The climate crisis is the result of relations of power and exploitation, between the Global North and the Global South as well as between people and nature. A decolonial approach in climate activism stands for a radical break with colonial principles of economic, political and social systems – including industrial agriculture and landgrabbing. A conversation with Ruth Nyambura, climate activist from Kenya.
The interview was conducted by Imeh Ituen, research assistant at the Chair of Global Climate Policy at the University of Hamburg and part of Black Earth, a BIPoC environmental and climate justice collective in Berlin.
You have been working on environmental and climate issues for more than ten years. What is your political work focussed on at the moment?
I am a feminist, political ecologist and an organiser who works on the intersections of gender, economy and ecological justice. I work for the Hands Off Mother Earth (HOME) campaign, which works against geoengineering technologies and other false solutions to the climate crisis. My primary focus in the last decade has been on feminist issues, food sovereignty and climate justice movements within Kenya and on the continent of Africa. I closely collaborate with allies and comrades in other parts of the global South. My work is anti-capitalist, it's feminist, it's decolonial and strongly committed to a vision of liberation for all, especially the most marginalised, who stand on the frontlines of various intersections of marginalisation.
You refer to yourself as an organizer. What does that mean to you and would you also call yourself an activist?
Yes, I would also call myself an activist, but I primarily use the word organizer. To me being an organiser means that in addition to bringing people together you're also incorporating elements of political education and consciousness raising. It’s important that we are very clear about what forces we are fighting against, where we are heading and what our collective visions of liberation are. So, yes, I am an activist, but I prefer to call myself an organiser.
What is the political, social, economic, cultural context that shaped your political journey?
So radical feminists often say that "the personal is political”. Growing up in a country, which was run by a dictatorship definitely shaped me. Feeling the impacts of structural adjustment programmes imposed by institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF shaped me. Seeing how the public sector was destroyed because of these policies and the effect that had on my family, my parents and their friends greatly shaped how I viewed the world. I started to realise that what is happening to my family is not that unique. This recognition started me on my political journey.
After I finished university, I began interning for a small feminist organisation in the country, which was very interested in questions around land distribution, especially as it pertains to women. Working for this organisation I was introduced to the concepts of climate and environmental justice. From there my political journey has actually been very organic with a lot of support from other activists across the world being very generous with their knowledge.
You talked about working on the intersections of gender, economy and ecological justice. Why has ecology become central to your analysis? Where do you see the most pressing issues in this regard?
Ecology is the central focus for me as a Black African woman living on a continent that was colonised, where resources continue to be stolen to this day. Feeling the impact of transnational corporations and learning about how environmental racism distributes burdens unequally, I began to see the environmental injustice we face. You might think that all of us are on the Titanic, but we're not on the same deck. Race, class and gender impose real social constraints. They determine whose knowledge counts, even in environmental movements.
Indigenous and traditional knowledge around ecology, around stewardship of land, around social relations, continues to be obscured, minimised and erased. So I'll say this: everything is imbued with power relations and every single thing is political. The world is absolutely political. By that I don't mean political in the bare sense of electoral democracy or electoral politics. What governs us, is power relations.
Many people will ask, “Why bring in questions of race? Why bring in questions of class? I mean, there's a climate crisis”. Yes, there's a climate crisis, but there are people who are largely responsible for the creation of this crisis and have accumulated debt. These things have to be addressed.
There's no way I can look at the climate crisis and not look at questions around racism and colonialism. A look at the historical emissions takes us back, not only to the industrial revolution, but also to histories of colonisation.
What do we need to consider when talking about climate justice?
At times, some intersections like class, race and gender might be the most prominent, but if you really unpack it, you find that it's never just one thing. Multiple things are happening at the same time. We have to remember that ultimately climate justice needs to be more than just a slogan. What is required is a fundamental change of who we are, how we relate with each other and the earth.
I want to caution against looking at climate justice simply in terms of emissions. It unsees a lot when we speak about the climate crisis merely in terms of how many gigatons of CO2 are emitted. You have to see what the climate crisis and the colonial processes that lead us there do to people. It robs people of their culture and dignity.
You often highlight the importance of a decolonial perspective. Why is it important?
A decolonial approach it's not simply a metaphor or a word, it's the act of radically breaking with the processes that have been put in place as a result of colonisation. That includes the economic system, political systems and social systems. Most importantly it means recovering memory and culture that serve a liberating purpose. It means crafting a vision of the world where we don't have patriarchy, a world where capitalism is not the economic system and where the commons are still intact. Franz Fanon calls this "the making of new men." In a nutshell, it requires a complete break with the processes that have been put in place because of colonisation. It involves a radical transformation of ourselves and our society.
How is the colonial past currently visible in Kenya?
You can still see the remnants of colonialism in Nairobi. Nairobi as we know it today, has come into being through colonialism. The Maasai Indigenous people are the traditional owners of this land, but they were dispossessed through colonisation. Like Zimbabwe and South Africa, Kenya is one of the African settler colonial countries. Of course, the impacts of colonial spatial politics expand beyond the city. To understand African states’ boarders you have to go back to the Belin conference, which took place in 1884. Kenya didn't exist before the Berlin conference. This country and its boarders are colonial makings.
During colonization the most fertile land was given to white settler colonialists to grow cash crops like coffee and tea. To this day, the most productive land is taken away to grow food and flowers for export. Yet, local people are starving and don't have enough farmland to sustain themselves. This shows how industrial agriculture is simply a continuation of colonial policies of land dispossession. You really have to take the history of colonisation into account to understand how these huge tracts of land under monocultural cultivation we see today came about.
When we examine questions around land distribution and land use we can also see the impacts of other dimensions of oppression. The nature of society is also very classed and gendered. Who owns land? Who gets to fetch water? Who gets to cook? Who is mostly responsible for social reproduction, and, consequently, who is affected most, when there is no running water? Of course, it will affect women most. Not just any women, though. It's the poor and working class women, who are going to be most impacted.
Together with other African feminists you founded the African Feminist Collective. What motivated you to start a feminist collective?
The African Feminist collective is really a space for African feminists, who work on the intersections of ecology to convene, read together, have discussions and engage in political education from a feminist perspective. We founded the collective seven years ago, because we felt that many of the spaces we were going to didn't have enough space to be ourselves as feminists, as women, as queer people. We saw a lack of forward-looking conversations about how the environmental and climate crisis affect women. That just didn’t happen. The reason for that was not ill-intentioned, but in a patriarchal world you always have to struggle against patriarchy. So in essence, the collective was formed as a sanctuary and gives us the fuel to continue the work we do.
You are also part of the collective “No REDD in Africa Network”. REDD stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. It is a UN climate-change-mitigation mechanism that seeks to compensate countries of the Global South for forest conservation efforts that reduce CO2 emissions. Why do you think this cannot be considered an appropriate solution?
The idea that we can commodify nature is part of the same logic that brought us to the climate crisis in the first place. We are not going to get ourselves out of out of this crisis by using the same tools and the same actors in the same way. “No REDD in Africa” is one of many networks working against the commodification of nature. The climate crisis is a result of the commodification of land and social relations. These false solutions will only benefit corporations and governments in the Global North.
We are already seeing human rights violations as a result of carbon market fixes, while these same tools have been used to enrich corporations and certain individuals. They become one more tool in the toolbox of countries in the Global North trying to shake off their responsibilities.
It is not the responsibility of Indigenous people to save the world. It is not the responsibility of people in the Global South to save the world. It is our responsibility to dismantle the economic system that we find ourselves in, which is capitalism. For example, we need to abandon industrial agriculture and promote smallholder methods of farming and the work of fisherfolk. We need to reject false solutions as we promote what has been tried and tested for thousands of years.
For countries in the Global North I see a responsibility to pay reparations to the Global South.
What are the solutions you envision?
We cannot get climate justice if we still continue within the economic system that we are currently in. We have to dismantle capitalism. We have to dismantle transnational corporations, whether they are working in mining or agriculture. We have to seriously promote agriculture. We have to elevate the work of smallholder farmers and fisherfolk. We have to elevate Indigenous knowledge. We have to rethink our social relations to one another. We have to remember that we don't own the earth. We are basically stewards of the earth. For me, these are some of the solutions necessary for us to rescue ourselves from this crisis.
I see the most promise in centring radical grassroots movements, which are bold, not only in their thinking, but also in their practise. Sometimes you might hear that it’s too radical. But what is too radical in a world that is literally burning, where people cannot feed their children because their land has been taken away, in a world where every year the number of environmental defenders who are murdered, raped or disappeared is higher and higher? I place my hope in more boldness. A boldness that is anchored within a tradition of radical political consciousness and recognizes the full potential of transnational solidarity.
You mentioned the increasing reports of violence against environmental defenders. Are you confronted with this threat yourself?
October 2020 Fikile Ntshangase, an anti-mining activist in South Africa was murdered for her efforts to fight the expansion of a coal mine. These murders continue to happen. It’s really worrying to see. I am concerned for myself and other organisers. Because of the climate crisis and the relentless rush for natural resources, people working on issues of ecology are in very precarious positions. However, it's not just environmental rights defenders. The increasing intimidation is also an effect of growing authoritarianism across the world. It’s really frightening what’s happening to so many people.
The interview series is called “Regain Space - the Future is Now”. What does it mean to you to regain space?
Let’s be clear, we have never lived in a utopia where everything is fantastic and people can organise without a worry. For most people across the world, especially, in the Global South it has always been unsafe. So I wouldn't really call it regaining space, but rethinking space.
We need spaces for radical politics. In which the poor, the oppressed, the working class, queer people and trans people can come together. We need spaces in which transnational solidarity is elevated. I say, we need to rethink space and from there co-build and co-create freeing worlds.
What and who inspires you in your everyday activism?
La Via Campesina, the Southern African Rural Women's Assembly, the Black Panther movement and anti-colonial movements across the world. Let's not forget, we fought for independence and won. I am also inspired by Indigenous movements across the world in their entirety, the list is endless. I pay great homage to them.
Do you ever get discouraged?
I do get sad, but I no longer get discouraged. Like Mariame Kaba, a prison abolitionist in the US says: “hope is a practise.” You can’t just sit and wish for hope, you have to practise yourself into it. Every day I'm surrounded by very beautiful people doing radical work, not just in Kenya or Africa. I see women reclaiming their political power, Indigenous peoples’ winning their territory back and movements successfully stopping pipelines. When I look at them I see hope in action. My comrades and my allies span the globe. In almost every country in the world, I know people who are doing something for the betterment of the people and the planet. So hope is alive, but it is a practise. I see things that completely infuriate me all the time. But I practice hope. I've learnt how to practise.
What is your message to activists, and young people in Kenya, in Africa, and beyond?
Always, remember that “Another world is possible”, as Arundhati Roy said. We also need to remind ourselves that white supremacy, colonialism, capitalism, racism, homophobia and transphobia have not managed to wipe us out. Not only have we resisted this oppression, but we've established a politics of regeneration. Transnational solidarity is a crucial element to that. We really need to remember that we are part of a collective, because, ultimately, we don't win by ourselves: we win together. And I am certain that we will win.