Education and Actionable Knowledge

March2 Let’s look at activism, academia and politics. A conference on the intersection of academics and activism was recently held as part of events marking 40 years of the Right Livelihood Awards. It provided an excellent platform to mingle with ageing activists as well as young and aspiring ones. The conference was hosted in Bangkok and took place at the Chulalongkong University, Bangkok as well as at Wongsanit Ashram. It drew participants from all regions of the world and was hasted by the School for Wellbeing Studies and Research.

If you think that most of the time was spent on nostalgic recollection of some good old days, you would be totally wrong. Of course, there were moments for tracing the origins of the Foundation from when Jakob von Uexkull, the founder, felt that by refusing to give an environmental prize, the Nobel Prize was missing out an important constituent of persons and organisations courageously contributing practical and exemplary solutions to global problems. That was how the Right Livelihood Foundation and its awards came into being. 40 years down the road, the Foundation has chalked up 178 laureates from 70 countries.

The theme of the conference was Education for Right Livelihood – Connecting Activism and Academia. In the forum were laureates who received the award in the 1990s and who are still going strong, providing leadership in diverse struggles. They included Vandana Shiva who received the award in 1993 and Sulak Sivaraksa who was honoured in 1995. The Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) of Brazil who received the award in 1991 was represented. Survival International (France) received the award in 1989 and was represented by Fiore Longo who was quite young at the time the organisation received the award. In all, there were about a dozen laureates at the conference.

While we drank from the springs of wisdom from the laureates such as Shiva and Sivarasksa, highlights of the days included the vibrant participation of youths who shared the spaces equally with the more elderly participants. It was a delight to hear the young folks, who came mostly from Thailand, Vietnam, Bhutan and Myanmar, lay out what they felt was the way to spread system changing ideals around the world. They especially insisted that the voices of the youths must not only be raised but must be heard. They suggested a system of continuous learning, including what they termed Travelling Universities through which youths could cross pollinate and share ideas with colleagues from around the world. Warning: this article drifts into the recesses of my mind and is not totally a report of that conference.

The place of the arts in protests and activism cropped up frequently and their preponderance during mass actions was noted. I thought on the awakening of the streets as critical spaces for seeding progressive ideas and wondered whether the protests proffer real solutions and if the root causes of global problems can be unearthed on the streets. But then, it has always held true to me that saying NO, and rejecting  a wrong is a solution in its own right.

The intensity of street marches and actions in recent years could make us wonder whether the world is at a tipping point or on the verge of a revolutionary moment. How could these actions counter the ambiguous, amoral, conscienceless and flippant political leadership in the world today? If we speak of reclaiming power, have we interrogated the very concept of power? Has the nature of power and its dynamics changed over time? Are the streets arenas for deeper things than building excitement and offering spectacle?

How do we tackle the forces of exploitation in the world today? Has the idea of democracy become a mere illusion in the world today? With the increasingly nationalistic and petty responses to issues, has the sense of citizenship changed over time? More questions. Considering that the street is not uniform across the world, how widespread can disruptive activism be practised and to what end?

In private conversations, the youths wished to know if it can be said that something is a Green New Deal when it is built on the same extractivist, polluting and unjust paradigms that created the problems it seeks to solve. Seeing the rush to introduce extinction genetic engineering, the youths wondered if technologies, including those pushed by “the poison cartel,” have made it impossible for humans to see and relate to Nature. The poison cartel, for those who do not know, promote genetic engineering, practice toxic agriculture and basically steal seeds from farmers and the poor.

Of all the questions that emerged and floated around, one took a huge corner of my mind and set up its tent there. In this age of rising individualism, is our experience dependent on, or validated by how people respond to our experiences? Huh? A lot of people post materials on social media platforms primarily to see how many people would like or share what they have posted. The more the likes, the more the sense of validation of the person that posted or shared the material. How real is this?

The streets. Do they give us space in which the quality of our disagreement with the status quo can be made sensible or is the street a marketplace for a cacophony of noises? The idea of making sense of disagreements lead to the recollection that the Occupy Movement always had moments for teach-ins to ensure that participants did not see the actions as mere spectacle but keep in mind the reasons why they were protesting and what outcomes they sought.

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There were many outputs from the conference, including a stress on  building actionable knowledge and promotion of intergenerational learning. The point was also made that as we struggle to build a just future, we must look into the far past and project the future without being restricted by the present. The future will be self-reinforcing and diverse. It will be built on a mix of ancient and contemporary wisdom with a concrete understanding that we are related to all species.
Connecting Activism and Academia

Ogoni Clean-Up and the Business of Pollution

Eleme 1Will Ogoni be Cleaned? Recent news making the rounds is that the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and their oil company partners, Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), Total Exploration and Production of Nigeria (TEPNG) and Nigerian Agip Oil Company (NAOC), have “disbursed” a total of $360 on the clean-up of the Ogoniland. This claim is reported to have been made by the Chief Operating Officer for Upstream of the NNPC at an hearing on the clean-up at the Nigerian National Assembly on Monday, 17 February 2020.

Even before this announcement at the National Assembly dusts have been raised over how that colossal sum could have been spent on the Ogoni clean-up without corresponding results. Some usually respectable voices have been raised alleging massive corruption in the ways and manner the Hydrocarbons Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP) is handling the contracts. In fact, one report claimed that “it was unfortunate that an overwhelming $350million, an estimated NGN128,000,000,000 (One hundred and twenty eight billion Naira) meant for the cleanup has been largely misappropriated due to the massive corruption in HYPREP.”

While this article cannot respond to the charges of corrupt practices, it is important to deal with the delicate issues of perception and acrimony that presentations of this sort can generate. Let us refresh our memories about the funding architecture of the Ogoni clean-up exercise. Following the UNEP report of 2011, it was decided that a total of $1 billion should be contributed towards the clean-up of Ogoniland by the entities that polluted the area. Out of this sum, 90% is to be contributed at the ratio of Joint Venture holdings by the polluting partners while the balance 10% of the funds would come from a rather nebulous cohort including the refineries.

There is no doubt that the clean-up could be faster than it has been. There is also no doubt that certain emergency measures could, and must, be undertaken. There is no reason why anyone in Ogoni should be drinking contaminated water after a report, from no less an agency like UNEP, has clearly confirmed the fact of such contamination.

Citizens have a right to be emotive over the clean-up exercise because this is a matter of life or death for the present generation and for generations yet unborn. Pollution is an intergenerational crime. Indeed, some places in the Niger Delta will require several lifetimes to recover because the harms that have been inflicted can best be described as ecocide.

The misrepresentation of facts and figures and continuous infighting for whatever reasons continue to generate bad energy over the entire efforts and raises the question as to whether Ogoni will ever be cleansed. And, by extension, will the Niger Delta ever be cleaned?

One of the problems with the clean-up is that some people see it as merely a business opportunity rather than as a duty to ensure that this intergenerational crime is redressed. Indeed, the clean-up of the entire Niger Delta could possible provide employment form a large proportion of Nigeria’s unemployed youths if they are suitably trained and drawn into a comprehensive clean-up corp. In fact, the squabbles over the Ogoni clean-up contracts is a huge distraction at a time when we should be clamouring for an audit of all places in the Niger Delta (and elsewhere) with hydrocarbon pollution.

Chasing after an extremely difficult and complex clean-up without adequate technical and financial capacity is actually a disservice to our communities and peoples. We have seen the poor clean-up exercises carried out at locations where new spills occur. And the fact that it took UNEP to expose the lie in oil company claims that they had remediated polluted places in Ogoniland. The poor efforts at covering rather than remediating pollutions at places like K-Dere and others were all exposed by the UNEP report. A pursuit of the clean-up as “jobs for the boys” or where jobs are given out based on a sense of entitlement or as political patronage cannot portend anything good.

The nature, depth and complexity of the pollution of Ogoni requires the application of best skills and safe technologies from any part of the world. The exercise should be pursued as an ecological emergency where the fact that a company has not previously operated in Nigeria should be a secondary stumbling block. Some of us are convinced that this is the approach that is needed as the clean-up moves to more complicated lots.

If HYPREP stands firm on the quality of project delivery, as we believe they should, and if jobs are let on the basis of local capacities only, the outcome may be massive delays as jobs that should be completed quickly will have to be redone repeatedly to meet set milestones and indicators. We have seen this in simple construction projects given out to less than competent contractors. The outcomes have been shoddy deliveries, delays and abandonment of sites. Neither HYPREP nor the Ogoni people can afford that scenario.

Back to the matter of cash. When the NNPC chief announced that the polluters had disbursed $360 million the impression people get is that HYPREP had spent the cash. Few understand that the funds contributed or paid by the polluters are held by an Ogoni Trust Fund and not directly in HYPREP’s accounts. The NNPC chief may not have told the world exactly when they disbursed the 2019 tranche of the funds to the Ogoni Trust Fund. If the sums were paid at the end of the year or at the beginning of 2020 how could anyone think or believe that the money has been spent or spirited away in the clean-up process?

The misrepresentation of facts and figures and continuous infighting for whatever reasons continue to generate bad energy over the entire efforts and raises the question as to whether Ogoni will ever be cleansed. And, by extension, will the Niger Delta ever be cleaned?

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Locust Swarms and other terrors

LocustThe desert locust storms hitting East Africa indicate unfolding horrors. They are also a metaphor for other terrors on the continent. Pictures of swarms of locusts, crawling, flying, mating and stripping greenery in the East and Horn of Africa region appear like something out of a horror movie or some Africa Magic epic. One agrees that the poor devils have a right to live and to thrive, but why could they not find their own creepy planet? How could billions of the little horrors descend on shrubberies and farmlands without care?

The Earth is already challenged with a plethora of crises and one would think that plagues of locusts are best left as already settled in the Holy Book. To have those noisy crowds flying about and eating up every green thing is a form of terrorism.

And here we are, having these creeping disasters attack the last hope of the already desperately poor. It is said that a small swarm of desert locusts can devour the same amount of food as 35,000 people per day. Imagine that one swarm can have up to 150 million locusts per square kilometre of farmland or an equivalent of about 250 football fields! No one wants these swarms, no matter how small. One report has it that a large swarm in north eastern Kenya measures as much as 60 kilometres long and 40 kilometres wide.

Even without rising temperatures and though they die soon after copulating, these creatures are annoyingly fecund. Africa has had an unfair share of climate-related disasters. Floods, droughts, heat and water stress all pile harms upon the continent, deepening poverty and exacerbating inequalities. These locusts should take their lust for greenery to another planet.

Mark Lowcock, UN humanitarian chief, warns that the locust invasion in East Africa can become “the most devastating plague of locusts in any of our living memories if we don’t reduce the problem faster than we’re doing at the moment.” What is being experienced is said to be inching towards the worst to be seen in the last 70 years. The menace is so shocking that even cows are wondering what on earth is happening. Humans know that a hotter climate means more swarms, no matter what deniers may postulate.

It is estimated that if the locust storm (and that’s a close image of the plague) persists, up to 10 million persons may  plunge into hunger in that part of Africa. The locusts have already struck Kenya, Somalia and parts of Uganda. South Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia are also threatened. They are believed to have been blown in by strong cyclones from the Arabian Peninsula and across the Red Sea and to have had a hit with greenery in East Africa. More rains offer better conditions for the locusts to thrive. Lesser rain reduces their population, but a whiff of water would quickly see a multiplication of the survivors.

What can be done about these creatures? Kill the nymphs before they grow! Did we just say that? That sounds horrendously gruesome. But that’s the harsh truth. When they pop up, wiggly, wingless and hopping, that is the time to step on them. Ouch. That is the time to give them a shower of pesticides or locusticides. The insects are edible, but locust fries, salad or suya would not eliminate these hordes. Imagine if nets were set and these troops are captured and sent to any community where they could be served for snacks or dinner. Where are the titans in search of capital? This is a business idea, brisk, short-term and extremely profitable. The stock will be freely available, and you would not even need to pay for the creatures.

Aerial spraying could be a solution in the less accessible parts of Somalia, but that option is a no brainer with the presence of al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab groups. Halting the spread of the locust is a task that must be done. Left to their devices, the attack becomes a plague that  according to experts,  would take years to eradicate.

Looking at the climate disasters and now the locust invasion in East Africa, one cannot help but conclude that West Africa has generally gotten off lightly from the tweaks of Nature and disasters triggered by the reckless plunder of Nature in the pursuit of capital.

Look at a nation like Nigeria. Natural disasters are few and far apart. When the floods come it is often predicted by relevant agencies and the disaster nevertheless arrives at a leisurely pace, traveling down the Niger and Benue Rivers until they empty into the Atlantic Ocean after sweeping away the dreams of the hapless citizens.

While locusts devour lives from trees in East Africa, in Nigeria, city gates are locked before dusk in the fear of terrorists. Citizens locked inside the cities may enjoy a dubious respite, but those locked outside the gates get roasted and annihilated in exposed and unsecured villages.

The swarms of locusts love germinating crops, devour leaves and generate hunger and desperation. Climate change intensifies floods and wreak havoc in many areas. Where these aren’t so potent, humans look for ways to spill blood, light the fires of terror in forests and scrublands, kidnap, abduct and make kids become targets merely by wearing school uniforms.

While no one can claim now to have an immediate solution to the locust strike, we have those saddled with responsibility of providing security in Nigeria screaming that they have defeated their human locusts several months ago, and that even if they are bereft of ideas on how to tackle the murderous swarms, they are indispensable. Meanwhile, we wonder why the number of victims of terrorist attacks in Borno State and in the North East generally has regularly hovered around 30.

A casual look at some news reports show that 30 persons were reportedly killed in attacks in February 2012, July 2013, December 2013, May 2015, December 2016, September 2018, May, June and December 2019, and in January and February 2020. Is it that we cannot count persons or is 30 a set number for massacres in the region?  This variant of the locust storms built by years of inequality, deprivation, poverty, corruption and ignorance has blown long enough and demands real action.

 

 

 

AGRA isn’t the Face of Agriculture

The announcement of the nomination of the President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), Agnes Kalibata, as the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General to the 2021 UN Food Summit is very troubling. It is not a shock because of the person of Kalibata but because of her connection to AGRA. It is a shock because AGRA stands in stark contradistinction to some fundamental positions of UN agencies such as the FAO.

The FAO leans towards the promotion of agricultural systems that are in harmony with Nature as opposed to systems that erode biodiversity and force farmers to depend on artificial and chemical inputs. For example, the FAO launched an initiative to scale up Agroecology as a key pathway of supporting the SDGs.

An important International Symposium on Agroecology organized by the FAO in 2014 was attended by six UN organisations, 700 participants from 72 countries and 350 civil society organizations and NGOs. The symposium considered diverse ways by which Agroecology can be enhanced around the world to contribute to realizing the SDGs. The benefits of agroecology were pointed out as including food security and nutrition, resilience, promoting health, protecting biodiversity and soil fertility, and mitigating climate change. During the symposium, the FAO Director-General Graziano da Silva noted that it strengthens “the role of family and small-scale farmers, fisher folk, pastoralists, women and youth.” At the end of the symposium the participants endorsed the launch of the Scaling up Agroecology Initiative and demanded that FAO should develop a ten-year plan for implementation.

After over 10 years of the existence of AGRA, it is hard to find any evidence that a so-called green revolution is happening in Africa.  According to Timothy Wise, “AGRA’s stated goals are to double yields and incomes for 30 million farming households by 2020. Despite millions of dollars spent by AGRA since 2006, few comprehensive evaluations of AGRA have been made available. An additional USD 30 billion was recently pledged at the African Green Revolution Forum to continue AGRA’s work and help launch the organization’s new strategic vision, without a clear understanding of how effective AGRA has been in increasing agricultural productivity and adoption of green revolution technologies and reducing poverty and malnutrition in the countries over the past decade.”

Critics see AGRA as a body that uses all the right language in framing its work as supporting small scale farmers whereas the reality is that its approaches promote the strategies of big business and the promoters of genetic engineering. AGRA has not categorically denied leaning on genetic engineering but like the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) they would claim that they don’t rule out technologies. This is duplicity of focus – posing as a supporter of small-scale farmers working with Nature while in reality working with systems that fight Nature and undercut the resilience of local ecosystems.

This is why the elevation of the President of AGRA to be the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General of the UN to the UN Food Summit is a loud endorsement of genetic engineering in agriculture and is highly worrisome. The move is rightly seen as a route to “hijacking the agenda and silencing the voices of African farmers and environmentalists while catering to the profits of agri-business.”

Unfortunately, big capital, such as that wielded by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the parents of AGRA, has shut the ears and hearts and governments from paying attention to the people. They promote agri-business, negate local knowledge and food systems, and promote systems that are ultimately inimical to the best needs of local farmers.

We are convinced that the UN Secretary-General can better be represented by persons that would promote Agroecology and systems that would protect global biodiversity, tackle hunger and fight global warming.

At this point in time, a Special Envoy should be someone that would clearly show support for the implementation of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). The findings of IAASTD were captured in the report (2008) titled Agriculture at the Crossroads. The report clearly showed that the future of food supply in the world will depend on the production from small-scale farmers as opposed to industrial agriculture and those applying genetically engineered organisms (GMOs).

A special envoy of the UN Secretary-General should be someone who would demand that African governments implement the decision of The African Union’s (AU) Maputo Declaration, better known as CAADP. That Declaration was officially adopted by member states in 2003 with the requirement that each country should allocate at least 10% of their annual budgets to agriculture by 2015. Only a handful African countries have met this target with the continental average standing at about 5%.

AGRA is not the face of agriculture in Africa and cannot speak in our name or represent us in any way.