Africa's Indigenous People and Climate Change

Abstract from a talk by Dr. Nigel Crawhall at the Gaia Foundation, April 2008. Written by Stephen Frank.

Dr. Nigel Crawhall is Director of the Secretariat for the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee (IPACC). He is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Social Anthropology at the University of Tromso, Norway. Dr. Crawhill has an MPhil in Linguistics from the University of Zimbabwe and a PhD in Linguistics from the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

Over the last ten thousand years agricultural peoples occupied all of Africa except where there were environmental barriers - deserts, rainforest, and particular mountain climates. In these spaces hunter-gatherers and nomadic pastoralists have been able to sustain themselves in sensitive relationships with the natural resources there. But because their lifestyles and identities are substantially different from the dominant ones in the countries they inhabit, their communities are very vulnerable. They are now engaged in struggles to protect the last remaining intact forests and other fragile ecosystems. Through United Nations initiatives to recognise their rights, indigenous peoples from all over the world are now joining together to challenge the dominant structure of industrial agriculture coupled with the extraction of the Earth's precious resources. In Africa 120 indigenous peoples' organisations now form a network extending through twenty African countries - the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee (IPACC) - of which Dr. Nigel Crawhill is Director of the Secretariat. His work is concentrated on trying to help unrecognised peoples in the remotest corners of Africa find their feet in the modern world.

When Europe colonised Africa, the settlers extracted both resources and labour from the agricultural peoples they dominated. However, they were unable to colonise the tiny populations of mobile hunter-gatherers who spoke bizarre languages, had no obvious god, and because they weren't producing anything, seemed to have no purpose on earth. The Europeans, in general, reacted negatively to them. In South Africa, from the 17th century onwards, hunter-gatherers were targeted by European settlers for genocide. Under the apartheid regime in the 20th century it was not possible to have an aboriginal identity. Nomadic people could not be registered under the official system and had to cede their identities to fit the apartheid model: they had to become Black or Coloured. The irony is that these 'pure-blooded' ancestors of ours, who had occupied Southern Africa for more than 300,000 years, were mainly categorised as being of mixed race - 'Coloured' - by the white regime that occupied their territories. To survive they hid their true identities. Most learnt to speak Afrikaans.

Suddenly here was a San elder who spoke the lost language.

Nigel Crawhill was working on a government commission on South African languages when he met an old man from the Richtersveld, a mountain desert region in the North-west of the country, whose people were sheep-herders, nomads. He spoke a language called Nama. When he later sought information from linguistic experts - many of whom were government advisors - to find out how many Nama people lived in South Africa, he was told that the Nama people lived in Namibia and had never lived in South Africa. 'Well', he said, 'I just met one and he seemed to live here!'

Crawhill then travelled through a very remote part of South Africa along the Orange River and on that one journey met over 400 people who all spoke Nama. Officially they were all Afrikaans speaking and told painful stories of having given up their identity and their language - of having been invisible for 40 years - and having children who could not understand anything they believed. They had hidden their heritage for the sake of their children's survival.

As part of the emerging mobilisation of indigenous peoples all over Africa, the Bushmen - the San - put in a land claim. They asked Crawhill if he could find out what had happened to their ancestral language, which had still been spoken at the time of their grandparents. From books he discovered that the last speaker had been interviewed in 1974. It seemed the language had become extinct. But then in 1996 an old woman was discovered in a remote desert village on the Namibian border who did speak the language. Crawhill arranged for a linguist to meet her. He played tapes to her that had been recorded in the 1930's of people speaking the old language, and she understood everything. The discovery of this woman radically helped the land claim. Government officials had argued that because they only spoke Afrikaans, the people were not really San. Suddenly here was a San elder who spoke the lost language. It brought evidence and it brought dignity to the land claim. The language - the lost language of the aboriginal language-family of South Africa - is called Nngu and the people call themselves 'The Home People'. During the next eight years another 28 speakers of this language were found hidden in the townships of South Africa.

To become a successful scientist in the West, it is necessary to become an expert in one particular field of knowledge. Some of this knowledge may then be owned, privatised or sold to other people. Most indigenous cultures approach and regard knowledge differently: from childhood each person learns more and more about insects, snakes, animals, soil types and weather patterns. Every season this knowledge is deepened. This is a systems-based understanding of the world in which people also understand their own place within the environment. Hunter-gatherers transfer knowledge through stories, songs, and hunting together. This knowledge is continuously transferred so that if at any moment you lose one person, others are able to transmit the entire system of knowledge. Knowledge is communal and never 'belongs' to one person. Each person absorbs and carries it forward within an ethic/wisdom framework. Transfer of knowledge is shaped through 'tests' of each person's capacity to be able to handle it. When you are judged by the elders to be ready to handle certain knowledge, it is transferred and then you carry it forward in a communal sense.

Ethiopian LandscapeIn addition to the growing problems of Climate Change - Kenya, Ethiopia, Niger, Mali are drying out and with changes in the rain cycle flooding is happening elsewhere - Africa is experiencing the impact of globalisation - mining, deforestation, privatisation of water, radical removal of natural resources, and now pharmaceutical bio-prospecting too. The Congo Basin is the second largest green spot on earth and one of the most important lungs of the planet. However, it is up for sale and being bought up by Chinese, Malaysian and Libyan logging companies.

Why are the African states not stopping this process? Why do they not recognise that they have systems that have existed for tens of thousands of years and that obviously work? Crawhill describes how African governments were built on European models of knowledge and governance and do not recognise the importance of traditional ecological knowledge in the management of natural resources. Civil servants in the cities make decisions about rural areas and natural resources based on a model that is about free trade and investment from foreign companies creating wealth from the dissolution of their resources. The World Bank and the UN and their presidents support this. There has been no space for indigenous peoples' ideas in these processes.

As indigenous people find their collective voice again and attempt to enter into dialogue with their governments, they not only have profoundly useful information on how their ecosystems function, but also on how to live a more sustainable existence. They understand how forests live and grow and die; they have a systems-based understanding of arid areas. However, at present they are being pulled into debates by scientists and politicians on issues such as carbon credits.

The world is infinitely complex - over 7000 languages are recognised. Humans have occupied niches within ecosystems and specialised in the exploitation of certain resources - over tens of thousands of years in some cases - and each one of those languages describes a history, a knowledge, a wisdom, a set of values and a way of living on Earth. Language not only implies identity, but also the difficulties of misunderstandings when two cultures speak different languages. While the systems-based San have difficulties with concepts like carbon credits, Western scientists find it equally difficult to accept the validity of ideas and connections without scientific proof. Whether Africa will survive may depend on whether these two disparate groups with their different knowledge and value systems can find a way to communicate with one another and whether - through their joint venture - the connection between the living and the human world can be re-established.