Not Discussed at COP 15: “Indigenistas”, Labels and Other Threats to Natural Resource Rights

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Since I divested myself of the childish notion that conservation is a biological science, I have been closely involved in the struggle to actualize the rights of indigenous peoples around the world as the custodians and stewards of natural heritage. Despite the fact that these issues have been discussed by rights practitioners for decades now, the rights of indigenous peoples have only recently found a permanent place at the ‘high table’ where conservation outcomes are discussed at the global level. It was an important and hard-won achievement. However, as I reflected on the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) that took place in Montreal in December last year, I realized that there’s still a long way to go.

Being Kenyan, my attention to this issue obviously began by observing the operations of the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), the drivers of one of the most egregious land annexations in post-independence Africa. Their main funder is the USAID, which supports several other ‘conservation’ initiatives in Africa, including a number of those that we know as regular violators of indigenous peoples’ rights. In September 2019 therefore, I found myself in a delegation going to Washington DC to lobby for stricter scrutiny of the practices of USAID-funded conservation projects and organizations in Africa. We visited the offices of various members of the House of Representatives and had a sitting with the Natural Resources committee, but that particular experience is a story for another day.

One of the most important parts of this visit was our stop at USAID headquarters at 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue. I was (naively) pleased to note that they had an office of ‘Senior advisor for indigenous peoples’ issues’ which was specifically tasked with addressing the vexing questions we had. When we walked into the said office, the visual impact was inescapable. There was a colourful poncho hanging on the back of the occupant’s chair, and various colourful headdresses and trinkets that were unmistakably from indigenous South American societies. These accoutrements weren’t out of place because the occupant, Mr. Luis Felipe Duchicela, was from the Puruwa nation in the Ecuadorean Andes. He welcomed us warmly to USAID and listened keenly to our concerns, but could not really illustrate how (or indeed whether) the organization intended to address these concerns. I left that office troubled because I couldn’t see which other office could possibly be approached for help in this matter. Later, as we visited the Indian Law Resource Center to exchange ideas, one of their staff opened my eyes. “How much care do you expect from our government for your indigenous peoples over in Africa when they still don’t care about us here at home?” he asked, adding “That guy in the office is just an indigenista.” He pronounced the last word with disdain and could barely hide his amusement at my consternation. I had just learned about the potentially damaging power of optics in our field.

The damaging impact that contrived western conservation models continue to have on indigenous societies in the global south cannot be overstated, and many of us in the field have been lobbying and raising awareness about it all over the world. Indeed, conservation interests have been stung into action, spending millions of dollars trying to look good instead of trying to actually do better. This approach may seem illogical until you realize that, in a complex field, investing in optics is often cheaper and always simpler than doing the right thing.

Kenya is a perfect snapshot of conservation prejudices because of our unquestioning acceptance of them as norms, and the naïve romanticism that inextricably ties conservation to tourism (read: white people) in our minds. Those involved in conservation civil society in Kenya have come to identify the euphemisms behind which prejudice lies and operates unabated. In forums where law, management, ecology, and the technical aspects of conservation are discussed, one cannot help but notice how the seemingly innocuous term ‘communities living with wildlife’ is introduced into the discourse by the foreign participants. It is the perfect foil to instantly remove the majority of technically qualified citizens of any given country from debates around conservation and isolate the community that is targeted for disenfranchisement. Of course, those involved in such disenfranchising practices know that communities do not easily accept external influence in their lives and livelihoods. However, in communities that have strong social structures, having “one of their own” at the helm of the project can be a poisoned chalice that enforces compliance at the ‘community’ level. It is a two-step process: ensuring elite capture of resource rights at the community level, and then recruiting the elite that have held the resource narrative captive. Stage two is much easier, because it only requires a bit of donor funding to cover the cost of a few ‘senior’ jobs, bursaries, SUVs and trips and other forms of largesse. This is how conservation interests are strangling millennia-old livestock production systems and replacing them with the penury that comes with dependency on tourism. Straight out of the colonial playbook that detested these people’s resilience and refusal to become sedentarized indentured labour that the colonizers so desired. No pastoralist would countenance any denunciation or attempt to diminish the value of livestock production as a livelihood and identity, except when it comes from their own elite. This presents a difficult challenge.

In Kenya, another key part of this technique of elite recruitment that is straight from the corridors of the colonial office is the mantra of ‘he is an outsider’ whenever someone like myself from an ethnic background that is different from the targeted community questions what foreign interests are doing in the rangelands. Never mind that this statement often originates from a citizen of another country altogether. The objective is to divert the discussion from the substance of what I am actually saying. Over and above that, we now face the use of ‘indigenistas’ in Africa as well.

In November 2021, the Oakland Institute produced a damning report on the negative impacts of the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) conservancies on the lives of indigenous people in Northern Kenya. This report didn’t mention anything that hadn’t been said before, but it shook the conservation world because it came from a US institution and wasn’t written by black Africans. The heated discussions it caused in donor forums would have been amusing, if they were less racist in nature in reference to Ms. Anuradha Mittal, the report’s author. The donors quickly mobilized the optics machine and appointed Dr. Kanyinke Sena to do what they referred to as “due diligence” on the allegations. He basically went around trying to get the identities of the respondents who had given statements to Oakland Institute at great risk to themselves and made a valiant attempt to discredit the report itself. There was no attempt on his part to interrogate the issues raised in the report itself.

It is worth mentioning that I and others had earlier sought to bring up these issues at the IUCN World Protected Areas Congress in September 2021, but were stymied by the 1200 euro per person registration fee, another clever ‘filter’ used by conservation interests to manage the content of the discourse at conferences. I first heard of Dr. Sena as a speaker there, and instantly remembered the term ‘indigenista’, because he discussed the recruitment of indigenous peoples into the fraudulent schemes known as ‘nature-based solutions’.  All my fears about this were realized later when I got into discussions with community activists in Baringo county complaining about NRT activities which were disenfranchising them. They mentioned Dr. Sena as one of those trying to intimidate them. We of course refused to talk to him or share details of the brave souls who had spoken those truths mentioned in the report. As expected, there was no attempt on the part of NRT to change the way they were doing things, and whatever payment was made to Dr. Sena was obviously far cheaper than that.

Besides the issue of elite recruitment and as we continue to advocate for the rights of disenfranchised communities, it is important to underscore that while “indigenous” people is a very clear cut reference to the First Nations in settler colonies like Greenland, Canada, and Australia, we must worry about the use of such terms in our African context. Even labels used by those who mean well can be potentially harmful. Why, for example, is a member of the Sengwer community referred to as indigenous, when a Luo is not, yet none of our ancestors were immigrants to Africa from any other place? Isn’t this diminution of some communities or deliberate fragmentation of rights? We often talk of ‘minorities’ while discussing indigenous peoples’ rights and end up in a strange miasma where San people are referred to as minorities in their homelands, while Maasai are referred to (and oppressed) as ‘minorities’ in northern Tanzania and Southern Kenya. In human societies, positives like respect, honour (or lack thereof) begin with labels that are either inclusive, respectful or alienating. This is the root from which the prejudice in western-led natural resource discourses grows, and the reason why it has become such a chronic disease.

African societies must rediscover their ‘natural resource identities’ by setting their own standards, definitions and aspirations from within. We must necessarily be guided by our own souls, rather than “Tarzan”, “Born Free”, “The Lion King” and other fables in which black people are nonexistent “aliens” in Africa.

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