The Environmental Justice Movement in Africa – December 29, 2011


Bobby Peek* provieds a discussion of the environmental justice movement in Africa, and grounds this in the continent’s colonial and postcolonial histories.

To better understand the environmental justice movement in Africa, one has to consider the environmental justice challengers facing Africans, and critically the historical conditions that have created these injustices.


Africa has a brutal history imposed upon it by colonialist expansionism. At first, the narrative that was shared in Europe and was then spread throughout Africa was one of Africa as the continent of ‘tribal warfare’. What the west and colonisation brings to Africa is the brutality of western armaments which are used against Africans such as the then new U.S. technologies of warfare, the Gatling Gun, Maxim Guns which are used against the Matabele 1893-94 where 50 soldiers fight-off 4,000 with 4 guns.

Africa was brought into the world system by the military force of colonialism. Africa’s first “modern” colonial institutions were armies, police, prisons, courts, and central intelligence agencies. When independence came in the 1960s, African armies and police were a dominant force in their societies. Most African nations were immediately drawn into the East-West competition and armaments races of the Cold War. Across the continent, from the 1960s to today, this resulted in strengthening military dictatorships and the increased dominance of the military. Development, civil society, democracy, education, private enterprise, health and indeed the environment have suffered from this militarisation.

Environmental violence

There is a continuing militarisation of Africa today, and the U.S. “War on Terror” is contributing to this. Today we couple this with the entrenchment of multinational corporations – at times with their own private armies – in Africa as they extract resources for consumption by the global elite. They have a recipe for ongoing environmental injustice and violence against Africans. We witness this from the oil violence in the Niger Delta to imprisonment of civil society members in Uganda seeking to protect local forest, to the land-grabs by mining companies in South Africa and the intimidation of civil society in Angola by the state.

The environmental violence in Africa is based upon the ongoing excessive consumption patterns of the global elite. We have to consider the fact that SASOL’s own leadership sees the energy extraction in Africa as a function of feeding global demand rather than African demand. This was succinctly stated by Sasol’s Imogen Mkhize in 2005 when as the Chair of the 18th World Petroleum Conference she stated that: “Although the African energy sector has its own challenges, supplying the world with its future energy needs is the ultimate goal” (Business Day September 23, 2005). Major oil giants also indicate that the world is depending on Africa to keep the oil economy ticking. Link this with the recent commodity boom, and Africa is a smorgasbord of environmental injustices.

World Bank’s role

In South Africa we witness the brutality of keeping up the conspicuous consumption in the north as the public has to pay off a $26 billion World Bank loan because of Eskom’s need to provide cheap electricity to major corporation whose profits are taken off-shore. This is however not a simple mistake by the World Bank, but rather an ongoing strategy to milk Africa. We need to recognise that 80% of all oil projects that the World Bank invested in between 1992 and 2003 were for export to Western Europe, Canada, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and Japan. So as Africa literally feeds the world with its natural resources, it becomes more impoverished day by day. The World Bank is fully aware of it, and continues to facilitate this extraction. Soon after the debacle of the Eskom World Bank loan, instead of acknowledging the consistent global calls for them to stop funding fossil fuels, the World Bank invested in the railway to get Botswana’s coal (and indeed South African Limpopo coal) to the global markets through Walvis Bay, in Namibia. The calls on the World Bank include Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s call to World Bank President James Wolfensohn to overhaul bank policies on lending for the oil, gas, and mining in 2004. Other community organisations such as the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth International made the calls on the World Bank in 2010.

What is environmental justice?

In this context we need to think about what we understand by environmental justice. For groundWork environmental justice is a set of relationships between people, governments and community that work in equity and builds solidarity. Early groundWork research understands environmental justice as: “Empowered people in relations of solidarity and equity with each other, and in non-degrading and positive relationships with their environments.” (ground Work, 2001).

This is also about how civil society attains power to challenge inequality and organises to become powerful. This includes who communities choose to engage with and challenge to make change happen, and where communities organise for change to happen. Considering Africa’s frail and failed democracies – many of which hold huge oil reserves – violence is a response to community mobilisation. This violence seeks to ensure the continual nexus between the corporate power and southern Elites.

Within this context African civil society has responded in various different ways to the environmental injustice it faces. There has also being various forms of organisations that have mobilised to understand and challenge these injustices ranging from local community organisations to people’s resistance movements to major international NGOs.

Global NGOs

The most visible form of environmental NGOs in Africa are the global NGOs such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Very influentially with governments globally, these two NGOs and others like them, offer very little resistance to the global corporate environmentalism.

Indeed, at times they facilitate the grabbing of people’s lands in the name of environmental protection and conservation. The WWF, for instance, has a partnership with Lafarge Cement which results in them receiving funding from Lafarge. Thus how can they honestly assist people resisting Lafarge’s cement operations in places such as Zambia? These are the organisations who will support processes within the climate negotiations that will result in people losing their indigenous lands through Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation – rather than reducing emissions at its source.

Reformist European traditions

The next wave of environmental organisations working in Africa are those from the European traditions which support reformist agendas that do not challenge the root cause of the problem, but rather tweak it to promise equity. One of the biggest campaigns over the last decade has been the push by European NGOs for Africans to accept processes such as Corporate Social Responsibility, where in a very patronising manner, companies assume the role of government by spending money on schools, roads and clinics. This expense is used as green wash in Sustainability Reports, popular now. These Reports indicate expenditure on building schools and other services, but there is very little on the rehabilitation of local polluted lands which have resulted in the loss of local livelihoods. The Benchmarks Foundation of South Africa has been key in highlighting this rhetoric over the last few years and De Beers have felt the brunt of their attack recently.

Aligned to this modus operandi is the network, Publish What You Pay and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative which was started by the Blair government. Again, these process do not question the real challenge of environmental injustice: the system that has caused it, but rather seeks to work within the system to improve it.

With so much oil in Africa, there are global NGOs which receive funds from northern governments to encourage continued but sustained resource exploitation. Often Norway is held up as the model that African government’s should aspire to in terms of oil exploitation. There are two problems with this: one, we cannot afford to extract more oil as we don’t have space left for the carbon it will emit, so a radical change is needed. Secondly, the context in which Norway created its wealth is vastly different. Norway had a strong state company and that was fairly transparently managed. The political will existed in a ‘free’ society that applied pressure to ensure that political will; and there was a mature environmental governance system. We do not have this in Africa.

Environmental justice movement

The environmental justice movements include organisations such as NGOs that work closely with, and take their mandate and their reason for being, from community organisations. Some of these organisations or networks include Friends of the Earth Africa of which groundWork is part of, Third World Network, the African Initiative on Mining Environment and Sustainability, the African Trade Network and our local Earthlife Africa, to mention a few.

Within this group there are differing approaches to challenge injustice. One, includes working and focusing on challenging and assisting the state; the other focuses on community mobilisation and strengthening civil society to hold government accountable. The critical approach in this sector is that organisations understand the need for system change. There is a difference however on some positions such as the use of resources. While there is an agreement on the equitable use and benefit sharing of resources, there are some critical issues such as whether we should stop mining and the extraction of fossils. To date we have yet to see a sustainable mining venture. By its very nature, mining is extractive and destructive, not only on the environment but also to people’s livelihoods. The reality is that we have to take Africa out of its poverty and we have to review our ongoing resources use to enable Africa to develop its own internal economy.

Farmer/fisher movements

The next grouping of environmental justice movements are those such as farmer, fisherfolk movements etc. Globally, these movements have been more vocal and have started working together with progressive NGOs challenging the State with the main aim to localize production. Many of these movements raise issues that go to the heart of food systems and policies such as who produces, distributes and consumes rather than the demands of markets and corporations.”

This approach is critical if the environmental justice movement in Africa is going to make a change on the ground. We have to combine strategies to ensure that we hold governments accountable rather than governments being accountable to corporations and corporate NGOs.


At the core of these struggles are the people and communities who live in the shadow of daily injustice. Here we refer to communities in the Niger Delta fighting big oil, communities who resist big dam developments in the Zambezi Valley in Mozambique, communities resisting land grabs by major mining companies in Limpopo and in Uganda, and communities living next to oil refineries in the Vaal, in south Durban and the Highveld.

It is at these points of struggle where one finds people’s resistance most brutalised by the state and corporations. Just recently a community member from the oil rich province in Angola, Agostinho Chicaia was arrested in Kinshasa on the behest of the Angolan government and imprisoned in the DRC for more than a week and then released. What is his crime – being critical of government and multi-national corporations in the Cabinda province. One of the most well published acts of violence against society was the state murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight Ogoni activists because of their criticism of Shell in the Niger Delta. Here in the Limpopo Province, activists were imprisoned and shot at because they resisted their lands being overtaken by mining companies.

How do we as progressive forces link the resistance on the ground with broader livelihood environmental mobilisation is the big question? We have to consider this when we speak about environmental justice in Africa.

Solidarity movement

So, considering the brutality of the state and corporations since the colonial period in Africa, still evident today, we have to work at building a movement of solidarity on the ground, consisting of NGOs and communities. We need to ensure that governments are held accountable both locally and international.


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