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‘Teach and Go Home’: Kenya’s Teachers Service Commission and the Terrors of Bureaucracy

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The TSC has no mandate, and no qualification, to be peeping into classrooms and making pedagogical decisions. The litany of bureaucracy that it imposes on teachers must be abolished.

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‘Teach and Go Home’: Kenya's Teachers Service Commission and the Terrors of Bureaucracy
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On the afternoon of Friday, 12 November, Martha Omollo, a teacher in Nairobi County, was called to her school and served with a letter from the Teachers Service Commission, the government employer of teachers in public schools. The letter, which was dated that day, informed her that she had been transferred to a school in Trans Nzoia County, 400 kilometres away, and that she was to report ready to teach the following Monday, 15th November.

Earlier in the week, Omollo had been the spokesperson of the Teachers’ Pressure Group, which had called into question the loyalty of the union leaders to its members, and the opaque health insurance scheme into which teachers pay through involuntary salary deductions. Shortly after the press conference, Omollo received a call from the TSC Nairobi County office warning her not to publicly discuss issues facing teachers.

The idea that a teacher can pack her bags in the middle of the term and move 400 km away, ready to teach in three days, is nothing short of cruel. The move clearly disregards human nature, and the fact that teaching is, by its very essence, a profession of relationship. Teachers cannot take care of students’ minds and wellbeing when they themselves are anxious about their own wellbeing, and worse, when they are denied the freedom of thought and speech. The transfer communicates that the TSC does not care, and worse, it callously turns one teacher into a warning to other teachers.

Similar treatment of a teacher was witnessed in April this year. The media reported about a teacher, Magdalene Kimani, who trekked to a school 20km away for a number of days to administer national examinations. In reaction to this fairly innocent report, the county education office sent her a “show cause” letter, yet the report was initiated by the media rather than the other way round. The education officials were heartless to ignore the teacher’s 20km trek and then issue a threatening letter to her.

These two cases are just a microcosm of the harassment that Kenyan teachers endure under the TSC. For instance, the TSC has carried out massive transfers of teachers away from their home areas in a procedure called “delocalization”. In her appearance before the Senate, Nancy Macharia, the CEO of the TSC, justified the initiative affecting thousands of teachers as a move to encourage “national cohesion”. It is amazing that one can think that cohesion comes from displacing teachers, disrupting their families, and showing no care about what worried teachers mean for students. To make such moves that increase teachers’ anxiety during school unrest is insensitive and a symptom of bureaucratic hubris.

It should not surprise Kenyans, therefore, that this callousness is bound to show up in the schools and public spaces. Senior government officials display an amazing lack of emotional intelligence and sensitivity to ordinary professionals, and a seeming ignorance of the harm that their actions against juniors imply for the larger public. Teachers who are anxious and who feel disrespected cannot treat children with dignity and respond to the extra-ordinary circumstances of the children under their care. To expect otherwise, as the TSC seems to do, is the definition of either hubris or inhumanity.

Take, for instance, the forms that teachers have to fill in regularly. According to the TSC, teachers have to fill in 18 forms, but teachers say that the forms are more than that. The ludicrous CBC promise of paying attention to individual learners has meant that teachers fill in forms detailing the special learners in their class, the nature of the learners’ challenges, and the remedies that the teachers have taken to address those challenges. Teachers are also expected to file reports on how they have covered what KICD calls “strands” and “subs-strands”. Now that this is assessment season, teachers are also required by the Kenya National Examinations Council to assess students conducting group activities, but the assessments require the teacher to grade each individual student along six or seven measurements. This means that for one subject taught to one class of sixty students, a teacher is filling in 60 rows x 7 columns.

Senior government officials display an amazing lack of emotional intelligence and sensitivity to ordinary professionals.

The problem with this work is not simply the amount. It’s that the work is demeaning. Teachers are filling in paperwork about teaching rather than doing the actual teaching. In the language of the anthropologist David Graeber, this is the “bullshitization” of work caused by an increase in bureaucrats with nothing to do but supervise others. The point of these forms is not to improve teaching and learning, as the bureaucrats have deluded themselves. The point is control by people who spend their days in offices and do not understand the beauty and mystery of the human connection between teachers and children, nor the fact that that beauty and mystery cannot be translated into numerical measurements. By some perverse psychology, Graeber explains, work in the neoliberal era has meant an exponential increase in administrators who subsequently use bureaucratic tools to terrorize the people doing the actual work.

I do not use the word “terrorize” lightly. The word has been used by education scholars in their assessments of performance appraisal for teachers, including by the eminent British education sociologist Stephen J. Ball, in his well-cited journal article The Teacher’s Soul and the Terrors of Performativity. The nature of terror is to plant shame and fear in the individual, make the individual feel isolated and therefore incapable of changing anything about their condition. Terror is also characterized by a lack of predictability. And because the system is always incoherent and inconsistent, teachers can never tell where the attack will come from. No matter what the teacher does, the teacher is never good enough.

One teacher told me that with TPAD, teachers are told to rate themselves but not too much, and then punished for not achieving 100 per cent performance. The teacher put it this way: “During the introduction of TPAD, we were directed that we should not rate ourselves more than 80 per cent even when you know you have met the ‘targets’. During the recent interviews, those without evidence of it were disqualified.”

The point is control by people who spend their days in offices and do not understand the beauty and mystery of the human connection between teachers and children.

​Another tragically hilarious story was recounted in a letter to the editor of the Nation newspaper some years back. The letter, titled “TSC should listen to teachers’ voice on appraisal row”, read:

Back in 2010, quality assurance and standards personnel from the Ministry of Education visited the school I was teaching in then.

As a routine, they demanded to inspect teachers’ ‘tools of trade’, as they called them. These included schemes of work, records of work books, lesson notes and lesson plans and files containing learners’ progress reports, amongst many others. We complied. Only one member of staff had all these. The rest of us, in a staff of 27, including the principal, had one or more documents missing.

After perusal, we were given a lengthy lecture on how ‘lazy’ we had become, and that only one of us merited a recognition in a public forum, notably, the school’s Annual General Meeting, and that the institution would be posting better results were we to emulate our colleague.

After the exit of the QASO personnel, the entire staffroom burst into laughter. Months later, the teacher in question was transferred following complaints from parents and learners over his below par delivery and alcoholism.

This is an egregious story of how bureaucrats confuse measures and tools of work with the actual work itself. Humiliating teachers for not having submitted complete records is similar to judging a carpenter’s work not by the furniture but by the carpenter’s hammer. For the teacher, part of the torture of performance appraisal comes from the consciousness that the work that one is doing is barely a reflection of the real work of teaching. As the story shows, a teacher actually teaching in the classroom is unlikely to achieve perfect record keeping, and yet, it is the lack of record keeping that is used to judge the teacher as lax and incompetent.

As Ball explains, the goal of teacher appraisals is not the improvement of teaching, as education bureaucrats claim. The real goal is to capture the teacher’s soul. The demand for performativity seeks to change not what teachers do, but who the teachers are. It is a vicious power grab aimed at denying teachers the ability to make judgements based on their professional opinion, and at making the bureaucrats and managers, rather than the children in their classrooms, the main focus of teaching. This obsession is so acute in the TSC, that as the latest wave of school fires began a few weeks ago, teachers were simultaneously receiving text messages from their employer reminding them to meet the deadlines for their appraisals. In other words, our children are not a priority for the education bureaucrats. It is for this reason that many teachers have adopted the “teach and go home” philosophy. It even has an acronym: TAGH.

The common sense of cruelty

How is this cruelty so easily enforced without public resistance?

Part of what makes appraisals so difficult to resist is that they sound like common sense. The argument of the managerialists and politicians in support of appraisals goes something like this: Public education is useless and is failing our children (the Kenyan version is that it produces incompetent graduates). The problem is the teachers. To improve our education and make teachers work better, teachers need to be policed with appraisals or performance contracts, where their performance is measured by a score.

This logic is devilishly convincing when one has no personal experience of teaching. I have been studying performance management in education for a decade, and to this day, I still struggle with explaining why the system is abusive. The common sense character comes from Anglo-American billionaires and politicians whose power and access to the media allows them to spread the narrative of truant and incompetent teachers who are overpaid by the state and protected by permanent and pensionable terms (called “tenure” in the US). Teachers in the US, UK and Australia, among other English-speaking countries have gallantly resisted this attack, but their struggle has been rendered longer and harder by the fact that politicians and billionaires have used the media to poison the public’s opinion of teachers.

The demand for performativity seeks to change not what teachers do, but who the teachers are.

The demonization of teachers is, in reality, an effort to end job security for teachers and replace it with appraisals, or what American conservatives call “teacher accountability”. To avoid the political mess of firing teachers en masse, these haters of teachers call for more measurement of teachers’ work. They also advocate for drastic measures like shaming and firing teachers, and closing schools that do not meet “standards”, standards that are solely determined by students’ examination scores. Appraisal management is a large-scale and sanitized form of “constructive dismissal”, which is the technical term for workplace bullying, where a worker is deliberately mistreated so that they can quit. The tactics are working, because many teachers tell me that they want to quit.

Microsoft seems to be preparing for such a scenario where the number of trained teachers will be so insufficient that technology will have to do the teachers’ work. Microsoft came on my radar when one teacher wrote to me that part of the TSC’s regime of form-filling includes teachers uploading their notes on Microsoft. It appears that when the president attended the Global Partners for Education conference in London in August 2021, one of the events was to sign a deal with Microsoft whose goal was vaguely defined as “to enable the best use of technology to dramatically enhance learning.”

The article gives no details of what Microsoft intends to do with those notes, but one can legitimately worry that the point is to eventually use those notes to create lessons for which Microsoft will charge Kenyans, and probably without honouring the copyright of teachers. If such is the case, then the teaching profession is essentially a plantation in which the TSC is the foreman that terrorizes teachers to extract materials for foreign companies to exploit.

There is yet another common sense narrative to make us accommodate this potential exploitation, and this narrative came with CBC. It is the narrative of “individual talent” and “personalized learning”. When Kenyans hear it, they think the discussion is about a human teacher giving loving and individual attention to each child, when in fact, the corporates are talking about children learning from tablets and without teachers.

This hatred for teachers is not about education. It’s a cruel contempt for society and especially for the poor whom, the rich think, do not deserve a good education, least of all at public expense. Others suggest that it comes from contempt for teachers as people with expertise, and as members of unions that are still standing up against the casualization of labour. Rev. William J. Barber also mentioned another logic of this attack: “The reason they want to privatize education is because a lot of people who are greedy know that they can’t make as much money out in other markets now. So they want to come in and siphon off money from the government for their own personal pockets. Some of them don’t hate government; they just hate government money going to anybody but them.”

Whatever the case, the war against teachers and public education, which has a peculiarly Anglo-American character, is a war that has been waged against Kenyan public school teachers since 2010, led by the current president who was Finance Minister and Acting Education Minister then, and with the help of the British Government. As Nimi Hoffman details in her article, the DfID engaged British academics who used unethical means to push for a project that undermined teachers’ unions through hiring contract teachers on low pay. The project was piloted in Kakamega County and was rigorously resisted by the teachers’ unions.

It is for this reason that many teachers have adopted the philosophy of “teach and go home”.

The relentless effort to casualize teaching continued in April 2015, when the TSC announced the replacement of the punitive performance management system with a more “encouraging” appraisal system. The pilot project was funded by the World Bank, and the British Council funded the implementation of appraisals. To anticipate the resistance of the union officials, the then TSC chief executive officer Gabriel Lengoiboni reminded them that they had implicitly accepted the project when they participated in the benchmarking trip to Britain in 2014.

Education policy in Africa has largely been influenced in this way. Foreign governments offer trips abroad for teachers, and the familiarity disempowers teachers from questioning or opposing the policy being subtly pushed through this informal networking. Even the Bologna Process, largely responsible for the bureaucratization of Kenyan higher education, was entrenched through sponsored trips to Europe for African vice-chancellors and senior academics.

Truth is exposure

The way to end this intricate system of decadence in the school system is through public exposure. But education leaders in Kenya are notoriously secretive, fanatically hostile to self-examination and ironically, steadfastly resistant to public interrogation. Learning institutions muzzle teaching professionals despite academic freedom being guaranteed by the constitution. The Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development replaced the education system with competency but avoided any debate in the media about their choice. The TSC terrorizes teachers in the shadows and punishes teachers for any publicity in the media. In the universities, public debate is discouraged through an insidious rebuke of disagreement as “attacking people personally” and with calls for intervention from a third party to lead in reconciliation. Being a teacher in Kenya’s colonial school system is like living in a bad version of the movie “Stepford Wives”, where people are supposed to ignore reality and humanity and live in a fictional utopia.

There is little difference between this scenario and witchcraft. The defining characteristic of witchcraft is that actions happen in the shadows, supposedly with no human actors, as if brought about by the wind, with nobody to hold accountable. There is no one to name, no one to be held responsible. Education institutions maintain a stoic silence in the delusion that because education bureaucrats have blocked their ears and cannot hear alternative voices and visions of education, those alternatives do not exist.

The demonization of teachers is, in reality, an effort to end job security for teachers and replace it with appraisals, or what American conservatives call “teacher accountability”.

This is why we need a Truth and Justice Commission for education. We need a public forum where Kenyans are forced to hear all the participants in education, especially those who are the most vulnerable. It is time for Kenyans to stop listening to the disjointed stories of the media, the propaganda of the private sector, and the silence of educational institutions, and to construct for themselves a complete story that connects the dots between the brutality suffered by our children, the terror experienced by teachers, the deaf ears of education bureaucrats and the sadism of the Kenyan public. Our faith in the colonial education system is a national delusion that can only be cured by the truth.

In the immediate, TPAD and the litany of bureaucracy which the TSC imposes on teachers needs to be abolished. The TSC has no mandate, and no qualification, to be peeping into the classrooms and making pedagogical decisions. Despite its “Commission”, tag the TSC’s role is mainly human resource clerical work. If the TSC officers want to enjoy the dignity of teaching, they are welcome to join us in the classroom. As they know, there are not enough teachers, and moving with their salaries to the classroom would save the country some money for hiring teachers. Likewise, the yearly assessments of the Kenya National Examination Council need to be done away with. With the introduction of CBC, the KICD promised Kenyans the end of exam obsession. It is ridiculous that CBC is now increasing yearly assessments all the way down to primary school. And Martha Omollo’s transfer should be reversed. The remedial measures should be guided by this simple principle: our children deserve to be taught by adults who are free in thinking, creative in teaching, and caring in interaction.

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Wandia Njoya is a scholar, social and political commentator and blogger based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Politics

Nashulai – A Community Conservancy With a Difference

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

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

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

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

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

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

A reckoning

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

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

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

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

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

A colonial hangover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s who’s doing the work

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

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

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

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

The community conservancy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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