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Battle for the Family’s Soul: Anatomy of the Orphanage Phenomenon in Kenya

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The HIV/AIDS pandemic and hardships caused by SAPs led to a dramatic rise in the number of orphanages in Kenya. However, as SIMON NJOROGE notes, the concept of orphanages is alien to Kenyan and African culture. The good news is that global and national shifts in policy could soon see the eradication of orphanages in poor countries.

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Battle for the Family’s Soul: Anatomy of the Orphanage Phenomenon in Kenya
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Orphanages, alternatively referred to as children’s homes or charitable children’s institutions as per the Children Act 2001, have been in the headlines in the recent past for a myriad of allegations ranging from abuse and neglect of children, recruitment of children from poor families and involvement in a cartel of traffickers in the guise of adoption that has involved adoption societies, lawyers, children’s officers and judicial officers. The dramatic case of Matt and Daisy Mazzoncini is the latest in a series of explosive exposés on orphanages and adoption in Kenya.

While all the focus has been on these emerging cases and the ensuing drama, a more profound discourse concerning the suitability of the orphanage as a model of care and protection of children has been ongoing for some years among policymakers, practitioners and childcare advocates. Deinstitutionalisation or the gradual replacement of the orphanage with social services at the community level coupled with family-based alternatives like foster care and kinship care have been proposed. To a keen observer, the question of whether there is a nexus between the two seemingly discrete occurrences naturally arises.

Deinstitutionalisation

Is the ongoing onslaught on childcare service providers related to the broader deinstitutionalisation discourse?

Bur first, what exactly is deinstitutionalisation?

Any attempt to effectively unpack the concept of deinstitutionalisation immediately demands an answer to the question of how the orphanage, in the first place, came to stealthily occupy the space for the care and protection of children traditionally reserved for the family. Social inertia implies that norms and institutions anchored in tradition do not easily give way to new and exotic ones unless, as a prerequisite, the social forces that anchor them are weakened by changes within the same society. New norms and institutions only come in to fill a gap which they have not themselves created but which requires filling nevertheless.

What then are these social dynamics that significantly weakened the family institution and its cultural underpinning? Why and how did the orphanage emerge? What is the impact of the orphanage on children, the family, and communities? Is the orphanage a better alternative for care and protection of children than the family? What informs the ongoing deinstitutionalisation discourse and how is it likely to shape the national child protection policy?

Any attempt to effectively unpack the concept of deinstitutionalisation immediately demands an answer to the question of how the orphanage, in the first place, came to stealthily occupy the space for the care and protection of children traditionally reserved for the family.

The orphanage is primarily a western concept. In North America, orphanages first emerged in the early 19th century while in Europe they can be traced far back to the Roman Empire. In the mid-20th century orphanages were gradually phased out in the West and replaced with foster care and welfare systems. There exists two schools of thought concerning what motivated governments in the West to adopt deinstitutionalisation policies On one hand are arguments that the motivating factor was child welfare concerns informed by evidence of the long-term negative effects of orphanages on the developmental well-being of children while on the other are arguments that policymakers were more concerned by the high costs of orphanages as a model of care of children compared to foster care and provision of social services to needy families. Whichever the case, there is consensus that both factors played a role in the eradication of the orphanage in the West.

However, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc continued the use of orphanages under the communist regime until the fall of the Soviet Union. When the former Soviet countries started to join the European Union, they were given a precondition of eradicating orphanages and the practice of intercountry adoption. The EU supported these initiatives, and this saw the rise of the concept of deinstitutionalisation as it is understood today, which is a policy-driven and systematic process of eradication of child care institutions (orphanages) as a model of care for children who have lost or are at the risk of losing parental care.

The growth of the orphanage in Kenya

While countries in the West had gotten rid of orphanages and those in Eastern Europe were in the process of doing so, the opposite was happening in Kenya and Africa in general. Though there exists very scanty data on the growth of the orphanage in Kenya, it is believed that the Thomas Barnado House (now Kenya Children’s Home) was the first orphanage in Kenya. The Thomas Barnado House opened on or around independence to care for children born out of relationships between British colonial masters and Africans.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that the orphanage remained at the periphery of Kenyan society until late 1990s when the numbers began to swell rapidly, particularly in the wake of the AIDS pandemic that saw an increasing number of children losing their parents to the disease. Currently, there is no substantive evidence on the number of orphanages in Kenya though some studies indicate that there are 850 registered orphanages and an unknown number of unregistered and unregulated ones.

Traditionally in Kenya, children were cared for within the extended family and the community. This tradition was slowly eroding in Kenya by the early 1970s and by the turn of the century it was almost on the brink of total erosion or so was the impression. This trend can be attributed to several factors. The global economic downturn in the 1970s saw fluctuating prices of the country’s major exports, low levels of technology and increasing debt. Other factors, such as drought and famine, high population growth, the collapse of the East African Community, high rates of urbanisation, and land fragmentation resulted in widespread poverty, food shortages and declining standards of living.

In addition, the country’s adoption of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) in the late 1980s, which significantly impacted the government’s investments in social services, especially education and health care and which led to rising unemployment and retrenchments. Joseph Rono, in his paper, “The Impact of the Structural Adjustment Programmes on Kenyan society” states:

The SAPs are intended in the long run to improve the economy. However, in the short run, one area that suffers from the immediate consequences of the SAPs, which has been ignored, is the social aspect of human development; namely, the erosion of social services, especially among vulnerable groups, families and individuals.”

Further, in reference to their impact on the family unit, he states:

“Although the government was committed to the reduction and eventual eradication of poverty in Kenya immediately after Independence, it has experienced difficulties in implementing its plans. Consequently, poverty has not only persisted, it has also increased significantly in the I990s, negatively affecting all sectors of development and the family unit in particular.”

In addition, the HIV pandemic further complicated the capacity of the family in two ways. One, it aggravated the already bad socio-economic conditions of the affected families and communities. The most infected were between the ages of 15 and 49 years, which constitutes the productive demographic. Many families lost their breadwinners and in most of the cases, one member of the family was forced to cut down on work hours or leave work altogether to take care of the one who was ailing. The number of orphans increased significantly with most being left in the care of either their grandparents or older siblings.

Currently, there is no substantive evidence on the number of orphanages in Kenya though some studies indicate that there are 850 registered orphanages and an unknown number of unregistered and unregulated ones.

Secondly, the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS was a direct affront on the kinship care previously attributed with caring for children who had lost their parents. While orphaned children would previously be absorbed into the extended family or close family friends, they were now shunned. In this state, the family institution was vulnerable to any external idea that would seemingly save these children.

As the pandemic quickly morphed into a humanitarian crisis, the Government of Kenya was understandably caught flatfooted. It had inherited the colonial philosophy that did not consider child care as a function of the state. As a result, Kenya didn’t have a credible child care and protection system to cater for the increasing numbers of children needing protection. This is a fact demonstrated by the laws concerning children that existed prior to 2001 when the Children Act was enacted.

The Adoption Act of 1959 was a law to govern the adoption of children. The Guardianship of Infants Act of 1959 was for guardianship and custody of infants and the Children and Young Persons Act was for the protection and discipline of children, juveniles and young persons. This implied that as the family became increasingly overwhelmed, there was no law or policy framework for services to support families in crisis or for alternatives in case the separation of children was inevitable.

In addition to introducing the term orphan in international development, the term’s definition was problematic in two ways. One, the definition branded the victim of the problem and not the problem itself. Secondly, the idea of orphan with its socio-economic connotations was hitherto alien to most African cultures.

In response to the crisis that had engulfed most African countries, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) came up with the concept of orphaned and vulnerable children (OVC) in an attempt to raise the profile of the crisis on the international development agenda. The term single orphan was introduced to refer to a child who has lost one parent while double orphan referred to one who had lost both parents. As a result, the number of orphans shot up instantly.

In addition to introducing the term orphan in international development, the term’s definition was problematic in two ways. One, the definition branded the victim of the problem and not the problem itself. Secondly, the idea of orphan with its socio-economic connotations was hitherto alien to most African cultures. Evidence indicates that most African communities still define children left behind not based on their socio-economic deprivation but on their position within their community. In the Gikuyu community, for instance, the child is referred to as “Mwana wa ndigwa” or a child who has been left behind, implying a general understanding that the child had been left in the care of the extended family or the community.

Secondly, the wisdom of the concept of vulnerable children is questionable since its implication was that almost all children in sub-Saharan Africa became the target of interventions, consequently creating a false impression that the traditional child care and protection systems in Africa has completely collapsed. It’s no surprise then that evidence indicates that between 80 per cent and 90 per cent of children in orphanages today have at least one surviving parent.

This was quickly followed by the emergence of the orphancare movement within the American Evangelical church. Though the church in the West, due to the simple lack of the bureaucracy of governments and international development agencies, was the first to respond to the crisis by mainly building orphanages through their local affiliates, the orphancare theology marked a watershed moment. Founded on James 1: 27, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world, this new gospel became the rallying call for Christians to commit to helping children out of the orphan crisis. With that, taking part in helping orphans in African and other developing countries became a measure of how Christian one was, and donations rose to unprecedented levels and so did the number of orphanages. In Kenya today, the majority of orphanages are operated by churches and Christian-based organisations with funding from mainly the US and Western Europe.

The Children Act 2001 and the official sanctioning of the orphanage

To further reinforce the position of the orphanage, the Children Act of 2001 was enacted, placing the orphanage at the core of the childcare system. Under the Act, a child must be placed into an orphanage before they can be placed for foster care or adoption. More fundamentally though, the Act was silent on the services to support vulnerable families and prevent separation or relinquishment of children.

Through the Children Act, the orphanage was thus officially and legally sanctioned as the default mode of care for children separated from their family while the family was left to its own devices. Stephen Ucembe, in his paper titled, “Institutionalization of Children in Kenya: A Child Rights Perspective”, notes that the reference to the orphanage as a charitable children’s institution in the Children Act 2001 clearly demonstrated the government’s abrogation of its role as the primary duty bearer of children’s rights – a fact demonstrated by the historical low budgetary allocation to the Department of Children’s Services and the National Council for Children’s Services. The government today only runs 26 statutory institutions meant for children in conflict with the law while churches and Christian organisations and individuals operate the 850 registered orphanages and an unknown number of unregistered ones. This is not surprising given the bizarre provision in the Charitable Children’s Institutions Regulations of 2005 that requires an orphanage to have at least 20 children before seeking registration. An orphanage simply needs to keep its numbers below this threshold and it can legally operate outside regulation.

Through the Children Act, the orphanage was thus officially and legally sanctioned as the default mode of care for children separated from their family while the family was left to its own devices.

Another key factor was the introduction of free primary education in 2003 which has been coupled with decreasing levels of funding for education, consequently reducing the quality of education in public schools. It’s estimated that 1 million primary school-age children were out of school by 2017. With orphanages either having schools within their precincts or securing sponsorships for children to attend private schools, impoverished parents relinquish their children and even ask them to lie that they are orphans to get into orphanages. Today, access to education is one of the leading reasons why children are in orphanages. Other reasons for placement of children in orphanages include abuse and neglect, gender-based violence, especially female genital mutilation, alcoholism and drug abuse, disability and discrimination.

What is the impact of orphanages on children, families and communities?

A 1999 study titled “Growth and Development of Abandoned Babies in Institutional Care in Nairobi” concluded that infants under institutional (orphanage) care have poorer growth and development compared to mothered infants. This is consistent with decades of research that has proven that care in orphanages has adverse impact on the cognitive, intellectual and social development of children, especially those below the age of three. The rule of thumb is that for every three months that a child below the age of three spends in an orphanage, he or she loses one month in development. Institutionalisation of children under the age of three is classified as a form of violence by the World Report on Violence Against Children.

In addition, evidence also demonstrates that violence against children is six times more likely in orphanages as compared to family settings – a fact not openly acknowledged due to the secluded nature of orphanages which allows most abuse to go unnoticed. Children in orphanages, their parents and the community also lack agency and are less likely to report abuse, especially if the benefactor is the perpetrator.

The orphanage perpetuates social isolation resulting in adjustment challenges once children exit. Care leavers lack social capital since they are cut off from their families and communities. They lack social skills to negotiate life outside the orphanage. Research indicates that they are more likely to end up in crime and prostitution, more inclined to suicide, while young women are likely to end up in abusive relationships and their children are likely to end up in an orphanage, thus perpetuating an endless cycle of poverty and institutionalisation.

Additionally, the orphanage infringes on children’s right to parental care, growth and development, freedom of association and of worship, particularly when children attend school and church within its confines. It also encourages discrimination and stigma against children.

The orphan ideology and the orphanage institution are a direct affront on the ideology and institution of the family. As indicated earlier, the idea of the orphaned and vulnerable child is not only foreign to African culture but also creates a false perception that the contemporary African family is irredeemably and inherently incapable, abusive, neglectful and exploitative towards children by classifying almost all children as being in need of care. For instance, there are reported to be 3.6 million orphaned and vulnerable children in Kenya out of which approximately 50,000 are in orphanages while between 400,000 and 500,000 live on the streets. Even if the number of children in orphanages was doubled to cater for those in unregistered orphanages, at least 83 per cent of these children would still be living with their families, though at risk of separation.

In a more direct affront on the position of the family, orphanage operators often refer to the orphanage as a family, and/or outrightly delegitimise the impoverished family. In a study titled, “Children’s Personal Data: Discursive Legitimation Strategies of Private Residential Care Institutions on the Kenyan Coast”, Njeri Chege notes that references to the orphanage as a family on orphanages’ websites are meant to legitimise the orphanage by attributing to it the authority of the family as a social institution. She highlights that the communication advances a rescue discourse that portrays the dysfunctional family as either an inherent threat to the child’s well-being or helpless. The orphanage is portrayed as the saviour and appropriate environment for the child. She further notes that communications by the orphanages only refer to unfit mothers with no mention of the fathers, while the extended family is only mentioned in situations where they are referring children to the orphanages.

Such narratives erode the legitimacy of the family both locally and abroad and further reinforce the impression of the hopeless African family created by the orphan and vulnerable children concept. This is especially potent for the younger generation of Kenyans born into the era of the orphanage and who because of the orphanage’s prominent presence and the repeated reference to it as a family end up internalising it as a legitimate or even better form of family while in actual sense it’s a much inferior alternative. The orphanage thus diverts resources that would be sufficient to provide social services to families at the community level. Evidence demonstrates that both provision of services at the community level and community foster care are more cost-effective than running orphanages.

Global an national policy shifts

The foregoing notwithstanding, the suitability of the orphanage is being questioned in Kenya today. This conversation has been driven by several factors at the international and national levels.

The Government of Kenya in 2010 formulated the National Social Protection Policy followed by the Social Assistance Act of 2013. The Act provides for, among other things, a cash transfer for orphaned and vulnerable children. The stipend is meant to enable vulnerable families to take care of their children. Other cash transfers include that for the elderly and persons living with severe disability.

In response to the United Nations Guidelines for Alternative Care of Children adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2009, the government developed the Guidelines for the Alternative Family Care of Children in Kenya, which were launched in 2015. The guidelines recommend the development of a deinstitutionalisation strategy. Since then, there has been a consistent push by a section of civil society for the implementation of the guidelines, which culminated in the formation of the Association for the Alternative Family Care of Children in Kenya in 2016. The government, through the Department of Children’s Services and in collaboration with UNICEF Kenya and other partners, is currently piloting the guidelines in Kisumu County.

The Government of Kenya in 2010 formulated the National Social Protection Policy followed by the Social Assistance Act of 2013. The Act provides for, among other things, a cash transfer for orphaned and vulnerable children.

Perhaps one of the clearest indications of the inevitable change is the decision by the trailblazing SOS Children’s Villages Kenya to gradually shift focus from their villages to the integrated foster care model, which basically involves moving the family units from the centralised cluster and scattering them within the community, effectively eliminating social isolation and allowing children to better integrate into society.

At the global level, several developments have heightened the prospects of a global shift, which inevitably exerts pressure on national policymakers. These include the inclusion of orphanage trafficking as a form of modern day slavery in the Australian Modern Day Slavery Act in the midst of an initiative to have all Commonwealth countries enact modern day slavery laws. The resolution by the Commonwealth Youth Forum at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London in 2018 calling on all member states to prioritise policies and programmes that prevent placement of children into orphanages. The latter is particularly interesting given that Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2020 will take place in Kigali, Rwanda, a country that is the trailblazer in deinstitutionalisation in Africa.

In 2018 the European Union placed its first ever call for proposals for deinstitutionalisation, signaling a possible intent to export its deinstitutionalisation policy position outside its jurisdiction, while the UN General Assembly selected “Children without Parental Care” as the theme for the Rights of the Child in 2019. All eyes will be on New York as it hosts the UN General Assembly in September 2019 when the resolution will be released.

Recruitment of children into orphanages has also become increasingly recognised in the US State Department’s Report on Trafficking in Persons. Most significant though is the recently launched US Government “Advancing Protection and Care of Children in Adversity’ Strategy 2019-2023”, which has “Put Family First” as one of its three core objectives. The strategy represents the most explicit and candid policy position by a major donor on the need to eradicate orphanages as a form of care.

Schools of thought and policy positions

In this context, it seems inevitable that the orphanage will inevitably either be eradicated or it may undergo some radical change. Undeniably, the actors in the country are aware of this and have embarked on initiatives to try and shape the discourse in their favour, either for self-preservation, positioning or even raw power play.

Three schools of thought or policy positions have emerged, each with a different motive, deinstitutionalisation ideology, and theory of change. The first policy position is the “conservative” position associated with the Association for Charitable Children Institutions in Kenya, which is the umbrella body for orphanages in Kenya. Unsurprisingly, this school of thought, though acknowledging the harm caused by orphanages, argues that the situation on the ground makes orphanages inevitable. “How do we take children back to the same families who abused and neglected them in the first place?” is their argument. Fundamentally though, they have redefined deinstitutionalisation to mean removal of children from orphanages through reintegration as opposed to removal of the orphanage from the childcare and protection system, effectively turning the orphanage system into a revolving door where children come in and out. Consequently, they are proposing the strengthening of orphanages to adhere to the National Standards of Care for Charitable Children Institutions and the strengthening of families at the same. They do not propose when and how the actual transition from orphanages to families will occur.

The second position is the “slash and burn” position whose proponent is the Child Welfare Society of Kenya. Though seemingly unrelated to deinstitutionalisation, this school of thought presents the most radical strategy for reintegrating children within three years, closing of all orphanages and replacing them with 47 mega foster care centres, one in each county. Funded by the national budget, construction of the facilities is currently underway in several counties. The second proposal is the centralisation of policymaking and service provision at the Child Welfare Society of Kenya. The argument is that a government agency will better guarantee child safety as opposed to private ones, which have been branded as rogue. However, evidence suggests that the key to safeguarding children lies in strict enforcement of sound regulations and presence of checks and balances at all levels and not necessarily whether the service provider is a state or non-state agency.

To justify overrunning of all the other players, this school of thought has adopted the emotive child trafficking in the guise of adoption narrative. It should, however, be acknowledged that adoption and child protection in general suffers deep systemic weaknesses that are beyond the scope of this essay, and not simply a matter of some alleged rogue players as the narrative seems to portray. The situation has further been aggravated by years of poor regulation, which has seen the rise of unscrupulous orphanage operators that expose children to abuse, neglect, exploitation and trafficking. This school of thought is focused on centralised regulation as opposed to reform.

The third position is the “care reform” position propagated mainly by the Association for Alternative Family Care of Children. In this case, deinstitutionalisation is just an entry point into broader social reforms aimed at provision of basic social services at the community level and resourced family-based alternatives. Though radical in its intended outcome, this school of thought is advocating for a more systematic approach encompassed in a clear strategy comprising political will for reforms, building the capacity of civil society organisations and the social workforce, building evidence through, among other avenues, piloting of the concept, and the securing of funding for reforms, including ring fencing of resources being channeled into orphanages currently. This position is informed by the model applied mainly in Eastern Europe and Rwanda and its main global proponents are tge international charities Hope and Homes for Children and Lumos, a charity founded by the iconic Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling.

Currently, this model is being piloted in Nyamira, Kisumu and Kiambu counties under the banner of Changing the Way We Care programme spearheaded by the Department of Children’s Services, Catholic Relief Services and Lumos. USAID, under the “Advancing Protection and Care for Children in Adversity” strategy mentioned above, is co-funding the initiative alongside the MacAuthor Foundation. A similar pilot is currently underway in Murang’a County under the stewardship of the Department of Children’s Services and the charity Stahili Foundation.

In his thesis titled, “For the Benefit of Children Alone? A Discourse Analysis of Policymaking Relating to Children’s Institutions in Indonesia, 1999-2009”, Brian Keith Babington examined the process of deinstitutionalisation policymaking in Indonesia and found out that the policy position finally adopted in the country was not informed by child welfare concerns but was a compromise between the policy positions adopted by different players, in addition to some influence from external development partners. The Kenyan situation is similar to that of Indonesia in terms of orphanage ownership, poor regulation, the emergence of different policy positions and the involvement of major development agencies. In addition, the robust civil space in Kenya makes policymaking highly participatory in most cases. It is, therefore, likely that in the long term, a compromise of the different policy positions and the influence of international development agencies will shape the final policy position adopted in Kenya.

In conclusion, it is evident that though the family was gradually weakened by socio-economic factors from the 70s, the tipping point was the HIV pandemic and the lack of a child care system at the time of its emergence. The interventions and narratives that followed, including the concept of the orphan and the orphanage, further aggravated the situation by affronting traditional child care systems and focusing on the symptoms of the problem and not the problem itself.

The ultimate solution, therefore, lies in changing the ideological foundation and narratives, policies and practices on child care to focus on the family and community. Rehabilitating the family and community child care systems will not only eradicate the need for the orphanage but will also solve the problem of children living on the streets, reduce abuse and neglect of children and improve the overall well-being of children, their families and communities. Failure to do this will only see the family, especially the impoverished one, increasingly fail in its child rearing role, which could be disastrous considering that children make up to slightly over half of the Kenyan population.

Against this backdrop, it is stark clear which of the policy positions is sounder from the perspective of the problem as defined herein.

This notwithstanding, the “slash and burn” position seems to have the support of the executive perhaps due to the proximity of the Child Welfare Society of Kenya to the First Family. The president was their patron at the time they were made a state corporation after succeeding his mother. The position by the Labour and Social Services Cabinet Secretary on the government’s plan to close orphanages therefore need not be interpreted as a sign of political goodwill for care reform but rather for a specific policy position within the broader care reform discourse. More interesting is the seeming difference in position between the Department of Children’s Services, on the one hand, and the Cabinet Secretary and the Child Welfare Society of Kenya, on the other.

The ultimate solution, therefore, lies in changing the ideological foundation and narratives, policies and practices on childcare to focus on the family and community. Rehabilitating the family and community childcare systems will not only eradicate the need for the orphanage but will also solve the problem of children living on the streets.

With all the pushing and shoving, the deinstitutionalisation policymaking process is likely to produce on the most dramatic and interesting policy processes witnessed thus far. It can only be hoped that in the end, the best interest of Kenyan children will prevail.

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Simon Njoroge is the Co-founder and Executive Director at Jabali Foundation a Kenyan non-profit that seeks to provide every child with a solid foundation to life which we believe is in a safe and loving family.

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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Nashulai – A Community Conservancy With a Difference

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

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

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

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

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

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

A reckoning

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

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

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

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

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

A colonial hangover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s who’s doing the work

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

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

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

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

The community conservancy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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