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The Grapes of Wrath: A Case for Boycotting Israeli Wines from Occupied Territories

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A consumer boycott of wine produced from the economic exploitation of Palestine by Israeli occupation is a form of resistance that must be employed to fight discriminatory and unjust systems. By FARAH MANJI

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THE GRAPES OF WRATH: A Case for Boycotting Israeli Wines from Occupied Territories
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“Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of Palestinians.”Nelson Mandela

Bethlehem, 2013: On Christmas Eve, I was among the crowds flocking to Bethlehem, the Palestinian city known as the birthplace of Jesus. Following festivities in the city’s famous Manger Square, I embarked to see how the Israeli occupation is still alive, away from the throngs of tourists. I headed to the separation wall, which encloses the West Bank in concrete, and is covered with vivid graffiti in protest. This segment of the wall houses some of Banksy’s famous works of art, and in 2018, a mural of Ahed Tamimi, the Palestinian teen who has become the face of resistance to the Israeli occupation, also cemented its place on it.

Nairobi, 2018: Wandering around the Bizarre Bazaar craft fair in Nairobi’s Karura Forest, one particular vendor caught my attention: Baraka Israel. Their booth was teeming with people sampling wines against a bold backdrop that read “Golan Heights Winery”. The sourcing of wines from a region under illegal occupation by Israel wasn’t new to me – my graduate work focused on the history and politics of the Middle East– but seeing these grapes being sold in my backyard was disturbing. And it didn’t stop there; Eliad olive oil was also being sold. Christmas was soon approaching and in keeping with the spirit and Biblical symbolism, wine and olives “from the holy land” were intended to entice. Barely holding my breath while pondering which olive groves this oil was sourced from, I was transported to a passage from Susan Abulhawa’s novel, Mornings in Jenin:

“As the dark sky gave way to light, the sounds of reaping that noble fruit rose from the sun-bleached hills of Palestine. The thumps of farmers’ sticks striking branches, the shuddering of the leaves, the plop of fruit falling onto the old tarps and blankets that had been lain beneath the trees. As they toiled, women sang the ballads of centuries past and small children played and were chided by their mothers when they got in the way.”

My foraging revealed that Eliad olive oil also originates from the occupied Golan Heights. This becomes more unsettling in the context of the occupied territories, where violence by Israeli settlers increasingly includes attacks on olive groves and farmers. In 2016, more than 1,500 Palestinian olive trees in the West Bank were damaged or uprooted by settlers; this was in addition to the 2.5 million trees uprooted since 1967.

Research carried out by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) uncovered a shift towards agricultural and price tag attacks by settlers that involve destroying property and vandalism, including racist graffiti. An Israeli soldier’s 2013 testimony from Hebron, recorded by the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence, uncovered how these attacks are carried out:

“There was one incident where already the night prior, they said a ‘price tag’ action was going to be carried out. And the next morning, a whole grove of olive trees was discovered chopped down. To chop down 60 trees you’d need something like eight hours of work and three saws…I don’t believe that the military, with all its observation points on an olive grove located on the main road, didn’t see that taking place.”

The decision to buy unethically sourced products, which are increasingly making their way to our shelves, is a topic worth discussing as a nation. The Profiteers, the investigative documentary unearthing Kenya’s role in contributing to the conflict in South Sudan, jumpstarted conversations about how Kenya was being used to commit atrocities beyond its borders. A segment of activists and concerned citizens took to the streets, calling for greater accountability in how the Kenyan government and financial institutions facilitate the transfer of arms and resources used to wage war on civilians.

My foraging revealed that Eliad olive oil also originates from the occupied Golan Heights. This becomes more unsettling in the context of the occupied territories, where violence by Israeli settlers increasingly includes attacks on olive groves and farmers. In 2016, more than 1,500 Palestinian olive trees in the West Bank were damaged or uprooted by settlers; this was in addition to the 2.5 million trees uprooted since 1967.

And the support of many Kenyan activists, writers, and well-wishers to the Ugandan musician-turned-politician, Bobi Wine, during his detention is another example of conditions being ripe for a discussion on what it takes for Kenyans to be on the right side of history. The consciousness to do better by all peoples, regardless of nationality, is critical. We can no longer pretend that events outside our borders have no bearing on our lives or are unworthy of our attention and solidarity. Edward Said captured this well when he said, “Humanism is the only – I would go so far as saying the final— resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history.

Resisting the force of politics of money from outweighing principles of humanity and justice needs to be sustained. Our government may be succumbing easily to foreign money, but we need to safeguard our interests and public assets, and ensure that our moral compass is not lost. This may be a struggle when also faced with the large military-industrial complexes of today. And you don’t have to look far to see how big money is behind war. Despite its size, Israel is believed to be the eighth biggest arms exporter in the world and the largest one per capita. Kenya is among the growing African nations using Israeli-manufactured weapons, especially aircraft, artillery, and communications equipment.

Settler colonialism is not dead

2017 marked half a century of Israel’s illegal occupation of the Palestinian Territories, including the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as the Golan Heights, which was grabbed from Syria. Much light has been shed on the expansion of Israeli settlements— the cities, towns, and villages built on occupied land. In 2017, Israel began building the first new settlements in two decades, moving further into the heart of what is legally Palestine. At least 160 government-approved settlements and 100 unofficial outposts are home to more than half a million Israelis living in colonies beyond the recognised borders of their state. And the population of Jewish settlers in the West Bank has grown four times faster than Israel’s itself since 1995. Although settlements violate international humanitarian law (under the Fourth Geneva Convention, an occupying power cannot transfer parts of its own population into the territory it occupies), they are authorised and subsidised by the Israeli Government.

This disturbing development has historic parallels closer to home: Advertisements by the British colonial government also sought to entice settlers to move to Kenya, and thousands responded.

“Settle in Kenya, Britain’s youngest and most attractive colony. Low prices at present for fertile areas. Its valuable crops give high yields due to the high fertility of the soil, adequate rainfall, and abundant sunshine. Secure the advantage of native labour to supplement your own effort.” – From Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya by Caroline Elkins

While Israeli settlers live in fenced and gated communities, Palestinians are effectively barred from staying in them. Palestinians’ movement is further restricted by roadblocks, checkpoints, and settler-only roads. Some of these discriminatory policies, as well as the exploitation of land and resources by a settler movement, are reminiscent of Kenya’s experiences under British colonial rule. Kenyans moving around segregated cities were required to wear an identity pass around their necks, which were designed to keep Africans out of European and Asian areas. Fast forward today and Palestinians in the occupied territories must carry their ID cards for internal travel between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and into East Jerusalem and Israel. These ID cards are colour-coded depending on where Palestinians reside and they affect everything from freedom of movement to family unity.

While Israeli settlers live in fenced and gated communities, Palestinians are effectively barred from staying in them. Palestinians’ movement is further restricted by roadblocks, checkpoints, and settler-only roads. Some of these discriminatory policies, as well as the exploitation of land and resources by a settler movement, are reminiscent of Kenya’s experiences under British colonial rule.

In colonial Kenya, many Africans were moved to free up fertile land for colonial plantations. The Jordan Valley and the northern part of the Dead Sea are among the most fertile areas in the West Bank; 40 per cent of the dates produced in the occupied Jordan Valley settlements are exported to the European Union, and Israeli companies generate around $3 billion annually from the sale of Dead Sea minerals. Contrast this with the discrimination leveled against Palestinians in the provision of water and other resources: More than 70 per cent of Palestinian villages in Area C of the West Bank, which is under full Israeli civilian and security control and home to most of the settlements, are not connected to the water network.

In Kenya, as explained by Caroline Elkins in her book Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, the British settlers’ self-interest was “based on a perception of profound racial superiority, and the foundation of the settler community was the alienation of African land. Seeking to expand their numbers and increase the value of their land, they pushed for continued immigration into the colony.” Today, Israel continues to fund Birthright tours and to encourage the immigration of Jews into the country. However, the initial refusal to allow a group of Ugandan Abayudaya Jews to visit Israel on a Birthright tour showcased that not all Jews are equal in Israel’s eyes. Examples of the racial prejudice documented against Africans by the state of Israel are ubiquitous. In 2018, Israel was forced to backtrack on a plan to expel thousands of African migrants to Rwanda and Uganda. And ironically, though rejected, Britain’s proposal in 1903 allocated land for a Jewish state in the British East African Protectorate.

Colonisation in connection to wine

The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, a non-violent movement founded in 2005 to pressure Israel to comply with international law and end its occupation and human rights abuses, was inspired by international sanctions imposed on the apartheid regime in South Africa. Given that settlements thrive on economic exploitation at the expense of the natives, the movement calls for a global boycott on settlement products. Airbnb, bowing to pressure, recently announced that it would remove properties in Israeli settlements built on occupied Palestinian territories in the West Bank.

Unsurprisingly, there is a countermovement that includes Israeli wineries “proudly” displaying the Israeli flag on their products. The BDS Wine Club, for instance, features wines from “Judea and Samaria” (what we know as the occupied West Bank) and their retail selection also includes wines from the Golan Heights Winery—the source of wines imported and sold in Kenya by Baraka Israel. The company brazenly markets this winery and its products as “Israel’s finest”. They have a noticeable presence at Nairobi’s wine-tasting events, as well as in restaurants and bars. Yummy magazine, Nairobi’s food and drink guide, featured Baraka Israel’s entry into the Kenyan market in 2017. It announced that “Israel has been a wine-making country over the last 3,000 years…and the diversity of Israel’s terroir makes it suitable to grow a variety of grapes.” Any further elaboration or exploration of the origins of their wines was conveniently or perhaps unknowingly omitted.

According to a 2015 UN General Assembly resolution, Syrians in the occupied Golan, the majority of whom are Druze, depend heavily on agricultural income but are disadvantaged by restricted water supplies and fewer economic opportunities. They also face throttled land access, building restrictions, and property destruction. The UN’s displeasure has not stopped Israel from building settlements, wineries, and even a ski resort in this territory. The region is strategically significant, agriculturally rich, and draws millions of tourists. And the Israeli wine industry, which benefits from accessible land, tax benefits, and other government incentives, is catching on. Settlers have discovered that the wine industry is a tourist magnet, bringing in additional income while normalising the settlement enterprise.

Over ten Israeli wineries, mostly founded between the late 1990s and early 2000s, are based in settlements in the occupied Syrian Golan and produce their wine from grapes grown in the occupied territory. In Kenya, the most common wines from this region are those produced by the Golan Heights Winery under the labels Yarden, Gamla, and Golan. The oldest of the wineries based in the occupied Golan, the Golan Heights Winery, was founded in 1983 in the settlement of Katzerin where it operates to this day. Owned by four kibbutzim and moshavim (agricultural and cooperative communities), it produces around 5.4 million bottles of wine annually.

Over ten Israeli wineries, mostly founded between the late 1990s and early 2000s, are based in settlements in the occupied Syrian Golan and produce their wine from grapes grown in the occupied territory. In Kenya, the most common wines from this region are those produced by the Golan Heights Winery under the labels Yarden, Gamla, and Golan.

Planting the seeds of BDS

The BDS movement made headlines again after Ilhan Omar, the recently elected U.S. Congresswoman who spent some of her childhood in a refugee camp in Kenya, voiced her support for the movement. On home soil, although BDS campaigns have yet to be established, there is a solidarity movement, Kenya na Palestine, which raises awareness of the movement and promotes educational activities during the global Israeli Apartheid Week.

They may seem innocuous, but profits from millions of dollars’ worth of settlement products exported internationally, including to Kenya, sustain the discriminatory policy of settlements, which also unlawfully appropriate natural resources. Common exports from Israeli settlements include cosmetics, fruits and vegetables, honey, olive oil, and wine. Israel’s wine industry is part and parcel of the settlement and colonisation project, and this is raising eyebrows worldwide: Yarden, Gamla, and Golan wines featured on lists of products boycotted by student groups at UK universities, for instance, and a major department store in Japan cancelled the participation of an importer specialising in wine from the Golan Heights at a wine fair last year.

Israel continues to face censure from its trading partners. For instance, while short of a boycott, European Union members can mark products coming from Israeli settlements. South Africa also adopted regulations to prevent the labelling of goods from settlements as being produced in Israel given that this misleads consumers. Thus, there is a growing sentiment that business activity in settlements entrenches discriminatory systems. If the Government of Kenya won’t ban settlement products for fear of jeopardising bilateral relationships, as citizens we should boycott these products and advocate that they be labeled correctly. Israeli wine, olive oil, and other such products being sold by Baraka Israel are highly substitutable by the Kenyan consumer even when it comes to quality. Further, these products are not integrated into value chains in the country and can be easily replaced.

Israel continues to face censure from its trading partners. For instance, while short of a boycott, European Union members can mark products coming from Israeli settlements. South Africa also adopted regulations to prevent the labelling of goods from settlements as being produced in Israel given that this misleads consumers.

Israel is joining the scramble for Africa

From a diplomatic perspective, Israeli-Kenyan ties have been growing stronger over recent years and are centred on security, religious and development cooperation. Two recent visits by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu represent a push to improve ties with Kenya, among other African countries, and to open up markets to Israeli products.

These economic efforts are also intended to improve Israel’s diplomatic position by getting African countries to stop voting against Israel in international forums. In late 2018, upon recommendations by the UN’s Special Political and Decolonization Committee, the General Assembly voted in favour of nine resolutions on Palestine and the Syrian Golan Heights, urging an end to settlement construction. Kenya voted in favour of all resolutions and it is this voting record at the UN that Israel is hoping to sway.

However, Kenya did not participate in the UN vote that rejected U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The official reason given was the closure of the Kenyan mission for the holidays, but this may have been tactical given President Donald Trump’s threat to cut aid to countries that voted against the U.S. Despite international condemnation, Kenyan diplomats were among representatives from 33 countries that nonetheless attended the opening of the U.S embassy in Jerusalem in May 2018.

The arms trade

Israel’s weapons trade in 2016 included a 70 per cent jump in sales to Africa. In 2017, its defence exports reached a record $9.2 billion, mostly comprising military hardware, such as missiles and aerial defence weapons.

Though details often remain opaque, it is no secret that security and intelligence cooperation between Israel and Kenya remains strong. This has grown in the aftermath of terror attacks, including the targeting of Israeli tourists at the Paradise Hotel in Mombasa and the attempt to down an Israeli airliner taking off from the coastal city in 2002. And in the wake of the 2013 Westgate mall attack, there were local and foreign media reports of Israeli advisers and security personnel assisting Kenyan security forces in their operation to end the siege.

Israel has been among the top 15 arms exporters for decades, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Arms sales are integral to the Israeli economy, accounting for possibly as much as 8 per cent of GDP. Israel’s occupation has also gone global: Revelations emerged that Israel was sending weapons to Myanmar in defiance of a U.S. and European arms embargo, thereby abetting the persecution and massacre of the Muslim-minority Rohingya, who have also been subjected to “apartheid-like conditions” in Rakhine, as detailed by Amnesty International.

Israel has also been selling weapons and military services to human rights violators on the continent. A 2015 UN report found that Israeli arms were fuelling the civil war in South Sudan, and a retired IDF General was recently found to have used an agricultural company as cover for the sale of weapons to the government. Kenya is not lagging behind: From 2006 onwards, Kenya transferred large quantities of arms, including T-72 tanks from Ukraine, to South Sudan. These transfers only became public when Somali pirates hijacked a ship carrying some of the tanks in 2008. In 2013, the South Sudanese government used the tanks to quell protests and destroy homes.

Israel has been among the top 15 arms exporters for decades, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Arms sales are integral to the Israeli economy, accounting for possibly as much as 8 per cent of GDP.

Netanyahu has now befriended Chadian President Idriss Deby, one of Africa’s longest- serving leaders. Security sources say the country has acquired Israeli equipment to help battle rebels in the country’s north. Kenya too uses Israeli-manufactured weapons and is a recipient of military training and counterterrorism support. Inside Kenya’s Death Squads, an investigative film by Al Jazeera, found Israel complicit in the perpetration of extrajudicial killings in Kenya by counterterrorism police through its intelligence and training of the General Service Unit to eliminate suspects. And in keeping with its approach of building walls and barriers in the name of security, Israel has pledged to help Kenya speed up the construction of a wall along its border with Somalia.

A growing tribe: The ethically-conscious consumer

The rise of a consumerism culture in Kenya may present economic opportunities but it is also fraught with challenges. There is a market in Kenya for fair-trade products, as well as ethically and sustainably sourced products, including those that don’t harm the environment, animals, and I would add to this list, human beings. Consumers are rightly demanding more transparency from businesses and companies, and the latter are slowly responding. Green Spoon, the online store in Kenya targeting consumers “who care about what they eat”, stocks products and brands supporting local producers and communities. These include unadulterated pork from farms near Mount Kenya, free-range chickens from the highlands of Tigoni, and craft-beer made from 100 per cent spring water. Their philosophy emanates from the need to no longer worry about the “source of the food, how it was made, who made it, and what went into it”. It may come as a surprise that Baraka Israel is among their featured producers, “bringing Israel’s finest quality products to Kenya”. Whether this is aligned with their philosophy is a question they and their consumers need to contend with.

Information about supply chains can be an inspiring part of a brand, but this information can also be hidden and spun. Yesterday Romans made slaves crush grapes by foot; today Baraka Israel will selectively educate you about their ancient wine-making culture, playing to the ignorance of many. As citizens we have voiced our indignation about the mercury-laden sugar we have been consuming and the poor quality tilapia imported from China. As we advocate for quality products that don’t poison us, we should likewise refuse to consume products that explicitly harm others.

Mandela’s words, alluding to the collective importance of achieving freedom for the Palestinians, serve as a reminder to fight discriminatory and unjust systems at home and abroad. And this resistance can begin in the pantry or cellar. Wine and food lovers may have revelled in the innocence of consuming these products but these products’ sinister history and continued tainting is inching upwards from the vines, blossoming, and will soon be harvesting on your tongue. Will you be ready?

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Farah Manji is a freelance writer based in Nairobi whose work focuses on social justice, development and foreign policy.

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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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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