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Nature conservation initiatives – who foots the bill?

In January 2020, Marja Spierenburg joined the FSW as the new Professor of Anthropology of Sustainability and Livelihoods. Let’s get to know her. ‘All my research is basically about nature conservation. I look at areas like national parks, but also at measures aimed at increasing the sustainability of agriculture and improving livelihoods in a given area.’

What attracted you to this Leiden chair in sustainability?

‘This chair is absolutely my kind of thing! Sustainability is a really important topic. Together with professors at the Faculties of Science and Archaeology and the Institute of Public Administration, I will form part of the Interdisciplinary Programme ‘Liveable Planet’. I was already active in research in this field at the international level and at Nijmegen. What particularly attracts me about the project in Leiden is the cooperative aspect, and being involved in shaping an interdisciplinary initiative of this kind right from the start.’

What is your specialisation within cultural anthropology and development sociology?

‘I’ve done a lot of research into land-related conflict and land reform in southern Africa. I always look at the impact proposed solutions will have on the rights of smallholders and small-scale livestock farmers: what are the implications for their land rights and their ability to maintain or improve their standard of living? Who actually ends up footing the bill for nature conservation initiatives?’

‘For farmers the basic requirement is access to the land, whether it’s through ownership or user rights. But the water-energy-food nexus also comes into it, and we need to remember the interconnections between these fundamental elements. Whatever you do with agriculture and energy, the whole food chain, or value chain, relies on energy and water, and the latter is also crucial for all sorts of other purposes. So if you look at each of these aspects separately, you’re bound to miss part of the picture. Ultimately social justice and equity play an important role.’

Marja Spierenburg talking with the chair of the local business association during research at the salt mines of Kilifi, Kenya, in March 2019.

Where does your fascination with this subject come from?

‘As a student, I ended up in Zimbabwe. That’s one of the countries in southern Africa where the distribution of land between white and black people has led to a great deal of conflict, and is still an issue that governments wrestle with. The EU sponsored a project to get rid of the tsetse fly in the Zambezi valley, where it’s a real problem for livestock farming. Environmental organizations sketched a doom scenario of unbridled land reclamation and increases in the number of livestock. To ensure that the tsetse fly intervention did not lead to huge environmental damage, a land reorganization programme was set up. That was my first confrontation with these sorts of projects and with prejudices about how farmers in these areas operate. Ultimately the programme led to much more environmental damage, and there was absolutely no connection with how people manage the land at the local level. The programme even led to all sorts of social conflicts. That short-sightedness and injustice became a driving force behind all my research.’

How did you expand your research field after that?

‘In about 2001, the land occupation of large-scale farms began. It caused a great deal of chaos, which provided the Zimbabwean government with their chance to get rid of their political opponents. In the area where I was, too, the party carried out a pretty extensive ‘clean-up operation’. It was no longer possible to continue my research, as that might endanger the people I was working with. Anyone who was seen with a white person was immediately suspicious. Like many of my colleagues, I ended up in neighbouring countries like Mozambique and South Africa. There I redirected by research to trans-border natural parks. I later also carried out research in Kenya on civil society and land conflicts involving both the government and private-sector partners, and how local civil society organisations and small farmers’ organisations related to these two parties.’

Who does your research focus on?

‘I want to make sure the voice of those smallholders and livestock farmers is heard, but I also examine how NGOs, national governments, and the private sector operate within this framework – though admittedly there are few people in the latter category who are prepared to talk to a researcher. So in this case inequality also affects to whom you ask your questions. If as a researcher you go into the villages, people there sometimes find it harder to say no. So you have to make sure that people who are vulnerable or marginalized are fully aware of what you do, and know they can stop if they want to. Especially in Kenya there is real violence towards land rights activists and local activists. That’s a very different situation from the projects we carry out here in the Netherlands. You see that the same challenges play a role in relation to the water-food-energy supply chain, but citizens have a different relationship with the government: they are more aware of their rights and have more possibilities to stand up for them.'  

Marja Spierenburg with participants of a multi-stakeholder workshop at a project in Dundee, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, 2012.

How do the projects in the Netherlands and southern Africa reinforce one another?

‘The differences also highlight the opportunities there are for sharing knowledge – especially in the area of sustainability and the consequences of climate change, which are already much more visible in Africa. Here we can still muffle it all away to some extent, but in South Africa that’s no longer possible. I think it’s a good thing to compare notes on how we deal with it. Not some sort of idea that we know how things should be done and we will go and tell them how to do it. Local farmers who have long been forced to adjust their way of life… we have a lot to learn from them, too. Not least when it comes to policy making. That sort of exchange is very valuable and I would welcome it as part of our joint initiative here in Leiden.’

What successes do you hope to achieve in the Interdisciplinary Programme ‘Liveable Planet’?

‘It would be great if in five years’ time we have a group of researchers who operate across the disciplinary boundaries and provide joint degree programmes to our students. If we can link our Liveable Planet initiative with international projects and if we in Leiden are regularly consulted on this subject, both by fellow researchers and by people involved in policy and practice. And if we can facilitate information exchange in the form of living labs, both here in the Netherlands and abroad. These should be centres where we all work together to generate, refine, and exchange knowledge, across all boundaries.’

‘In addition, I advocate looking into inequality and power relations in various areas. We need to ensure that this initiative also has room for those people in the Netherlands, for example, who feel that they are the ones footing the bill for all these reforms; that they’ve had to give up their holidays in Spain, and can no longer even eat meat. We shouldn’t just laugh off these sorts of feelings: we need to take them seriously and see whether there may be other ways of doing things.’

Marja Spierenburg at a meeting of the UNESCO International Advisory Council for Biopshere Reserves, 2020.

What is your view of cultural anthropology and development sociology?

‘I really combine anthropology and development sociology: my subjects have a lot to do with development sociology, but I apply many anthropological methods. The idea of more-than-human societies interests me: not just focusing on human beings, but looking at how human beings and the landscape (and animals) shape one another. But I sometimes feel the political aspect is lacking: I focus more on political ecology. For me, inequality and diversity are always the most important themes in the end.’

‘Doing fieldwork yourself becomes more and more difficult when you’re a professor, I’ve realized. But I absolutely refuse to give it up entirely! It’s important to keep in touch with the field and have direct knowledge of what your colleagues have to contend with, for instance. That helps me to know what’s going on.’

How do you like Leiden University so far, and what do you chat about by the coffee machine?

‘Leiden feels like coming home’, Spierenburg says, smiling. She’s no stranger to this city, although she studied in Utrecht, did her PhD at the University of Amsterdam, and has worked at Unesco, VU Amsterdam, and Radboud University.  ‘One of my supervisors, Peter Geschiere, came from Leiden, and though he worked at the UvA he had a ‘PhD club’ here with Robert Ross. I was very much at home here in those days. In addition, I’ve always had close contacts with the African Studies Centre in Leiden; I am the chair of their Academic Advisory Council. So it feels like a home-coming. And I even have the same hobby as Paul Wouters and Gerard Persoon: I play the drums. I play in two bands, and we sometimes do gigs in community centres or other low-key venues. Apart from that, I’d like to read more novels, so I always welcome tips on that front. And of course about what I should see in Leiden. I live in Amsterdam, but now I work here I’d always like to hear more about what the city has to offer.’

Text and banner photo: Sabrina Otterloo 

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