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Environmental management and social equity

The key notions
The political-economic context of contemporary environmental management
Social equity and environmental management: Some examples
The way forward


Tade Akin Aina


Recent times have seen a rise of what can be called the sustainable development movement in terms of a heightened concern with the state and future of the environment and the extensive politicization and institutionalization of environmental questions on a global scale. The result of this has been innumerable initiatives and efforts at many levels, which include the internationalization of knowledge, practices, strategies, and institutions to understand and predict environmental trends better and to arrest environmental decline and degradation. As part of these, a series of strategies, approaches, and techniques is being developed to plan, organize, and manage the environment. Increasingly a body of knowledge and expertise is growing around these efforts and is beginning to constitute what is formally defined as orthodox environmental management.

However, formal or orthodox environmental management, like all "managerialist" perspectives, is structured in such a way that it is defined as the prerogative of a privileged group or class of nations and persons. Because of this definition, it poses several problems in terms of relevance, appropriateness, long-term effectiveness, and, more fundamentally, social justice and equity. These problems, however, contain far-reaching implications for the expression and acceptance of the key elements of the sustainable development approach, of which orthodox environmental management claims an important executing component. One of the major questions here relates to the specific current to which one adheres within the broad and eclectic sustainable development movement and approach. Another, proceeding from this, is whether the attainment of sustainable development objectives is either a scientific/technocratic or humanistic issue, or rather an embodiment of these various elements of human civilization. It is these questions that form the concern of this paper.

To explore the most important dimensions of these issues effectively, this paper is structured as follows: (a) clarification of key notions such as sustainable development, environmental management, and social equity, (b) a brief examination of the political-economic context of contemporary environmental management, (c) a discussion of social equity and environmental management, in terms of exploring some of the practices in Sub-Saharan Africa, and (d) finally an exploration of the options for sustainable futures.

The key notions

Sustainable development

According to the authoritative document Nigeria's Threatened Environment: A National Profile (Nigerian Environmental Study/Action Team (NEST) 1991: 282):

Sustainable development is a notion, a movement and an approach which has developed into a global wave of concerns, study, political mobilization, and organization around the twin issues of environmental protection and economic development... The approach embodies the notion and ideal of a development process that is equitable and socially responsive, recognizing the extensive nature of poverty, deprivation, and inequality between and within nations, classes and communities. It also seriously advocates that the world be seen as one ecosystem and that the economic development process should include ecological and environmental issues as an essential component.

However, the conventional usage of the notion has a wide range of concerns embodied in it that has made it broadly eclectic. It has therefore not been expressed within a theoretical framework of any great rigour, though it is more identifiable in a genera1 commonsensical and programmatic nature (Redclift 1987; Aina 1990: 194). This openness of concerns has given rise to a wide variety of currents across different ideologies and a proliferation of definitions and interpretations.

An attempt that has perhaps popularized the notion most is the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) entitled Our Common Future (1987) and known as the "Brundtland Report" after Mrs. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former prime minister of Norway who chaired the Commission. That report and the range of activities that it generated, including the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 1992, have all elevated the notion of sustainable development to the level of an operational concept. Within this are principles, ideals, and values that see it as desirable and necessary if humankind is to tackle the problem of the crisis of environment and development effectively.

What needs to be pointed out however, and the WCED document and later positions have emphasized this, is the centrality of social equity to a sustainable development approach. Repeatedly, the document emphasized the importance of intergenerational and intragenerational equity, the meeting of the basic needs of all, the conquest of poverty, and the extension of the opportunity to fulfil the aspiration of all for a better life (WCED 1987: 8).

The centrality of the question of social equity in coming to a meaningful analysis, or practical action, becomes evident from the above issues."

Environmental management

Environmental management as it is conventionally understood today refers to a formal body of techniques, rules, and practices for the planning, organization, and social and technical control of the human utilization of, and interaction with, nature and natural resources.

However, an important position that we need to consider, particularly in the African case, is to see environmental management rather as a wider range of human practices and actions involved in our interaction with natural resources and the environment. These include the use of a whole range of institutions, values, customs, and strategies through which ordinary peoples have interacted with nature and organized their needs and use of natural resources. From this definition, it can be seen that even the poorest peoples and the most rudimentary societies possess specific strategies and an armoury of cultural equipment with which they manage natural resources and cope with their ecology, economy, and society. In this light, it might be necessary to make a distinction between popular environmental management, which is what ordinary peoples and indigenous communities do, and orthodox environmental management, which is the formal body of professional and technical approaches and system that is currently dominant. For the purpose of attaining social equity and effectiveness both approaches have to be integrated. The direction for this is taken up later in this paper.

Social equity

To those familiar with the Anglo-American common law traditions, the notion of equity denotes the legal concept of "technical equity." This is the application of principles of natural justice and the collective conscience to temper the rigidity of the common law, whose concern with technicalities and precedents might deny a litigant the chance of receiving justice in the courts. In other words, principles of fair play and justice based on the defined collective conscience and the guiding values of natural justice are brought into play. Social equity takes its departure from here. It means in its simplest terms that which is fair and just (Adigun 1987: 10-11).

Of course, the problem of arriving at a consensus on what these imply, particularly across cultures, is tremendous. But this is really why it becomes an issue particularly in orthodox environmental management in cases where value systems differ and perceptions of rights, obligations, and duties also differ. This has been the case with several indigenous peoples and communities when they confront the definitions of laws, proprietorial rights, tenure, and duties as defined by the modern state and related Western institutions. The result has been and is still devastating for them. Social equity therefore, particularly in a situation of clash of cultures and in environmental management, requires that we recognize the values and norms of other peoples and that our decisions and actions are guided by notions of justice and fairness that accept the integrity and validity of other cultures and lifestyles.

The political-economic context of contemporary environmental management

To understand effectively why questions of social equity become central to contemporary forms of environmental management it is necessary to look at the overall political-economic context. In the case of Sub-Saharan Africa, given its specific history and the nature of its environmental problems, this is an important point of departure.

The political-economic context of most countries, particularly those of Sub-Saharan Africa, can be identified as possessing four broad levels with implications for the management of the environment. These are the global, the regional, the national, and the local or grassroots level. As has been pointed out in an earlier work (Aina 1990: 196), these levels are sites and sources not only from which actions are expressed but also within which effects are felt. At these different levels, a wide array of vested interests and social forces interplay and interact. In a lot of cases these interactions cut across the levels, while in some cases actions and effects are localized.

Also expressed at these levels are three cross-cutting issues that affect the nature of the political-economic context of most SubSaharan African countries. These are (a) inequality and poverty, (b) domination and conflicts, and (c) unsustainable economic and social development processes. The three are closely interrelated, often feeding on each other, and to a great extent co-determining the vicious cycles of poverty, misery, and environmental degradation characteristic of many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.

The global/regional contexts

The global/regional levels include what goes on within the global political-economic system, particularly within its influential multilateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the United Nations System, and similar institutions. At this level, the problems related to inequality and poverty, domination and conflicts, and unsustainable economic and social development processes continuously play themselves out but on a more macro and systematic scale. The history of most Sub-Saharan African countries as ax-colonies, their dependent and weak economies, their narrow technological base, and their recent high indebtedness make them extremely vulnerable. This vulnerability is not only in economic terms but also in ecological, social, and cultural terms.

Such countries, particularly in the context of the debt crisis and the application of the economic recovery programmes initiated from the centres of the global system, are often forced through deregulation mechanisms to open all aspects of their economy and society. In this context, social and economic priorities tied to either debt repayment or rescheduling are imposed on them and these often reinforce or expand unsustainable social and economic development processes, particularly with regard to the exploitation of natural resources that are exported for hard currency. In a lot of cases, the imperatives of debt servicing and adjustment management have pushed equity and sustainable development questions into the background. In fact economic reforms have by their nature favoured the well-off and reinforced unsustainable strategies.

These have implications for the environment in terms of an accelerated process of natural resources degradation and in a lot of cases often repressive and inequitable environmental management responses.

National/local contexts

At national or local levels all three issues - inequity and poverty, domination and conflicts, and unsustainable economic and social development processes - find expression. There is scarcely any country in Sub-Saharan Africa that is free from one or all of these problems.

Quite often the problems have their origins in the colonial history of the specific countries. It is at this point that the transformation and internationalization of the national/local environments begin through specific forms of insertion into the global economy based on some form or combination of forms of exploitation of natural resources through cash-crop production, mining, timber, forestry, etc. This process often involves a redefinition of the relationships of the people to nature and natural resources through production, consumption, laws, the growth of bureaucracies and institutions of enforcement, and, in several cases, through direct physical and spatial segregation of the colonized and the colonizer.

Because colonial interests were often about the exploitation of natural resources, the central concern of environmental management was often with environmental sanitation in the urban areas and with agricultural productivity and the securing of the reserves of other natural resources in the rural areas. Commitment to these objectives led to the growth of management techniques that confronted erosion, land degradation, and pest control only in relation to the obstacles they created to producing economic goods or to the leisure of the colonial and the indigenous elites.

Of course there was the creation of forest reserves to conserve the sources of forest products and the institution of national parks projects to promote tourism and conserve wildlife.2 But in essence the dominant techniques utilized were reactive, Western in origin and style, and concerned more with the definition and protection of interests either identified or possessed by the colonial elites. Environmental management in this context was specialized, alienated, and elitist in form, and in some cases motivated by romantic and adventurist conceptions of the "native" and his natural habitat. All of this was inherited and applied in the post-colonial era and, with the deteriorating conditions imposed by the economic and political crises that plagued the continent from the mid-1970s, some of the institutions decayed while others were seriously perverted. It is in this context that the current situation of multifaceted crises of the economy, polity, society, and ecology have come together to plague the African continent.

Social equity and environmental management: Some examples

Examples of inequitable environmental management practices abound both in the field and in the literature (see Enghoff 1990; Hallward 1992). The majority of these examples relate to major differences in environmental management approaches between the ordinary peoples and the elites, whether foreign or local, who determine policies and politics.

Environmental management of the orthodox type covers a wide range of inequitable practices that can be found in both urban and rural areas. In this paper, I consider the manifestation of inequitable management practices or prescriptions mainly with regard to three environmental issues: pastoralism and wildlife conservation, the population question, and urban poverty. For each of these the significant property of the inequitable management is that it alienates and often represses and oppresses the people it is meant for. It is also distant from their own approaches and forms. As Paul Richards (1985) has pointed out, orthodox environmental management strategies are often not more effcetive and sueeessful than those that eome from indigenous teehnieal knowledge, although they often tend to be contemptuous of them. More often than not, the orthodox practices are sectoralist in design and implementation as well as repressive and enforcement oriented. There is also a deep-seated mistrust and suspicion of the motives and activities of the people being managed. Perhaps of greater significance is that these practices are built and controlled by specific vested interests, sueh as those of tourism, plantation and other large-scale agriculture, commercial forestry, or ranching, or those of orthodox environmental managers sueh as urban planners, sanitation engineers, agronomists, and wildlife conservationists.

Of course, the claim to superior scientific and technical knowledge, a great deal of which is ethnoeentrie, is often used as legitimation for the imposition of the practices and techniques. Yet there is very little integration of the ecological, cultural, and sociological reality of the contexts of concern. But this is how reality is defined for most indigenous and ordinary peoples, ranging from the Peul of the Futa Djalon highlands to the urban poor of the Mathare Valley slum in Nairobi, Kenya.

Inequitable management practices often include the following:

violations of fundamental rights sueh as: the right to life, the right to livelihoods, the right to shelter, the right to freedom of movement and association;

violations of access to the basie human needs identified by Abraham Maslow, such as: safety, other physiological needs, self-esteem, and actualization needs.

The strategies and tactics often utilized include:

evictions without compensation and adequate resettlement in both rural and urban areas;

restrictions on mobility, such as entry and exit into traditional zones of operations such as game reserves and forests;

restrictions on traditional or popular environmental management activities and livelihood strategies sueh as range burning, grazing patterns, cultivation, hunting, fishing, gathering, and street trading.

the imposition of culturally alien practices, an example being extraordinary family planning strategies such as involuntary sterilization;

deliberate and systematic neglect in the provision of services as they affect the poor, such as those of public health or those of effective crime control.

Such measures ensure the continuity of high mortality risks for the poor.

Various aspects of these broad strategies express themselves in the three areas of environmental management identified above.

Pastoralism and wildlife conservation

NEST (1991) described the Fulani pastoralists of Nigeria as a culture threatened by modernization. This seems to be the case for most pastoralists of the African continent. The economic development process, the forces and institutions of the modern state, and the introduction or enforcement of wildlife conservation practices and reserves threaten both the cultures and the livelihoods of these people. Evidence abounds for this in the experience of countries such as Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Somalia, the Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania.4

In fact the experience of the Masai pastoralists in Kenya and Tanzania exemplifies clearly the inequitable environmental management approach that focuses on wildlife conservation while threatening the very livelihood and essence of the Masai pastoralist culture.

Martin Enghoff (1990), in a study of parks and peoples in East Africa, clearly shows the origin of this form of inequitable environmental management and its current patterns. The colonial imperatives of wildlife conservation negatively affected the Masai and other pastoralists, first and foremost involving the alienation of their land and the imposition of various limitations and prohibitions on their activities.

As Enghoff points out, the pastoralists lost important grazing lands to the creation of national parks, which greatly restricted their mobility over their traditional range lands. Their systems of bush burning, grazing patterns, and cultivation activities were also equally restricted. An important element of their loss of control was the creation of a negative image for them. They were accused of being responsible for the wide incidence of environmental degradation, which was said to be related to their overstocking and overgrazing of pasture lands. However, the accusations and analyses were one-sided because pastoralists also suffer greatly from contacts with wildlife. For example, their stock have been infected with wildlife diseases. Moreover, some of the practices carried out by the pastoralists such as bush burning contain positive implications for the regeneration of grazing lands and the control of both tick-borne diseases and the spread of non-edible grass species.

The sad fact, however, is that pastoralists are not offered either the chance or the opportunity to defend themselves, while the inequitable management strategies imposed on them continue to attack the very basis of their existence. The intention here is neither to romanticize nor to idealize the culture of the pastoralists but to point out that the pattern of external interaction with it, particularly with regard to wildlife conservation, contains strong elements of inequitable environmental management practices.

The population question

Discussion of the population question can be very sensitive, in particular because the issues touch on fundamental values related to sexuality and the physical and social reproduction of peoples. Also present is the possibility of racist interpretations of other peoples and cultures. But perhaps the strongest cause of distrust is the question of religion and the religious definition of the purpose and basis of procreation. All of these issues extend the population question beyond mere science to the realm of values, ethics, and politics. But science indeed has a role to play, not in defining what is to be done but in pointing out the increasingly delicate balance between population, ecology, and natural resources. The extension of the conception of "carrying capacity" beyond its formal usage to making it the basis of prescribing public health policies demonstrates this delicate balance. As a result, the population question becomes an environment and development question that has to be addressed. However, this must be done with serious consideration of ethics and issues of social equity.

Several specialized agencies, particularly in North America, have developed to address these issues.5 These have used every opportunity to bring the "population question" to the fore. The intensity and urgency of the problem in fact raise serious ethical questions about whether or not inequitable or socially unjust management strategies and practices should be used. In this particular context, does the end justify the means, however unjust and inequitable these are? These are questions that most of science by its very positivist nature does not and cannot answer. But they are questions that environmental managers and some scientists try to answer.

An interesting position with far-reaching implications for environmental management is that of Maurice King (1990), who introduces the idea of the "demographic trap" and "ecosustainability." Concerned with the implications of current population trends for future generations, King advocates a new global strategy that will impose "extra-ordinary family planning" strategies: the "one-child family" option and the need no longer to promote reduced child mortality as an element of public health strategy for countries described as caught in the demographic trap. King criticizes what he considers the unsustainable orientation of the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), which both provide what are perceived as desustaining measures, such as oral rehydration therapy on a public health scale. To the discerning reader, what King is advocating is a particular form of environmental management strategy. The problem here is that on closer examination it denies the "right to life" and advocates a deliberate and systematic neglect of the provision of collective services, particularly in the area of public health.

This is the problem with some of the orthodox environmental management strategies advocated for family planning and as responses to the population question. They often breach the right to life and contain the tacit acceptance of involuntary mechanisms that are defined as unacceptable to "civilized" Western culture.

Urban poverty

Contemporary urbanization in many parts of Africa contains many unsavoury features that threaten the urban environment. As discussed in another work (Aina et al. 1994), the urban condition often includes large-scale poverty, overcrowding in the low-income settlements, inadequate provision of basic services such as water, roads, drainage, schools, and health centres, blighted dwelling places, insecurity of tenure of both land and shelter, and a generally poor quality of life. The urban environment in most low-income settlements often suffers from deliberate systematic neglect of the most basic services and infrastructure, resulting in extensive pollution from poor waste management and industrial and other economic activities, perennial flooding, and the exposure of the populace to a wide variety of environmental and health hazards.

In this context, the life of the ordinary low-income urban dweller is difficult, oppressed, and miserable. It is not made easier by the wide range of policies, institutions, and legislation utilized in the course of urban management, which contribute to blaming the victims and penalizing them for the very condition in which they find themselves. In a study of the environmental problems of Metropolitan Lagos, it was found that most of the indicators utilized by governments and planning authorities to determine the extent of blight in low-income settlements can be traced to government neglect and/or inaction, such as the failure to provide basic services or to plan the settlements (Aina et al. 1994).

However, the image of the "underdog" remains consistent in orthodox environmental management, whether in the urban settlements or in rural areas. Although the urban poor contribute extensively to the building and maintenance of their settlements and have over the years generated a wide range of strategies and practices for organizing and managing these settlements, orthodox urban environmental managers continue to ignore or/and despise these efforts and knowledge. These are often not integrated in any meaningful way into city development and planning strategies. Rather, a specifically urban variant of the inequitable management practices such as denial of the fundamental human rights identified above and the violation of access to the fulfilment of basic human needs continues to constitute the essence of urban environmental management. Thus the lives of the urban poor in Africa are characterized by large-scale evictions and demolitions such as that of the Maroko slum on the outskirts of Lagos, Nigeria, in 1990 and those of Nairobi, Kenya, in the same year.

As pointed out elsewhere (Aina et al. 1994), the policies and laws that govern urban environmental management seem to be oblivious to the notion of sustainable development. The emphasis is on enforcement and policing of breaches of environmental sanitation laws and the provisions of public order and the criminal code. Even then, the state and the level of the institutional capacity of the agencies of urban environmental management - the shortage of skilled manpower, funds, and capacity, coupled with corruption and the manipulation of these institutions - have rendered the enforcement of laws generally problematic. What currently happens is that city authorities and their agents focus on the lines of least resistance, which are the urban poor and their settlements.

The way forward

This paper has painted a picture of the extent to which environmental management as we know it contains extensive elements of social inequity. It has also shown that efforts at managing the environment can be classified broadly into two approaches: formal orthodox environmental management and indigenous popular environmental management. Both approaches contain strengths and weaknesses in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. Although the orthodox approach might contain a greater element of built-in technical efficiency, it lacks strong elements of social equity. It often tends to be inappropriate, can be irrelevant, and of course at times is less effective. The popular strategies are themselves limited when they confront largescale problems, although they cope more effectively with communitybased micro-scale issues, and they have been found to work quite well in many contexts in Africa. This has been well stated by Paul Richards (1985).

The question here is, how do we integrate both and build on their strengths? The answer is readily available in trends and practices in development thinking and work and can be found in the participatory approach to development. The point is that environmental management must become participatory environmental management.

This of course means that it must begin with the people; it must be based on their needs in terms of both their perceptions and their definition of their needs. Managers and researchers must therefore change their strategies and orientation and learn to work with and for ordinary people in fulfilling their needs in the order of priority that they place on them. Every element of environmental management must incorporate the knowledge, values, and energies of the endusers - the communities. More significantly, groups that are at the moment considered irrelevant and are marginalized, such as pastoralists, peasants, women, children, and youth, must become the central subjects of policies and actions whenever these affect their lives and locations.

There is of course the need for a review and reform of institutional operations, their structure, functions, and responsibility. Policies and legislation require quick, effective, and self-sustaining review mechanisms. An important element is effective decentralization to local authorities or those closest to the points where action will be felt. The institutions responsible for producing formal environmental managers also require a reorientation of their training programmes and their professional ideologies. This means new approaches, methods, and curricula. It also means retraining and training of practitioners in the field.

Above all, environmental managers need to adopt and internalize the values, principles, and practice of effective participatory management. This, if genuinely done, would help to guarantee the protection of popular economic and social rights and would lead to a more human-centred strategy of environmental management. That way the most important and universal features of social equity are guaranteed.


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