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Climate Change Discourse and African Knowledge Perspectives

Climate change
Written by  Manda, S., (PhD)., Bhatasara, S., (PhD)., and Chasukwa, M. (PhD)

Recent climate change discourse at COP26 November in 2021 raised longstanding historical marginalisation of Africa and African perspectives. Situating Africa at the heart of the global climate agenda is a binding obligation under the UNFCCC. Yet we contend that this situation still often renders Africa a colonial subject rather than an active agent.

This blog brings reflections from three African scholars to reflect on the hegemony of global climate change narratives on the one hand, and how global responses to climate change may represent a new colonial frontier on the other. We suggest that a focus on these issues permits experimentation with new ways of thinking about climate change which is inclusive and reflective of knowledge systems that for a long time have been peripheral or what Michel Foucault (1980) calls "subjugated knowledges".

An agenda at the forefront of governmental and intergovernmental action – whether driven by a sense of moral justice or opportunism – includes successful deployment of climate aid, arguably a critical first step in allowing developing countries to adapt to climate change. Whereas the Paris Agreement overcame prior division among rich and poor countries regarding the need to advance a collective agenda, historical responsibility of climate change and development imperatives remain uninformed by issues of climate justice and knowledge equity.  We make three observations in relation to the position of Africa.

First, and within perspectives of Africa, Simon Manda asks more broadly: what if the set of climate goals, driven by climate aid are declared to have failed or succeeded? Can the entire architecture of climate aid itself be questioned based on its underpinning elements, and what would this mean for Africa? A case in question is whereas climate financing has fallen short of the $100 billion (2013 – 2020) and probably will continue on this trajectory in spite of COP26, there remain actors that endow these efforts with remarkable legitimacy – as evidence of money ‘well spent’. But evidence from Malawi and Zimbabwe reveal how these claims conceal more problematic dynamics.

In Malawi, for instance, Michael Chasukwa reports there are challenges about exclusionary tendencies in evidence generation and general tensions and contradictions between and among state and non-state actors. This includes problems related to institutional design that point to competing and overlapping mandates and agendas. Policies are formulated depending on interests and powerful narratives which may not always be the ‘correct science’, or constitute a set of progressive actions

In Zimbabwe, Sandra Bhatasara argues interests and narratives from powerful actors have shaped the direction of travel in the constructions of indigenous knowledge systems, which affect efforts around agriculture and economic transformation. These experiences have raised the need to go beyond dominant Eurocentric global climate change response narratives and to focus on African knowledge systems and practices for climate change adaptation. For example, environmental resources in most parts of Africa have for decades been more broadly oriented towards traditional forest management systems. However, there are reports that show that global efforts such as the REDD+ initiatives have, fortunately, or unfortunately, been oriented towards elite and neo-liberal commodification, expropriation of lands, exploitation and displacement of local communities. Some new colonial frontiers also relate to the so-called new seed regimes pushing early maturity or drought-resistant crops anchored within the wider tentacles of corporate capitalism and neoliberal globalisation.

The centrality of African knowledge systems in Zimbabwe and or indeed elsewhere on the continent should, we believe, partly point towards knowledge and practices around climate change adaptation. This should enable a focus beyond physical geographies and boundaries towards changing relationships between communities and their environments. And that these environments can fulfil social, economic, and in some cases spiritual objectives – and there lies the whole point.

Overall, there are topical questions around climate financing, and that more is better. Whereas this is important, we argue, reflecting on the development implications of this new vision across rural African communities and implications on local knowledge systems and prospects for local development would be more helpful beyond climate aid itself.

This piece was jointly written by  Manda, S., (PhD)., Bhatasara, S., (PhD)., and Chasukwa, M. (PhD) as a reflective piece from the webinar African Knowledges for COP 26. Proceedings of the event are available here.