The last session of the School of Ecology (SoE), for the year 2022, focused on the concept and issues around Political Ecology. The SoE, which was virtual, allowed for the contestation of ideas while discerning the points of convergence and divergence amongst participants and speakers on the main theme of the session. Also highlighted in the session was the concept of Eti-Uwem, which means ‘the good life’ in Ibibio language. Eti-Uwem captures the tapestry of African philosophies which encompass the greatness of the heart, respect for all, generosity, kindness, love, and selflessness. It connects to myriad issues of life and the environment including political ecology.
Political Ecology is generally viewed as the study of the interrelationship of political, economic, and social factors with environmental issues and the accompanying changes. The Director of HOMEF, Nnimmo Bassey, in his presentation stated that Political Ecology looks at environmental issues holistically and not in silos. According to him: “Political Ecology looks at the people’s responses to repression and resistance, their health, and socio-economic wellbeing because the current dominant economic models directly impact our interactions with and within the environment.” He further stressed that referring to the gifts of nature as a natural resource is a framing that encourages the reckless grabbing of the gifts, their transformation and monetization instead of seeing and treating them as a re-source which requires deference and care. Political ecology opens our eyes to the fact that humans have created sacrificial and sacred zones in their relationships with nature, hence, promoting oppression, biodiversity loss and climate change, and diverse conflicts.
Thuli Makama of Oil Change International (Africa), in her lecture on Growth and Sacrifice Zones, cited examples of how extractive activities have abrogated the rights of the people to land in Swaziland and other countries. She regretted that “the development model that exists in African countries is actually one of underdevelopment and takes away the rights and dignity of the people.” She stated that as Africans, “we need to begin valuing our heritage over fickle promises of jobs from exploitative corporations. There is the need to critically interrogate and analyse how our lives were before they were monetized.” She warned: “The money economy is a trap that keeps you looking for more money to survive and it has allowed corporations’ takeover our lives, lands, waters, and time. As a people, we need to analyse what wealth and development mean to us compared to stories sold by corporations.”
Also at the session, Ikal Angelei, an environmental activist, spoke on the topic Current Global Economic Model – A Precursor of Climate Change and highlighted the fact that the major challenge in African food system is food sovereignty and not merely food security. According to her, “the food insecurity we suffer stems from a value chain that is built on land grabbing, water privatization, blockage of water flows—dams and others”. She further explained that “the current talks on carbon markets as a financial mechanism cannot solve the prevailing issues of climate change because it pushes for more land grabbing from the indigenous peoples and cause them to lose control over their lands while the markets favour the elites and corporations.” She stressed the need for Africans to understand their history and the fact that our relationship with the environment is central, and we cannot accept for our communities to be traded.”
While speaking on the Commodification of Nature, Land, and Sea Grabs, Makoma Lekalakala, Director of Earthlife Africa, said a people’s culture, traditions, and history are embedded in nature. “Commodification of nature has led to land grabs, injustices, and displacement of people. This is a new and pervasive form of colonialism. If we are not careful with the activities happening across the continents, and the pollution caused by extractive activities, we may soon be forced to buy the air we breathe.” She also talked about the just concluded COP27, stating that “some industries and governments in some negotiation rooms said they had discovered new technologies for transition to decarbonized economies. But these technologies are powered by oil, gas and nuclear companies, which makes a mockery of the call for just transition because of their ecological, social, and economic footprints.”
Ruth Nyambura, an ecofeminist and researcher, spoke on Decolonizing African Environmentalism, describing the prevailing environmental changes as a reflection and results of the long histories of global imperial appetites. Thus, she stated that: “To talk about decolonization, we need to start from the beginning, which is our history, how we got here, what it represents for us and how we move from here to the future in a more liberating way, especially, for those in intersecting crises like women, fisher folks, farmers, and the urban poor.” She noted that “the exploitation of women provides vicious incentives for capitalist economic growth” and this requires the dismantling of the structures that continue to keep the people oppressed and marginalized, that disconnect and destroy nature. She reminded participants that “the knowledge passed down from generation to generation revealed that Africans had a rich and vast knowledge of their environment, cultures, land, water, and forests which they held in sacred trust.” Speaking to the current disconnections from nature, the ecofeminist maintained that: “Humans should not view the environment as a set of disconnected hierarchies but should come together as movements organised in solidarity across continents, and build resistance that is fertile and not futile.”
The Executive Director of We The People (WTP), Ken Henshaw, spoke on Resource Democracy, Extractivism, Conflict triggers and Resource injustice. He submitted that in the capitalist model, things that cannot be used are seen as having no value. “All natural resources are to be used, but re-source democracy says not all re-sources and the environment are for man’s reckless pleasure. We are not masters of nature, but stewards and we have a collective responsibility in our relationships with it.” Henshaw further highlighted—using the Niger Delta as a case study—that all over Africa there is a deep nexus between re-source extraction and conflicts. “For the years oil extraction has been going on in the Niger Delta, not once have the indigenous peoples been consulted,” he regretted.
The issue of commodifying nature was explained to mean putting monetary value on nature, thus, confirming the broken relationship that exists between humans and nature. It was reasoned that since a price tag cannot be put on our spirituality, we must think of nature in same manner.
The School of Ecology session closed with a talk on Eti-Uwem, The Measure of the Good Life, by Nnimmo Bassey. The focus was on the consciousness that actions by individuals affect the collective. The concepts of Ubuntu, Harambe and similar others were shown to capture the fact we are embedded in our ecological and historical structures. Good living bridges the gaps between the material and the spiritual and emphasizes the centrality of good character. This sense of embeddedness promotes the building of social cohesion, inclusion, and accountability.
The SoE on Political Ecology provided a lot of food for thought and provided scaffolds for fighting ecological crimes and promoting the liberation of our environments. It also emphasised the need to redefine the good life and co-create new narratives and models that could be the path to healing our peoples, communities, and territories.