An interview with Rita Uwaka, Friends of the Earth Nigeria
By Jeff Conant, Senior International Forest Program Manager, Friends of the Earth U.S.
Rita Uwaka is an environmental, social and gender justice activist with Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria and Coordinator of the Forest & Biodiversity program at Friends of the Earth Africa. On International Women’s Day we spoke with Rita about how the struggle to halt tropical deforestation is also a struggle for gender justice.
Q: What does the term “land grab” mean to you in West Africa?
Rita Uwaka: “Land grabbing” in my context means a forceful takeover of land and resources for the benefit of the powerful (elites, corporations, government, investors) to the detriment of the people, who are the rightful custodians of land and natural resources. This is usually achieved through political influence, intimidation and coercion including what we call in Africa “divide and rule” – the same tactics that the colonial powers used to dominate Africa for centuries.
Q: You are critical of the model of industrial plantations, for palm oil, for rubber, for carbon credits. Why?
Rita: The aggressive scramble for industrial plantation expansion in Africa poses social, cultural, environmental and gender consequences and brings wide-ranging human rights violation. As African governments see the dangerous “eco business” of palm oil as the new black gold, smallholder farmers, forest dependent peoples, rural communities and fisherfolks suffer huge impacts, with differentiated impacts on women and girls.
Industrial plantation companies have caused eviction that has sacked many communities in Nigeria and other countries. Apart from truncating livelihoods of peasant farmers and forest dependent people, it has also increased losses of biodiversity, traditional knowledge and bio-cultural resources. Other impacts include agrochemical pollution of water sources as well as fish ponds and streams managed by fisherfolks. Large tracts of primary and secondary forests continue to be brought to their knees for monocultures expansion. This conversion of biodiverse natural forests to monoculture tree plantations over large expanses of land contributes to the climate crisis confronting Africa.
This trend is everywhere accompanied by the deceptive claim that forest carbon trading schemes like REDD [Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation]offer a solution to the crisis. In fact, REDD projects have fueled more land grabs by putting price tags on forests, nature and community-owned resources. REDD projects are now earning carbon credits to the detriment of communities who have remained the best custodians of forests and biodiversity.
Q: At the same time as we’re seeing a new wave of landgrabs across Africa, we’re also seeing an epidemic of violence against women. Is there a connection?
Rita: Over the years, there have been growing cases of harassment and sexual violations against women around industrial plantation areas in Africa. These ugly incidents emotionally and psychologically torment many women who are victims of sexual abuse. For fear of being killed or discriminated against, many women remain silent. Women who speak out sometimes suffer more violence and intimidation. But in recent times, these consistent violations have compelled many women to break the silence.
In most countries of Africa where these corporations operate, the capitalist model of industrial plantations reinforces patriarchy. In some cases women are forced into sexual exploitation at the expense of their bodies, work and territories. If there is a reported case of product theft [theft of palm oil seeds, for example], the home kitchens of innocent women are invaded by companies’ security guards to search for companies’ products.
Q: In Nigeria, what is the role of women in land governance, and what should be the role of women in the struggle for land?
Rita: The Nigerian Land Use Act of I978 puts land in the hands of the government. Although customary land rights exist, the Land Use Act remains an impediment to land rights in Nigeria. With no proper inclusive landscape governance system in place, women continue to be at a disadvantage. Further, community decision-making relating to land governance systematically excludes women. In some cases where there is inheritance, only the male is entitled to inherit land, as tradition forbids women from inheriting their father’s property.
Q: How is the struggle for collective control of land tied to the climate struggle?
Rita: Deforestation is estimated to contribute nearly 20 percent to global warming. This is mostly caused by conversion of forested landscapes to large scale monocultures. Industrial plantations are not forests and are not a solution to climate change. Putting the management of forests in the hands of community people, with women at the forefront, will reduce the impacts of climate change.
Q: Dominant policies of economic development not only fail to account for the value of subsistence farming, they consider subsistence activities to actually cause poverty. Can you talk about that?
Rita: In Nigeria, smallholder farmers – not industrial plantation companies – are responsible for more than 80 percent of food production. Produce from smallholder farmers is sold in the local markets, which is a solution to the food crisis. And unlike the agro-commodity companies, the eco-friendly methods practiced by smallholder farmers do not require agrochemicals.
Smallholder farmers, especially women, are keepers of seeds. They contribute immensely to the system of agriculture that is sustainable, nourishing and resilient to climate impacts through the traditional methods we call agroecology. Their role in the management of resources is hardly recognized, but is everywhere threatened by the industrial agribusiness model.
Q: The feminist scholar Sylvia Federici has written “Increasingly, women are aware that their activism must transform the model of economic development into one respectful of human beings and the earth.” What does this idea of transforming economic development mean to you?
Rita: The idea is to put production systems in the hands of the people. It’s about dismantling the capitalist model and corporate influence of plantation corporations to instead promote people-powered solutions of agroecology and community forest management – methods that cool the planet and boost the healthy local food economy. It is about a model of development for the public good, not one that impoverishes communities to enrich private interests and feed international markets.