When independent Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated in 1962, over 100,000 people protested in Beijing Workers’ Stadium. Thousands more protested in New Delhi and Singapore.
When Sudan lacked a formal plaque at the 1955 Bandung Conference, where the leaders of Asia and Africa declared the Third World project, India’s Jawaharlal Nehru wrote “Sudan” on his handkerchief, ensuring Africa’s then largest country a seat.
It was a time when Asia and Africa, home to almost 80 percent of humanity, found kinship in their shared trauma and conjoined destiny. Both were always spoken of in tandem. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” drew inspiration from what he saw overseas: “The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet like speed toward gaining political independence.”
Too often we forget that the most defining event of the 20th century was not World War II or the Cold War, but the liberation of billions in Asia and Africa between the 1950s and 1980s as citizens of almost 100 new-born countries.
It also marked the revival of an ancient, pre-European connection. Historically, Asia and Africa were enmeshed centers of wealth and knowledge and the gatekeepers of the most lucrative trade routes. The Roman Empire’s richest region was North Africa, not Europe. A severe trade imbalance with South Asia forced Roman emissaries to beg spice traders in Tamil Nadu to limit their exports.
Western Europeans left their shores in desperation, not exploration, in the 1500s to secure a maritime route to the wealthy Indian Ocean trading system that integrated Asia and Africa. Somali traders grew rich as middlemen transiting coveted varieties of cinnamon from South Asia to Southern Europe. The Swahili coast shipped gold, ivory, and wildlife to China. Transferring the world economy to the Atlantic first required Portugal’s violent undoing of the flow of goods and peoples between Asia and Africa.
In Bandung, Indonesia’s Sukarno declared “a new departure” in which peoples of both continents no longer had “their futures mortgaged to an alien system.”
Yet that departure became a wide divergence that is complex to comprehend. Over the last few years, I’ve shuttled between the megacities of Asia to East and Central Africa. I also grew up in four Asian countries—India, Thailand, Philippines, and Singapore—and lived through Southeast Asia’s exponential rise.
The gap between Africa and East Asia, including Southeast Asia, is perplexing because we share much in common—culture, values, spirit, and worldview. I’m reminded of this in Somalia, Sudan, Uganda, or Ghana, where I’ve felt an immediate sense of fraternity.
It’s now a familiar story: 70 years ago, African incomes and literacy rates were higher than East Asia, then an epicenter of major wars. But in one generation, East Asia achieved wealth, human development, and standards of living that rival a tired, less relevant Western world.
The shockingly inept response by many Western countries to a historic pandemic has only amplified calls for Africa to abandon the Western model and learn from its once closest allies. A new book titled Asian Aspiration: How and Why Africa Should Emulate Asia, hit stores this year, co-authored by former Nigerian and Ethiopian heads of state. An op-ed in Kenya’s Star newspaper even prior suggested Kenyans shift their gaze from the supposed advancement of Westerners to “the progress of our comrades in the East.”
The incessant idea that Africa’s future lies in models not of its own making can be patronising. But Africa can indeed learn from the successes and pitfalls of East Asia, the world’s most economically dynamic region also built from scratch, while imparting wisdom of its own.
Many who previously pondered this gap came up with multiple theories, but often ignored a simple reality: Africa’s geography. Like Latin America, Africa is bedeviled by a predatory power to its north that siphons capital, talent, labor, and hope. By contrast, East Asia, even with several U.S. bases, is an ocean away from the United States and a 12-hour flight from Western Europe.
Europe’s proximity to Africa also cultivated a perennial barrier to development: the Western aid industry. Whether I’m in Haiti or Chad, the sheer domination of Western NGOs, development agencies, aid convoys, and all manner of plunder masquerading as goodwill—$40 billion more illicitly flows out of Africa than incoming loans and aid combined—is something I never saw even 25 years ago in Southeast Asia. Industries look for growth opportunities. Developed societies with robust public systems in East Asia offer few for saviors. The streets of Bangkok and Hanoi are lined with Toyotas and tourists, not wide-eyed youths in armored vehicles guided by white burden. The development industry and most of its participants I’ve had the misfortune of meeting are toxic. Large swaths of Africa remain under occupation of a different kind.
For much of the 20th century, Africa also faced a virulent settler colony in its south which destabilized the region and was so hateful of Black Africans that its mercenaries set up a series of bogus health clinics to surreptitiously spread HIV under the guise of charitable healthcare.
East Asia’s settler colony, Australia, was never able to replicate South Africa’s belligerence. It did lay waste to Papua New Guinea (where it continues to imprison asylum-seekers) but Australia never invaded or occupied Indonesia or the Philippines.
Another fallacy explaining African inertia is poor leadership. Leadership is paramount, but Africa produced a generation of independence era leaders whose values and decency the world desperately needs today. All were killed or overthrown by the West—because Africa is a far deeper reservoir of resources than East Asia.
South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan are not resource rich. Thailand was never even colonized. An Asian country afflicted by similar conditions to Africa is mineral-rich Myanmar, closed to the wider world and progress for decades. Showcases of democracy aside, its kleptocratic, authoritarian political culture, like many African countries, was inherited from British rule. George Orwell’s less referenced book Burma Days, a recount of his time as a police officer in colonial Burma, called the British Empire “a despotism with theft as its final object.”
Resources prevented African leaders from towing a middle road that kept Western powers happy while investing in their society. The choice was resource nationalism or authoritarian acquiescence “with theft as its final object.” It was either Lumumba or Mobutu.
East Asian success stories worked within the global capitalist system and conducted deft diplomacy to placate Western superiority complexes while fortifying relationships with the rest of the global South. At independence, Singapore dispatched diplomats around the world, including several African countries, to build trade ties. Its manufacturing companies provided cassette tapes for Sudan’s then booming music industry. It hired Israeli advisors to train its military while staying in the good books of neighbors and Arab partners who stood with the Palestinians. These maneuvers are only possible when you aren’t sitting on $24 trillion worth of minerals.
Geography aided East Asia. Colonial borders, with a few exceptions, resembled some form of community that came before the nation-state. Consider both the Malay and Korean Peninsulas. Thailand’s borders, while amended as concessions to imperial powers, conformed largely to the cultural and linguistic boundaries of ancient Siam.
Africa’s artificial borders concocted nation-states with no experience as a community of any kind. The nation-state model creates fissures even in Europe, with the Yugoslav wars and constant, violently suppressed demands for statehood by the Basques and Catalans in Spain, not to mention a referendum by the Scots. Partitions across Africa, a special kind of cartographic violence, congealed animosity for generations.
So while Africans were marginally better off at independence than East Asians, structurally they actually did not have a head start. But Africa still thrived in the 1970s. It is only now reaching average income levels akin to half a century ago. To dismiss the continent’s record since independence as a perennial failure is a historically illiterate point of view. Its cultural output and musical dynamism were astonishing—arguably unrivaled—during this era. Liverpool and Manchester? Try Luanda and Mogadishu.
Africans were well aware of the right course but were thwarted more viciously than East Asia’s most developed states. Perhaps the West is more tolerant of Asian success because of racial hierarchies, just as the US parades Asian-American affluence as a symbol of the universality of the US-led Western model but violently responds to the smallest hint of actual wealth creation in Black-American communities.
Now, amid a precarious coming decade, East Asia indeed offers prescriptions for not only natural allies like Africans but societies worldwide seeking transformation in record time.
First off, it’s all about networks. Do the rules of your country facilitate local, regional, and international networks? A new Harvard study concluded that brisk business travel has the single biggest impact on building networks, diffusing knowledge, and birthing new industries. Europe’s own development benefited from its small land space, which tailored expansive, tight-knit networks that rapidly spread ideas revolutionizing everything from the sciences to football tactics.
Frequent trips to any major city in East Asia connect you to lucrative networks half a world away. Business travel (at least before the chaos of coronavirus) to East Asia is accessible, affordable, and hassle-free. The right infrastructure and laws—state-of-the-art airports, good accommodations, low-cost, high-speed telecommunications, rapid transportation links and whole scale visa liberalization—are needed to accommodate network-building travelers of every stripe and budget. African countries should follow suit, and streamline business travel, which would allow African travelers to build dense regional and continental networks—currently a tough ask when pre-pandemic flights from Nairobi to London were far cheaper than to neighboring capitals.
Since the 1980s, the Anglo-American West, ideologically intoxicated by deregulation, abdicated their society’s fate to self-interested individuals and free markets alone. East Asian countries enacted hardcore capitalist policies but never bought into this demented idea. The US and UK spent the last four decades dismantling their states; East Asian countries meanwhile reinforced their capacity with vast investments in education, telecommunication, and especially healthcare.
Thailand abandoned the neoliberal approach to healthcare in the early 2000s for a private-public model that guaranteed universal coverage and secured its place as the first country in Asia to eliminate HIV transmission from mother to child. Both Singapore and Hong Kong have the most efficient healthcare systems in the world. Sharply guided public health policies underwrote East Asia’s masterful management of COVID-19. Vietnam and Laos had zero deaths from coronavirus while Germany, somehow a celebrated success story in the Western press, has over 9,000 deaths.
Recently, Kenya sought Thailand’s expertise in revamping a typically price-gouged private healthcare system. Ethiopia invited Vietnamese telecommunication companies to make its systems reliable, fast, and, like much of Southeast Asia, affordable.
In the Nigerian and Kenyan corners of Twitter, “The Singapore Solution” resonates. People yearn for a Lee Kuan Yew figure. Lee once told an Indian audience that Singapore’s model cannot be adopted by India, which, according to him, “is not a real country…Instead it is thirty-two separate nations that happen to be arrayed along the British rail line.”
The same can be said about Nigeria and Kenya. Singapore is an entrepot state of a few million at the gateway to the Malacca Straits, the world’s busiest shipping lane, with deep ancestral ties to China and India, the world’s richest economies for 1,800 of the last 2,000 years.
Each country’s trajectory is highly contingent on a set of unique circumstances and should never be applied wholesale. With the immense benefit of hindsight, Africans can choose from the best, most fitting lessons from the region, while staying vigilant of and mitigating many pitfalls.
For every one of me, inheritors of East Asia’s boom, there are, like New York City and London in the early 1900s, millions trapped as cheap labor servicing endless growth, forced to compete over scraps in unforgiving cities. East Asian inequality is nauseating. South Korea has the highest elderly poverty rate in the OECD, with almost half of its senior citizens condemned to destitution rather than retirement. Only disparities that torture the soul can create award-winning films like Parasite.
This is a feature, not a bug, of East Asia’s rapid growth. Opening up to global capitalism inevitably instills hierarchies and racialized aspirations. When I see advertisements for new luxury condominiums, possibly the most prevalent hoardings in Southeast Asia, it’s an image of a white man with his East Asian wife and mixed-race child. The message is clear. As Frantz Fanon wrote, “you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich.”
East Asia may not have the levels of violent, heartless racism on brazen display in Western societies, but the 1990s were a turning point. East Asians began to look down on those modernization taught them to distrust. You don’t go from mourning an assassinated Congolese leader by the thousands to treating African expatriates as diseased in one generation without a drastic, very recent shift.
Some Westerners, like washed up drunks screaming profanities at a bar, might be tempted to repeat the mantras falsely underlining their sense of superiority to make preposterous demands of such young countries pieced together overnight. They might ask, “Well what of democracy? Human rights? Freedom of the press? Free markets?” These are all wonderful things, if they actually existed.
Not a single Western country was a democracy during its development. Western Europe had a fascist government in Spain until 1975. France and Britain fought horrific wars to deny Algeria and Kenya independence even after defeating Nazism. You can’t be a democracy when you deny democracy to others. European colonies were run as totalitarian dictatorships and lasted well into the late 20th century.
Freedom of the press? Try criticizing Israel in the mainstream US or German media.
Human rights? Europe lets migrants drown by the thousands in the Mediterranean. Australia has offshore camps for asylum seekers where abuse and rape are rampant. The US has kids in cages and its cops murder young Black men for sport.
Free markets? Both the US and Britain were viciously protectionist societies that relied on massive state intervention, and overwhelming military force, to mint its corporations.
The marriage of free markets to supposedly liberal democracy gave us Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, India’s Narendra Modi, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, and kept war criminal Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s longest serving leader. The Western liberal order, Indian writer Pankaj Mishra meticulously reveals, is an “incubator for authoritarianism” because it’s premised on fairy tales.
An open society, a vibrant marketplace, and a respect for human dignity are of course worthy and necessary goals. More representative forms of government, hopefully devised by us rather than imported from Cornwall, England, will arrive. We need not be “Jeffersonian Democrats”; we can surely do better than a system championed by slave owners. As Deng Xiaoping said when China opened up after its century of humiliation, “Let some people get rich first,” which should be interpreted as a call to enrich societies as a whole before succumbing to obnoxious Western moralizing about values they rarely practice themselves.
Advancement need not only be predicated on economic growth and democratic politics and Africa need not only be the student and Asia the mentor. Asia has much to learn from Africa’s grand investments in culture in its earliest days. Aside from Vietnam, whose communist government funded the arts, and South Korea, which subsidized its K-Pop industry, most East Asian countries pay little attention to their cultural prowess on the world stage.
When kids in Djibouti listen to songs on their phone, it’s Somali music or Nigerian hits. Hop in a taxi in Accra or Khartoum and you hear that country’s sound. Africans listen to their own music. Southeast Asia does not. The richest music is derided as a pastime of lower classes, unfit for well-heeled urban elites. Talent gets lost in the never-ending roster of cover bands for top 40 American pop.
In Jakarta’s many behemoth malls, “you will not hear Indonesian music,” wrote journalist Vincent Bevins. “You will not hear Japanese music, or anything from Asia… It will all have been packaged and sold in the USA.” It’s the same story anywhere in the region.
This may seem trivial, but a country’s image is vital to any lasting progress. In a world no longer able to “identify with, let alone aspire to, Hollywood’s white fantasies of power, wealth and sex,” wrote Fatima Bhutto in New Kings of the World: Dispatches from Bollywood, Dizi, and K-Pop, “a vast cultural movement is emerging from the global South… Truly global in its range and allure, it is the biggest challenge to America’s monopoly of soft power since the end of the Second World War.”
African countries laid the foundations in the ‘70s to fill this vacuum. Their image will be defined in the next decades by their stellar music, set to be in our lifetimes the global staple and standard. Independent labels and corporate players like UMG and Sony, now with headquarters in Lagos and Abidjan, have ensured unprecedented international access to Africa’s abundance of music, past and present.
African literary festivals have also blossomed, adding to an impressive six percent growth in the industry. It’s only a matter of time before small and multinational publishing houses scout a new cadre of young African writers to make household names, as they did in South Asia. Africa hosts over 35 annual literary festivals, even in struggling cities like Mogadishu, while East Asia only enjoys 21.
Economic engines inevitably slow. Southeast Asia in particular must emulate African pride in its own music and related expressions of culture to seize on openings left behind by a once omnipotent cultural hegemony in full retreat. South Korea understood this early and enjoys a powerful, beloved global brand molded by pop music and films, not per capita income.
Even if Africa and Asia swap carefully selected approaches, ultimate success is only possible from a unity akin to the 1955 Bandung Conference. When we again mingle and ally, when we mourn each other’s dead, when we scribble names on napkins as acts of solidarity, we will again realize our lasting success. The final phase to complete the process of decolonization will have to be done jointly, in unison, or never at all.
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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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.”
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.
With growing attention to climate breakdown and the need for expanded use of renewable energy sources, the mineral resources needed to make batteries are emerging as a key site of conflict. In this context, cobalt – traditionally mined as a by-product of copper and nickel – has become a subject of major interest in its own right.
Competition over supplies of cobalt is intensifying. Some reports suggest that demand for cobalt is likely to exceed known reserves if projected shifts to renewable energy sources are realized. Much of this competition is playing out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The south-eastern regions of the DRC hold about half of proven global cobalt reserves, and account for an even higher proportion of global cobalt production (roughly 70 percent) because known reserves in the DRC are relatively shallow and easier to extract.
Recent high profile articles in outlets including the New York Times and the Guardian have highlighted a growing ‘battery arms race’ supposedly playing out between the West (mostly the US) and China over battery metals, especially cobalt.
These pieces suggest, with some alarm, that China is ‘winning’ this race. They highlight how Chinese dominance in battery supply chains might inhibit energy transitions in the West. They also link growing Chinese mining operations to a range of labour and environmental abuses in the DRC, where the vast majority of the world’s available cobalt reserves are located.
Both articles are right that the hazards and costs of the cobalt boom have been disproportionately borne by Congolese people and landscapes, while few of the benefits have reached them. But by subsuming these problems into narratives of geopolitical competition between the US and China and zooming in on the supposedly pernicious effects of Chinese-owned operations in particular, the ‘arms race’ narrative ultimately obscures more than it reveals.
There is unquestionably a scramble for cobalt going on. It is centered in the DRC but spans much of the globe, working through tangled transnational networks of production and finance that link mines in the South-Eastern DRC to refiners and battery manufacturers scattered across China’s industrializing cities, to financiers in London, Toronto, and Hong Kong, to vast transnational corporations ranging from mineral rentiers (Glencore), to automotive companies (Volkswagen, Ford), to electronics and tech firms (Apple). This loose network is governed primarily through an increasingly amorphous and uneven patchwork of public and private ‘sustainability’ standards. And, it plays out against the backdrop of both long-running depredations of imperialism and the more recent devastation of structural adjustment.
In a word, the scramble for cobalt is a thoroughly capitalist scramble.
Chinese firms do unquestionably play a major role in global battery production in general and in cobalt extraction and refining in particular. Roughly 50 percent of global cobalt refining now takes place in China. The considerable majority of DRC cobalt exports do go to China, and Chinese firms have expanded interests in mining and trading ventures in the DRC.
However, although the Chinese state has certainly fostered the development of cobalt and other battery minerals, there is as much a scramble for control over cobalt going on within China as between China and the ‘west’. There has, notably, been a wave of concentration and consolidation among Chinese cobalt refiners since about 2010. The Chinese firms operating in the DRC are capitalist firms competing with each other in important ways. They often have radically different business models. Jinchuan Group Co. Ltd and China Molybdenum, for instance, are Hong Kong Stock Exchange-listed firms with ownership shares in scattered global refining and mining operations. Jinchuan’s major mine holdings in the DRC were acquired from South African miner Metorex in 2012; China Molybdenum recently acquired the DRC mines owned by US-based Freeport-McMoRan (as the New York Times article linked above notes with concern). A significant portion of both Jinchuan Group and China Molybdenum’s revenues, though, come from speculative metals trading rather than from production. Yantai Cash, on the other hand, is a specialized refiner which does not own mining operations. Yantai is likely the destination for a good deal of ‘artisanal’ mined cobalt via an elaborate network of traders and brokers.
These large Chinese firms also are thoroughly plugged in to global networks of battery production ultimately destined, in many cases, for widely known consumer brands. They are also able to take advantage of links to global marketing and financing operations. The four largest Chinese refiners, for instance, are all listed brands on the London Metal Exchange (LME).
In the midst of increased concentration at the refining stage and concerns over supplies, several major end users including Apple, Volkswagen, and BMW have sought to establish long-term contracts directly with mining operations since early 2018. Tesla signed a major agreement with Glencore to supply cobalt for its new battery ‘gigafactories’ in 2020. Not unrelatedly, they have also developed integrated supply chain tracing systems, often dressed up in the language of ‘sustainability’ and transparency. One notable example is the Responsible Sourcing Blockchain Initiative (RSBI). This initiative between the blockchain division of tech giant IBM, supply chain audit firm RCS Global, and several mining houses, mineral traders, and automotive end users of battery materials including Ford, Volvo, Volkswagen Group, and Fiat-Chrysler Automotive Group was announced in 2019. RSBI conducted a pilot test tracing 1.5 tons of Congolese cobalt across three different continents over five months of refinement.
Major end users including automotive and electronics brands have, in short, developed increasingly direct contacts extending across the whole battery production network.
There are also a range of financial actors trying to get in on the scramble (though, as both Jinchuan and China Molybdenum demonstrate, the line between ‘productive’ and ‘financial’ capital here can be blurry). Since 2010, benchmark cobalt prices are set through speculative trading on the LME. A number of specialized trading funds have been established in the last five years, seeking to profit from volatile prices for cobalt. One of the largest global stockpiles of cobalt in 2017, for instance, was held by Cobalt 27, a Canadian firm established expressly to buy and hold physical cobalt stocks. Cobalt 27 raised CAD 200 million through a public listing on the Toronto Stock Exchange in June of 2017, and subsequently purchased 2160.9 metric tons of cobalt held in LME warehouses. There are also a growing number of exchange traded funds (ETF) targeting cobalt. Most of these ETFs seek ‘exposure’ to cobalt and battery components more generally, for instance, through holding shares in mining houses or what are called ‘royalty bearing interests’ in specific mining operations rather than trading in physical cobalt or futures. Indeed, by mid-2019, Cobalt-27 was forced to sell off its cobalt stockpile at a loss. It was subsequently bought out by its largest shareholder (a Swiss-registered investment firm) and restructured into ‘Conic’, an investment fund holding a portfolio of royalty-bearing interests in battery metals operations rather than physical metals.
Or, to put it another way, there is as much competition going on within ‘China’ and the ‘West’ between different firms to establish control over limited supplies of cobalt, and to capture a share of the profits, as between China and the ‘West’ as unitary entities.
Thus far, workers and communities in the Congolese Copperbelt have suffered the consequences of this scramble. They have seen few of the benefits. Indeed, this is reflective of much longer-run processes, documented in ROAPE, wherein local capital formation and local development in Congolese mining have been systematically repressed on behalf of transnational capital for decades.
The current boom takes place against the backdrop of the collapse, and subsequent privatization, of the copper mining industry in the 1990s and 2000s. In 1988, state-owned copper mining firm Gécamines produced roughly 450 000 tons of copper, and employed 30 000 people, by 2003, production had fallen to 8 000 tons and workers were owed up to 36 months of back pay. As part of the restructuring and privatization of the company, more than 10 000 workers were offered severance payments financed by the World Bank, the company was privatized, and mining rights were increasingly marketized. By most measures, mining communities in the Congolese Copperbelt are marked by widespread poverty. A 2017 survey found mean and median monthly household incomes of $USD 34.50 and $USD 14, respectively, in the region.
In the context of widespread dispossession, the DRC’s relatively shallow cobalt deposits have been an important source of livelihood activities. Estimates based on survey research suggest that roughly 60 percent of households in the region derived some income from mining, of which 90 percent worked in some form of artisanal mining. Recent research has linked the rise of industrial mining installations owned by multinational conglomerates to deepening inequality, driven in no small part by those firms’ preference for expatriate workers in higher paid roles. Where Congolese workers are employed, this is often through abusive systems of outsourcing through labour brokers.
Cobalt mining has also been linked to substantial forms of social and ecological degradation in surrounding areas, including significant health risks from breathing dust (not only to miners but also to local communities), ecological disruption and pollution from acid, dust, and tailings, and violent displacement of local communities.
The limited benefits and high costs of the cobalt boom for local people in the Congolese copperbelt, in short, are linked to conditions of widespread dispossession predating the arrival of Chinese firms and are certainly not limited to Chinese firms.
To be clear, none of this is to deny that Chinese firms have been implicated in abuses of labour rights and ecologically destructive practices in the DRC, nor that the Chinese state has clearly made strategic priorities of cobalt mining, refining, and battery manufacturing. It does not excuse the very real abuses linked to Chinese firms that European-owned ones have done many of the same things. Nor does the fact that those Chinese firms are often ultimately vendors to major US and European auto and electronic brands.
However, all of this does suggest that any diagnosis of the developmental ills, violence, ecological damage and labour abuses surrounding cobalt in the DRC that focuses specifically on the character of Chinese firms or on inter-state competition is limited at best. It gets Glencore, Apple, Tesla, and myriad financial speculators, to say nothing of capitalist relations of production generally, off the hook.
If we want to get to grips with the unfolding scramble for cobalt and its consequences for the people in the south-east DRC, we need to keep in view how the present-day scramble reflects wider patterns of uneven development under capitalist relations of production.
We should note that such narratives of a ‘new scramble for Africa’ prompted by a rapacious Chinese appetite for natural resources are not new. As Alison Ayers argued nearly a decade ago of narratives about the role of China in a ‘new scramble for Africa’, a focus on Chinese abuses means that ‘the West’s relations with Africa are construed as essentially beneficent, in contrast to the putatively opportunistic, exploitative and deleterious role of the emerging powers, thereby obfuscating the West’s ongoing neocolonial relationship with Africa’. Likewise, such accounts neglect ‘profound changes in the global political economy within which the “new scramble for Africa” is to be more adequately located’. These interventions are profoundly political, providing important forms of ideological cover for both neoliberal capitalism and for longer-run structures of imperialism.
In short, the barrier to a just transition to sustainable energy sources is not a unitary ‘China’ bent on the domination of emerging industries as a means to global hegemony. It is capitalism. Or, more precisely, it is the fact that responses to the climate crisis have thus far worked through and exacerbated the contradictions of existing imperialism and capitalist relations of production. The scramble for cobalt is a capitalist scramble, and one of many signs that there can be no ‘just’ transition without overturning capitalism and imperialism on a global scale.
This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).
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