an evolving and dynamic relationship between a society and an environment,
provides a key to both explaining environment conflicts and resolving them.
In this article, Richard Griggs enumerates and explains the cultural
dimensions of environment decision-making and outlines how co-management
schemes, decentralised decision-making, and a recognition of group rights,
can both reduce environment conflict and help to achieve a sustainable relationship
between societies and the environment.
Culture is an evolving and dynamic
relationship between a society and an environment. This corresponds with
the term's Latin origin, cultura, meaning a reverent relationship
(cult) with the
A better understanding of culture provides a key to both explaining environmental
conflicts and resolving them. Figure One assists
with the task of clarifying the relationship between culture and the environment
by eliminating some common myths that can cloud our understanding.
There are seven major reasons why we should be concerned about the cultural
dimensions of environmental decision-making.
- Empowering culture could easily become the
organising paradigm for achieving sustainable development, the global
conservation strategy agreed to by United Nations bodies and state
governments in numerous proclamations since the 1980s. The very purpose
of culture is to harmonise the activities of a population with the
particular opportunities and constraints presented by their environment.
The "war on culture" that began in the Colonial Era and persisted
through present-day Neo-Colonialism may soon be dismissed as a self-destructive
period that left in its wake many sterile, damaged, and homogenous
environments. A period of rebuilding culture may be our best hope
for proper stewardship.
- A policy of sustainability must be maintained
by local people. Local culture is more significant for environmental
sustainability than written laws and distant bureaucrats. Empowering
local people to develop cultures appropriate to where they live, and
co-management schemes between local and national actors, could both
improve environments and reduce conflict.
- The global geography of mismatched cultural
and political boundaries foments enormous conflicts over environments
and resources. The chief tragedy of Africa is the outcome of the 1884
Berlin Conference which either placed international boundaries across
cultural boundaries or combined many cultures into one state. Most
African governments are now dominated by one ethnic group or another,
leading to resentment and conflict over the distribution of resources,
including territory. Cultural conflict accounts for 80% of Africa's
genocides and wars. It is thus vital to include culture in this analysis
of environmental conflict.
- Cultures produce local knowledge.
The earth is not a uniform ball of wax and treating it as such imperils
life and creates conflict. Local knowledge of soil, climate, and resources
critical to maintaining a distinct cultural landscape is transmitted
in various ways between generations. Local knowledge and technical-scientific
knowledge should both be included in environmental decision-making.
In many cases Western science is a European cultural product that
has sought to impose laboratory conditions on distant environments
with many ill effects and through an ill-considered technocentrism
(e.g. the Green Revolution).
- Colonialism and neocolonialism have contributed
heavily to environmental degradation. For example, clearing tropical
rainforests for European husbandry and row-crops has resulted in soil
loss, eroded environments and the invasion of alien species ("biological
imperialism"). Reconstructing damaged environments requires cultural
reconstruction and therefore intercultural cooperation.
- Any fully integrated environmental management
system must take cultural impacts into account. Past failure to account
for differences in culture has led to failed projects, cultural genocide,
violent competition for scarce resources and instability between various
cultural groups. Large scale water projects have been notorious for
this oversight (e.g. damming India's Narmada River Valley, and conflict
over the Lesotho Highlands Water Project).
- Cultural landscapes are also environmental
treasures that add to the wealth and resources of a country. Cultural
diversity is an environmental stimulus that educates and entertains
people. Furthermore, maintaining diverse cultural landscapes is a
precondition for the biological diversity required for sustainable
systems and should therefore be a principle of environmental decision-making.
Bases of cultural conflict over
While many people live in a socially constructed world of states that
divides up the earth's air space, land, water, mineral resources, and
oceans, some live in a world regulated by a nation, tribe, ethnic group
or another cultural identity. The first group often rejects cultural claims
as undemocratic, irrelevant, and part of an older order that must not
be taken too seriously. The latter group often rejects authoritarian,
top-down management that separates the bureaucrat from the environmental
user and imposes technocentric solutions on cultural landscapes and environments.
Some cultural groups even see the state as an expansionist power in conflict
with legitimate rights to resources. These different perceptions and claims
lead to conflicts over environmental outcomes.
By explaining the role of the state and its relationship to culture, one
can better understand contemporary cultural conflict and the need to create
mechanisms for intercultural cooperation in environmental decision-making.
The state is a legal entity, not
a cultural one. It employs a combined military and civilian bureaucracy
to carry out three main functions:
- economic expansion (internal or external
expansion to secure wealth and resources);
- sociopolitical assimilation (consolidating
various groups into a single cooperative populace); and
- maintenance (maintaining infrastructure,
security, repelling external threats).
Cultural maintenance if very often dependent on resisting these processes:
- protecting local wealth;
- resisting assimilation; and
- seeking territorial integrity and identification.
In South Africa, for instance, the perception that forest resources
are the cultural heritage of local Zulu tribes recently led to the
burning of forests in KwaZulu-Natal as a act of defiance against government
attempts to centrally manage forestry resources (economic expansion
and maintenance). Many of these forests, such as Ongoye, Nkandla and
Hlatikulu, are seen as cultural artefacts of tribal management and
have a close connection with Zulu history. The battle over forest
management is just one in a long series of environmental battles and
highly explosive cultural conflicts involving some 300 Zulu chiefs
who see the new government as a huge threat to their way of life.
By suspending prejudices and considering each advantage point, one
can see that this is not a problem of badly behaved actors but a
situation in which there are two very different geopolitical positions
from which to view the world. The state is tasked with maintenance
of the forests but the cultural groups affected are concerned with
survival, hence their drastic response. The accompanying perceptions
are tabled in figure 2.
- Five strategies for imposing environmental
policy on existing cultures
Resolving environmental conflicts that include a cultural component
requires identifying each set of actors and the structural factors and
perceptions through which they operate. This can then be used to encourage
a collaborative decision-making process. Understanding why this must
be so involves looking at the alternatives. How can the state impose
its policies and perceptions on a culture and how can this imposition
Imposing development policies on culturally resistant populations requires
a deliberate intervention into the people-territory relationship that
we have described as culture. There are five basic ways that forceful state intervention
can attempt to change that relationship. These include:
Genocide simply refers to nation killing. One of the best-known examples
in Africa is the ongoing struggle between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda where
at least a million people have been killed in the name of "ethnic cleansing"
in an effort to reduce the cultural force of the opposing ethnic group.
Environmental problems, including severe land shortages, underlie the
conflict and further environmental devastation has taken place in and
around the large Hutu refugee camps in Western Zaire. Resistance to genocide
continues on both sides but most often takes the form of military combat
and organised incursions from the refugee camps, which threatens to destabilise
Central and East Africa.
Forcibly removing a population is another strategy, for which South Africa
is perhaps the most infamous. The removal of the majority black population
to isolated homelands on thirteen percent of the land area created both
large areas of white privilege resembling many First World countries,
and degraded environments in the densely populated homelands. Resistance
at both local and international levels was eventually successful but cost
thousands of lives and led to the large urban "squatter settlements" and
degraded rural areas that the new government is tasked with upgrading.
Occupation is a policy pursued by Morocco in the Western Sahara. The original
population, forced out the 1975 by King Hassan's infamous "Green March",
now live in Tindouf, a giant tent city of nearly a million people in Algeria.
The Sahrawi people resist assimilation and occupation through armed incursions
but their Polisario Cavalry is no match for giant manned walls, landmines,
and other electronic devices erected by the more sophisticated Moroccan
Ethnocide is a common tactic involving an attempt to use laws to bring
a culture into uniformity with the majority population or the philosophy
and ideals of those in power. However, it often meets substantial resistance.
Attempts by the Arabic peoples of the North to Islamicise the tribal peoples
of the South by outlawing their languages, dictating their form of dress,
and changing their educational, religious, and agricultural practices,
failed massively and resulted in a war that has been going on since 1983
with more than a million lives lost.
The last tactic for altering culture is to change the territory itself.
Since the 1950s resistant cultures have often been driven out by large
scale hydroelectric schemes that flood their land and destroy their way
of life. Disbanded cultures often end up as internal refugees living in
squalor in the cities. The semi-nomadic Himba in the border area between
Namibia and Angola are threatened with such an outcome, finding their
land under threat from a proposed hydroelectric dam at Epupa on the Cunene
River. The state argues that the dam will make Namibia self-sufficient
in electricity and will accelerate development. The affected ten
Himba argue that the land is their life and without it, their culture
will be destroyed. Major breeding grounds for fish, turtles, elephants,
black rhinos, and rare birds that are other "partners" in the Himba way
of life will also be destroyed.
autonomy, and group rights
There are alternatives to imposition which, on the whole, are eminently
more successful than force in achieving harmonious development. There
Involving local cultures
in environmental management
Perhaps the best known African example of co-management is Operation Campfire,
Zimbabwe's Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources.
This was a response to perceptions that rich, white tourists and the state
were the only beneficiaries of Zimbabwe's game reserves. The authorities
and more prosperous elements of the population wanted to save elephants
but local indigenous groups could not even meet their basic needs. All
that local villagers saw was that elephants and other wildlife raided
their meagre crops, trampled their huts, and destroyed sheep. These two
perspectives and the structural factors underlying them (e.g. economic disparities,
social injustice, colonial legacy) led to conflict, resentment, and a
high level of poaching. Conflict resolution was effected in this case
because rash judgements were set aside and creative ways of meeting the
two conflicting needs were worked out through a co-management strategy:
put simply, wildlife management and its profits would be shared with local
people. Once conservation was for the people and by the
people, poaching was significantly reduced. Since national parks are now
part of local income (e.g. local Campfire groups run safaris), many villagers
see poaching as a threat to their livelihood and have acted vigorously
to end it.
Autonomy and decentralised
Another approach is to decentralise environments and environmental competencies
through some kind of autonomous or federal arrangement. This is being
attempted in Ethiopia where ethnic provinces have been devised after thirty
years of armed struggle between major cultural groups. Previously, under
various regimes of the more dominant Amhara people, all five methods for
imposing development policy had been tried and failed. Today there are
nine federal states, each based on cultural affiliations. Each has significant
local powers including the right to secede.
Recognition of cultural
or "group" rights
Lastly one can consider the new discourse of cultural rights. The United
Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations recently completed ten
years of compiling testimony on cultural ethnocide and genocide to draft
forty-five articles that the General Assembly must consider for adoption.
Among these is the concept of land rights because culture "takes
place" in a place and cannot survive without it. This principle
is being effected worldwide as indigenous cultures are reclaiming lands
on every continent. One example among many is that in 1996 the Kalahari
San or "Bushmen" reclaimed half the 960 000-hectare Kalahari Gemsbok National
Park after a 25-year land claims struggle.
Comparing the two types of strategies, one based on imposing an order
and the other on participatory social constructions, one can see that
the latter is more productive both in resolving conflict and in achieving
a sustainable relationship between societies and the environment. This
does not mean that there are not "teething" problems in participatory
decision-making, co-management, and the recognition of group rights, but,
by contrast, the alternatives are draconian, simplistic, and ineffectual.
The five strategies of imposing solutions were generated by the major
myths about culture discussed above. When culture is represented as an
anachronistic way of life determined by environmental conditions that
no longer obtain and now exhibits itself in "ethnic violence", strategies
are bred that are based on forcing culture to meet state objectives. Recognising
culture as an active force with the task of creating a harmonious balance
between people and the environment moves our strategies in a more cooperative,
compassionate, and peaceful direction.
Dr Richard Griggs
is a previous contributor to Track Two. Formerly a lecturer in political
geography at the University of Cape Town, he now heads the research
division of the Independent Projects Trust, an NGO that uses professional
skills to facilitate conflict
resolution in KwaZulu-Natal.