Connect with us

Politics

THE CHINESE ARE COMING! Empire 2.0 and the New African Agenda

10 min read.

In this final part of a three-part series, KALUNDI SERUMAGA examines how the old imperial powers and a new entrant, China are gearing up for a second scramble and partition of Africa and what Africa can do to guard herself against the forces of imperialism at her doorstep.

Published

on

THE CHINESE ARE COMING! Empire 2.0 and the New African Agenda
Download PDFPrint Article

A very common question asked by younger Africans, and more so by all generations of the First African Diaspora (descendants of the enslavement), is how on earth our ancestors managed first to get mixed up in the business of selling each other to foreigners, and then bamboozled into wholesale colonial enclosure.

Many explanations are offered, but the one theme that runs through all of them is that whatever the actual cause, Africans, knowing what they now know, can never be that stupid again.

Enter China, who seem to know something we don’t. And she is not alone.

Writing elsewhere at the time of the United Kingdom’s referendum vote to leave the European Union, I predicted that there would be an attempt to re-heat the leftovers of the old Empire relationship. Indeed, not long after, one began to hear UK Foreign Office officials talking of “Empire 2.0” when describing their looking anew at the Commonwealth. We should not take the recent visits to Africa by the UK Prime Minister, as well as the younger, more photogenic members of the British royal family, as accidental.

France is determined to rebrand the image of its essentially imperialist relationship with the CFA (Communauté Financière Africaine) zone or the African Financial Community (read “French Commonwealth”) countries of West Africa. This explains why Theresa May was seen dancing in South Africa and Kenya, while Emmanuel Macron danced at Fela Kuti’s shrine during a visit to West Africa.

Germany’s leaders have not deployed any African dance moves yet, but Germany – which essentially is the European Union’s economy – has also been cranking its foreign policy machinery into gear.   There are even attempts to finally resolve the century-plus dancing around the issue of reparations for Germany’s 1904-1908 Namibia genocide.

Between 2015 and 2017, the United States’ military footprint in Africa has expanded from 36 to 46 bases America aside, the UK, France, Turkey, China, and the Russian Federation all also have permanent military bases somewhere on our continent (in contrast, no African country, or the African Union as a whole, has an independent military presence anywhere outside the continent).

Africa remains a prize.

This state of affairs presents our desperate, venal governing class with opportunities to be even more, well, venal. Having long exhausted whatever political legitimacy the “attainment of independence” gave them, they have continued looking for a new gig.

However, the intensified interest in Africa may be the final nail in the coffin for African communities and societies nearly broken by 30 years of war, austerity, repression, and dysfunctional service provision.

THE COLLABORATORS: An obituary of the African Independence Project

Read Also: THE COLLABORATORS: An obituary of the African Independence Project

The opportunities are now blinding our leaders to the very real dangers of the unprincipled relationships they are rapidly building with the People’s Republic of China. At worst, they could end up facilitating a Chinese colonial-settler project; at best, they could leave our grandchildren in perennial debt bondage.

As a cover-up, our leaders scrape up the last of the anti-colonial phraseology they can remember, and rationalise that China could never exploit or occupy Africa in the way the European powers did because the Chinese and Africans share a common history of colonial occupation, humiliation and liberation. “The Chinese”, they defensively declare, “are not racist.”

The opportunities are now blinding our leaders to the very real dangers of the unprincipled relationships they are rapidly building with the People’s Republic of China. At worst, they could end up facilitating a Chinese colonial-settler project; at best, they could leave our grandchildren in perennial debt bondage.

This is the worst possible kind of group to have in charge of making the key decisions at this very momentous point in African history.

Imperialism is not a colour and capitalism is not a race

China is not the China of the period just after her national liberation struggle that brought the Communist party to power in 1947, and that provided much-needed support to other Third World liberation movements.

To understand what is really going on, one must ignore the propaganda of both our own and the current Chinese leaders, and instead study and understand the dynamics of the Chinese liberation struggle.

China has actually had a home-grown manufacturing and trading bourgeois class for centuries. This is a social strata of indigenous nationals who establish and run trade and manufacturing enterprises using local resources and locally-acquired capital. This is the China of Marco Polo’s time.

This is why certain Oriental words are associated with commodities long in global circulation; “China”, to denote a certain type of crockery, is the most obvious one. There is also “char” (as in “charlady”) to denote tea in older English, which of course we call “chai” here. “Kikoyi” is actually a Japanese word for a type of clothing first brought to the East African coast by Chinese trading fleets. These capitalists were very different from the more visible “businessmen” seen today trading and representing imperially protected capital and goods.

China’s many decades of instability did not kill off the country’s capitalists. The existence of present-day Chinese imperialism is rooted in the history of how this indigenous Chinese bourgeoisie weathered the storms of the 1911 overthrow of the Qing monarchy and the emergence of warlordism, the 1842-1948 period of forced multi-sided colonial economic trade zones, the 1930s rise of the peasant revolution, the 1937 Japanese invasion, the 1946-1949 Chinese civil war ending in the communist takeover of power, and finally the succession politics that bracketed the 1976 death of Mao Zedong, the leader of the national liberation struggle.

“Maoism” is a practice of Marxism adapted to Third World situations, as opposed to the independent, industrialised countries where Marxist ideology was born. It advocates the building of a strategic alliance among all those social classes objectively oppressed by imperial domination to form an armed national liberation struggle. These are workers (as the class in leadership using a communist party), poor and middle peasants, patriotic middle-class people, and also a “national capitalist” class.

As part of the strategy, the national capitalist class was supposed to be slowly phased out through a series of “sunset” measures over decades once state power was acquired. The epic battles that rocked the government and the country as an ageing Chairman Mao sought to maintain his grip on power, and that peaked in the “Gang of Four” trials after his death, can also be understood to be the process of political interests of this class within the party facing down the “sunset” and further communist measures, and citing the dire economic crisis facing the country, re-orienting the party and state towards economic “reform”, all the while appropriating the language of the revolution and using it against the other groups.

AFTER THE END: Welcome to the age of ‘post-post-colonialism’

Read Also: AFTER THE END: Welcome to the age of ‘post-post-colonialism’

This development came with a short-term advantage and a long-term disadvantage. In the first, by inheriting a nuclear-armed absolute dictatorship led by a party that the masses in their many millions still revered, the capitalist tendency acquired a vantage point that capitalists in the West could only dream of. Not even the big German industrial families (such as the Quandts, later owners of BMW and the Bayers, owners of IG Farben, now Bayer Chemicals, Ltd) behind Adolf Hitler ever found themselves so well-positioned. In the second, they placed themselves in the exact same quandary in which Western capitalism of the 1880s had found itself: from where will you acquire the ever cheaper raw materials to feed your expanding economy to serve a growing population demanding an ever higher standard of living? This was the situation the empire-builder Cecil Rhodes was warning of in 1895. Following a visit to London’s East End where he observed a meeting of the unemployed making “wild speeches” that boiled down to demands for “Bread! Bread!” he opined, “If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists.”

When African leaders claim to be dealing with a “progressive” China, what they are actually dealing with is the national capitalist faction of the ruling party, which has asserted its hegemony over the rest of the groups of the former alliance and turned China into a capitalist country, but hiding behind “socialist” imagery so as to continue enjoying the command-and-control machinery provided by the Communist Party.

Most critically, for our analysis, they inherited the excellent diplomatic relations that the Peoples’ Republic of China enjoyed with a wealth of Third World countries. This was because of the Communist Party’s above-mentioned revolutionary support to numerous struggles against colonialism. Over the next thirty or so years, the new regime, dressed in the clothes of the old revolution, would systematically exploit that goodwill so as to repurpose these relations to become the predatory relationship we see today.

When African leaders claim to be dealing with a “progressive” China, what they are actually dealing with is the national capitalist faction of the ruling party, which has asserted its hegemony over the rest of the groups of the former alliance and turned China into a capitalist country, but hiding behind “socialist” imagery so as to continue enjoying the command-and-control machinery provided by the Communist Party.

In 1999, I once found myself playing the most incongruous role of a member of a Uganda government official delegation to China in my capacity as then Director of the Uganda National Cultural Centre. The country buzzed with a commercial energy. We were taken to see a large number of officials and installations. All the officials we sat down with had very diplomatically correct things to say about the emerging New China. That is, until we got to the office of a lady representing the All-China Women’s Federation. To the consternation of the interpreter they had provided for us (who was so flustered that at one point he went quite pale, dropped his pen, and was scrabbling under his seat to find it, but who, to his credit, did not try to interfere), this lady (who had her own interpreter present) embarked on a very frank denunciation of the whole economic liberalisation programme, emphasising how it was hitting ordinary Chinese women the most and the hardest. She did not have a single kind thing to say about the New China.

In subverting the “sunset clause” idea, China, starting with Deng Xiao Ping, ignored the old Marxist-Leninist axiom that large-scale domestic capitalism, if not heavily curtailed or done away with in good time, will find itself in need of an empire to exploit so as to ease self-created domestic socio-economic pressures. If no such empire exists, the economy may collapse, and the country could degenerate into an open dictatorship, and possibly embark on wars of conquest. This is the story of Germany after the 1918 loss of its African colonies. Colonialism, as even Rhodes explained, is a capitalist need: “We colonial statesmen must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to provide new markets for the goods produced in the factories and mines. The Empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question.”

History followed. And may be coming back.

The New York Times cites a daily demand for fish from 30 million Chinese citizens as the source of the growing collapse of fish stocks off the West African coast. The fact is that China now needs Africa, much more than Africa needs China. The food crisis has turned China into an imperialist power.

How much do our current leaders know of what the Chinese authorities have told their project-worker-settler citizens migrating to Africa? Just as the Berlin Conference-inspired treaties of the 1890s often had a European-language version somewhat different from the local language one left with the Africans, we cannot rule out the possibility that what we understand to be trade and infrastructure agreements are in fact understood to be land and settlement agreements at the Chinese end. Only this could possibly explain why one Chinese railway worker felt so much at home as to defecate in the open right beside the Nairobi-Mombasa railway line he came with.

So, those wondering about how enslavement and colonialism happened the first time now have their answer: it happened like this, one tolerated outrage at a time, under our very noses. And only the “man-eating” lions of Tsavo will ever know how many such “developmental” dumps were taken along the route of the original Lunatic Express.

Racism and Africa’s redemption

Just as with Rhodes, racism may be a handy excuse for conquest; the difference will be in how it is deployed. To understand this, one must reach further back into the history of not just the Chinese, but all Asian people regarding their own indigenous black populations whose presence in Asia pre-dates the southwards expansion of the Asian race.

So, those wondering about how enslavement and colonialism happened the first time now have their answer: it happened like this, one tolerated outrage at a time, under our very noses. And only the “man-eating” lions of Tsavo will ever know how many such “developmental” dumps were taken along the route of the original Lunatic Express.

Remnants of these black African indigenes can be found in isolated pockets all along a broad southern band of Asia, from India to the Philippines. Their genetic memory is also visible in the Negroid features present in Asian imagery, such as the Sudanese-blue Krishna (whose name actually means “black” in Sanskrit), Buddha’s African hair, the facial carvings on the ancient Cambodian temples, and even in President Duterte’s typically Filipino Bantu nose. This genetic “yellowing” of Asia continues in the anti-black ethnic cleansing being carried out on East Timorese blacks by the Asian labourers destroying the rainforests for Indonesian corporations.

So there is nothing new or surprising to be found in the Chinese attitude towards black Africans. If you really want to know the core thinking of all mainstream Asian cultures – be they overlaid with Buddhism, Islam, Shinto, Hinduism or Sikhism – in regard to Negro peoples, just listen to the experiences of the indigenous African peoples of the South Asian and Polynesian hinterlands and forests.

China has not “taken over Africa”; she has merely joined with earlier groups of imperialists in grabbing a part of the African bounty. As a newcomer, her presence is more visible, but not yet as substantially deep-rooted as the long-standing European imprint.

She comes with two key differences: first, China does not yet have the military and diplomatic capacity to replace any of those Western powers in physically securing and enforcing the various trade routes and treaties needed to keep the global trade machine, upon which they all depend, running. Second, therefore, this venture cannot be implemented remotely, but by human displacement. Even a settler-overlord project may not work. What could work is one where millions of Chinese people are steadily shipped over to “yellow” Africa as a continuation of the anti-black ethnic cleansing and encroachment the Asians began centuries ago in South Asia.

The Africa of the ordinary people must assert itself and force its concerns on to all public agendas. The struggle now is to hold a public conversation independent of these various imperialists and their allies.

What shall we do?

First, we need an audit: what actually happened since “independence”? Why, on the whole, did the very individuals that swore allegiance to the new states and constitutions proceed almost immediately to violate and abrogate them?

How much money did the European powers make from the colonial project, and when are they going to pay it back?

How can the various one-sided European Union trade treaties, known as Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) – rooted in the earlier Lome I (1975), Lome II (1979) and Coutonou (2000) trade agreements – be renegotiated or abandoned?

There is a need for an independent peoples’ study of China, unfettered by Chinese propaganda and the apologies of our handicapped governing class. We must demand a more principled relationship with both our current Chinese “partners” and the earlier European ones. The encroachment and destruction of African public assets (be they natural or human-made) by these new “development partners” must be documented and physically resisted.

Africa must design and demand a New Economic Agenda for the continent, which would, amongst other things, put in place Africa-wide terms and conditions for the activities of all these training “partners”.

There is a need for an independent peoples’ study of China, unfettered by Chinese propaganda and the apologies of our handicapped governing class. We must demand a more principled relationship with both our current Chinese “partners” and the earlier European ones.

Part of the work we try to do at the Marcus Garvey Pan-Afrikan Institute is to develop a new framework for the study of these developments and trends, in terms of what effects they have on ordinary people, and the culture they use to survive or resist them. I would encourage all young Africans to begin organising themselves into study groups, as a first step, to map out and monitor the nature of these incursions in their localities. This is where the New African Agenda will be built.

Africa does not have much time left. We face environmental collapse, ethnic cleansing and debt bondage. Decades of cultural propaganda have desensitised many of the youth to the dangers inherent in losing cultural sovereignty. This, coupled with the cynical and inept example set by the older generation in power, has created societies very vulnerable to any passing idea that could lead to a takeover.

At one level, these are not new issues. As far back as 1969, the leadership of the Biafran movement, in attempting to break away from the Nigerian state, warned in its Ahiara Declaration that “in this jungle game for world domination, a black man’s life, let alone his well-being, counts for nothing.”

ALL the powers of the world wish to grab a piece of Africa. It is up to the indigenous African people to map out a strategy to safeguard their birthright.

Support The Elephant.

The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.

Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.

By

Kalundi Serumaga is a social and political commentator based in Kampala.

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.

Published

on

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

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.

Continue Reading

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”.

Published

on

Nashulai – A Community Conservancy With a Difference
Download PDFPrint Article

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.”

Continue Reading

Politics

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.

Published

on

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

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.

*

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.

*

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).

Continue Reading

Trending