A special pan-African five-day conference on land grabbing and just governance in Africa was held in Nairobi, Kenya last November (22nd to 26th), just a few days before the arrival of Pope Francis.
It was the first initiative involving bishops, priests, religious, lay people, non-governmental organizations and experts in this field. It was organized by the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), the Africa Faith and Justice Network (AFJN), the Africa Europe Faith and Justice Network (AEFJN) and the International Alliance of Catholic Development Agencies (CIDSE), with the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa (AMECEA) as the host.
During these 5 days, I found myself wondering if the conference was worth a trip from the United States to an African country. Often the answer was, “It depends…”
The fact that the conference gathered 160 participants from 25 countries of Africa, Europe and America, of which 85% were from many different African countries was positive. So they could highlight the land grabbing in Africa with proper statistics and cases of resistance.
The awareness that this work is fully part of evangelization and a due cause for the communities of peasants, pastoralists, and women who are dependent on their land and agriculture continuing to increase was also positive. It appeared clear that all result in the Church’s increasing engagement with land grabbing issues. Land grabbing is a serious problem across Africa: it has already dislocated hundreds of thousands of people from their lands, deprived them of natural resources, and threatened their livelihoods. The cry of the African citizens and peasants saying: “We produce what we don’t eat; we eat what we don’t produce!”, requires more urgent attention from the governments, civil society and Churches since it threatens livelihoods and food security.
In his opening remarks, Archbishop Tomas Msusa from Blandyre (Malawi) challenged the participants not only to focus on business persons, politicians and government officials for the land grabbing menace but also to look within the Church, saying that Church structures are not clean of land grabbing issues themselves. In this, the conference echoed the Pope’s great concern about land grabbing voiced in his speech at the UN FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization – Rome June 2015): “Monopolizing of lands for cultivation by trans-national enterprises and states, not only deprives farmers of an essential good, but directly affects the sovereignty of countries”, he said and pointed out: “There are already many regions in which the foods produced go to foreign countries and the local population is doubly impoverished, because it does not have food or land.” And his too was a positive point.
At the end, the Nairobi conference tried to develop strategies to support and strengthen local communities in their struggles to stop land grabbing, to build resilience and local, national and international networks. It appeared clearly that there was the need to increase awareness, action and advocacy in a variety of ways for the oppressed. The participants felt the importance of unity of intents and solidarity that results in a shared global strategy since, as an African proverb says, “When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion”.
This seemed to be the weakest part of the conference. The final document mirrors the intensity and the desire of working hard for the future of the Continent and these words are significant: “Our land is sacred, our land is our life, and our land is not for sale!”. For now my feeling is that here we have a great challenge, and more than a huge hope for the African people! In fact it is how to make the exploitative approach towards land denounced by Pope Francis’s words become a real issue and topic that is the important issue. How to assure the indigenous peoples’ prospective communities that “land is not a commodity, but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values”. (Encyclical Letter Laudato Si 146). Only then will conferences, even the international ones, become an advocacy empowering people who remain on their land, to care for it at their best.
John Paul Pezzi, mccj
VIVAT International NGO
with consultative special status at UN