Sustainable Development in Africa

ISDAF – Who We Are

The Initiative for Sustainable Development in Africa (ISDAF) was conceived in 2020 to make development and conservation planning in Africa successful and sustainable at the local level. The idea was to bring together anthropologists, archaeologists, social scientists, and ecologists who have lived and worked in Africa for most of their lives and investigate why the current planning process regularly fails. This failure stems from Local, Indigenous and Descendant (LID) communities rarely being provided adequate opportunity to share information about tangible and intangible heritage resources that are significant to them, as well as about natural resources that they often rely upon for their survival. As a result, these resources may be destroyed by the project or the ties the LID communities had to these resources are cut off. The end result is often conflict or forced displacement of LID communities, which contributes to forced migration both within Africa as well as to Europe.

Most often, LID communities are not adequately consulted during any stage of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) or Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) process (see How EIRs an ESIAs work). This stems from either an absence or weakness of national legislation requiring government agencies and project proponents to address tangible and intangible cultural heritage, including natural resources that are important to LID communities, or a lack of will to enforce legislation. Currently, only burial sites are identified and either avoided or relocated. This lack of legislation or will to enforce legislation often results in development destroying sacred sites, traditional places, and natural resources. Loss of cultural and natural heritage can result in individuals, indeed entire communities, losing their sense of place or identity. When natural resources are destroyed that communities rely upon, the amount of food available for families may be severely impacted, and communities may lose access to plants they relied upon for medicines. Often modern medicines are not provided to replace traditional medicines, and when they are provided, LID community members cannot afford to buy them. When ecologists and biologists work independently of cultural heritage specialists, they may identify large areas to conserve for habitat but deny LID communities access to these areas—this can have the same socio-economic impact on LID communities as destroying those resources. The working group agreed it is critical for technical disciplines to work together on EIRs and ESIAs rather than in separate academic silos, so they can share information and identify culturally sensitive ways of managing cultural and natural heritage.

 Why Working with LID Communities Matters

The consequences of failure in the ESIA process are potentially very serious. The UNDP’s (2019) report on international migration explores the driving forces behind many Africans following irregular pathways (i.e., via human smugglers) to immigrate to Europe. The study found that 90 percent of immigrants would take the same risks again given the chance to create a life in Europe. Seventy seven percent (77 %) of people interviewed said the primary reason they left their homes was because they “felt their voice was unheard or had no opportunity to participate in their country’s government.” UN organizations, the WBG, AfDB, and most national governments recognize that historically indigenous groups and people living in rural communities have been disenfranchised by development projects (e.g., Douglas et al. 2016; Douglas 2021, Jansen 2021, Pyburn 2021, Thiaw and Ly 2021). Although formal consultation is intended to be a core element of ESIAs, social unrest abounds and remains a significant problem in many regions throughout Africa.

The following are common social and economic impacts of development projects and programmes on LID communities in Africa:

  • People being displaced from their traditional territory and paid to stop their traditional agricultural or forestry practices, and whose “payments for ecosystem services” (PES) have expired or stipends reduced due to fluctuations in the market value of CO2 (e.g., Douglas 2021, Pascual et al. 2014).
  • People abandoning their traditional territory because the government has decided on an alternate use of the lands, with former farmers becoming landless wage laborers (., Adler 2018, Rosario 2012). Those people who are displaced lose access to traditional medicines and foods, and do not have access to doctors, hospitals or grocery stores (Douglas 2021, Sitoe 2016).
  • People losing access to traditional sacred sites, burial grounds, other cultural sites important to the community leading to a loss of their self-identity and community cohesion (Virtanen 2002).
  • Displacement from traditional lands and access to resources contributes to an increased reliance on drugs and alcohol (World Health Organization, WHO 2020), and in other cases in acts of individual violence and organized civil strife (e.g., Barnett and Adger 2007; Cechvala 2011; Homer-Dixon 1991; Hsiang et al. 2011; Merino 2015; UNDP HDR 2020:65, ff).
  • When a development project or programme forces members of LID communities to relocate to marginal environments the community members often live-in extreme poverty and can be vulnerable to natural disasters (UNDP HDR 2020). When stressors become too great, family members may choose to migrate to urban centres for work and often end up living in
    slums; or entire families migrate to refugee camps (UNHCR nd).

Displaced communities will be at even greater risk in the future, because of climate change. The WBG estimates that in sub-Saharan African, up to “86 million people could be forced to migrate within their own countries by 2050 to escape the slow-onset impacts of climate
change” (Hoffman 2020). According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), …, climate-related disasters could double the number of people requiring humanitarian assistance to over 200 million each year by 2050 (Gaynor 2020). The social and economic inequality experienced by
many LID communities, relative to middle class citizens of any nation, exacerbate the vulnerability of these groups to climate induced natural hazards (e.g., floods, drought, wildfire) (Altschul et al. 2020).

In many African nations, a lack of infrastructure, including hospitals, schools, clean drinking water, wastewater treatment plants and good roads makes people very vulnerable. People living in rural areas rely predominately on food and medicinal plants either grown or gathered locally, and when their lands are damaged or degraded, whether by climate change or poorly planned development, they have limited recourse for survival. According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO 2020) small (< 5 hectare), family farms provide the primary source of food to over two-thirds of Africa’s population, and comprise 60 percent of the farmland in Africa. Climate change and poor development planning puts these lands at risk, which in turn places the food security of two-thirds of Africa’s population at risk.

ESIA Consultation in Senegal