Authors: Stasja Koot, Catie Gressier and Robert Hitchcock
A series of recent events in southern Africa reveal that the land question—and especially that related to land reform—is a long way from being resolved. There are currently no indications that these issues will be addressed quickly or efficiently. Land reform is at the top of the South African agenda at present, and this is true in Namibia as well, which had its Second Conference on Land Reform and the Land Question in October of 2018. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe stepped down as president after ruling the country for 37 years in November 2017. Arguably, Mugabe’s most controversial political activity had been the fast track land reform programme, in which mostly white farmers were dispossessed of their lands, obviously also having a very strong effect on the, mostly black, farm workers. However, today Zimbabwe’s next president, Emerson Mnangagwa, has announced that Zimbabwe will allow white farmers to get 99-year leases of land again. Meanwhile, in neighbouring South Africa, the new ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa said that the country should speed up the land reform process, including by appropriating white farms without payment of compensation. Likely, Ramaphosa and his party have felt the pressure of new, but highly popular, parties such as the EFF, the Economic Freedom Fighters, for whom land appropriation without compensation is their ‘first non-negotiable cardinal pillar’. Since the demise of apartheid in 1994, the ANC-led government’s budget for land reform has never exceeded 1%, and since 2007 the process has only slowed down (Nkosi 2018). In a country with one of the highest inequality rates in the world, it is then not surprising that more radical groups like the EFF can easily affect high level policy decisions and national political strategies, when large parts of the population feel their needs are not being addressed and promises remain unfulfilled. All of these issues make up some of the subject matter in a (part) special issue in the Journal of Southern African Studies (45: 2).
The frustration also shows when white and black farmers get attacked at their farms, attacks that sometimes also come with brutal violence, torture and rape. Of course, such violence should never be allowed, and therefore groups of both whites and blacks have protested against such attacks and asked the government for more protection. What is regrettable though, is that the focus in such protests for some vocal groups remains only on white farm attacks (even white ‘genocide’), and not on violence more generally (see, for example, the view of AfriForum and the response by Elmien du Plessis). In the end, the farm attacks, however brutal and horrific, only form a fraction of the violence in the country (Du Plessis 2018): most of the violence in South Africa (street crime, but also domestic violence) takes place among marginalised people who live in townships or impoverished rural areas. Focusing solely on the white farm attacks arguably creates more racial and economic tensions, strengthening feelings of ‘us’ against ‘them’ while ignoring structural issues of racial and economic inequality, which is nowhere as apparent as it is in the land question.
Who does the land belong to? Or: Who belongs to the land?
So in post-independent and post-apartheid southern Africa two questions that are still highly relevant are Who does the land belongs to?, and the preceding question: Who belongs to the land? The answers to both questions create a large variety of contestations: Under neoliberal capitalism, which currently thrives in southern Africa, private ownership is an important anchor. However, ownership of land is not necessarily congruent with the question who belongs to the land. Many instances show that the latter question continues to lead to heated debates and a large variety of political dynamics, of which we will only highlight a few here. ‘To belong’ is to have a sense of connection; it implies familiarity, comfort and ease, alongside feelings of inclusion, acceptance and safety. The way people belong to place is often informed by political strategies, conscious and unconscious, through which access to various rights and resources are sought and contested. Land has long been among the most highly valued of resources, and nowhere has this been more evident than during the liberation struggles across southern Africa. Claims to belong frequently invoke unique relationships to the land and nature (Gressier, 2015), which, in neoliberal contexts, are simultaneously constructed as highly commodified resources, in different ways by various ethnic groups.
A diverse set of ethnic groups is white southern Africans, who remain the most powerful set of ethnic groups from an economic point of view and who have always strongly identified with nature (McDermott Hughes, 2010). Take, for example, how white Namibians who work in the tourism industry and construct belonging through articulating a strong connection to the mostly essentialised local indigenous San people as people of nature (Koot, 2015). Or what about the coloured and white farmers of the highly commodified famous rooibos plantations in South Africa? Both groups struggle to express an ‘authentic’ sense of belonging, but have creatively, and in somewhat different ways, been able to identify more with the plant than with the land (Ives, 2017). These examples are important reminders not to reduce the politics of belonging to place as only a politics of land. And neither is it solely a positive politics; it is mobilised just as frequently in processes of exclusion that are shaped, more often than not, by dynamics of neoliberal capitalism. Take the key issue of labour and its consequent processes of (rural–urban) migration (Njwambe, Cocks and Vetter, 2019), which keenly demonstrate that ‘inherent to belonging is always the potential for its opposites: insecurity, alienation and exclusion’ (Gressier, 2015). Xhosa people working in Cape Town often keep a strong sense of belonging with their rural homes in Centane in the former Transkei, a phenomenon which is referred to as Ekhayeni (Njwambe, Cocks and Vetter, 2019). Labour in particular demonstrates how the politics of belonging are integrally related to a variety of economic push and pull factors, with immigrants stereotypically regarded as a threat to an often already limited pool of work; economic migrants, temporary workers, asylum seekers and illegal migrants are then seen as those who do not belong and, as a consequence, are all too frequently confronted with xenophobic violence (Mosselson, 2010).
Indigenous peoples and their many court cases surrounding protected areas
Despite a lack of formal recognition of the unique histories of the region’s indigenous people, the governments of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa are attempting to assist indigenous (mostly San or ‘Bushmen’) communities as ‘marginalised’ or ‘historically disadvantaged’ through various state-sponsored programmes (Sapignoli and Hitchcock, 2013). The San, who are often considered the ‘real’ indigenous people of southern Africa, continue to endure the region’s highest rates of impoverishment, landlessness and political alienation. While material resources are far too frequently scarce, as Richard Lee pointed out, indigenous people have “what migrants and the children of migrants (i.e., most of the rest of us) feel they lack: a sense of belonging, a sense of rootedness in place” (Lee, 2003, p. ).
Indeed, the San often articulate themselves —and are often articulated by others—as having a special relation to the land and nature. For the last few centuries, they have been among the most prominent victims of evictions for the sake of nature conservation. This is still visible today, when a large variety of San groups are in the middle of a court case or has won court cases already to get (access to) land. The Hai//om of northern Namibia, for example, have filed a collective action lawsuit in 2015, to be able to receive a share of the benefits from the highly profitable tourist gem Etosha National Park and from an area called Mangetti West. However, the Namibian government continues to push those Hai//om who still live in the Etosha park out, under the banner of ‘voluntary’ resettlement. Large donors and the Hai//om traditional authority (who was appointed by the government and not democratically elected) support this process (Koot and Hitchcock, 2019). Such problems with traditional authorities seem to be widespread over southern Africa, from Namibia in the West all the way to northern KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, in the East, and it does not seem to be restricted to indigenous people only (Aardenburg and Nel, 2019). Meanwhile, the Hai//om at the Tsintsabis resettlement farm, to the east of Etosha National Park, experience a high level of in-migration, which leads to a variety of social problems, including the rise of shebeens (where the sale of alcohol leads to many socio-cultural problems, such as prostitution, violence and ethnic tensions). Ironically, since Namibia’s independence in 1990 the land reform programme has predominantly favoured those with good connections in the government instead of marginalised groups, showing new elitism based on the privatisation of property. And further to the north, impoverished Hai//om at Mangetti West are today denied access to large tracts of land where they used to gather for food because cattle farmers from far away have now illegally fenced off large parts of the area (Koot and Hitchcock, 2019). Other San groups have also experienced difficulties with illegal fencing in northern Namibia, such as the San of the N≠a Jaqna Conservancy. Despite winning a court case against the illegal fencers in 2016, so far the fences have not been removed and no pressure seems to have been put on the illegal fencers, despite the Minister of Environment and Tourism himself stating that the government will “ensure that the rights of the San are protected” (Namibian Sun, 2016, see also Van der Wulp and Koot, 2019).
Furthermore, in neighbouring Botswana, the G//ana and G/wi San and Bakgalagadi of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) continue to be cut off from most government services. This is the latest strategy in the Botswanan state’s sustained campaign to evict residents from the protected area, despite the San having won four (!) court cases affirming their right to continue to reside within the CKGR (Sapignoli, 2018). Such strategies, as well as the land reform programme in Namibia, make you understand why many San in southern Africa consider the ‘new’ governments just as bad as, or at times worse than, colonial governments. Moreover, in South Africa, where the ≠Khomani San have received eight farms back based on past evictions from the current Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, it is not always a given that receiving land ‘back’ automatically also accounts for ‘development’: throughout the years the meaning of land has essentially changed from a ‘total environment’ that was taken away from hunting and gathering people under colonialism, to land as a purely commodified resource today, meant for the development of people who are identifying as hunter-gatherers, but who are first of all people of contemporary society where there is hardly any space for a ‘real’ hunting and gathering lifestyle (Koot and Büscher, 2019).
Aardenburg, E. and Nel, A. ‘Fatalism and Dissidence in Dukuduku, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa: Ongoing Contestations over Land, Resources and Identity’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 42(2), (2019).
Gressier, C., At Home in the Okavango: White Batswana Narratives of Emplacement and Belonging (Oxford, Berghahn, 2015).
McDermott Hughes, D., Whiteness in Zimbabwe: Race, Landscape, and the Problem of Belonging (New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
Ives, S., Steeped in Heritage: The Racial Politics of South African Rooibos Tea (London, Duke University Press, 2017).
Koot, S. ‘White Namibians in Tourism and the Politics of Belonging through Bushmen’, Anthropology Southern Africa, 38(1–2), (2015), pp. 4–15.
Koot, S. and Büscher, B., ‘Giving Land (Back)? The Meaning of Land in the Indigenous Politics of the South Kalahari Bushmen Land Claim, South Africa’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 42(2), (2019).
Koot, S. and Hitchcock, R., ‘In the Way: Perpetuating Land Dispossession of the Indigenous Hai//om and the Collective Action Lawsuit for Etosha National Park and Mangetti West, Namibia’, Nomadic Peoples, 23, (2019), pp. 55-77.
Koot, S., Hitchcock, R. and Gressier, C., ‘Belonging, Indigeneity, Land and Nature in Southern Africa under Neoliberal Capitalism: An Overview’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 42(2), (2019).
Lee, R. ‘Indigenous Rights and the Politics of Identity in Post-Apartheid Southern Africa’, in B. Dean and J.M. Levi (eds), At the Risk of Being Heard: Identity, Indigenous Rights, and Postcolonial States (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2003), pp. 80–111
Mosselson, A. ‘“There is no Difference between Citizens and Non-citizens Anymore”: Violent Xenophobia, Citizenship and the Politics of Belonging in Post-Apartheid South Africa’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 36(3) (2010), pp. 641–55
Sapignoli, M., Hunting Justice: Displacement, Law, and Activism in the Kalahari (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2018).
Sapignoli, M. and Hitchcock, R., ‘Indigenous Peoples in Southern Africa’, The Round Table, 102(4), (2013), pp. 355–65.
Van der Wulp, C. and Koot, S., ‘Immaterial Indigenous Modernities in the Struggle against Illegal Fencing in the N≠a Jaqna Conservancy, Namibia: Genealogical Ancestry and ‘San-ness’ in a ‘Traditional Community’’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 42(2), (2019).
Ante la catástrofe ecológica es necesario dar vida a un cambio cultural profundo a través del decrecimiento. A nivel de movilidad urbana el vehículo eléctrico representa la defensa del dogma del crecimiento económico ilimitado.
André Gorz ya lo escribió en 1974: «La ecología es como el sufragio universal y el descanso dominical: en un primer momento, todos los burgueses y todos los partidarios del orden os dicen que queréis su ruina, y el triunfo de la anarquía y el oscurantismo. Después, cuando las circunstancias y la presión popular se hacen irresistibles, os conceden lo que ayer os negaban y, fundamentalmente, no cambia nada». Cuarenta y cinco años más tarde, fundamentalmente, no ha cambiado nada. Ni las cumbres del clima (de Berlín a Katowice) ni los protocolos y acuerdos (de Kioto a París) han conseguido minar las bases de la economía neoliberal. Los partidarios del orden conceden una aparente atención hacia los problemas ambientales, sin embargo todo permanece igual. La economía neoliberal muestra formalmente interés en ocuparse de las exigencias ecológicas, en realidad absorbiéndolas en su lógica.
Así que se propone solucionar la catástrofe climática con propuestas que siguen alimentando la economía del crecimiento, sin descarrilamientos. En el ámbito de la movilidad urbana, por ejemplo, el coche eléctrico se convierte en el elemento perfecto para conceder lo que ayer os negaban para que, fundamentalmente, no cambie nada. Se añade el prefijo eco- a una producción que sigue generando beneficio y destruyendo el planeta. La anarquía no ha triunfado.
Resulta evidente, sin necesidad de ser un experto, que la implementación de un sistema de transporte metropolitano que apuesta por el vehículo privado motorizado no cambiaría sustancialmente la situación. Por un lado se traslada el problema de los combustibles fósiles a la fuente de producción de la energía necesaria para alimentar los coches, que para reducir las emisiones de CO² tendría que ser energía verde. Por otro lado el proceso de producción de los vehículos eléctricos — la energía utilizada, los materiales y las consiguientes emisiones de gases de efecto invernadero— tiene un importante impacto ambiental, debido en gran parte a la producción de las baterías, que requieren minerales y metales altamente contaminantes (nickel, plomo y cobre). En cuanto a la contaminación atmosférica, no se eliminarían las micropartículas generadas por el desgaste de frenos, embragues, neumáticos y asfalto, que representan una fuente importante de contaminación (PM10). Además, el tráfico sería el mismo, así como el espacio robado al caminante, a las exigencias de juego de los niños, a la vida comunitaria, a la naturaleza, a la agricultura urbana, a los trazados urbanos irregulares que generan perspectivas nuevas. Las muertes por accidentes de tráfico no variarían. Desde luego tampoco los beneficios de la industria automovilística disminuirían, así como su omnipresencia en la vida urbana, su concentración de poder, su injerencia en los asuntos políticos. Sería un ecoinmovilismo.
Para enfrentarse al problema vital representado por la catástrofe ecológica es necesario cuestionar el dogma de nuestra economía: el crecimiento. Hasta que no se cuestione el crecimiento, por ende el capitalismo, éste seguirá destruyendo el planeta con su consumo ilimitado de la naturaleza. Cualquier medida que eluda el núcleo de la cuestión resultaría siendo un paliativo que mantiene el actual inmovilismo ante la catástrofe ecológica inminente, con la agravante de retrasar la implementación de las medidas necesarias a intentar salvar la vida en el planeta.
El decrecimiento, nacido de las reflexiones de autores como Ivan Illich y André Gorz en los años setenta — cuando la situación planetaria aún no había llegado a los peligrosos límites que estamos viviendo hoy en día— , ha alcanzado finalmente su momento de legibilidad. El decrecimiento representa hoy la única solución para un cambio cultural profundo cuya implementación es urgente.
Los problemas que estamos viviendo no son climáticos, sino económicos. Por ende las soluciones no deben ser tecnológicas, sino principalmente económicas y políticas. El verdadero cambio cultural sería producir las condiciones que permitan contradecir a André Gorz, para que la ecología no sea como el sufragio universal y el descanso dominical.
Volviendo al ámbito de la movilidad urbana, la solución no se encuentra en la tecnología, o sea la implementación del uso del coche eléctrico. La solución consiste en impulsar una cultura nueva, una cultura, como decía Colin Ward, de la libertad de circular después del fin de la
dependencia del automóvil [After the motor age]. La sinergia entre un sistema de transporte público gratuito, la organización de la ciudad basada en distancias cortas y el uso del medio de transporte que mejor representa la relación pacífica y respetuosa entre seres humanos y naturaleza — la bicicleta, simple, comprensible, mensajera de una cultura nueva— sería la solución que impulsaría el movimiento de personas e ideas hacia la ciudad del decrecimiento, basada en una ética y unas prácticas nuevas en todos los ámbitos, más allá de la movilidad, reduciendo drásticamente el uso de energía.
La solución está en el cuestionamiento del capitalismo, desautorizando el dogma del consumo ilimitado y la destrucción de los equilibrios naturales, y la organización de una sociedad que ponga en el centro la vida, el ambiente, las relaciones humanas entre iguales y los bienes comunes, devolviendo las calles a las personas, al juego, a la naturaleza, al vivir y pensar en común.
Luego, si el género humano conseguirá proseguir su camino en este planeta, habría que ocuparse del sufragio universal y del descanso dominical.
Today’s blog comes from Dr Jessica Hope, Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow at the University of Bristol and Chair of the Developing Areas Research Group (DARG) of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). Her research spans human geography, development studies and political ecology and addresses questions of socio-environmental change in response to climate change. Her current project, funded by an RGS Environment & Sustainability Grant, investigates reiterations of sustainable development in Bolivia, as promoted by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). At the upcoming Development Studies Association (#DSA2019) conference, Jessica will present on the early-career plenary panel. You can follow her on Twitter.
As an early career academic, it’s been a challenge to research sustainable development and the SDGs. The SDGs may be a new set of development goals but the concept of sustainable development is old….and already much critiqued. In my recent research on the early take-up and implementation of the SDGs in Bolivia, I have tried to use this as a starting point for my work. In terms of theory, this has meant asking what can help us think about sustainable development differently? And in terms of my empirical focus, this has meant questioning how the mainstreaming of the SDGs, as a global (and globalizing) response to climate change, effect more radical environmental agendas – those that have emerged since the mainstreaming of sustainable development in the 1980s (and sometimes in critique of the concept). Somewhat conversely, these efforts to think differently have actually helped me to better understand why things are staying the same and how, in Bolivia, powerful, extractivist development logics are being maintained and reworked.
Bolivia is an insightful case through which to investigate reiterations of sustainable development. With the election of President Evo Morales in 2005, himself an indigenous social movement leader, Bolivia was looked to as one of the most radical countries in Latin America’s move left. New development and environmental ideas and policies were enacted by the state, which have mostly promoted indigenous knowledges, rights and anti-colonial agendas. Particularly relevant to the environmental remit of the SDGs are those that re-conceptualised development as Vivir Bien/‘Good Living’ (replacing targets for economic growth with targets for social and environmental well-being), granted legal rights to nature and pledged significantly enhanced territorial rights to indigenous and campesino groups. Yet, since 2009, intensifying commitments to extractivism have come to dominate Bolivian politics and debates, as well override progressiveagendas. In 2015, the Morales administration set out commitments for Bolivia to be the ‘energy heart of Latin America’ – expanding hydrocarbon infrastructure and exports to include fracking, hydropower megaprojects and solar farms. It is in the context of this contested politics that the SDGs are being implemented.
In terms of thinking differently, I have found assemblage theory useful to researching and analyzing the SDGs in Bolivia. Assemblage theory foregrounds the ways realities come into being through particular (and changing) relationships and connections between, for example, objects, places, institutions, discourses and policies. Drawing on how Deleuze and Guatarri’s theories of assemblage (agencement) have been used in social science, primarily by Tania Murray Li, I have used assemblage thinking to analyse how powerful common-senses are being made, maintained and reworked. In Bolivia, adopting this approach has firstly foregrounded how the take-up of the SDGs emerges in relation to existing development agendas, actors and networks. The SDGs are primarily being operationalized by the state, by international NGOs and by their national partners. Secondly, the goals were brought into existing initiatives, rather than causing a wholesale reappraisal of development work. Thirdly, I found that, crucially, the SDGs assemblage is disciplined – with NGOs, for example, being clear that their work could not address disputes between the state and civil society. This meant the contentious politics of extractivism is excluded from sustainable development projects and discourse. A fourth finding about is that through its emergence, disciplining and holding together, progressive discourses are being “deployed to new ends”. The central government has aligned its commitments to the SDGs with their interpretations of Vivir Bien, which fall within the parameters of an extractive-led development model. So rather than providing support to those contesting extractive-led development, the SDGs are helping to consolidate its hegemony. This interpretation and deployment of Vivir Bien is contradictory to how Vivir Bien has been conceptualized and advocated by activists and scholars. In their critical reading, Vivir Bien/ Buen Vivir provides an alternative to sustainable development, as it decentres growth and instead moves toward a more holistic measure of wellbeing (including how communities live with and treat nature). In summary, assemblage thinking reveals that the SDGs are acting as a form of anti-politics – rendering neutral and technical the contested environment/development politics of Bolivia.
Finally, and in answer to my second question, I have used assemblage thinking to identify a counter-assemblage that is emerging and consolidating in relation to the exclusions outlined above. This means identifying the organisations, discourses, politics, landscapes and histories that are coming together in exclusion from mainstream development agendas in Bolivia and in opposition to extractivism. What I find exciting is that assemblage thinking enables the inclusion of material components too – trees, riverways, habitats, wildlife, canoes, speedboats and roads. Following the work of urban geographers, for example Ash Amin, this opens-up interesting lines of enquiry into the sociality and liveliness of particular territories, as place, and how they are generative of reworked and progressive environment/development politics. In this new work, I am researching the generative liveliness of the hybrid spaces that partly emerge from policies for conservation, territory, collectivity and extractivism. Despite calls for academics to make a pragmatic step to get behind the SDGs, the Bolivian case has made me question this step and, instead, I plan to examine the stifled, excluded, contentious and more transformative politics of the counter-assemblage.
We are happy to announce that the Political Ecology Network (POLLEN) Third Biennial Conference will be held in Brighton, United Kingdom, June 24-26, 2020 on the theme of Contested Natures: Power, Possibility, Prefiguration. POLLEN20 will be organized by the ESRC STEPS Centre (IDS/SPRU, University of Sussex) and co-hosted by Radical Futures at the University of Brighton and the Institute of Development Studies, with support from the BIOSEC project at the University of Sheffield.
Whether framed as object, commodity, construction, actant, resource or relation, the contested notion of ‘nature’ is one of the most central themes in political ecology. The conference aims to explore plural natures and plural futures as sites of struggle and possibility, while critically engaging with the multiple and overlapping crises of our time. What does it mean to decolonise knowledge in political ecology? Questioning established notions of who is ‘the expert’, and associated epistemological hierarchies, we ask: What can we learn across sites of experimentation and through transdisciplinary engagements about ways of ‘doing’ transformation? At the current juncture, how do we make sense of evolving society-nature relationships? How are natures being (re)made through and against crises? How are technological, systemic and value transformations entangled in the process? What novel political ecologies are – or might be – emerging?
Our aim is for the conference to be a space for taking stock and looking forward, exploring classic questions through novel lenses, imaginaries and embodied practices, and finding inspiration in emerging debates and forms of practice that are only beginning to engage with political ecology scholarship and practice. The conference will be structured to encourage critical reflection around the entanglements and encounters of political ecology with a variety of approaches and philosophies from post-structuralism and Marxist to anarchist, feminist and queer perspectives – the ways of knowing, seeing, representing, challenging that often define our work.
To these ends, POLLEN20 will combine the objectives of a traditional meeting with the collegiality and dynamism of a less structured, more participatory gathering. As will be outlined in the call for proposals to be circulated in May 2019, we will be encouraging proposals for themed sessions in a variety of conventional and novel formats, aspiring to bring together perspectives and ways of sharing from across disciplines and geographic traditions, welcoming dialog with our allies within and outside the academy.
We are committed to diverse and equitable participation, so we aim to keep registration costs low. POLLEN members and session organizers who are able are urged to seek funding for participants who have difficulty accessing travel funds (e.g. un/underemployed or under-supported participants, participants from the Global South, self-funded PhDs, non-academic participants, early career scholars, etc.). We will establish a general ‘solidarity fund’ to which POLLEN nodes and groups may contribute to support travel bursaries, and we will offer the option of ‘solidarity registration’ for participants who wish to contribute individually to registration and travel costs of others who do not have access to organizational funds.
A detailed call for session proposals with submission instructions will be circulated in May of 2019. All proposals will be reviewed by a panel and registration will open in late Autumn of 2019. Updates and news will be announced on the POLLEN web site and on a dedicated conference web page. Inquiries about the conference or questions about contributions to the Solidarity Fund for travel bursaries can be sent by email to POLLEN@sussex.ac.uk (please note that this is not the email address for the POLLEN secretariat).
Plenty of virtual ink has been spilled predicting the advent of commercial deep-sea mining (DSM). Successful extraction of zinc, gold and copper has already taken place in Japan in late 2017. Several other countries who have identified deep-sea mineral deposits in their territorial waters are considering whether or not to adopt the new industry into their future economic strategies. Yet, despite the widespread interest in the activity, to date there has only been one commercial contract for deep-sea mineral extraction awarded globally. Moreover, this project – a copper and gold mine named Solwara 1 in the Bismarck Sea of Papua New Guinea – has struggled to overcome the funding requirements needed to become commercially viable. Its contractor, Nautilus Minerals – a Canadian mining firm – has struggled to convince investors of its ability to manage both the economic and ecological uncertainty fostered by deep-sea mining’s untested nature.
At the same time, the International Seabed Authority, the key regulator for minerals found on the seabed in the area beyond national jurisdiction, has issued 29 exploration contracts to both private and state-run companies from all over the world. Deep-sea mining thus stands at a threshold: waiting in the waters yet confronted with an array of questions. However, for all the pointed arguments expressed by those on both sides of a debate, which has focused on evaluations of environmental and economic sustainability, analyses that have sought to understand deep-sea mining’s very specific politics have been rarely heard. Put another way, it is necessary to think about deep-sea mining as a contentious political problem, in which the politics of knowledge and justice are never far from the surface and in which a variety of actors – both human and more-than-human – will shape the future prospects for the controversial industry.
Deep-sea mining has proved to be a divisive topic. For its apologists, it heralds a sustainable answer to dwindling supplies of high-quality, terrestrial deposits of conventional deposits such as copper. The deep-sea deposits being earmarked for future extraction are said to be of higher quality and concentrated into a reduced footprint. The proposed Solwara 1 copper deposit in Papua New Guinea is just 0.1km², a fraction of the 7.5km² dedicated to the world’s biggest copper mine, Bingham Canyon in Utah, USA. Other champions of the nascent industry point to its potential to furnish the green energy infrastructures of the future with the rare earth elements required for their expansion. Electric vehicles, wind turbines and photovoltaics are all cited by the industry as placing a demand on society for materials that can only be met by an expansion of the mining frontier into the ocean.
On the other hand, DSM has attracted plenty of criticism from those who point to the uncertainty surrounding the ecological consequences to the ecosystems of the deep ocean. Although scientific studies of deep-sea oceanography remain limited, most stress the need for care, advocating a precautionary principle that states ‘where potential adverse effects are not fully understood, activities should not proceed’ (UN WCN 1982). Such concerns have been raised by a number of international NGOs ranging from Friends of the Earth to the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, who additionally highlight the lack of consent from local communities and are calling for further research on the social and ecological impacts of DSM.
Those making the case for deep-sea mining, point to the notion that it has ‘no human impact’. This continues a longstanding tradition in Western thought that the deep sea has a negligible relation to the rest of the social world. Yet this is disingenuous, as the case of Solwara 1 makes clear. Certainly, for communities closest to the proposed deep-sea mine site in Papua New Guinea, the fears of spiritual, ecological and economic disruption are very real indeed. Although the targeted metals lie some 1600m beneath the surface of the ocean, research conducted over the last three years showed that proximate populations were most concerned about the potential impact upon spirits – so-called masalai – that reside in and protect the deep-ocean and its resources. For these people, the deep-sea is not a world separated from humanity. As a prominent leader representing the 20,000 inhabitants of the Duke of York Islands, a small archipelago situated around 30km from the proposed mine site, makes clear:
‘The sea is not another world. It is part of graun [earth]. You see people, fish, masalai [spirits], volcanoes, what you call land, the sea – it is all connected. We understand that we are at one with the sea. But we are also are at one with the spirits. If you disturb this world, you are in trouble…this is why this seabed mining company will be in trouble – it does not understand how us people connect to something deeper’
For many communities near the Solwara 1 site, the spiritual world is foundational to their identity. As has been noted elsewhere in the context of terrestrial mining in Melanesia, for these people the arrival of deep-sea mining ‘means not just social and economic disruption; it rends the very fabric of the world and a vivid, direct, sacred link with the land is irrecoverably lost’ (Macgregor 2017). Perspectives such as these and those highlighted in a short film produced as part of the project—Into the Abyss: the politics of deep sea mining in Papua New Guinea—serve to force a reconsideration of the ways in which the deep-sea’s ‘hidden’ nature comes to matter politically.
It is only in recent years that the ocean has been taken seriously as an object of social scientific enquiry (e.g. Steinberg 2001; Deloughrey 2017). Despite a glut of work emanating from marine science, the ‘social’ ocean has largely ‘remained outside of history’ (Hannigan 2016: 3). Moreover, this oversight becomes even more acute as depth is introduced to the analysis. Simply put, thinking about the ways that the ocean’s depth and the physical characteristics of the seabed might matter politically have been almost totally absent (Squire 2017). Yet matter they do.
The extreme location of the deposits, several kilometres below the surface of the water in some cases, is far beyond the capacity of human beings to experience it directly. This creates political space for imagined geographies (what people imagine the deep-sea to be) to come into conflict with corporate attempts to communicate science and legitimise their practices. For example, Nautilus Minerals highlights the dynamic and volcanic nature of the seabed close to the proposed mine site in Papua New Guinea. By pointing to the regularity and violence of eruptions in the immediate surrounding area, it is able to simultaneously stress the resilience of nearby associated bacteria and fauna. The argument goes that if these organisms can withstand a volcanic event, then they can comfortably survive any disruption caused by mining. It is an effective means to counter critique from those that are concerned by DSM’s environmental impacts.
Another example of this kind of material politics relates to the geologic speed at which deep-sea mineral deposits are formed. At Solwara 1, ‘black smokers’—underwater chimneys made by minerals that are precipitated from rapidly cooling jets of fluids—can grow several feet in a matter of weeks. This is incredibly dynamic in geologic terms. Compare this to polymetallic nodules – another type of targeted deep-sea mineral deposit – that form at the rate of about one inch every million years, and the ethical implications of seafloor disturbance emerge quite differently.
A final dimension, which demands attention in considering DSM as political, is time (Childs 2018). Many accounts of deep-sea mining frame it as an industry ‘of the future’. This has conceptual purchase, offering the allure of untapped wealth, and positioning the activity as a key part of a ‘blue economy’, the extension of a capitalist spatial fix into earth’s watery volumes. Yet just as the ‘future’ facing aspects of DSM are about the appeals made to global finance with their attendant promises of ‘resource potential’, so too must any ‘waste’ from the extractive process be included in predictions of environmental impact.
Moreover, the ‘time’ of deep-sea mining operates on a range of different registers and speeds, each with their own political implication. This might be about the acquisition and control of monitoring, generating and transmitting data on seabed resources or the time of their geologic formation. Whether it’s about the anticipation of DSM’s potential before extraction even begins or the time, as yet unknowable, when its environmental impacts are realised, time will be crucial to defining its politics.
These aspects addressed above collectively lead us to confront some uncomfortable political questions that have yet to be fully addressed. This is not just the case in Papua New Guinea. More globally, as the ambitions for deep-sea mining expand, how is the extraordinary diversity of different knowledge systems that relate to the ocean going to be reconciled? Is the mining of the deep seabed a price worth paying in order to build the green energy systems of the future? If not, where are we going to get the materials needed?
We’re happy to share with you this beautiful essay, the first in what we hope will be a series of essays about political ecology in practice. If you would like to contribute an essay, please get in touch!
El silencio del viento contrario
By Massimo Paolini
The nocturnal wanders through Zurich of a man who plants seeds, with silent perseverance, have tight bonds with the silent resistance to the commodification of the city of a growing number of people throughout the planet. Seeding new ideas in the hostile environment of the neoliberal city as well as the search for a fair relation between humankind and nature are acts of resistance capable of undermining the illusory certainties of the neoliberal economy. This silent wind, that blows in a direction opposite the wind of progress that keeps open the wings of the benjaminian Angel of History, allows him to rest by the ruins of our epoch and ‘make whole what has been smashed’ to begin a new time.
En Zúrich un hombre recorre la ciudad de noche con las manos cerradas. En silencio sigue los pasos marcados en un mapa. En las manos lleva semillas. No se trata de unas semillas cualesquiera, sino de plantas pioneras: plantas capaces de crecer en terrenos hostiles, en lugares inhóspitos para el desarrollo de la vida, plantas cuya característica es la abundante producción de semillas y de minerales que abonan el terreno para que puedan crecer otras plantas con más necesidades.
La ciudad contemporánea se ha vuelto un lugar inhóspito para el desarrollo de la vida: la lucha constante por la supervivencia de la casi inexistente naturaleza en un ambiente en el que la superficie de suelo sellado avanza inexorablemente guarda estrecha relación con la lucha contra la mercantilización de la ciudad.
La naturaleza, cuando presente, se convierte en el monumento a su ausencia, en el símbolo de la relación superficial, cautiva de la economía neoliberal, entre seres humanos y mundo natural que caracteriza nuestra época: mercantilizada (entradas para visitar parques y jardines botánicos, especulación sobre los llamados productos ecológicos, venta de costosos kits para aprender a cosechar en la ciudad, etc.) o bien violada (poda de árboles que se asemejan a amputaciones, plantas a pocos centímetros de los automóviles, hormigón y asfalto en parques y patios, etc.). La capa de asfalto, omnipresente, interrumpe material y simbólicamente nuestra relación con la tierra.
Las semillas de plantas pioneras que el hombre siembra en el silencio de la noche zuriquesa, en completa soledad y con la apasionada determinación de quienes no quieren ser espectadores pasivos de los eventos, crecen en las grietas del asfalto, en las hendiduras de la ciudad neoliberal, oponiéndose a la mercantilización de la naturaleza, actuando como aliadas de quienes abogan por un cambio radical en la organización de la ciudad y la vida social.
Este cambio puede realizarse a través de la recuperación de la relación entre seres humanos y naturaleza, restableciendo los vínculos profundos que siempre la han caracterizado, un acto de resistencia a la economía neoliberal. Para poder recuperar estos vínculos, al ser el ambiente inhóspito, son necesarias semillas de plantas pioneras que darán paso a la creación de un ambiente fértil para la futura vegetación. Trasladado a las ideas, las plantas pioneras son la metáfora de las ideas que, antes de alcanzar su momento de legibilidad, son consideradas radicales por el ambiente cultural inhóspito y contribuyen a la creación de un ambiente cultural fértil para la futura liberación.
Penetrar la ciudad de noche, cuando el silencio nos hace ver la destrucción operada por la economía neoliberal, es la metáfora de un paseo por las ideas que conciben la vida no como una competición para eliminar al adversario y alcanzar el poder y el éxito personal, sino como un tiempo abierto a la convivencialidad, al conocimiento de lo imprevisible, de lo poético.
Maurice, el hombre que siembra semillas e ideas en Zúrich, es uno de los protagonistas de la película Wild Plants, de Nicolas Humbert, recientemente estrenada en Praga, un viaje poético en busca de la energía de reacción a la destrucción de la naturaleza a la que estamos asistiendo. Una energía positiva que se condensa en personas que habitan distintas partes del planeta, desde Detroit hasta Ginebra y Zúrich, y tienen un elemento en común, que no conoce fronteras: el hecho de ser semillas de resistencia que engendran la esperanza de un posible, concreto cambio en nuestra época.
Actos individuales —como en el caso de Maurice Maggi— o colectivos —el activista nativo norteamericano Milo Yellow Hair, una pareja que decide dedicarse a cultivar la tierra en Detroit, una cooperativa de jóvenes en Ginebra que decide cultivar hortalizas y venderlas directamente a quienes viven en la zona— que ocurren a miles de kilómetros de distancia comparten la misma visión del mundo.
Cambio climático, deforestación, agricultura intensiva, apoderamiento de tierras por los poderosos, guerras: ante la destrucción debida a la tempestad del progreso, aceptado por la mayoría de las personas como si fuera un fenómeno inevitable (el mismo viento que empuja al ángel de la historia benjaminiano impidiéndole cerrar las alas), un viento sopla silenciosamente en dirección contraria por todo el planeta. Se trata de la reacción de personas que desmitifican el progreso técnico y su mercantilización rechazando su carácter ‘natural’ e inevitable y aplicando los ‘frenos de emergencia’ a la economía neoliberal, sintonizándose con el ritmo lento de las plantas.
Personas que a pesar de la distancia hablan el mismo lenguaje: el acto de sembrar en la ciudad, la cosecha y la venta de hortalizas a personas a las que conocemos personalmente, la decisión de (re)descubrir nuestra relación profunda con la naturaleza, el asombro ante los saltos de los animales libres junto con el rechazo a querer poseerlos y cautivarlos, son todos actos que se pueden definir políticos, lejos de las instituciones, cerca de la vida. Este viento contrario que contrarresta la economía neoliberal permite al ángel de la historia cerrar sus alas, detenerse ante las ruinas de la historia que ‘se acumulan hasta el cielo’ para empezar una época nueva.
El silencio de la poesía de las imágenes en el ruido de imágenes fútiles, las palabras densas y lentas en una aceleración de palabras huecas, son otros elementos de resistencia.