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Conservationism in Africa: Imperialism by Other Means

5 min read.

Across Africa projects of capitalist extraction still ensure evictions, mass expropriations of land and misery. Today the government of Tanzania wants to expand the space for luxury tourists to enjoy picturesque views of nature – a wildlife fantasy of nature supposedly untouched by humans. Laibor Kalanga Moko and Jonas Bens argue that justification for the dispossession of indigenous communities has shifted from “economic development” to “wildlife conservation”.

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In 1913, Maasai communities went to the Privy Council in London, the highest court in the British Empire, because they were trying to stop the colonial government from evicting them from a large part of their land – which is in today’s Kenya. At that time, the colonialists wanted to pave the way for white settlers to use the land for private capitalist enterprise. Back then, in 1913, the Maasai were unsuccessful.

This year, another court decision is expected, this time around by the East African Court of Justice, where Maasai communities seek redress against the renewed threat of eviction. Now, the government of Tanzania wants to expand the space for luxury tourists to enjoy picturesque views of nature in Ngorongoro district – a kind of nature supposedly untouched by humans. While the outcome of the court case is yet unsure, the government continues its harassment of Maasai communities.

It seems not much has changed in the basic constellation between Maasai pastoralists and their governments. Maasai are continuously forced to leave their land through violent means. At recent demonstrations, dozens of Maasai protesters were severely injured. What has changed, however, are the discourses through which governments justify the dispossession of the indigenous communities – from “economic development” to “wildlife conservation”.

In 1913, “development”, “modernization”, and “economic progress” were central keywords to justify the dispossession of Maasai lands. Arguments such as these remain of central importance even today, for example when people are being forced to leave their homes because of large-scale mining operations. People can lose their land either directly by forced eviction, such as in the recent examples from the Karamoja region in northern Uganda or Senegal, or indirectly because their homelands become too toxic to live in, as in the case of communities around Lake Malawi. Here, justifying discourses are often not very sophisticated. One newspaper article reporting on Zimbabwean villagers about to be forcefully evicted from their homes to make way for a Chinese mining company ends with the laconic sentence: “In a statement, the embassy said Chinese investors in Zimbabwe are working for the betterment of the country”.

In case of East African Maasai communities fighting to remain on their land in 2022, the vocabulary of land dispossession has shifted from “economic development” to “wildlife conservation”. Studies show that wildlife conservation has increasingly been used as an argument to evict indigenous communities from their homelands. This trend can be observed since the 1990s and is prevalent in all parts of the world, but particularly in South and South East Asia, North America, and Africa. Another recent example from East Africa is the attempt of the Kenyan government to force 20000 members of the Ogiek ethnic group from their ancestral lands in the Mau Forest on the grounds that the forest constituted a reserved water catchment zone and the Kenyan state had to conserve it.

One reason for this change in discourse is that in the eyes of many people in the international community, economic reasons alone have lost some of their argumentative force to justify an infringement on indigenous rights. As indigenous movements have gained standing in international organizations such as the United Nations, they have done much to convince people that indigenous cultures deserve protection from certain economic interests in “their” nation states. Article 32 of the United Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, for instance, states that “indigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development or use of their lands or territories and other resources” and that the nation states must take “appropriate measures” to mitigate the “adverse environmental, economic, social, cultural and spiritual impact” of economic enterprises. Because of these indigenous rights discourses, indigenous communities have moved into a significantly better position to publicly protest land evictions when they are simply justified as serving “the betterment of the country”.

Protecting lions and elephants from extinction, however, is another matter. In this framework, powerful donors and environmentalist organizations from Europe and the US are much more inclined to prioritize the interests of endangered animals over the interests of humans. But even though the language has changed, colonial projects of capitalist extraction still determine the political agenda.

Those who demand that Maasai communities must leave their lands in Ngorongoro district argue that Maasai pastoralism, the economic system in which herding of cattle is the main livelihood, damages the environment and endangers wild animals. Critical conservation scientists, however, insist that the narrative of “animals versus people” presents a false choice. Studies show that indigenous pastoral communities such as the Maasai rarely negatively affect wildlife conservation, not least because they do not engage in hunting. Instead, it is very telling that many of the wild animals that still exist in East Africa reside in Maasailand. History clearly shows: The economic system that systematically destroys wildlife is capitalism, not pastoralism.

Many think that wildlife conservation regulations prevent the capitalist commodification of land because human settlement and specific economic uses such as mining and intensive agriculture are banned in conservation areas. But this underestimates how much money international luxury tourism companies make out of wildlife conservation areas. These companies sell their clients fantasies of untouched nature – an idea that is endlessly repeated in romanticizing wildlife documentaries. This capitalist commodification of images of “nature without people” is being decried by critical conservation scientists. In 2019, revenues from the tourism sector amounted to US$2.64 billion, or 4.2 % of Tanzania’s GDP.

Although these luxury tourism companies depend on wildlife conservation measures to keep out the humans, they are not always taking the protection of animals very seriously. Numerous companies in Tanzania offer big game hunting to their high-end clientele from the US, Europe, China or Arab countries. On the websites of such companies, one can frequently find pictures of foreigners proudly posing in front of a buffalo or a lion, one they have slain themselves.

Maasai people in northern Tanzania, including those in Ngorongoro district, have over the years experienced violent evictions in their ancestral lands to give room for exactly these kinds of hunting companies. In Loliondo, one of the areas in the district, people have been evicted to allow the Ortello Business Corporation (OBC), based in the United Arab Emirates, to conduct game hunting activities. In 1992, the Tanzanian government granted OBC an exclusive private hunting licence. The long-term plan is to establish a 1500 km2 wildlife corridor exclusively for OBC hunters. In the last years, both state security forces and OBC’s security guards have repeatedly used violence and harassment against Maasai “trespassers”.

All the while, the Tanzanian government has made the intensification of tourism a political priority. President Samia Suluhu Hassan ranks it highly on her agenda and has clearly stated that she sees international tourism entangled with international investment. Recently, she participated in a lavish wildlife documentary made by US American TV producer Peter Greenberg, called “The Royal Tour”. Afterwards, she went on a promotion tour through different countries, including the US, to show the film and to market international tourism investments  – endlessly reported on in national television.

In one telling scene in this documentary, Suluhu Hassan and Greenberg are shown flying in an airplane over Maasai territory. The president introduces the Maasai as “one of the newest” arrivals to Tanzania, migrating from the Nile valley “only in the 1700s”, thereby echoing longstanding narratives by the government that Maasai are not “really” indigenous to the region. Then, Greenberg picks up the thread and comments that it was “fascinating to see these primitive tribes still holding on to their traditional values”. As an elderly white male voice off screen, Greenberg tells the viewers that although the Tanzanian government had attempted to convince the Maasai to change their way of life many times, “they persisted to clinging to their ancient ways”. In summary, Greenberg says, “they may not have a choice now and need to find other ways to support their families”.

What a chilling self-fulfilling prophecy. If not anything else, movies like these showcase the unholy alliance of capitalist agendas to commodify indigenous lands, colonial imagery of African nature untouched by Africans, and the misleading appropriation of conservation discourses. In order to understand what is behind the violent mass evictions of Maasai communities from Ngorongoro district it is crucial to unmask the capitalist agendas of enrichment that underlie these indigenous rights violations, and the “colonial conservationism” that is mobilized to justify them.

This article was first published by ROAPE.

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Laibor Kalanga Moko is an Assistant Lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Dodoma, Tanzania, and PhD Student at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. Jonas Bens is a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany.

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Twitter: Let It Burn!

Whether or not Twitter survives should be irrelevant to those committed to building a democratic public sphere.

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Elon Musk finally bought Twitter. Although everyone expected the move to quickly prove foolhardy, the speed of the implosion has been impressive. The latest gaffe is a failed attempt to monetize verification by requiring paid subscriptions for them, which has led to all manner of comical impersonations (one macabre highlight was a “verified” George W. Bush account tweeting “I miss killing Iraqis. “Tony Blair” responded with “Same tbh”). Some are watching with shock and horror and wondering if Twitter can be saved. But, when sulfur and fire rains, it is best not to look back.

Africa Is a Country managing editor, Boima Tucker, put it best some years ago: “Contrary to the utopian dreams of the early internet, the idea of a more democratic communications space has given way to a system of capitalist exploitation.” The thing to reckon with is the extent to which we have exaggerated the emancipatory potential of networked communication and social media, partly owing to our own psychic overinvestments in it. Which is not to deny that it has never shown democratic and egalitarian potential, but that’s never been what Twitter is forThere can be no right platform in the wrong world.

What was Twitter for then? In the New York Review of Books, Ben Tarnoff describes it as a “network of influence.” In a world characterized by the economization of everything, social media is the place to commodify the self, to transform one’s unique traits and personality into a product for public display. The main imperative online is to “stay on brand,” to cultivate an appealing enough persona in the endless “production of new genres of being human.”

The key contradiction of social media use, of course, is that even though these platforms appear to us as complete products that we participate in and consume, we are the ones responsible for ensuring their possibility in the first place. As the media scholar Christian Fuchs notes, “Digital work is the organization of human experiences with the help of the human brain, digital media and speech in such a way that new products are created. These products can be online information, meanings, social relations, artifacts or social systems.” Thus, it is us who create the value of these platforms.

In a better world, these digital communications platforms would be democratically owned and operated. But one also wonders if in a better world they would be as necessary. Perhaps, when we are less socially disaffected, living in societies with social provision, an abundance of recreational public goods and less exploitative, dignifying work, then we would all have less reason to be online. For now, the question is: in a time when this ideal is nowhere close to being within view, how best can we use platforms like Twitter as tools to get us to that world?

The possible answers here are murky. Twitter seems like a critical piece of infrastructure for modern political life. Musk is not alone in thinking of it as a marketplace of ideas, as something like a digital town square. Yet, and especially in Africa, Twitter is not as popular a platform, and even on it, a minority of Twiteratti exert an outsized influence in terms of setting the discursive agenda. But setting aside the question of who is excluded from the digitalized public sphere of which Twitter is a cornerstone, the important question is whether the quality of political debate that takes place is healthy or desirable at all. Granted, it can be fun and cathartic, but at the best of times, amounts to hyper-politics. In Anton Jager’s explanation, this:

can only occur at a discursive level or within the prism of mediatic politics: every major event is scrutinized for its ideological character, this produces controversies which play out among increasingly clearly delineated camps on social media platforms and are then rebounded through each side’s preferred media outlets. Through this process much is politicized, but little is achieved.

We would lack critical self-awareness if we did not admit that Africa Is A Country is a venue whose existence greatly benefits from an online presence—so it goes for every media outlet. Tarnoff points out that “… if Twitter is not all that populous in absolute terms, it does exert considerable power over popular and elite discourses.” To lack an online presence is to reconcile oneself to irrelevance. Although, the news cycle itself is a disorienting vortex of one topic du jour to the next. It makes difficult the kind of long, slow, and sustained discourse-over-time that is the lifeblood of politics, and instead reduces everything into fleeting soundbites.

Nowhere is the modern phenomenon of what Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called “pointillist time” more apparent than on Twitter. For Bauman, pointillist time is the experience of temporality as a series of eternal instants, and the present moment’s connection to the past and future “turns into gaps—with no bridges, and hopefully unbridgeable.” The consequence of this, is that “there is no room for the idea of ‘progress.’” Living through a mode where everything seems to be happening all at once, is both to experience time as what Walter Benjamin called “a “time of possibilities, a random time, open at any moment to the unforeseeable irruption of the new,” but curiously, at the same time, for everything to feel inert, and for nothing to seem genuinely possible.

For a while, notions of historical progress have been passé on the left, associated with Eurocentric theories of modernity. Now, more than ever, the idea is worth reclaiming. The Right today is no longer straightforwardly conservative, but nihilistic and anti-social, thriving on sowing deeper communal mistrust and paranoia. These are pathologies that flourish on Twitter. The alternative to media-fuelled hyper-politics and anti-politics is not real politics per some ideal type. Politics, in the first instance, is not defined by content, but by form. The reason our politics are empty and shallow is not because today’s political subject lacks virtues possessed by the subjects of yore. It’s because today’s political subject is barely one in the first place, lacking rootedness in those institutions that would have ordinarily shaped an individual’s clear sense of values and commitments. The alternative to digitized human association, as noted by many, is mass politics: only when the majority of citizens are meaningfully mobilized through civic and political organizations can we create a vibrant and substantive public sphere.

AIAC editor Sean Jacobs observed in his book, Media In Post-apartheid South Africa: “the larger context for the growing role of media in political processes is the decline of mass political parties and social movements.” Whether Twitter dies or not, and if it does, whether we should mourn it or not, should be beside the point for those committed to building a world of three-dimensional solidarity and justice.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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COP 27: Climate Negotiations Repeatedly Flounder

The distribution of global pandemic deaths ignored existing country vulnerability assessments and dealt some of the heaviest blows to the best prepared countries in the world

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As COP 27 in Egypt nears its end, I find it difficult, almost impossible, to talk to my children about climate change. The shame of our monumental failings as a global community to address the greatest crisis our planet has consciously faced weighs too heavy. The stakes have never been higher, the moral quivering of political leaders has never been more distressing.

“All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others,” goes the famous commandment from George Orwell’s political allegory Animal Farm. It applies with particular acuity to international negotiations, where each country has a seat, but seats hold very different weights. The outcome of the Sharm-El-Sheik conference will in large part depend on what Western governments are willing to commit to and follow up on. Rich European and other Western countries are historically responsible for the bulk of carbon emissions. The moral case for them being the first-movers and the biggest movers on cutting emissions is crystal clear, and genuine commitments on their part may hold the key to opening up the floodgate of policy innovation towards decarbonization in other countries.

In this context, viewed from the Global South, recent events in the country that still held the COP presidency until it was handed over to Egypt appear as signs of the madness that grips societies before a fall. In her short time as head of government in the UK, Liz Truss spoke as if she lived on another planet that did not show signs of collapsing under the battering of models of economic growth birthed under the British Empire, gleefully pronouncing that her three priorities for Britain were “growth, growth and growth.” Her successor, Rishi Sunak, announced that he would not attend the COP 27 climate summit because he had to focus on the UK economy. The silver lining is that Truss did not last long and Sunak was shamed into reversing his decision. In a scathing rebuke, the Spanish environment minister called the shenanigans of British political leaders “absurd” and pointed out that elections in Brazil and Australia show that voters are starting to punish leaders who ignore climate change.

I see another silver lining. Last week, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) announced that Europe was warming twice as fast as other parts of the world. A similar report was not issued for North America, but other studies indicate faster than average temperature increases across the continent’s northeastern coast, and its west coast was home to one of the most striking heat waves last year, with a memorable summer temperature peak of 49.6°C recorded in British Columbia, Canada.

Professor Petteri Taalas, the WMO secretary-general, emphasized that the findings highlighted that “even well-prepared societies are not safe from impacts of extreme weather events.” In other words, the report should make Europeans think it could happen to us, with “it” being devastating floods on the scale of what Pakistan and Bangladesh recently experienced, or the hunger-inducing droughts afflicting Madagascar and the Horn of Africa. While some may find it dismal that human beings remain relatively unmoved by the plight of other human beings considered too distant or too different, this is a part of human nature to reckon with. And reckoning with it can turn a sentiment of shared vulnerability into an opportunity for the planet.

Climate negotiations have repeatedly floundered on the unwillingness of rich countries to pay developing countries loss and damages to fund their transitions to greener energies and build crucially needed climate adaptability to limit deaths. Underlying such a position is a centuries-old smug belief that Europe and North America will never need to depend on solidarity from other parts of the world. The WMO report calls into question such hubris, as did the Covid 19 pandemic before that.

The distribution of global pandemic deaths ignored existing country vulnerability assessments and dealt some of the heaviest blows to the best prepared countries in the world. Europe and North America, where barely 15% of the world population resides, accounted for more than half of COVID deaths. Turning the normal direction of disaster statistics upside down, high- and upper-middle-income countries accounted for four out of five Covid deaths globally. While some scientists still pose questions over the real death toll in low-income countries, I was grateful to not live in the West during the pandemic. In Burkina Faso, Kenya and Senegal where I spent most of my pandemic months, I often encountered “COVID refugees,” young Europeans who had temporarily relocated to work remotely from Africa to escape pandemic despair at home.

We are at a point in our failures to fight climate change where fiction writers and other experts of human nature are often more useful than scientists in indicating what our priorities should be. Many fiction writers have turned their focus on what will be necessary for humans to remain humane as societies crumble. Before we get to that stage, let us hope that political leaders and delegates keep remembering that climate disaster could very concretely befall them personally at any time. Let us hope that the sense of equal—or more cynically, unpredictable—vulnerability instills a sense of global solidarity and a platform to negotiate in true good faith. Let us hope that we can start talking to our children again about what we adults are doing to avert the disaster that looms over their futures.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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The Specter of Foreign Forces in Haiti

The so-called ‘Haitian crisis’ is primarily about outsiders’ attempts force Haitians to live under an imposed order and the latter’s resistance to that order.

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What actually happened on the nights of October 6th and 7th, 2022, remains unclear. What reverberated was the rather loud rumor of the resignation of Haiti’s acting prime minister  Ariel Henry. He was a member of President Jovenel Moïse’s pro-US Pati Ayisien Tèt Kale (PHTK) party. (Moïse was assassinated in July 2021.) Had Henry truly resigned? Or was it just a well-propagated rumor? Could it have perhaps been both at the same time: that Henry might have indeed resigned but had been coerced to stay, thus making the news of his resignation spread like gossip that the governmental communication machine had fabricated for public consumption?

Nevertheless, we witnessed the following the next day: in Henry’s address to the nation, he first requested the intervention of foreign military forces in Haiti. He then made a formal request to the United Nations. This call was picked up by international organizations, particularly the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres. In the media coverage of the events, no relationship was established between the (rumored) resignation of the de facto Prime Minister and his request for military intervention. Was it a way to keep our minds occupied while waiting on a response from the international community? Or was the military intervention a promise made by the international community to Henry for the withdrawal of his letter of resignation?

Media coverage has seemingly obscured what happened on October 6th and 7th by choosing to focus solely on the request for military intervention, obscuring a chain of events in the process. Was the same request addressed to the UN and the US administration? Or were these two distinct approaches: one within a multilateral framework and the other within a bilateral framework? Supposing it was the latter, what does this tell us about the Haitian government’s domestic policy, about US foreign policy toward (or against) Haiti, or even about geopolitics (as part of a white-hot world order)—especially in light of US Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols’ visit to Haiti, his ensuing meetings, and the presence of US Coast Guard ships in Haitian waters?

At least one thing’s for sure. Since the request for formal intervention and the presence of the US in the form of its warships and its emissary, the question of military intervention has been swiftly framed as a discourse on the supposed “consensus between Haitians.” In reality, it refers to the convergence of interests between the representatives of the de facto Haitian government; the representatives of the Montana Accord (agreed on between civic and political groups in the wake of Moise’s assassination); and the president, Fritz Jean, and prime minister, Steven Benoit, agreed on as part of that accord. The message is clear: If you do not want a military intervention, side with Ariel Henry, who initiated the request himself. Any posture of self-determination must undergo review by Ariel Henry and his crew.

In these circumstances, there can be no self-determination. It is as though those truly responsible for the military intervention (which was already underway) aren’t those who asked for it, but rather those who were unable to thwart it by finding an agreement with the former group. In this sense, the “nationalist” label (the current catchall term which, among other things, is being made to include any praxis refuting the colonial apparatus) refers to doing everything possible to avoid military intervention—and that means doing exactly what the representatives of the “Colonial Capitalist Internationale” want.

American presence in Haiti—in the form of warships and a high-ranking emissary—takes after historical colonial endeavors such as the Napoleonic expedition for the reestablishment of slavery (1802) and King Charles X’s fleet, sent to demand ransom for Haiti’s independence (1825). Yet, in this case, the point is not to put pressure on those who hold the keys to institutions, but rather to avoid losing control in a context where those in government are not only misguided, but also display the greatest shortcomings in managing the lives of the population for the better. The US’s current presence thus more closely echoes the language of the English warship HMS Bulldog, sent to shell the city of Cap Haitien to support President Geffrard against the anti-government insurrection of Salnave.

The Henry government uses the same grammar as its tutelar powers to discuss the current situation. Much has been made of “efforts deployed by the United States and Canada”: they have consisted in flying police equipment into Haiti on Canadian and US military cargo aircraft. Henry and the Haitian National Police offered warm, public thanks for material paid for with Haitian funds some time ago; indeed, these deliveries have come very late, and only thanks to pressure from Haitian civil society actors. More problematic still, the presence of foreign military planes at the Toussaint Louverture Airport in Port-au-Prince has served both as evidence of an ongoing military intervention and as a subterfuge to obtain such an intervention.

This request for intervention, while it seeks to obfuscate this fact, nevertheless exposes the political illegitimacy of the Henry government—made up of members of Henry’s PHTK and former members of the opposition. Its illegitimacy doesn’t rest on the usual discussion (or lack thereof) and confrontation between the governors and the governed, nor on the classic power play between the political opposition and the authorities in place; rather, it is the result of the absolute rejection on the part of Haitians of an order controlled and engineered by the PHTK machine in Haiti for over 10 years with one purpose in mind: defending the neoliberal interests and projects of the Colonial Capitalist Internationale. The request for intervention reveals the fact that the rejection of the PHTK machine is but one part of a broader rejection of the neoliberal colonial order as it has manifested itself in various anti-popular economic projects, which themselves were made possible by many attempts at reconfiguring Haiti socially and constitutionally: consider, to name but a few, the financial project of privatization of the island of Gonâve, the referendum to replace the 1987 Constitution, and others.

For the first time since the US military intervention of 1915 (the centenary of which was silenced by the PHTK machine), we are witnessing a direct confrontation between the Colonial Capitalist Internationale and the Haitian people, as local political go-betweens aren’t in a position to mediate and local armed forces (whether the military, the militias, or the armed gangs) aren’t able to fully and totally repress unrest. In this colonial scenario—drafted in the past five years, maintained and fueled by the geopolitics of “natural disasters,” epidemics, pandemics, and the presence of gangs (simultaneously functioning as the armed extensions of political parties and materializing “disorder”)—the only possible solution to chaos is military intervention by foreign forces.

Yet one cannot pretend that such an intervention will help the Haitian people, and no agreement crafted in the language of the colonial system can stifle popular demands and aspirations which, in the past twelve years, have built what Haitian academic and activist Camille Chalmers calls a real “anti-imperialist conscience.”

What of late has breathlessly been labeled the “Haitian crisis” must instead be identified as the highest point of the contradiction which has brewed throughout the PHTK regime: between the International Colonial Capitalists’ will to force us to live under an imposed order and our resistance to that order.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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