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An Environmentalism of the Poor

Liz Fouksman


“When I think about that forest, I could cry.”

The laughter lines on 77-year-old Amina’s face fold into furrows of distress. She is describing her youth, when the forest next to the village of Beliqo stretched far and wide. Like most of the residents of this small village of arid northern Kenya, Amina is well aware of the ecological and climatic changes in the region. She talks about the shrinking of the forest and the river, the long-term changes in weather and rainfall patterns. Droughts that hit once a decade half a century ago started to come every four years, then every two, and for the past few years have hit annually. Its inhabitants are pastoralists who herd livestock over communal rangelands, and nothing quite encourages an acute awareness of long-term changes in weather patterns as having the life of your cattle—your sole source of survival—depend on the timing and quantity of the rains. When I spoke with Amina, northern Kenya was experiencing the worst drought in 60 years, killing off Beliqo’s cattle, leaving its people dependent on food aid and exacerbating the violence and cattle-raiding between ethnic groups in the region. No matter where a conversation began, it would almost inevitably turn to the drought. No one brought up global warming, or carbon, or the greenhouse effect, but even the children were aware that the climate had changed, and was changing.

Yet what makes Beliqo fascinating is not only that its people are aware of ecological and climatic changes, but that it has a rich civil society that is beginning to engage with ecological conservation. If civil society is the space—between the formal mechanisms of the state and the economic realm of the market—where individuals form movements, networks, and groups to engage with social issues of collective concern, then Beliqo is particularly well-endowed in this regard. Beliqo has no electricity, no mobile phone network, and is six hours away (over a hellish unpaved road) from the nearest major town, and yet there are almost two dozen civil society groups in the village. One of the most active is the grassroots Community Forest Association (CFA). CFA has taken on the mission of protecting and promoting Beliqo’s forest by employing local boys as rangers to stop loggers, starting tree nurseries and distributing seedlings, and engaging the village in forums about the forest and the river.

In the 1970s Ronald Inglehart put forth the post-materialist thesis, arguing that environmental activism comes after development, that environmental movements are the province of the rich who can afford to think about issues beyond their material well-being. But what Inglehart missed is the connection highlighted by environmental economics between environmental and material well-being, as well as the dependence of the latter on the former. In Beliqo people are not interested in preserving their forest because of aesthetics or nostalgia, nor do they see saving the forest as part of some sort of larger global good. Their goats depend on the forest for fodder, their houses are built with acacia branches, and they thatch their huts and weave their sleeping mats from palm fronds.

In Beliqo the impetus toward conservation is not post-materialist. Materialist concerns with livelihoods are under stress from environmental change and can only persist if the ecology of the region does too. This is interwoven with broader patterns of traditional cultural values conflicting with modern motives, with ethnic conflict over community resource rights, and with time horizons and the clash between long-term and short-term thinking. “The Borana are herders, not loggers”, the elders of the village told me, “it is forbidden for us to cut down a living tree. Outsiders come here with power saws and tempt some of us with the promise of money.” And the money is tempting because ecological and structural changes are making it increasingly harder to survive herding cattle. The people of Beliqo might have an intuition about why the forest is vital, but the pressure of immediate need triumphs over traditional values and long-term thinking. Or it would, were it not for the presence of CFA.

CFA transforms knowledge into action, leveraging legal and social pressure to protect the forest. But CFA exists only because Beliqo, despite being geographically remote and technologically disconnected, is in fact highly integrated in global and national civil society. The knowledge of the national legal structures enabling the formation of a community forest association was brought by a regional land rights-focused NGO who had been holding community forums in the village. They connected the village to a national-level partner NGO focusing in eco-cultural preservation to help CFA write a funding proposal. The proposal itself was tailored toward and funded by a Western foundation based in San Francisco with a mandate to protect cultural and biological diversity.

“CFA is the most effective group of the village. They actually do something”, was a commendation I heard from many in the village. And this doing is undoubtedly the product of being the only community group that has received major funding. The funding came because CFA was the brainchild not simply of community members, but also of regional and national-level organisations engaged with the ecology of the village, who in turn are linked to global funding and, unlike the villagers, speak the language of biodiversity and climate change that many donors in the West want to hear. The linkages between grassroots civil society in Beliqo and regional, national, and international organisations not only brought the knowledge necessary to transform existing local concern into action and a legally recognised organisational structure, but enabled this structure to function by bringing in global funding flows.

In this way the life of a goatherd in a remote off-the-grid village in northern Kenya is impacted by the decisions of someone sitting in a San Francisco office. The concerns of the Beliqo community have transformed into action because of their integration into flows of knowledge and funding operating on national and global levels. Civil society on a regional and national level translated the materially based ecological concerns of the grassroots into the post-materialist environmental language of global movements and funders. This translation enabled ownership and action built on concerns from within the community to be fueled with the knowledge, ideas, and money held by actors from without.

Of course, these flows are not unidirectional. Not only is CFA a grassroots institution building on local concerns, local structures, and local motivations toward action, but it provides national and global civil society with the sustenance it needs for survival. This is information about what is happening on the ground, information that these organisations need in order to justify their mandates and to show that their visions and missions are being fulfilled. Thus civil society establishes a symbiotic relationship between the global and the local: money might go downwards, but knowledge flows both ways.

When I attempt to probe about wider motivations, my questions are for the most part met with bemusement: the change in climate is in the hands of God, and it is only God, not humans, that can do anything about it. It is the regional and national NGOs that are able to transform the materially focused reasons to protect the environment into the global environmentalist discourse about climate change and biodiversity. This transformation in turn propels what is happening on the ground, enabling the community of Beliqo with the know-how, ideas, and funding essential to moving from concern to action. Thus civil society forms a network that reaches deep into the places that the mobile networks and electricity grids still cannot access, linking together the local and the global long before the Internet and the mobile phone arrive to do the job.

Liz Fouksman is reading for an MPhil in Development Studies at Lincoln College, Oxford.