Few people, except the most extreme global warming sceptics, can deny that there is a current global environmental crisis, of which Africa is a part. A combination of natural and human activities such as exploration and the aggressive exploitation and extraction of natural resources is taking its toll on African communities as well as the African environmental landscape.
Conversely, it is often European based companies who are extracting resources in an aggressive manner that is so detrimental to the local communities where mining is undertaken, such as in war torn regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The recent pursuit of oil in DR Congo’s UNESCO Virunga National Park is a prime example of how companies put profit over Africa’s environmental landscape.
Projects such as this typically lead to profit being held in the hands of a few, whilst the local community barely benefits and all of this is undertaken at huge cost to the environment. This results in the loss of the agricultural land that the poor rely upon and significant pollution of the surrounding areas. Virunga National Park, for example, is inhabited by over 3000 animal species.
Often this exploitation of resources such as water, land and air is at odds with African indigenous environmental ethics. African communities have traditionally lived in respect of nature, rather than using it for personal gain and profit. Africa’s entry into a global capitalist economy has contributed to the acceleration of environmental degradation as western capitalist value systems impose a negative effect on traditional African land ethics, particularly with regard to resource extraction.
But environmental policy has long been shaped by western political actors at the United Nations and beyond, often imposing a top down environmental policy that does not resonate with local communities. These views have shaped international policy for the last few hundred years and will continue to do so in the near future. That is not to say that the views on the peripheries are not important. UNESCO recently partnered with the World Views project, to help understand environmental ethics from around the world, as a conscious counterforce to the dominant tradition of universal knowledge.
Professor Kaya, the Research Leader of African Indigenous Knowledge Systems at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, confronts the claims underlying these universal approaches to environmental issues: ‘The traditional Western theology and philosophy is not only different from the traditional African perspective, but has limitations from the Ubuntu perspective because it puts man above other forms of creation, whereas Ubuntu promotes respect for diversity and for other forms of creation.’ This is pertinent in the context of resource extraction as Ubuntu would promote a more sustainable way of mining, rather than a wanton pursuit of profit that is currently the status quo within Africa.
Given such a divergence in world views it is now becoming increasingly accepted that culture is an important element in inspiring people to participate widely in environmental conservation.
With the marginalization of traditional African beliefs and with an urgent need to protect Africa’s environmental landscape, the World Views project has moved towards a proposed ‘African Convention on Environmental Ethics and Sustainable Livelihoods’, spear-headed by academics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban and others from across Africa. The project does not only rely on the support of academics and government officials, but it will also incorporate civil society actors from across Africa to promote a more afro-centric environmental outlook that can help mobilize ordinary African people to protect the environment through interpretations of appropriate environmental ethics.
At the heart of the planned convention is the idea that Africa’s poorest people should be empowered if they are to become savvy political actors and principal architects of their own sustainable development, with bottom-up solutions far more likely to succeed than top-down solutions promoted by donor agencies and western governments.
The convention will follow on from a conference aptly titled ‘International Conference on African Convention on Environmental Ethics,’ scheduled to take place in March 2014 in Durban. Central to the conference and the convention itself are the following themes: environmental governance and justice, knowledge systems and environmental ethics, science and technology in environmental ethics, rural development and sustainable livelihood, and indigenous languages and power relations.
These areas will be critical in explaining why the African Convention is necessary and why it can help contribute to a change in discourse at an international level as well as regionally. Other conventions such as the Rio Declaration do make fleeting reference to indigenous values. But that is all it is - fleeting - with no real commitment to acknowledge or engage with local communities on these issues. The African convention in contrast is aiming to be a bottom up initiative empowering all relevant stakeholders.
The future of Africa lies ultimately not so much in slavishly emulating western models, skills and ideas, but rather in developing and implementing home-grown, specific, corrective responses. This is what the Convention on African Environmental Ethics and Sustainable Livelihood hopes to achieve by shifting discourse and inspiring people through the prism of their own indigenous beliefs to protect the environment.
The project is not so much a post-colonial rejection of western beliefs or an out-right rejection of universalism, but more a movement for plurality both within the African context and beyond. The ‘International Conference on African Convention on Environmental Ethics’ aims to bring together indigenous knowledge practitioners, academics and government officials from across the continent and from the diaspora to contribute to a new discourse on environmental ethics that celebrates and promotes Africa’s unique environmental ethical value systems in order to tackle the growing environmental crisis that faces us all.