January 2020 Newsletter Article: Nature Inequalities and the exigencies for Development Anthropology

By Ayonghe Akonwi Nebasifu, Ph.D. Researcher, Anthropology Research Team (Arctic Centre) University of Lapland. Email: aayonghe@ulapland.fi

Joonas Uotinen, Ph.D. Researcher, Economic Sociology (Department of Social Research) University of Turku. Email: jauoti@utu.fi

“It is increasingly clear that it will cost far less to cut emissions now than to deal with the consequences later […]. The impact of climate change will fall disproportionately on the world’s poorest countries […]. Poor people already live on the front lines of pollution, disaster and the degradation of resources and land. Their livelihoods and sustenance depend directly on agriculture, forestry and fisheries. Think, for example, of the women and girls forced to forage for fuel and water in the absence of basic energy services. Or of the innumerable African communities that have suffered climate-related disasters in recent years […]. For them, adaptation is a matter of sheer survival”, Kofi Annan (1938-2018), the 7th UN Secretary-General addressing a Climate Change Conference in Nairobi, 15 November 2006.

Events that led Kofi Annan to make these observations are of continuing importance. Developments since then have made these issues even more pressing. Within the context of the 2020 FSDR conference, “nature inequalities” imply questions of accessing, controlling, and distributing natural resources (including oil and gas, forests, agricultural lands, wildlife, water bodies, sites of valuable iron minerals and gold deposits, to name a few), and the anxieties surrounding climate change impact at regional level.

While the monopolistic exploitation of natural resources is often defended by the leaders of extractivist economies as win-win, such resource extraction often pillages the environment and destroys the livelihoods of indigenous people. Even concerning, extractivism tends to undermine the knowledge systems, and culture of first world people in irreversible ways. Often, their community practices, rituals, and dynamic relationships with the beings in their surroundings are permanently lost. It is for this reason, among others, that the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and later, the Kyoto Protocol in 2005 and 2012, came into force. They were intended to ensure that the 192 parties to the agreements commit to reducing greenhouse gases. Despite these frameworks, however, greenhouse emissions are still growing and many communities, both in the Global South and North, in recent years, are becoming increasingly vulnerable to nature inequalities.

For instance, in 2019 alone: Typhoon Hagibis caused billions of US$ of damage to Japan’s Iza Peninsula, according to the Insurance Journal; Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas leaving more than 40 people dead; cyclone Idai in Mozambique brought flash flooding, hundreds of deaths, and the destruction of crops and property; wild fires in the Amazon Rainforest allegedly established to clear land for cattle ranching, farming, and logging, has put indigenous lands, livelihoods, and biodiversity at risk, spreading into parts of Bolivia, Paraguay, and Peru; and Greenland’s loss of 12.5 billion tons of ice, a scenario climate models had not projected until 2070, according to the Business Insider. It is not surprising that with the melting ice cap in the arctic, new mining applications from Chinese, American, and Australian companies are being submitted for uranium, gold, iron, and petroleum extraction, across Canada, Greenland, Finland, and Russia, according to The Guardian. Many of these mineral-rich areas lay at the heart of indigenous lands and settlements, which indigenous people value as sites of cultural importance to preserve for future generations.
Beyond description, it is important to explain these inequalities. Some contend that these examples often have roots in anthropogenic factors, and indeed, require great attention not just from the natural sciences, others point to anthropological lines of thinking. Population explosion has also been a point of explanation, as has capitalism itself. The causes of this “ecocide” can be jarring and often warrant ongoing analysis in the face of fresh evidence. The FSDR Conference provides another opportunity to ask what explains these inequalities? What exigences can practitioners, scholars, researchers, and expertise in development anthropology offer to the broader scope of addressing nature inequalities?

Protected area governance

On the issue of protected areas, many of them should be preserved in ways that uphold the sustenance of ecosystems and provide for the cultural needs of local/indigenous people. But, this is not always the case. During a BBC interview in 2018, Professor James Watson from Queensland University and the Wildlife Conservation Society, spoke about a work with fellows, entitled “One-third of Global Protected land is Under Intense Human Pressure” in the journal Science. He noted that since the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), protected areas had doubled in size amounting to nearly 15% of the Earth’s terrestrial environments, and 8% of its marine environments. What was concerning in this interview was the fact that many of these protected areas are what he called “paper parks” and still have intense human activities going on, including installation of power lines, as well as the construction of roads and cities. Analysing close to 50,000 protected areas around the world, James Watson’s work showed that 33% were under human pressure, particularly heavily populated areas in Asia, Europe, and Africa. Further, in nations like Australia and America that have the resources to ensure appropriate conservation of species, one could find the fragmentation of land through logging and capitalist mining in sites that should be preserved. See also Professor Franklin Obeng-Odoom’s work “Marketising the commons in Africa: the case of Ghana”, published in 2016 in the journal Review of Social Economy, which highlights some repercussions of such capitalism using the example of Ghana.

These shocking reports are not new. Earlier in 2006, Professors Paige West, Jim Igoe, and Dan Brockington, in a paper “Parks and Peoples: The Social Impact of Protected Areas”, published in The Annual Review of Anthropology, raised concerns about the unintended consequences of protected areas to the livelihoods of local people living in and around them. At the forefront of the phenomena is the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which lists and categorizes protected areas, and has created a worldwide categorical system which most national governments adopt to fit their protected lands into. Although well intentioned, this system has little regard for local ways of describing and engaging with the environment. The outcome of this approach has been the separation of people from their surroundings. Some cases include, the Mon-Khmer groups in the Mekong region of Laos in Southeast Asia, Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska and its Inuit population, and Australia’s Kakadu National Park occupied by the Bininj and Mungguy people, which typify new definitions of land use imposed by conservationists separating people and their surroundings.

What is the most striking in this review are the outcomes pertaining to conservation-induced displacement, changes in land-use rights, and the triggering of conflicts. For instance, Nepal’s buffer zones restricting traditional land-use and access rights has led to conflict, economic loss and the destruction of traditional systems for land tenure. In Syria, protected areas have replaced customary land tenure with new regulatory schemes, depriving pastoral groups and altering their inter-tribal links to the land. In spite of conservation initiatives in the Arabian Peninsula, the Harasiis people who for many centuries shared space with the oryx, were denied grazing rights, leading to activities of poaching as an option for subsistence. Inequalities of this kind should be part of the top agenda in the Conference of the Parties (COP) (a governing body of the UNFCCC that meets annually to assess progress in dealing with climate change) – as this would facilitate greater attention for establishing global policies that tackle inequalities. Beyond this, attending to inequalities should extend to addressing human-induced crises in the Global South as well as, the wider Arctic regions of the world.

The geopolitical stage

Although there is a definite need for dialogue and engagement on these issues at international levels, there is a tendency for such talks to become more about political gain rather than scientific. For example, China contributes about 29% and America 16% of global CO2 emissions according to a 2019 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Both nations should take a leading role in combatting nature inequalities, but are not meeting up to expectations. For example, America under the Bush administration, in 2001, withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol – stating that the deal for USA to reduce CO2 and methane by 7% below the 1990 levels by the year 2012 would harm the US economy, and for the fact that it exempted developing countries, as noted in a 2001 report by The Guardian. In 2017, the US president, Donald Trump presented his formal declaration of America’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord, a political move said to cancel donations from the US multilateral environmental fund, affect budget cuts in environmental and humanitarian foreign aid, and in US climate research.
Beyond this, China, amid its growing inequalities, continues to strengthen its industrial base and economic power both in the Global South and North. Africa, for instance, has seen the intensification of Chinese investments in natural resources to fuel its own industrial development in China. A 2019 article, “Paradoxical Gaps in Resilient Environmental Governance”, in the journal Environmental Reviews, showed that petroleum accounted for 62% of Chinese imports from sub-Saharan Africa, including countries such as Nigeria, Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, and Angola in 2006. Meanwhile, raw materials such as tobacco, cotton, oil seeds, and wood, made up 7% of Chinese imports, from Gabon, Cameroon, Congo DR, and Equatorial Guinea.
Nevertheless, in all this, China has made significant progress in developing renewables and alternative energy, more than many Western nations. According to a 2018 report “China is rapidly developing its clean-energy technology” by The Economist, China leads the world in clean energy with the aid of spending through subsidies, policy targets and manufacturing incentives, to clean up its energy system than America and the EU combined. For instance, in 2017, China spent approximately US$132 billion on clean energy.

China is not the only player in this geopolitical space. October 2019 witnessed Russia’s Inaugural African Summit – a two-day event in Sochi, attended by 43 African heads of state. The Moscow Times highlighted Russia’s current trade investment with African countries at US$20 billion – a deal to help protect the sovereignty of African countries, enhance infrastructure and technological development, and humanitarian cooperation. Questions of how this will influence the nature of inequalities in Africa is worth paying closer attention to.
The Nigeria problem involving Shell and the dynamics of Economic Partnership Agreements (EPA) has been critiqued in theory as an influence of Western nations. Cyril Obi’s chapter “Globalization and Local Resistance: The Case of Shell versus the Ogoni”, published in 2000 in the book “Globalization and the Politics of Resistance” showed that the Anglo-Dutch global oil giant, Shell, which produces slightly over half of Nigeria’s oil, brought inequalities of alienation and resistance among communities of the oil-rich Niger delta region for over two decades, taking a worse turn in the mid-1980s. The Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), in particular, was driven by the people’s quest to force Shell and the Nigerian government to accept their right to control their land and its proceeds.

Further, the EPA, an economic initiative to negotiate trade between the EU and APC (African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States) regions aimed at strengthening regional cooperation through poverty reduce and sustainable development, does not lived up to expectations in Nigeria. As Chibuzo Nwoke elaborated in a 2008 report “Nigeria and the challenge of the EPA” published by Trade Negotiations Insights, although the notion of fair-trade stands at the heart of EPA, its negotiations exist beneath a skewed framework of unequal power between partners – pitting a group of advanced economies against a group of least developed and raw material-exporting economies, where the former group dictates the rules over the latter. In this report, he noted the example of 2008, where upon Nigeria’s refusal to sign the EPA interim agreement, the country faced higher tariffs in exporting cocoa products to the EU, than it had under the Lomé-Cotonou provisions.

The coming of these events are significant at a time when the geopolitical order is shifting from central powers to multilateralism with several nations playing a part in shaping the inequality landscape. How this might affect the use, management, and distribution of natural resources around the world is what we await.

Climate change agreements

Already, the October 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming called on nations to limit temperature rise at 1.5ºC by 2030. The IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere released in September 2019, further recognizes that the ocean which is almost three-quarters of the Earth’s surface, has absorbed about 20-30% of humans’ carbon emissions since the 1980s. This has caused the oceans’ pH to decline and become more acidic.
With the excess heat being absorbed by the ocean, ocean warming has more than doubled since 1993. Further, ice sheets and glaciers covering about 10% of the Earth, have declined at approximately 13% per decade based on the data recorded for September 2019. For example, between 2006 and 2015 Greenland’s ice sheet for instance lost 278 gigatons (Gt) of mass per year. These findings are unprecedented, and pose a risk of deepening inequalities when we consider the growing interest in exploiting the rich natural gas buried in the arctic.

Development anthropology and the exigencies

In this scope of nature inequalities, the targets and proposals outlined in many of the international agreements seem to appeal much to human-centred action, though there is little evidence of political leaders willing to meet their targets in the Paris Agreement. Thus, apart from human-centered action and decision-making at the highest political office tables, development anthropology could have a lot, and more, to offer in addressing the ever more complex nature of inequalities.
Development anthropology is not a very old discipline as such. One might relate its early use within the rise of post-colonial theories, and perhaps, more specific to British anthropologist Glynn Cochrane, who in 1971, suggested that an interdisciplinary development anthropology be established for practitioners intending to operate outside academia. His 1974 report, “The Use of Anthropology in Project Operations of the World Bank Group”, particularly inspired many graduates of anthropology to perform tasks in interdisciplinary settings as well as laying the foundation for the use of development anthropology as a discipline in the World Bank Group.

For proponents of this discipline, it entails applying anthropological thought to development studies – where the social action of states, institutions, businesses, and other sectors influence the socio-economic and political landscape of places, in particular, impoverished regions of the world. While the discipline aims at contributing to critique of contemporary notions of development, elimination of poverty, and improvement of the wellbeing of marginalized groups, it equally focuses on paying discerning attention to the role of international development and aid in shaping vulnerable regions and groups.
There are a few necessities we can add to advance current lines of thinking both in attending to nature inequalities as well as the role of anthropology in this discourse. To begin with, the new generation of activists is an avenue, on which development anthropologists can build upon to address nature inequalities. The UN Secretary-General António Guterres, at the start of the 74th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York, September 2019, cautioned that with the current rate of temperature warming, the world faces an increase of 3ºC in global temperatures by the end of the century. He further stressed, “I will not be there, but my granddaughters will […]. I refuse to be an accomplice in the destruction of their one and only home […]. But the movement has begun.”

A new generation of young activists, many being inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, have drawn great attention to social justice and moral responsibility, emphasizing the inequalities impoverished people would most likely face even when they contribute little to the problems of climate change. Jeff Tollefson’s 2019 publication “The hard truths of climate change — by the numbers” in the journal Nature, mentioned the thoughts of Christiana Figueres, head of the UN Climate Convention in 2015, who facilitated the Paris Agreement, who stated “the youth activists are absolutely correct and totally justified in their anger”. He referred to the example of Bruno Rodriguez, age 18, who gained inspiration from student climate protests in Europe, and established the Youth for Climate Argentina – a move which, in May 2019, drew more than 8,000 protesters to the national congress, making senators to work with its leaders to pass a resolution declaring a climate emergency on the 17th of July 2019. Efforts of this type, are worth revealing.

Sharing similar kinds of values, the two – climate justice movement and the development anthropology – could use each other as a leverage for common aims. Also, interestingly, today’s youth seem to be interested in a culture reflecting those values, and are already having some kind of an incoherent and potentially creative state of culture which on the one hand sees its actions and lifestyles as self-destructive and against that what is just, and on the other hand is embedded within such structures and continues to a large extent those lifestyles. So, they themselves, including many of the anthropologists, form a culture within which such thoughts and aspirations are included and manifested. The solutions and the culture springing from this merit attention both for academic curiosity as well as the road to fixing nature inequalities.
It is also important to discuss promotion of a “wellbeing agenda”. Edward Fischer, Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Latin American Studies, Vanderbilt University, in his introductory chapter “The Good Life: Values, Markets, and Wellbeing”, published in 2012, in the Open Anthropology Cooperative (OAC) Press, explored the concept of wellbeing from a perspective of the “good life” – where there are aspirations and opportunities of living a life one desires, with dignity, fairness, and commitment to a larger purpose. Doing so requires one to have the agency to realize aspirations. A BBC report “Iceland puts well-being ahead of GDP in budget” in December 2019, echoed the notion that gross domestic product (GDP), numerical data, measuring a country’s production of goods and services fails to capture inequality and other phenomena that shape modern societies. This understanding, illustrates “the deficiencies of commonly used metrics”, as noted by Professor Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize-winning economist. Indeed, a time has come when ameliorating nature inequalities require wellbeing initiatives that allow global economies to prioritize investments into affordable health care, parental leave, childcare, sports and arts, and green energy.

These ideas among others, indicated in the BBC report, were at the heart of recent calls by the Iceland Prime Minister, Ms Katrin Jakobsdottir, in what she called “an alternative future based on well-being and inclusive growth” that incorporates new social indicators besides GDP which undervalues the social damage caused by inequality. Our hope for development anthropology, is them, widening their scope of research on suitable options for enhancing wellbeing, with particular emphasis on impoverished communities of the world.
Yet, it is not only a one-way road: would it be time to move to some extent further away from money-dominated markets and services in the West for nature inequalities? We should “invest” into “services” detached from our own lives apart from us receiving them and also embed those services further into our own lifestyles and culture. We need to move these services away from the formal sectors, shifting them from “services” and “investments” labels to daily actions and conventions that serve the same goals of health, rest, and time for managing/enjoying life. This would at the same time help to detach those services from the requirement of perpetual growth so that we would be able to live happy and good lives without the necessity of ever-growing GDP per capita possibly dependent on ever growing use of resources.

Thus, could we change the way we live to be healthier both physically and mentally and so that there is less need for treating severe depression with medication? For example, it appears worth asking whether the recent drop in suicides in Finland, a famous country for both its high suicide rates and its high ranking in almost every indicator of “goodness” of a nation known today, is due to changes in the quality of life of the Finns or due to the ever-increasing usage of antidepressants or other psychoactive medicine. Such changes in the structure of the provision of our well-being would at the same time lessen our dependency on the possible exploitation of far-away lands and natures just to for the maintenance of our well-being services.
Beyond this, environmental governance will continue to be crucial in addressing nature inequalities. However, quite often, when it comes to national governments implementing global policies, little attention is given to culturally appropriate ways of acculturating international agreements at sub-national levels. Development anthropologists would be of high importance in the reconsideration of policies into locally-based ways of sustaining both the surroundings as well as the knowledge systems of the local societies.

Doing so warrants better engagement between state governments and indigenous groups through informal institutions in negotiating policy strategies, giving better recognition for local knowledge in policy discourse. The 2010 work of Rod Kennett and colleagues about “indigenous rights and obligations to manage traditional land and sea estates in north Australia”, in the journal Policy Matters, presents pockets of experiments that have potential for application elsewhere. In northern Australia, the Torres Strait Island people work in collaboration with the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA) under an “I-Tracker project” through which indigenous rangers given field computers and CyberTracker software, are able to gather and manage environmental data. The project puts indigenous rights of land ownership paramount to its visions, while enabling data sharing to address threats to biodiversity. See also the 2011 work of Helen Ross and others on Co-management and IPA in Australia, in the Australasian Journal of Environmental Management, and issue 82 of 2018/19 in the Journal of Australian Political Economy. These examples shade light on the need to respect the autonomy of indigenous people in the management of their respective lifestyles and livelihoods through collaborative efforts we observe as potentials to adopt in combatting nature inequalities par excellence.


We admit that the above suggestions might be hard to achieve. However, they provide some optimism. Ahead of COP25, in a press conference in Madrid, on Sunday 1st December 2019, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres said “My message here today is one of hope not of despair […]. The signals of hope are multiplying. Public opinion is waking up everywhere. Young people are showing remarkable leadership and mobilization […].” Consistent with this view, resilience through the expression of public opinion continues to shape the political will to act. How this trend advances in the coming years is something development anthropologists should observe closely, support it, collaborate with it, and learn from it.

We should, however, be cautious about what scholars of urban resilience (Zbigniew J Grabowski and others) see as decisions that influence the vulnerability of communities to climate change. Even with the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, humanity’s progress continues to be critical in an ever-dynamic world of inequalities. Anthropological research will be useful in providing understanding on how conflicting knowledge systems come about and how national governments can wisely make these systems work better. Already, we see reasonable options emerging from theories of sacred ecology (Fikret Berkes and others) and local/indigenous knowledge (Arun Agrawal, Clifford Geerts, Fredrik Barth, Marie Battiste, and colleagues), whose thoughts pay particular consideration to social practices that produce and use information. Of paramount importance is to note that the developed nations with their science is also but one social practice producing and using information. Development anthropology can usefully harness these approaches to acknowledge the distinctive and culturally-based tactics for which systems of local knowledge can be utilized in measures against nature inequalities both in the affluent as well as less affluent regions and spheres of human action.

As mainstream media continues to play a part in efforts to combat inequalities, we should be cautious of reports that frame the geopolitical influence of nations without a two or multi-sided viewpoint of how such nations impact the inequalities at global and national levels. This year gives us a chance to revisit the issues raised in this paper and diagnose them further. The Finnish Society for Development Research (FSDR) from the 26 to 28 of February 2020, will organise the Development Days Conference with the theme “Inequality Revisited: In Search of Novel Perspectives on an Enduring Problem” in Helsinki. Our hope is that, at a time when inequality has become an integral part of the everyday life and communities we find ourselves in, this event should provide not only an opportunity for the media to properly capture insights about inequality from the scientific stance, but for researchers, University students, policymakers, organization experts, and the civil society, to come together to learn and share beyond disciplinary boundaries towards societal progress in building a better world and future.