During the first two weeks of November, world leaders and diplomats gathered in Glasgow, Scotland for the COP26 Climate Summit. Superpowers like the United States, Russia, China and Brazil have discussed achieving zero carbon emissions, reducing deforestation, and successfully adapting to new sources of energy away from home. coal production.
Recognizing that climate change will have catastrophic effects if we do not act globally, the goals of COP26 are undoubtedly long overdue.
Tackling climate change requires significant commitments from powerful governments – the most blatant polluters. Once the leaders have made their commitments and left the implementation to their diplomatic teams, it will follow the classic top-down models of imposing the will of the majority without an adequate contribution from the local communities who could be most affected by the interventions. proposed.
As indigenous members from around the world traveled to COP26 to denounce the ravages of climate change on their traditional lifestyles, they also reminded political architects that implementation without recognizing the rights of local peoples to self-determination over their lands and resources is violence perpetrated by world powers.
Although little progress has been made in countries like Australia and Canada, who have legislated for increased indigenous empowerment, a vast chasm still excludes local communities from decision-making that affects their landscapes, natural resources, culture and livelihoods.
Over the past five years in Kenya, we have seen local communities displaced and disenfranchised due to hydroelectric generation in Kenya. Gibe dam project, the production of clean energy Turkana Wind Project, and community conservation. This has raised concerns about what will happen with the 30 by 30 plan (i.e. 30 percent global conservation of land and seas by 2030).
And yet, we know that empowering local communities as legitimate and self-reliant stewards of land has tremendous environmental benefits around the world, as seen in places like the United States, the Amazon, and Kenya. So why does this power gap exist and what steps should international institutions take to close the power gap that excludes local communities from the decision-making process?
As a white British anthropologist working with the pastoral populations of northern Kenya for over 15 years, my relationship with these communities has continued to evolve and deepen over time. Before embarking on nearly two years of doctoral fieldwork to study resource conflicts and cooperation between three pastoral ethnic groups, one of my supervisors advised me to “be friends with everyone. but not to have alliances with anyone ”.
A vast chasm still excludes local communities from decision-making that affects their landscapes, natural resources, culture and livelihoods.
At the time, his wisdom served me well as I found my place navigating contested landscapes, managing local mistrust and maintaining the “objectivity” of my researcher by faithfully recording daily life and experiences. activities of these pastoral groups. My mission at the time was to testify, record, understand and explain.
Since then, I have gone from doctoral student to postdoctoral researcher, independent researcher and consultant researcher working with several universities and INGOs.
As I have become intimately involved with so many friends and families in northern Kenya, my supervisor’s words ring in my ears, and I wonder if they still mean anything to me and what I mean to them. communities. The reality of the situation is that I will always be white. I will always be a colonial power. I will probably be relatively wealthy and educated. And, for the foreseeable future, I will have greater opportunities and broader platforms from which to potentially effect change, even in communities that are not mine. It shames me to admit it, and it should shame any majority group working on global issues at the community level.
There are well-documented critiques of the neo-extractive and colonial nature of international development, scientific research, biodiversity conservation, and humanitarian aid in Kenya, particularly at the local community level. Again, one of the fundamental reasons the power divide exists is that the system is designed to work precisely that way.
Seats of financial power like those of USAID, the World Wildlife Fund or the World Food Program, reside in the Global North, administered regionally by white faces and, in the field, supported by expatriate staff and specialists. with the support of a handful of local populations to carry out projects on the ground. Given this imbalance in the structure, can we really expect anything to change?
And yet, change must come.
Globally, calls for change are reaching their climax among minority groups demanding that the majority recognize gender inequalities, LGBTQ + protections, social, racial and environmental injustices, and formalize Indigenous rights to autonomy and freedom. self-realization on their lands, livelihoods, and natural resources.
International institutions are feeling pressure to raise critical questions about their functioning in local communities and the impact of their work on these populations. While this awareness is an important first step in decolonizing and decentring the role of top-down institutions, I ask the question: are these same institutions ready to listen?
Listening is a simple act, but it requires critical self-reflection. Listening requires a compassionate mindset to understand people where they are. Listening also presupposes that the listener considers the potential for a systemic overhaul of the institutional structures that have historically maintained the status quo.
One of the fundamental reasons the power divide exists is that the system is designed to work precisely that way.
Global institutions are just beginning to ask these questions. Sadly, they may not yet be ready to listen to the answers as they question an ingrained system and uncompromising worldview. Listening confronts our concepts of self, recognizing our relationship to others and the potential hierarchies we have ascribed to our value systems. Listening can also bring to light our failures, missteps, and ignorance which can be painful to recognize and can cause frustration if we can’t see a future where we can fix them.
The terminology used to describe local conservation and development projects in northern Kenya is starting to change, with an emphasis on ‘community’ initiatives and ‘participatory’ methods. However, these programs need to be critically examined to ensure that community engagement is not purely symbolic, but rather that the centers of power reside in the communities at large to design initiatives, deliver programs and benefit. fully results as they see fit themselves.
This transformation will be a long and arduous process, and often global donors do not operate on sympatric timescales, while measures of success may differ between communities and donors. Systemic change will require that funders listen first rather than dictate, support rather than ask.
At the heart of a listening first approach is the humility of knowing that we, the world majority, cannot understand the complexity of local issues. As outsiders, we do not have the silver bullet of progress. Just crossing northern Kenya and passing a series of abandoned power poles, broken water tanks and unstaffed medical clinics bearing the faded names of international funding bodies speaks volumes. Within these local landscapes, precariousness exists and interacts at all levels, making it impossible to understand outside of lived experience.
I have been fortunate enough to forge a deep and lasting friendship with a Borana family in northern Kenya who I live with when I am in their village, who offer their outstanding research skills, who teach me the value of their wealthy culture, which named me in their local custom, and most importantly for me, who share their stories that make us laugh and trust me to share those that also make us cry.
These programs need to be critically reviewed to ensure that community engagement is not purely token,
I am eternally grateful for their friendship. In the past 18 months, tragedy after tragedy has befallen this family: inadequate medical care leading to the death of a newborn baby, amputation of a young mother’s leg due to an uninfected infection. treated, flame cooking, the sudden death of a brother who bore much of the family’s financial responsibilities due to a manageable condition, the death of livestock caused by a locust infestation and non-mental health disorder. supported aggravating economic and personal insecurity, aggravated by an irregular pharmaceutical supply chain. Indeed, most families in northern Kenya can probably speak of similar tragedies.
It is the lived, invisible, unrealized and unfulfilled realities of decision-makers in Nairobi, London and New York that will decree what is best for the lands, resources and families of these communities in the months and years to come. .
Yes, indeed we all need to come together to tackle global issues like COVID-19 and climate change. However, implementation at the local level must begin with global powers devoting resources to truly listening to local communities, recognizing the diversity of their needs and concerns, and committing to disrupt traditional power dynamics through decentralization. their agendas. Local people understand their precariousness, as their cultural institutions and customs have been forged to adapt appropriately and meet the challenges they face.
International entities often undermine these institutions by prioritizing their values and superimposing their systems on the local context. It is time for these seats of power to tune in. For the rest of us, I think it’s time to put alliance neutrality aside – because as allies we can begin to amplify the voices and concerns of Indigenous peoples to be heard. in the whole world.