Archive for the ‘Southern Africa’ Category

I have been in the Southern African region almost three weeks now and just returned to Lusaka from a very interesting trip across Eastern Zambia, Malawi and the Tete province in Mozambique. I traveled with my local research partner from the University of Zambia, Mr. Edwin Luwaya. Edwin is currently pursuing a PhD in engineering on charcoal burning, but is also interested in the broader socio-political dynamics around charcoal and therefore joined me on the trip. The purpose, especially in Zambia and Malawi, was to follow several charcoal chains away from or into major cities and do interviews with local charcoal consumers, transporters and producers, as well as with policy and NGO officers dealing with these issues. Charcoal is a huge issue in this part of the world (like in many other parts), as the far majority of people depend on it for cooking and other energy needs. It also has strong social and environmental implications, particularly in relation to tree-cutting and burning for production, with associated effects on soil, water and thus agricultural dynamics. While many studies and interventions have tried to understand and mediate these impacts and dynamics, they seem to have had remarkably little effect, and the same debates continue as they have done for a long time (though the environmental aspects has definitely become more important over the last years). My purpose is not to do an exhaustive study of charcoal chains, but rather to understand how this mode of energy is connected to broader regional energy dynamics, or what I call the ‘political economy of energy’ in Southern Africa. This is what the interviews focused on, and I think I’ve been able to get some interesting data. One of the fascinating things is how charcoal is transported, particularly by biker guys who sometimes carry up to 7 or 8 heavy bags of charcoal for miles and miles across sometimes steep hills. But you also see trucks, like the one in the picture that had broken down four days earlier and so the driver was waiting for spare parts to arrive.

From Southern Malawi, we moved into Mozambique’s Tete province, in order to get to Tete-city. Here, completely different energy dynamics dominate the discussions, although charcoal is ever-present on the roadside and town markets. Tete is a booming frontier town in regional energy dynamics, as many investors have come in from all over the world to exploit the abundant coal supplies in the province. We were very fortunate to have some people helping us in getting interviews with some of the key players. Fortunate also was that our hotel hosted a meeting to discuss the Environmental Impact Assessment of a large new dam project called Mphanda Nkuwa. This dam is supposed to boost energy generation capacity in Mozambique and is quite controversial due to its environmental and social implications, so it was very interesting to sit in the meeting and talk to some of the key players. After the meeting, we met up with one of the participants who had planned to visit a (coal-induced) resettled community called Cateme, some 50 kms from Tete-city. We tagged along, and experienced a surreal place. Built approximately two years ago, Cateme was a strange mix of neat little houses in straight rows with electricity and street lights, and a strange ‘unsettled-ness’ and alien feel that you don’t normally experience in other rural villages. The inhabitants – some 500 families that first lived in Moatize, the centre of the mining boom – soon told us why this was so: most of them didn’t want to be here, and saw little future in the place. It was too far from the markets they used to depend on in Moatize, so they could only sell their ware locally, and many things weren’t what they seemed. While the houses looked solid, they were not built on any foundation, while many started showing cracks. Moreover, many people could not afford the expensive electricity, so were still stuck without (and hence cooking on wood – see picture). What topped it all was the sign at the entrance of the village that said ‘take care of the environment’. The irony is acute: an international mining company that displaces people in order to bring enormous quantities of CO2 producing coal to the international market telling those same displaced people to take care of the environment! That is a raw deal indeed, and ‘raw’ is how best Tete can be described in general. Edwin used to work in the mines in the Zambian Copperbelt, and several times mentioned that Tete reminded him strongly of the boom periods there.

The trip made a big impression on both of us, and I don’t know yet what to make of it all. One thing is clear: if you are on the ‘wrong’ side of the socio-economic spectrum, then energy dynamics in the region present you with a raw deal indeed.

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I am currently doing an incredibly exciting trip across Zambia, Malawi and northern Mozambique, about which I will try to post something in the next couple of day. First I wanted to share another exciting piece of news, namely that my Veni grant application was approved by the Dutch national research council NWO. This means 3 years of dedicated research, starting 2012!

The full title of the project is: Nature 2.0: the political economy of conservation in online and Southern African environments

And the summary of the proposal goes as follows:
Web 2.0 and social media applications that allow people to share, form and rate online content are crucial new ways for conservation organizations to reach audiences and for concerned individuals and organisations to be (seen as) „green‟. Recent research indicates that these developments might significantly change the political economy of conservation: the production and consumption of conservation and their social effects. Two important changes relate to how online activities stimulate and complicate the commodification of biodiversity, ecosystems and landscapes and how they help to reimagine ideas and ideals about „pristine‟ nature. Above all, this „nature 2.0‟ now (seemingly) allows those concerned about global biodiversity and ecosystem decline to more directly engage with and influence the governance of socio-ecological realities in other parts of the world. The research aims to investigate these transformations in relation to biodiverse areas in Southern Africa, a region with a chequered history of western-imposed conservation. Three questions are central: How do online, web 2.0 and social media conservation activities relate to and influence the governance of biodiverse areas in Southern Africa and the people who live there? Why and how do these activities depend on the reimagination and commodification of nature? What are the implications of these dynamics for (theorizing) the global political economy of conservation?
Innovatively combining insights and methods from political ecology, anthropology and media studies, the research will engage these questions by studying how online activities relate to, shape and reflect other social, political and economic practices. It transcends conventional empirical research by connecting actors, actions and technologies involved in the production and consumption of conservation across space and time. In times of increasing tensions between biodiversity decline and demands for human development, the practical and theoretical implications of the study will be highly relevant for sustainable global and local natural resource governance.

Considering the topic, it will become even more important to regularly post research outcomes and progress online! 🙂

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I am just back from a week fieldwork in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. It was a very interesting trip, which helped me question some (of my own) engrained thinking patterns. I came here as part of the EU-sponsored DARMA project that aims to stimulate and strengthen local African commonage systems where people manage their natural resources communally rather than privately. We started off in Maun where our partner is located, the Okavango Research Institute (ORI) of the University of Botswana. Now, Maun is a funny place. It oozes wildlife safaris. This is clear when arriving at the tiny airport: dozens of safari companies are present, picking up guests and displaying their offerings. Many people flying into Maun don’t even stay there; they are picked up and put straight on one of the many tiny aircraft waiting to take tourists into some private camp in the delta. Many posters, brochures, flags and paraphernalia in the airport building extol the incredible wildlife assets of the Delta, reinforcing all of the stereotypical images that tourists have come to expect of ‘wild’ Africa. This continues outside of the building, where in the direct vicinity of the airport, most major safari enterprises are located. Shops in Maun also play into the safari image and everywhere you see whites in Khakis driving sturdy 4x4s, organizing what are mainly high-end, often incredibly expensive wildlife experiences. Some operators even charge up to 2000-3000 US$ per night! Of course your champagne is then chilled on arrival and your ‘bushcamp’ adorned with all modern luxuries. In this environment, it is hard to think of the Delta as something other than one giant safari operation. But of course, this is an incredibly skewed and misleading image.

Superbly organized by the super-dynamic and smart couple Lapo and Innocent Magole – the driving force behind the DARMA project in Botswana – we set out into the Delta for our own trip into the ‘bush’. And although I always knew there are many people living in the area, it was incredibly refreshing to focus completely on the livelihoods of these people and not on wildlife. Indeed, in our time in the Delta, we didn’t see any wild animal, safe for half a crocodile and a lost leopard tortoise! And this is exactly what helped me question my own engrained thinking patterns: because the landscape looks like a ‘typical’ safari landscape, you constantly expect an elephant, warthog, buffalo or – perhaps – a lion to appear. But they never did. Instead we saw many goats, cows and donkeys, and many people trying to make a living in a challenging environment. In several community meetings in different villages we were told how wild animals continuously pose a threat to livestock, crops and the lives of people and indeed how on average communities come into conflict with wildlife 3-4 times a day. This of course is a reality that few tourists appreciate. The far majority flies in and out of private camps and is usually shielded from the social consequences of living with dangerous animals (see for example this website, or this one). Yet this is reality for the people in the Delta, something they live with every day.

Now, this is not a rant ‘against’ wildlife – far from it. Many of these animals are amazing, and surely it would have been nice to see them. But for those of us not living with dangerous wildlife, it is all too easy to ignore local people’s challenging realities, let alone the global inequalities that lead to the crazy contradiction of wealthy tourists spending thousands of dollars a day to see wildlife in luxurious settings while being shielded from – and indeed further complicating – the difficult circumstances and dangers that local people face. The safari imagery so prominent upon arrival in Maun further reinforces this contradiction and the inequalities in which they are rooted. The deeper understanding of this reality was for me one of the highlights of this trip (and the reason why I and colleagues – see the VIVA page! – write what we write). The Okavango Delta without wildlife is totally worth it and I can recommend it to anyone.

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