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Civil Society and Social Movements Programme Paper 15: Environmental Movements in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Political Ecology of Power and Conflict

24 Mar 2005

  • Author(s): Cyril I. Obi


The thesis of the paper is that environmental movements in Africa operate within a transformative logic in which struggles for power over environmental resources connect broader popular social struggles for empowerment and democracy.

The paper is divided into six sections. The introduction delineates the aims of the paper and draws attention to the “fusedness” of the environmental with the political with respect to the struggles of social movements. It also points out that many environmental conflicts are driven by dominant power relations over the environment, which continue to benefit the “few” and threaten the survival of the majority.

It is followed by the historical background, which examines the origins and evolution of environmental movements in Africa in the twentieth century, particularly their links with social movements seeking to broaden access to resources and power.

The third section, on Africa’s multiple crises and the environment, focuses attention on the impact of economic and political crises on the continent’s ecosystem. It is argued that these crises further degrade the environment and provoke conflicts over shrinking resources.

Next is the conceptual framework hinged upon political ecology, which examines how environmental movements seek to transform power relations in Africa, and how struggles for power over ecology lead to conflict.

The fifth section, the case studies of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People and the Green Belt Movement, documents the travails and achievements of environmental movements in Africa in their engagement with the state and hegemonic global economic interests that seek to monopolize Africa’s environmental resources.

The last and concluding section sums up the arguments on transformative politics of environmental movements in Africa and the partial successes they have recorded in mobilizing the people for effective participation in the management of the African environment.

Cyril I. Obi is Senior Research Fellow at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Lagos.

Order CSSMPP 15 from UNRISD (US$ 12 for readers in industrialized countries and US$ 6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students).