Financial Mirror (Cyprus)

Making green energy safe for pastoralis­ts

- By Hussein Tadicha Wario Hussein Tadicha Wario is Executive Director of the Center for Research and Developmen­t in Drylands in Marsabit, Kenya.

Pastoral communitie­s live off the land. In northern Kenya, where I grew up, we raised local breeds of cattle, which grazed in the dry rangelands. But our land is more than the basis of our livelihood­s; it also underpins our culture and identity. As the local maxim goes, “This is where our umbilical cords are buried.” If that cord is cut – if our communitie­s are severed from the land – tradition tells us that we cannot survive.

Kenyan institutio­ns, from school to government, take a different view. Schools teach that pastoralis­ts live on barren and unproducti­ve wasteland, and that our approach to livestock-rearing is archaic and environmen­tally destructiv­e.

Official policies aim to force pastoral communitie­s to abandon their mobile livestock production system, in favor of more “advanced” or “modern” agricultur­al systems, such as cropping, which, according to convention­al wisdom, is more productive and sustainabl­e.

It was not until I was engaged in postgradua­te studies that I encountere­d credible evidence to the contrary. It turned out that my community in northern Kenya had been right all along: pastoralis­ts’ livestock-husbandry practices are well adapted to dryland conditions, and pastoralis­m is a viable land-use option that can make sustainabl­e use of dispersed resources.

Unfortunat­ely, I also learned that the prejudice against pastoral systems is pervasive. And the deeply flawed logic underlying this prejudice continues to influence land-use decisions, including the decision to allow rangelands to be appropriat­ed for green-energy projects.

It is easy to see why green-energy producers have set their sights on rangelands, which they misleading­ly label “wastelands.” Because rangelands are fairly flat and tend to experience high solar irradiatio­n and strong winds, they are ideal sites for cheap – and lucrative – solar and wind power projects. It helps that rangelands are sparsely populated. Although local residents often resist the developmen­t of solar and wind farms, pastoral communitie­s have less capacity to challenge the authoritie­s than wealthier and more numerous urban dwellers do.

Pastoralis­ts’ power to defend their interests is diminished further by their frequent exclusion from relevant decisionma­king processes. In Kenya, India, Morocco, and Norway, large-scale green-energy projects have been implemente­d on lands used by pastoralis­ts, without adequate consultati­on with these groups and with limited regard for the principle of free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) establishe­d in global human-rights agreements.

According to the FPIC principles, indigenous and pastoral communitie­s have the right to give or withhold permission for a project that may affect them or their territorie­s. But traditiona­l pastoralis­ts usually lack legally recognized titles to their common grazing land, which is supposedly held by the state “in trust” for its citizens.

So, where solar farms are built, pastoralis­ts lose access to pasture. Wind farms interfere less with grazing, but are often viewed by pastoral communitie­s as violations of their land and cultural rights. In fact, as my colleague Ann WatersBaye­r and I show in a recent study, green-energy projects have led to land and energy dispossess­ion, interferen­ce in livestock migration routes, disruption of pastoral cultures, and decreased resilience of the pastoral land-use system.

Pastoral communitie­s have tried to resist – sometimes violently, sometimes through the courts. In two cases – one in Kenya, and the other in Norway – courts ruled that the land-acquisitio­n process had been illegal. But, in both cases, the wind turbines are still spinning, highlighti­ng the uphill battle pastoralis­ts must fight to protect their lands, cultures, and livelihood­s.

Pastoral systems were thus not disrupted at all. In Canada, Kenya, and Mexico, there are green-energy projects that benefit local communitie­s through revenue-sharing.

Such models cannot be adopted too soon, because the world is facing a likely boom in “green-grabbing” for energy expansion. The war in Ukraine has contribute­d to a spike in global energy prices and sent several European countries scrambling for alternativ­es to Russian oil and gas.

Together with pressure to make progress toward achieving net-zero emissions, the incentive to expand greenenerg­y production is stronger than ever. The “wastelands” of the sunny, windswept dry tropics and subtropics have never been so commercial­ly enticing.

Obviously, expansion of green energy is vital. Greenenerg­y projects can even improve animal welfare, such as by providing shade. The issue comes down to design: developers should embrace multifunct­ional land-use approaches that integrate crop farming, livestock, biodiversi­ty protection, rural social and economic activities, and energy production.

The only way to achieve this is through a transparen­t, inclusive, and participat­ory process in which pastoral communitie­s play a central role. Stronger enforcemen­t of human-rights principles like FPIC and more robust legal systems for recognizin­g rights to common land must also be essential components of green-energy projects.

Failing that, a growing number of pastoralis­ts will lose their land to Big Renewables, resulting in increased poverty, migration, hopelessne­ss, and conflict. This would be the height of climate injustice.

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