The Environment in Social Science and Humanities in Africa

James Murombedzi

The environment is taking center stage in local, national and global discourse and policies. This increasing focus is occurring in a neo-liberal context defined by unprecedented land grabs, increasing militarization of natural resource use and governance, and privatization/commercialization of the environment facilitated by the neo-liberal market hegemony. In Africa, the Sahelian drought of 1968-73 and the southern African droughts of the 1990s, the famine in the horn, numerous natural resource conflicts and the use of natural resources to finance armed conflicts, growing challenges arising from deforestation and desertification, the decimation of agricultural land, unprecedented loss of biodiversity, and the ongoing large scale expropriations of land and natural resources have catapulted environmental issues into policy and public debates, attracting the attention of social scientists over the last few decades.However, research into global environmental change in Africa has historically been dominated by the natural sciences, and mostly with little reference to the social sciences. Consequently, environmental challenges are understood mostly in terms of their technical details and dynamics, and the proposed solutions have paid scant attention to the socio-political, economic and cultural dimensions, consequences and responses to environmental change.Moreover, the little social sciences research into environmental issues relies mostly on northern paradigms (Salau 1992).

Settler colonialism, imperial rule, the commercialization of agriculture and the growth of industry have had profound effects both on the societies and the natural world (Beinart and Coates 1995). African social sciences and humanities have engaged with these questions to various degrees. The historical causes of environmental degradation in processes such as colonialism, the articulation of African into the global capitalist system, and the imposition of new land tenure systems have been well researched(e.g. Page & Page 1991,). The ecological impacts of the colonialism, and in particular colonial land expropriations and the introduction of cash crops such as groundnuts, cotton maize and so on have similarly been well documented (e.g. Franke and Chasin 1980; Moyo 2005).Because of its political and social salience, the relationship between land distribution, ownership, tenure and resource degradation continues to be the subject of much social science research in Africa. Environment concerns are central to the development agendas and to the daily lives of ordinary Africans. While there is a considerable amount of research into environmental issues in the humanities and social sciences in Africa, this research is disaggregated, piece meal and generally ancillary to the natural sciences. Further, environmental issues remain marginalized in social theory. Despite the centrality of the ‘environment question’ to the development process, however, many aspects of society/environment/development interactions remain relatively unexplored or under- researched within the social sciences in Africa. While social scientists in conservation and related natural resource management contexts have achieved considerable success in stimulating cross disciplinary engagement with natural science understandings of resource management challenges, the social sciences themselves have mostly not mainstreamed environmental issues into their intellectual and research agendas. A coherent social science of the environment that is capable of empirical, research based contributions to African policy responses to the contemporary environmental questions is urgently required.

Contemporary research challenges facing the social sciences and humanities in Africa include understanding the relationship between economics and environmental degradation;environmental governance and politics, particularly in relation to global political and economic dynamics; unraveling the linkages between poverty and environment; and advancing scientific understandings of the relationships between African local knowledge and adaptation to global environmental change (including climate change).Environmentaldegradation, combined with rapidly growing populations, enclosures and growing inequity has also led to numerous conflicts on the continent -conflicts over access to land and rangeland between pastoralists and sedentaryagriculturalists, cultivators and herders, miners and farmers; conflicts over access to water, forests and other natural resources etc. In Africa evidence abounds of intensifying competition and conflict, over land and natural resources accompanied by deepening social differentiation and originating in the commodification of agricultural production (Peters 2004). “Natural resources are among the prime sites where struggles for defining the contents and meanings of democracy and citizenship are waged in the developing countries…” (Kashwan, 2012: 63)

As the environmental and ecological challenges facing humanity have escalated, the social sciences disciplines have also experienced significant transformations as they have sought to incorporate these challenges into their paradigms. However, even as environmental concerns have been incorporated into the disciplines, their treatment and place within those disciplines remains only marginal, and sometimes even contested (Foster, 1999). The incorporation of environmental concerns into the mainstream of the disciplines has been hindered by the absence of a coherent theoretical model of the relationship between environment and society. Thus, for instance, “[S]ociology was constructed as if nature didn’t matter” (Murphy (1996:10). Indeed the social sciences have been slow and fragmented in their engagement with the challenges of reconciling environmental governance with the needs of human development. The humanities have fared no better. While environmental history has been centrally concerned with the role of environment in the historical trajectories of colonial governance and post-colonial adjustments of space and place (see e.g. Bernstein, Anderson and Grove, etc), environmental issues remain peripheral to most other humanities disciplines.

In Africa, class and other ongoing struggles for social change are increasingly constructed around environmental and natural resource issues. Economic decline associated with structural adjustment programs; failed rural development interventions and increasing poverty have accelerated the dependence of peasants in particular on direct access to natural resources.This in turn has fostered the emergence of movements that contest the alienations of natural resources, resist natural resource regulation and related policies, and fight for gender rights to land and other natural resources (see e.g. Moyo et al, 2002). These struggles for equity and justice increasingly structure social and political relations, and have in turn forced greater policy attention to environmental concerns.

Contemporary environmental debates in African social sciences focus on issues such as land and related agrarian questions; the poverty-environment nexus; climate change mitigation and adaptation; the relationship between global political forces and environmental change; environmental security; environmental justice; environmental management, policy and governance; environmental movements and political parties;local-global interactions; multi-lateral environmental agreements; population and environment and so on.Climate change has come to dominate contemporary environmental debates and to shape development policy. African Social Scientists in, usually in collaboration with scholars from other continents, have begun to respond to the climate crisis, focusing particularly on its implications on various facets of development and livelihoods. Extant environmental thought continues to be dominated by the issue of sustainable development, usually viewed through an ecological lens. Thus African social scientists have been at the forefront of investigating the linkages between environmental governance; environmental sustainability and livelihoods (see e.g. Murphree, 1994).However, most of the policies informing the decentralization of natural resources governance in Africa however were a direct offshoot of decentralization policies adopted as part of the structural adjustment packages on the 1980s and 90s, and thus the social sciences research into decentralized natural resources governance was informed by the logics of neo-liberalism.

Contemporary development strategies of most African countries are increasingly pivoted around state and private investment in natural resource extraction concessions (mining, forest and agriculture). Today Africa is witnessing land and environmental expropriations and commodification on an unprecedented scale.The commodification and privatization of the environment has accelerated as the crisis of neo-liberal accumulation hasintensified. This is evident from increased ‘green grabs’, land grabs, new forms of land and resource expropriation through carbon sequestration, water privatization, and the creation of new protected areas on lands expropriated from the poor and marginalized, and the suppression of indigenous forms of production and consumption. Many environmentalists have classified payments for environmental services (PES) schemes such as carbon sequestration schemes (e.g., REDD + etc.) as a form of “green grabbing”, that facilitates appropriation of land and resources for environmental ends through the transfer of ownership, use and control rights from the poor to the hands of the powerful (Fairhead et al. 2012).Land grabs are occurring in diverse land and natural resource governance contexts characterized by several common governance weaknesses including incomplete, inequitable, and ambiguous policy and legal frameworks; weak and competing jurisdictions of national and local government institutions; limited (and limited use of) land and forest information to guide policy and management; judicial systems that tend to be disconnected from poorly understood customary tenure systems; and limited public awareness, dialogue, and participation in decision making regarding the allocation and re-allocation of land and resource rights (Murombedzi, forthcoming 2013). This trend is becoming a core issue in the social sciences engagement with environmental concerns in Africa.

Given the urgency of environmental challenges facing the continent, an African social science perspective to inform appropriate policy responses is urgent. What is needed is an approach that gives new impetus to environmental research in the social sciences and humanities, ensuring better integration into all the disciplines and recognition of the extreme urgency of the need to developappropriate paradigms on the environment-development linkages.

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