European colonization project throughout Africa.

Much of this private entertaining was made possible through “gifts” of large parcels of Kenyan land by the colonial power to high-ranking military officials for their service in the other British colonies, without much regard as to the ancestral ownership of the confiscated lands.

At the origin of wildlife safaris on the savannahs of East Africa were the colonial-era hunting parties organised for European aristocracy and royalty.

On the foundation of national parks in the country by the colonial government in the 1940s, Ogada points out the similarities with the Yellowstone National Park, “which was created by violence and disenfranchisement, but is still used as a template for fortress conservation over a century later.” In the case of Kenya, just add trophy hunting to the original model.

Today, when it isn’t the descendants of those settlers who own and run the many private nature reserves in the country, it is a party with much economic or political power tying local communities down with unfair leases and sectioning them off from their ancestral land, harsh penalties being applied when they graze their cattle on the confiscated land.

This history must be acknowledged and the facts recognised so that the real work of establishing a sustainable future for the affected communities can begin. A future that does not disenfranchise entire communities and exclude them or leave their economies dangerously dependent on tourism.

The work it will take to achieve this in both the conservation and the wider travel industry involves everyone, from the service providers to the media to the very people deciding where and how to spend their tourism money and their time.

Here’s who’s doing the work

There are many who are leading initiatives that place local communities at the centre of their efforts to curb environmental degradation and to secure a future in which these communities are not excluded. Some, like Dr Ogada, spread the word about the holes in the model adopted by the global conservation industry. Others are training and educating tourism businesses in sustainable practices.

There are many who are leading initiatives that place local communities at the centre of their efforts to curb environmental degradation.

The Sustainable Travel and Tourism Agenda, or STTA, is a leading Kenyan-owned consultancy that works with tourism businesses and associations to provide training and strategies for sustainability in the sector in East Africa and beyond. Team leader Judy Kepher Gona expresses her optimism in the organization’s position as the local experts in the field, evidenced by the industry players’ uptake of the STTA’s training programmes and services to learn how best to manage their tourism businesses responsibly.

Gona notes, “Today there are almost 100 community-owned private conservancies in Kenya which has increased the inclusion of communities in conservation and in tourism” — which is a step in the right direction.

The community conservancy

Back to Nashulai, a strong example of a community-owned conservancy. Director and co-founder Nelson Ole Reiya who grew up in the area began to notice the rate at which Maasai communities around the Mara triangle were selling or leasing off their land and often their rights to live and work on it as they did before, becoming what he refers to as “conservation refugees”.

In 2016, Ole Reiya set out to bring together his community in an effort to eliminate poverty, regenerate the ecosystems and preserve the indigenous culture of the Maasai by employing a commons model on the 5,000 acres on which the conservancy sits. Families here could have sold their ancestral land and moved away, but they have instead come together and in a few short years have done away with the fencing separating their homesteads from the open savannah. They keep smaller herds of indigenous cattle and they have seen the return of wildlife such as zebras, giraffes and wildebeest to this part of their ancient migratory route. Elephants have returned to an old elephant nursery site.

In contrast to many other nature reserves and conservancies that offer employment to the locals as hotel staff, safari guides or dancers and singers, Nashulai’s way of empowering the community goes further to diversify the economy by providing skills and education to the residents, as well as preserving the culture by passing on knowledge about environmental awareness. This can be seen in the bee-keeping project that is producing honey for sale, the kitchen gardens outside the family homes, a ranger training programme and even a storytelling project to record and preserve all the knowledge and history passed down by the elders.

They keep smaller herds of indigenous cattle and they have seen the return of wildlife such as zebras, giraffes and wildebeest to this part of their ancient migratory route.

The conservancy only hires people from within the community for its various projects, and all plans must be submitted to a community liaison officer for discussion and a vote before any work can begin.

Tourism activities within the conservancy such as stays at Oldarpoi (the conservancy’s first tented camp; more are planned), game drives and day visits to the conservation and community projects are still an important part of the story. The revenue generated by tourists and the awareness created regarding this model of conservation are key in securing Nashulai’s future. Volunteer travellers are even welcomed to participate in the less technical projects such as tree planting and river clean-ups.

Expressing his hopes for a paradigm shift in the tourism industry, Ole Reiya stresses, “I would encourage visitors to go beyond the superficial and experience the nuances of a people beyond being seen as artefacts and naked children to be photographed, [but] rather as communities whose connection to the land and wildlife has been key to their survival over time.”

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Battery Arms Race: Global Capital and the Scramble for Cobalt in the Congo

In the context of the climate emergency and the need for renewable energy sources, competition over the supply of cobalt is growing. This competition is most intense in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Nick Bernards argues that the scramble for cobalt is a capitalist scramble, and that there can be no ‘just’ transition without overthrowing capitalism on a global scale.

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Battery Arms Race: Global Capital and the Scramble for Cobalt in the Congo
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With growing attention to climate breakdown and the need for expanded use of renewable energy sources, the mineral resources needed to make batteries are emerging as a key site of conflict. In this context, cobalt – traditionally mined as a by-product of copper and nickel – has become a subject of major interest in its own right.

Competition over supplies of cobalt is intensifying. Some reports suggest that demand for cobalt is likely to exceed known reserves if projected shifts to renewable energy sources are realized. Much of this competition is playing out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The south-eastern regions of the DRC hold about half of proven global cobalt reserves, and account for an even higher proportion of global cobalt production (roughly 70 percent) because known reserves in the DRC are relatively shallow and easier to extract.

Recent high profile articles in outlets including the New York Times and the Guardian have highlighted a growing ‘battery arms race’ supposedly playing out between the West (mostly the US) and China over battery metals, especially cobalt.

These pieces suggest, with some alarm, that China is ‘winning’ this race. They highlight how Chinese dominance in battery supply chains might inhibit energy transitions in the West. They also link growing Chinese mining operations to a range of labour and environmental abuses in the DRC, where the vast majority of the world’s available cobalt reserves are located.

Both articles are right that the hazards and costs of the cobalt boom have been disproportionately borne by Congolese people and landscapes, while few of the benefits have reached them. But by subsuming these problems into narratives of geopolitical competition between the US and China and zooming in on the supposedly pernicious effects of Chinese-owned operations in particular, the ‘arms race’ narrative ultimately obscures more than it reveals.

There is unquestionably a scramble for cobalt going on. It is centered in the DRC but spans much of the globe, working through tangled transnational networks of production and finance that link mines in the South-Eastern DRC to refiners and battery manufacturers scattered across China’s industrializing cities, to financiers in London, Toronto, and Hong Kong, to vast transnational corporations ranging from mineral rentiers (Glencore), to automotive companies (Volkswagen, Ford), to electronics and tech firms (Apple). This loose network is governed primarily through an increasingly amorphous and uneven patchwork of public and private ‘sustainability’ standards. And, it plays out against the backdrop of both long-running depredations of imperialism and the more recent devastation of structural adjustment.

In a word, the scramble for cobalt is a thoroughly capitalist scramble.

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Chinese firms do unquestionably play a major role in global battery production in general and in cobalt extraction and refining in particular. Roughly 50 percent of global cobalt refining now takes place in China. The considerable majority of DRC cobalt exports do go to China, and Chinese firms have expanded interests in mining and trading ventures in the DRC.

However, although the Chinese state has certainly fostered the development of cobalt and other battery minerals, there is as much a scramble for control over cobalt going on within China as between China and the ‘west’. There has, notably, been a wave of concentration and consolidation among Chinese cobalt refiners since about 2010. The Chinese firms operating in the DRC are capitalist firms competing with each other in important ways. They often have radically different business models. Jinchuan Group Co. Ltd and China Molybdenum, for instance, are Hong Kong Stock Exchange-listed firms with ownership shares in scattered global refining and mining operations. Jinchuan’s major mine holdings in the DRC were acquired from South African miner Metorex in 2012; China Molybdenum recently acquired the DRC mines owned by US-based Freeport-McMoRan (as the New York Times article linked above notes with concern). A significant portion of both Jinchuan Group and China Molybdenum’s revenues, though, come from speculative metals trading rather than from production. Yantai Cash, on the other hand, is a specialized refiner which does not own mining operations. Yantai is likely the destination for a good deal of ‘artisanal’ mined cobalt via an elaborate network of traders and brokers.

These large Chinese firms also are thoroughly plugged in to global networks of battery production ultimately destined, in many cases, for widely known consumer brands. They are also able to take advantage of links to global marketing and financing operations. The four largest Chinese refiners, for instance, are all listed brands on the London Metal Exchange (LME).

In the midst of increased concentration at the refining stage and concerns over supplies, several major end users including Apple, Volkswagen, and BMW have sought to establish long-term contracts directly with mining operations since early 2018. Tesla signed a major agreement with Glencore to supply cobalt for its new battery ‘gigafactories’ in 2020. Not unrelatedly, they have also developed integrated supply chain tracing systems, often dressed up in the language of ‘sustainability’ and transparency. One notable example is the Responsible Sourcing Blockchain Initiative (RSBI). This initiative between the blockchain division of tech giant IBM, supply chain audit firm RCS Global, and several mining houses, mineral traders, and automotive end users of battery materials including Ford, Volvo, Volkswagen Group, and Fiat-Chrysler Automotive Group was announced in 2019. RSBI conducted a pilot test tracing 1.5 tons of Congolese cobalt across three different continents over five months of refinement.

Major end users including automotive and electronics brands have, in short, developed increasingly direct contacts extending across the whole battery production network.

There are also a range of financial actors trying to get in on the scramble (though, as both Jinchuan and China Molybdenum demonstrate, the line between ‘productive’ and ‘financial’ capital here can be blurry). Since 2010, benchmark cobalt prices are set through speculative trading on the LME. A number of specialized trading funds have been established in the last five years, seeking to profit from volatile prices for cobalt. One of the largest global stockpiles of cobalt in 2017, for instance, was held by Cobalt 27, a Canadian firm established expressly to buy and hold physical cobalt stocks. Cobalt 27 raised CAD 200 million through a public listing on the Toronto Stock Exchange in June of 2017, and subsequently purchased 2160.9 metric tons of cobalt held in LME warehouses. There are also a growing number of exchange traded funds (ETF) targeting cobalt. Most of these ETFs seek ‘exposure’ to cobalt and battery components more generally, for instance, through holding shares in mining houses or what are called ‘royalty bearing interests’ in specific mining operations rather than trading in physical cobalt or futures. Indeed, by mid-2019, Cobalt-27 was forced to sell off its cobalt stockpile at a loss. It was subsequently bought out by its largest shareholder (a Swiss-registered investment firm) and restructured into ‘Conic’, an investment fund holding a portfolio of royalty-bearing interests in battery metals operations rather than physical metals.

Or, to put it another way, there is as much competition going on within ‘China’ and the ‘West’ between different firms to establish control over limited supplies of cobalt, and to capture a share of the profits, as between China and the ‘West’ as unitary entities.

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Thus far, workers and communities in the Congolese Copperbelt have suffered the consequences of this scramble. They have seen few of the benefits. Indeed, this is reflective of much longer-run processes, documented in ROAPE, wherein local capital formation and local development in Congolese mining have been systematically repressed on behalf of transnational capital for decades.

The current boom takes place against the backdrop of the collapse, and subsequent privatization, of the copper mining industry in the 1990s and 2000s. In 1988, state-owned copper mining firm Gécamines produced roughly 450 000 tons of copper, and employed 30 000 people, by 2003, production had fallen to 8 000 tons and workers were owed up to 36 months of back pay. As part of the restructuring and privatization of the company, more than 10 000 workers were offered severance payments financed by the World Bank, the company was privatized, and mining rights were increasingly marketized. By most measures, mining communities in the Congolese Copperbelt are marked by widespread poverty. A 2017 survey found mean and median monthly household incomes of $USD 34.50 and $USD 14, respectively, in the region.

In the context of widespread dispossession, the DRC’s relatively shallow cobalt deposits have been an important source of livelihood activities. Estimates based on survey research suggest that roughly 60 percent of households in the region derived some income from mining, of which 90 percent worked in some form of artisanal mining. Recent research has linked the rise of industrial mining installations owned by multinational conglomerates to deepening inequality, driven in no small part by those firms’ preference for expatriate workers in higher paid roles. Where Congolese workers are employed, this is often through abusive systems of outsourcing through labour brokers.

Cobalt mining has also been linked to substantial forms of social and ecological degradation in surrounding areas, including significant health risks from breathing dust (not only to miners but also to local communities), ecological disruption and pollution from acid, dust, and tailings, and violent displacement of local communities.

The limited benefits and high costs of the cobalt boom for local people in the Congolese copperbelt, in short, are linked to conditions of widespread dispossession predating the arrival of Chinese firms and are certainly not limited to Chinese firms.

To be clear, none of this is to deny that Chinese firms have been implicated in abuses of labour rights and ecologically destructive practices in the DRC, nor that the Chinese state has clearly made strategic priorities of cobalt mining, refining, and battery manufacturing. It does not excuse the very real abuses linked to Chinese firms that European-owned ones have done many of the same things. Nor does the fact that those Chinese firms are often ultimately vendors to major US and European auto and electronic brands.

However, all of this does suggest that any diagnosis of the developmental ills, violence, ecological damage and labour abuses surrounding cobalt in the DRC that focuses specifically on the character of Chinese firms or on inter-state competition is limited at best. It gets Glencore, Apple, Tesla, and myriad financial speculators, to say nothing of capitalist relations of production generally, off the hook.

If we want to get to grips with the unfolding scramble for cobalt and its consequences for the people in the south-east DRC, we need to keep in view how the present-day scramble reflects wider patterns of uneven development under capitalist relations of production.

We should note that such narratives of a ‘new scramble for Africa’ prompted by a rapacious Chinese appetite for natural resources are not new. As Alison Ayers argued nearly a decade ago of narratives about the role of China in a ‘new scramble for Africa’, a focus on Chinese abuses means that ‘the West’s relations with Africa are construed as essentially beneficent, in contrast to the putatively opportunistic, exploitative and deleterious role of the emerging powers, thereby obfuscating the West’s ongoing neocolonial relationship with Africa’. Likewise, such accounts neglect ‘profound changes in the global political economy within which the “new scramble for Africa” is to be more adequately located’. These interventions are profoundly political, providing important forms of ideological cover for both neoliberal capitalism and for longer-run structures of imperialism.

In short, the barrier to a just transition to sustainable energy sources is not a unitary ‘China’ bent on the domination of emerging industries as a means to global hegemony. It is capitalism. Or, more precisely, it is the fact that responses to the climate crisis have thus far worked through and exacerbated the contradictions of existing imperialism and capitalist relations of production. The scramble for cobalt is a capitalist scramble, and one of many signs that there can be no ‘just’ transition without overturning capitalism and imperialism on a global scale.

This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).

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