Category Archives: Voices

The Changing Landscape of Shenzhen: Displacing the Urban Village from the City’s Memory

August 19, 2022
By 29645

Mengtai Zhang, a 2018 Sylff fellow, utilized an SRA without Overseas Travel grant in 2021–22 to explore the fate of Hubei and other urban villages in Shenzhen, China, which are on the brink of demolition—and oblivion. Faced with COVID-19 travel restrictions, Zhang enlisted a research assistant to conduct fieldwork and interviews on his behalf. What emerges is the dilemma between economic development and such considerations as social justice and preservation of culture.

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Due to China’s rapid rural urbanization in the last forty years, urban villages have become a common phenomenon, where the expansion of urban areas physically enclose rural lands operating under different land tenure. What makes urban villages unique in Shenzhen is that they are a product of segregated policies but have been restructuring the segregation from within over the last few decades. This segregation manifests in a rural-urban division and the resulting unequal allocation of institutional resources.

This division is embedded in the evolution of Shenzhen’s urban villages. With Shenzhen’s rapid economic development as a Special Economic Zone since China’s Reform and Opening Up in 1979, urban villages evolved with a level of self-organization to accommodate the large influx of migrant workers, providing them with access to superior urban resources in an affordable way, while bringing wealth to local rural collectives that own the land. This dynamics shifted from the mid-2000s, when many urban villages began to be demolished and rebuilt by mega real estate developers, often into skyscrapers and large shopping malls, under government planning. By the 2010s, more and more people in Shenzhen had started advocating for the protection of urban villages. Many wanted to preserve the urban villages for migrants and working families who were still suffering from unequal resource distribution. They also believed the urban villages bore historical significance to the rise of Shenzhen.

 

Collective Memory and the Case of Hubei

In July 2016 Hubei 120, a leaderless movement of artists, scholars, and architects, initiated a series of activities against the demolition of Hubei, an urban village in the Luohu district in central Shenzhen. As Hubei has existed for hundreds of years, participants of Hubei 120 argued that destroying Hubei would destroy Shenzhen’s shared memories and cultural assets. At the end of 2017, Hubei 120 curated a prominent art exhibition at the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture. I participated in the exhibition and presented two works, a soundscape composition of Hubei and a performance, both of which began during my 2016 art residency in Shenzhen. Both works used sound to create contexts about the impact of urbanization on people’s living conditions. Having captured the soundscape of Hubei when the place was facing demolition, I utilized the SRA without Overseas Travel grant to continue the research on Hubei at the end of 2021, now that demolition and reconstruction were well under way. 

 

Landscape view of Hubei, demolition in progress, Shenzhen, December 2021. (Photo courtesy of Lemon Guo)

 

During the research period in 2021 and 2022, I explored how collective memories were impacted by other systems in the process of migration. I was interested in what urban villages meant to different groups of people in Shenzhen and what we could hear from the diverging voices on what should happen to Hubei. With the support of an SRA without Overseas Travel award from the Sylff Association, I hired research assistant Lemon Guo to conduct fieldwork and interviews in Shenzhen, since I was unable to travel to China due to COVID-19 restrictions. 

Guo visited urban villages in Shenzhen, including Shangwei, Baishizhou, Shuiwei, Caiwuwei, and Hubei, and took field recordings and photographs. She mainly interviewed anthropologist Mary Ann O’Donnell, who is an expert on the urban villages in Shenzhen, and theater maker Yang Qian and filmmaker Shi Jie, both of whom were significant contributors to Hubei 120. We asked questions regarding the demolition process of Hubei, the characteristics of urban villages, and their memories of Shenzhen’s reform.

O’Donnell told us about the history of evolution of urban villages from spontaneous communities to planned communities and her memories of this process, having lived in several urban villages for most of her two-decades-plus of life in Shenzhen, since before they were even known as “urban villages.” She left us with a heavy comment—that the era of urban villages had reached its end. Yang Qian believed that urban villages such as Hubei symbolized the collective memories of Shenzhen people, which is what they are losing as a city. This was part of his motivation to join Hubei 120 and advocate for Hubei’s preservation. He told us about his role in Hubei 120 and how it operated as a leaderless movement. He also made an interesting observation about the shifting image of rural people in China’s popular culture, from farmers to migrant workers, gradually losing a concrete face and identity.

Shi Jie told us about how he became involved in Hubei 120, the growing number of artists creating socially engaged art in the urban villages, and their tensions and strategies in coping with the economic and political realities. As the conversations went on, we noticed that questions about shared memories and belonging often drew answers about loss and segregation. 

 

The Shifting Value of Urban Villages in Shenzhen

When viewed from the perspective of Shenzhen’s development, it seems the city struggles to remember, prone to forgetfulness. Shenzhen issued the Urban Renewal Method for revamping its image as a world-class metropolis in 2009 by calling on real estate developers to bid on original proposals for remodeling urban villages, which over the years have led to their large-scale demolition (Liu et al. 2017, 7). On the one hand, the large-scale project drew from urban villages the “useful” aspects, that which is solid and lasting, while the other aspects were considered redundant and disposable, destined for oblivion. In Hubei, what has been deemed useful are the shrines and ancient landscape, which could be transformed into consumable sites of spectacle, while , appear to be defined as something transitional and thus not worth keeping, despite their vital role in the residents’ livelihoods and historical significance in Shenzhen’s development.

On the other hand, what is considered useful by the city could also be volatile and ephemeral when viewed from a longer, historical perspective. As recently as the 1990s, urban villages—still known as “new villages” at the time—were praised as the essential, useful parts of the city. The transformation from “old villages” to “new villages” and the construction of large numbers of handshake buildings were a self-organized innovative solution that helped address a city-wide housing shortage as well as other issues brought about by the city’s reform. Ironically, although new villages had been recognized as valuable resources and celebrated as a huge success of Shenzhen’s development, their title of “new” was shortly downgraded in the mid-2000s (O’Donnell 2021, 58). The name “urban village” replaced “new village,” and what followed were demolition, renovation, and the social stigmas of filth, disorder, and substandardness. At the end of the day, the new, the solid, and the useful in Shenzhen tend to have transient qualities, sometimes decaying quickly from the city’s collective memory. 

 

Zhang’s shrine, on the outskirts of Hubei, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Shi Jie)

 

Alongside disappearing memories of the villages are unfulfilled dreams of belonging. In recent years, Shenzhen had been advertising its dedication to social inclusion by promoting the slogan, “If you come, you are a Shenzhener” (Shenzhen Government Online 2022). But the demolition and renovation of urban villages and the resulting massive displacement of their residents make this slogan ring increasingly hollow. Urban villages had provided affordable living conditions to most rural migrants to Shenzhen from the 1980s (Hao 2011, 217–18). Due to hukou, a household registration system intended to keep people in place by dividing them into rural and urban categories based on their place of origin, migrants who held rural hukou had for decades faced segregation in the city, including limitations on job opportunities, restrictions in the housing market, and exclusion from many social welfare programs (Cheng 1994, 644–45). Inexpensive and convenient urban villages were essentially shelters for rural migrants, providing access to urban-level resources such as economic opportunities, educational institutions, hospitals, and cultural institutions. 

Ironically, in a promotional video in 2020 by China Central Television, the largest state-owned broadcaster in China, the authorities presented the renovation of Nantou Gucheng, an ancient village in Shenzhen, as a successful materialization of the slogan (China Central Television 2020). The city created discourse portraying the construction of a symbolic identity, which supposedly can be achieved by refurbishing old neighborhoods and ancient landscapes. As the refurbishment continues, countless urban villages in central Shenzhen have been transformed into high-end residential areas, glossy consumer destinations, and grandiose landmarks, displacing vast numbers of lower-income communities in the meantime. This identity-building process redefines who is actually treated as Shenzheners, leaving many migrants who have contributed significantly to the city’s economic development out of the picture. 

 

Buildings over People

This renovation method reflects a fixation on buildings over people who live in them. Both the local government and the real estate developers claimed to be protectors of the ancient village in Hubei, notwithstanding their plans to displace entire communities and demolish two-thirds of the ancient village. Even the strategies of Hubei 120 ended up prioritizing preserving the old architecture of Hubei over protecting the communities, despite conflicting voices within the group. It fought with the government and real estate developers over the precise square meter of ancient villages that would be preserved (Yang 2017).

As I went through the footage and interviews of this research trip, I caught a glimpse of how the city might remember itself in the future. It would consist of a solidified past that is over hundreds or thousands of years old, symbolized by renovated ancient villages like Nantou and Hubei, as well as a forever-new present, encapsulated in the skyscrapers that grow taller and taller—yet nothing in between. 

 

References

Cheng, Tiejun, and Mark Selden. “The Origins and Social Consequences of China’s Hukou System.” The China Quarterly 139 (1994): 644–68. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0305741000043083.

China Central Television. “Xianxing: Episode Five [先行 第五集].” Accessed May 10, 2022. https://tv.cctv.com/2020/10/19/VIDEQx2rjSiFM0zzlTT4yehU201019.shtml?spm=C55924871139.PT8hUEEDkoTi.0.0.

Hao, Pu, Richard Sliuzas, and Stan Geertman. “The Development and Redevelopment of Urban Villages in Shenzhen.” Habitat International 35, no. 2 (2011): 214–24. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.habitatint.2010.09.001.

Liu, Guiwen, Zhiyong Yi, Xiaoling Zhang, Asheem Shrestha, Igor Martek, and Lizhen Wei. “An Evaluation of Urban Renewal Policies of Shenzhen, China.” Sustainability 9, no. 6 (2017): 1001. https://doi.org/10.3390/su9061001.

O’Donnell, Mary Ann. “The End of an Era?: Two Decades of Shenzhen Urban Villages.” Made in China Journal 6, no. 2 (2021): 56–65. https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/informit.287948270260541.

Shenzhen Government Online. “You Are a Shenzhener Once You Come to Shenzhen.” Accessed May 10, 2022. http://www.sz.gov.cn/en_szgov/news/infocus/visa/expat/content/post_7900720.html.

Yang, Qian. “Hubei Observation 3 [湖贝观察 3].” The Paper, August 17, 2017. https://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_1762649_1.

 

The First Hijra as a Model for Migration Justice: Ethiopia’s Legacy and Future in Regional Peacebuilding

August 4, 2022
By 27320

In the seventh century, followers of the prophet Mohammed migrated from Arabia to Abyssinia—in modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea—where they sought asylum in an ancient Christian state. Known as the First Hijra, this episode represents a legacy of interreligious and interethnic respect, notes 2018–20 Sylff fellow Sara Swetzoff. Ethiopia, whose parliament passed one of the world’s most integrative refugee laws in January 2019, could be an anchor of justice for all of Africa and the Middle East, Swetzoff surmises.

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“If you have to migrate, migrate towards Habash.” —Prophet Mohammed, pbuh (from Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasulillah)

Understanding the Recent Conflict in Ethiopia

In November 2020, conflict between national forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) touched off a war in Ethiopia. By late 2021, the ongoing violence had reached headlines around the world. The United States pulled all nonessential staff from the embassy in Addis Ababa and revoked trade privileges, sparking protests in Ethiopia and the diaspora. Meanwhile, Tigrayan civilians and human rights advocates documented urgent famine conditions in the region and implored the international community to do more. According to a joint investigation conducted by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the United Nations, both the Ethiopian Defense Forces and TPLF committed ethnically targeted mass atrocities.

To the great relief of the global community, the Ethiopian government lifted the state of emergency in early 2022 and shortly thereafter reached a humanitarian truce agreement with Tigrayan political authorities. The conflict continues, but an ever-expanding proxy war and regional crisis have thankfully been averted.

And yet, the root causes of the conflict still must be addressed. Although there are allegations of outside intervention, many experts agree that the war in Tigray originated internally from a power struggle between national political elites following the major changes to government in 2018. As each camp rallied its social base and escalated military operations, the resulting human rights atrocities transformed the political confrontation into an all-out interethnic conflict, fanning the flames of numerous historical grievances. Until these historical grievances are addressed and robust peacebuilding work takes place, civilians of all ethnic groups will continue to pay the biggest price in every ongoing political conflict.

Seeking the Future in Our Knowledge of the Past

Yet despite the suffering brought upon so many Ethiopians—especially women and children—hope is not lost. From the exciting day in 2018 when Abiy Ahmed first came to power, Ethiopian intellectuals and civil society organizers from all regions and religions have been pushing for a national reconciliation process. In many ways, they predicted this war that has so thoroughly exposed the fragility of the Ethiopian state. In the same vein, they know how to fix it: the recipe for peace is not new, but rather consists of age-old cultural matrices of tolerance, unity, and justice that have sustained Ethiopia throughout the eras.

Pan-Africanists might mention as examples the famous anticolonial victory against Italy at Adwa in 1896 or Haile Selassie’s role in preserving the fragile Organization of African States in 1964. But Muslims around the world are likely familiar with a much earlier example of Ethiopian peacebuilding: the Migration to Abyssinia, or the First Hijra.

In the year 7 Hijri (613 CE), a group of the Prophet’s first followers (al-Sahabah) including Umar Ibn Afnan sought asylum in the Christian kingdom of Axum at the invitation of the Negus, or King, referred to as “Al-Najashi” in Arabic sources. Two years later, they were joined by a second, larger group; according to Tafsir Ibn Kathir, the 117 Muslims residing in Ethiopia outnumbered those who stayed in Mecca by almost threefold at the time of their arrival. Within a decade, most of the group returned to Arabia and headed to Madinah. Others settled in what is now Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia, and still others set sail for various destinations across southeast Asia.

One might argue that the survival—and subsequent growth—of the early Muslim community was due to the Axumite Kingdom’s generosity and tolerance. In Muslim traditions, Al-Najashi was not just a passive host; he wept at the recitation of the Holy Quran, provided feasts for special events (such as the long-distance marriage of Um Habibah to the Prophet), and facilitated the migrants’ return journey.

In gratitude, the Prophet declared Axum a “favored land.” Many years later, when news of Al-Najashi’s passing reached Madinah, the Prophet honored the Christian king with a Muslim funeral prayer. Today, Ethiopia is about 35% Muslim. The eastern city of Harar, or “City of Saints” in Arabic, is often referred to as the fourth holiest city of Islam owing to its many mosques and shrines dating back to the tenth century.

A fourteenth-century manuscript illustration by Persian painter Rashi ad-Din. The scene depicts Al-Najashi refusing the demands of a hostile Meccan delegation that traveled to Abyssinia to apprehend the Muslim refugees. (Source: Wikimedia Commons <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hijra_Abyssinia_(Rashid_ad-Din).jpg>)

Ethiopia and the Red Sea Region Today

Ethiopia’s current status as a host country for millions of refugees hailing from across East Africa and the Red Sea region echoes the First Hijra story. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of June 2021 there were nearly a million registered refugees and asylum seekers in the country, making it the third-largest host in Africa and tenth worldwide. For a reference of comparison, the United States accepted 0 Yemeni refugees during the 2021 fiscal year and only 50 during the Trump years. By contrast, Ethiopia has hosted more than 3,000 Yemeni refugees since 2015 and continually welcomes more.

Furthermore, in January 2019 Ethiopia’s parliament passed one of the most integrative refugee laws in the world. While the law has yet to be comprehensively implemented—due in part to challenges at the institutional level in the run-up to the current war—its provisions grant refugees property rights, recognition of their degrees and certifications from their home country or previous country of residence, the right to attend school and work, freedom of movement, and more expansive eligibility for asylum.

The First Hijra represents the legacy of interreligious and interethnic respect both within Ethiopia and among its indigenous peoples, as well as for those beyond its borders. The story therefore presents a precedent that is not just helpful to resolving the current domestic conflict, but also speaks to how and why a peaceful Ethiopia could be an anchor of social and political justice for all of Africa and the Middle East: overcoming divisions to forge genuine political solidarity is the only way to build people power strong enough to bring about justice. When people are pitted against each other on the basis of religion or ethnicity, or any other identity grouping, it makes a region or country continually vulnerable to elite agendas, warmongers, and extractive foreign interests.

The Yemen War and the Ethio-Yemeni Migrant Community

Unfortunately, the people of Yemen are all too familiar with this equation. Yemeni refugees number around 3,000, but they are part of a larger blended migrant community including Ethiopian nationals who repatriated with their Yemeni-citizen children, spouses, friends, or relatives. Since the beginning of the war in Yemen, the International Organization for Migration has evacuated tens of thousands of Ethiopian nationals from the conflict zone. This population includes recently arrived migrants heading for Saudi Arabia overland, as well as thousands of Ethiopian nationals who were longtime residents of Yemen.

A photo from the early Ethiopian evacuation missions during the Yemen War shows piles of suitcases, a testament to the settled lives that so many had to leave behind.

Over the past three years, I interviewed over fifty Yemeni refugees and Ethiopian returnees residing in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. While interviews usually started by addressing migration experiences, economic challenges, and bureaucratic hurdles to accessing services, they always wandered toward thoughtful conversations on opportunities for intercultural understanding and unity. Yemeni refugees mentioned the hospitality and acceptance of the Ethiopian people, while Ethiopian returnees spoke nostalgically about the quiet safety and general quality of life they experienced in pre-war Yemen.

Many interviewees then broadened their reflections to regional and deep historical analyses: If the precarity and opportunism of war deepens every type of fanaticism and intolerance, how can Yemen heal? What is the vision for a liberated and unified Yemen, and what role might religion and culture play in that future? How did many faiths and peoples live together in past eras, when Arabia was home to equal numbers of indigenous Christians, Jews, and Muslims?

The special relationship between Ethiopia and Yemen is an ancient one extending back nearly a millennia before the revelation of the Holy Quran, to the time of Prophet Sulayman and the Queen of Sheba. In fact, at the height of Axumite power, Yemen was most likely a province of the African kingdom. All of this history was common knowledge to the majority of my interviewees of every educational background. In one meandering afternoon of chewing qat with a North Yemeni refugee elder and his Ethiopian returnee wife, we might cover Najran, the Himyarites, Surat al-Fil, the First Hijra, Oromo identity politics, and the 1977 Red Sea “quadripartite summit” in Taiz. Based on this rich shared history, one interviewee even recommended that Yemen seek membership in the African Union.

Nearly all interviewees who had been in the country for more than a year concurred that Ethiopia’s multifaith national identity provides a compelling model for coexistence in Yemen. In reality, religion is already a complex and intimate vehicle for solidarity and belonging; there are converts to both Islam and Christianity among refugees and returnees. A small group of Yemenis host a Bible study in Arabic every week; some participants identify as converts to Christianity, while other attendees join the sessions out of a desire to better appreciate the religious beliefs of their Christian neighbors and colleagues in Addis Ababa.

The Larger Vision for Peace

In response to the Muslim travel ban imposed by the Trump administration, such organizations as the Arab Resource and Organizing Center in San Francisco rallied around the migration justice call: “Freedom to Stay, Freedom to Move, Freedom to Return, Freedom to Resist.”

For Ethiopian lawyer Abadir Ibrahim, the Hijra to Abyssinia exemplifies this call. Referring to Ethiopia as “the birthplace of the Hijri model of migrant rights,” Dr. Ibrahim underscored the model’s “deep symbolic significance” to both Ethiopians and Yemenis, as evidenced by its “positive impact on the lives of migrants on both sides of the Red Sea.” He elaborated: “Packed in that history one finds discourses and values connected with justice, liberty, and nondiscrimination; the freedom of thought, religion, expression, and association; due process rights; and the rights of refugees to a hearing and to social services. Due to their historic and symbolic significance, these were values that easily found a home in Dimtsachin Yisema, a Muslim-based grassroots human rights movement in Ethiopia that was widely supported by the North American Ethiopian Muslim community.” (Note: Islamic Horizons previously covered Dimtsachin Yisema in its September/October 2018 issue.)

The interrelationship between migrant justice and domestic civil liberties described by Ibrahim gets at the core of how the First Hijra can open up our political imagination to global prospects for justice. The word democracy has become hollow in our times, but the national imperative, described as follows, transcends terminology: to establish universal assurances that the core interests of diverse groups are secure, regardless of electoral turnover between various formations of the political elite. As one of the most diverse and multilingual democratic federations in the world, the only country in Africa that was never colonized, and a leading host of refugees and asylees, Ethiopia can, and must, find a pathway to sustainable peace—for the sake of the Ethiopian people, the larger Red Sea region, and the world.

In the Footsteps of the First Muhajirun: Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia

Three historic mosques in the Horn of Africa chart the path of the first group of Muhajirun: Eritrea’s Sahaba Mosque, Ethiopia’s Al-Najashi Mosque, and Somalia’s Mosque of the Two Qiblas.

The Sahaba Mosque, located in the town of Masawa on the Red Sea coast, was built adjacent to the famous ancient port of Adulis, where the Muslim refugees likely landed. In fact, many consider it the world’s oldest mosque. There is some uncertainty, however, as to whether or not it predates the Quba Mosque on the outskirts of Madina.

The current structure is of later construction and now in disrepair, but the mosque retains its original qibla facing Jerusalem. Prayers are still held there occasionally, of course, with the worshippers facing the Kaaba in Makka.

From the coast, the Muhajirun traveled about 190 miles (305 kilometers) southwest to Negash in current-day Ethiopia. The Christian Axumite king presumably permitted them to settle in that area, about 125 miles (201 km) east of his capital city, Axum. Axum is a sacred place for Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Christians, who believe that the Ark of the Covenant remains in its oldest church. Both Axum and Negash are in Tigray, one of the country’s eleven ethnic states.

Negash is therefore widely recognized as the Muhajirun’s first settlement, as evidenced by the excavation of a local seventh-century cemetery. The name of the local mosque, Al-Najashi, is the Arabic transliteration of “Negus,” which means “king” in ancient Geez. The king who hosted the Muslim refugees is buried within the mosque’s compound, as are several of the Sahaba who remained in Ethiopia.

 

(Source: Amitchell125, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aksumite_empire.svg>)

Most of the Muhajirun returned to Arabia to rejoin their community and then relocated to Madina; however, a small group settled in Zeila, one of the northernmost towns in contemporary Somalia. There, they found a home with the local Somali Dir clan family and together constructed the Mosque of Two Qiblas in 627. Widespread conversion to Islam across the Somali region took place over the century following the mosque’s construction.

To honor the Dir clan, the tomb of Sheikh Babu Dena resides in the mosque. In keeping with other early mosques, the structure has two mihrabs: the first facing Jerusalem, and the second one facing Makka. Unfortunately, this mosque is now in ruins and is more of a historical landmark than a functioning house of prayer.

Preserving Heritage: Challenges and Achievements

In early 2018, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency completed a multiyear restoration of the Al-Najashi Mosque for a very specific purpose: in July, Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a joint declaration of peace and reopened their shared border for the first time in decades, and Eritrean Muslims celebrated on the 10th of Muharram by holding a gathering in the thousands at the mosque.

Unfortunately, the mosque was damaged by shelling and reportedly looted during the current war. In December 2020, reports trickled out that Ethiopian and Eritrean troops were responsible for the damage. In an interview with BBC Amharic soon after, Abebaw Ayalew (deputy director of the Ethiopian Heritage Preservation Authority) stated that a professional team was on its way to document the damage to both the Al-Najashi Mosque and a nearby church and to chart a plan for repairs. He stated, “These sites are not only places of worship. [They are] also the heritage of the whole of Ethiopia.”

Indeed, one might argue that this mosque—as well as the two other early mosques highlighted above—are part of the spiritual heritage of Muslims worldwide. Perhaps in coming years the international ummah will fund the restoration of both the Mosque of Two Qiblas and the Sahaba Mosque, as Turkey did for the Al-Najashi Mosque.

The Legacy of the First Hijra in the United States

Meanwhile, diaspora communities commemorate the First Hijra’s significance worldwide. In 1986, Ethiopian Muslims established the First Hijra Muslim Community Center in Washington, D.C. Located on Georgia Avenue just a mile north of the nation’s preeminent historically black college, Howard University, this mosque has become an important part of Washington’s Pan-African landscape.

The website of the foundation that established the community center explains the significance of its name:

“The meaning and the significance of ‘Hijra’ is embodied in the Islamic calendar. Since its inception, the Islamic calendar represents a history of perpetual struggle between truth and falsehood, freedom and oppression, light and darkness, and between peace and war. The migration to Ethiopia and generous offer of political asylum to the oppressed companions of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was the birth of freedom of expression and beliefs, whereas the Second Migration of the Prophet Muhammad to Madinah celebrates the end of oppression.”

An edited version of this article was published in the March/April 2022 issue of Islamic Horizons.
https://issuu.com/isnacreative/docs/ih_march-april_22?fr=sZTI0MzI0NzY3Mw

References:

Abdul-Rahman, Muhammad Saed, trans. 2009. Tafsir Ibn Kathir Juz’ 16 (Part 16): Al-Kahf 75 to Ta-Ha 135, 2nd ed. London: MSA Publication Ltd. (The section on Surat Maryam discusses the al-Habash [p.34].)

Abu Huzaifa. n.d. “Negash, Ethiopia.” IslamicLandmarks.com. https://www.islamiclandmarks.com/various/negash-eithiopia.

“Migration to Abyssinia.” 2022. Madain Project. https://madainproject.com/migration_to_abyssinia.

“IOM Evacuates 250 Most Vulnerable Ethiopian Migrants from Yemen.” 2016. ReliefWeb, March 15, 2016. https://reliefweb.int/report/yemen/iom-evacuates-250-most-vulnerable-ethiopian-migrants-yemen.

Insoll, Timothy, and Ahmed Zekaria. 2019. “The Mosques of Harar: An Archaeological and Historical Study.” Journal of Islamic Archeology 6, no. 1 (2019): 81–107. https://doi.org/10.1558/jia.39522.

Girmachew Adugna. 2021. “Once Primarily an Origin for Refugees, Ethiopia Experiences Evolving Migration Patterns.” Migration Information Source, October 5, 2021. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/ethiopia-origin-refugees-evolving-migration.

“UNHCR Ethiopia Fact Sheet, June 2021.” 2021. ReliefWeb.com, July 19, 2021.

https://reliefweb.int/report/ethiopia/unhcr-ethiopia-fact-sheet-june-2021.

On the new refugee law: Maru, Mehari Taddele. 2019. “In Depth: Unpacking Ethiopia’s Revised Refugee Law.” Africa Portal, February 13, 2019. https://www.africaportal.org/features/depth-unpacking-ethiopias-revised-refugee-law/.

“About Us.” n.d. First Hijrah Foundation. https://firsthijrah.org/our-work/.

What the Global North Owes Refugee Youth in Protracted Displacement

July 8, 2022
By 27526

Opened in 1991, the Dadaab refugee camps in northeastern Kenya have seen two generations of Somali refugees born or grow up within their confines. According to 2016–19 Sylff fellow Mohamed Duale, who conducted his PhD research there, protracted refugee situations like this have become increasingly common. But the West’s recent response to Ukrainian refugees suggests that there is more to the story than the Global North’s professed inadequate capacity to resettle refugees, says Duale.

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In by-gone times, forced displacement was considered a short-term emergency. In recent decades, displacement has taken an increasingly protracted nature as contemporary wars have lingered for many years, sometimes decades. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), also known as the UN Refugee Agency, explains that “protracted refugee situations are those in which at least 25,000 refugees from the same country have been living in exile for more than five consecutive years.”[1] It estimated in 2018 that “78% of all refugees are in protracted refugee situations.”[2] About 85% of the 20.8 million refugees registered with the UNHCR in 2021 lived near their countries of origin in the Global South.[3] UNHCR policy recognizes three durable solutions to forced migration: resettlement to a third country, local integration in the host country, and voluntary repatriation to the country of origin.[4]

I did my PhD research on Somali refugee youth in the Dadaab refugee camps of northeastern Kenya, one of the world’s largest and longest sites of protracted displacement. Since opening in 1991, two generations of Somali refugees were born or grew up in the Dadaab camps under harsh social, economic, and political conditions. Somali refugees have historically been seen as a thorn in the side of the Kenyan state, especially as it battled the Somalia-based Al-Shabaab extremist group in recent years. The Dadaab camps were unfairly blamed as harbouring terrorists, and in 2013 Kenya concluded a tripartite agreement with Somalia and the UNHCR to close them.[5] As Somali refugees are predominantly Muslim, the global war on terror has stigmatized and deleteriously impacted their resettlement in the Global North. Today, most Somali refugees in Kenya find themselves confined to refugee camps and deprived of relocation to a third country with an indeterminable return to their conflict-affected homeland. Refugees in other parts of Africa and much of the Global South find themselves in similar situations of being stuck in displacement and facing an uncertain future.

A refugee camp in Dadaab. (Photo by Nichole Sobecki/GroundTruth, source: The GroundTruth Project https://thegroundtruthproject.org/somalia-conflict-climate-change/reportage_sobecki073/)

Young people living in the difficult social milieu of refugee camps are particularly interesting to me considering their simultaneous vulnerability and resilience. Though categories of youth vary among agencies and governments, figures suggest that young people constitute most refugees in the world. For example, 51% of refugees are thought to be under 18 years of age, 33% between 10 and 24 years old, and 35% between 15 and 24 years old.[6] Despite their demographic majority, refugee youth have sometimes been called an “invisible population.”[7] Nevertheless, there is no shortage of ambition among refugee youth living in protracted displacement. Sagaro, a young Somali refugee man in the Dadaab camps, recalled: “I was born in this camp nineteen years ago. At the age of twelve, I had to leave school to start my own business to feed my family. . . . I must succeed and become rich. I want to become a big businessman. But for now, I don’t have a lot of money, so I will continue to work hard until I do.”[8] 

As I previously argued elsewhere, global refugee policies discuss refugee youth based on the neoliberal precepts of self-reliance.[9] Global refugee policies also seek to contain refugees to their regions of origin in the Global South, mostly in neighboring countries where 73% of the world’s refugees reside.[10] For Somali refugees in Kenya, host state and international refugee policies have narrowed access to local integration and resettlement whilst encouraging voluntary repatriation to their home country. Given ongoing instability in Somalia, young Somali refugees in the Dadaab refugee camps find themselves without the usual rights of civilian life. Jamale, a young Somali refugee man in Dadaab, explained a few years ago that “[Not] many countries are welcoming refugees and migrants because they don’t see refugees as normal human beings. They may see you as a terrorist or as a beggar. What can I do to change that narrative? What can I do [for] people to allow me to realize my dreams?”[11]

Global North states, as powerful actors in the international refugee regime, increasingly prefer to keep African and other racialized refugees in refugee camps in Global South countries, possibly condemning them to decades, even a lifetime, of displacement and obscurity.[12] The West’s positive response to the recent refugee movement from Ukraine has for critical observers upended Global North self-narratives of inadequate capacity to resettle refugees and donor fatigue regarding so-called refugee crises. These supposed lacks and lethargies may have been smoke screens for more nefarious shortcomings: the undesirability and disposability of racialized refugees in Global North politics. Most refugees are from the Global South and are thus mainly people of color. Sequestering them in refugee camps is neither just nor politically tenable if humanity is to forge a shared future in the aftermath of centuries of colonialism. For the most part, young Somali refugees must largely rely on themselves to find their own durable solutions, learning for and building a better future that is yet unknown. But surviving the social stagnation of protracted displacement is not a struggle that individual refugee youth should have to wage alone; the odds are stacked against them. If states in the Global North are abandoning their obligations to African and other racialized refugees, civil society in these countries must—if they desire a common future with the rest of the world—show refugee youth, and all refugees, living in protracted displacement in Kenya and elsewhere in the Global South the concern and solidarity they have so rightly given Ukrainian refugees.    

 

[1] “Protracted Refugee Situations Explained,” USA for UNHCR, January 28, 2020, https://www.unrefugees.org/news/protracted-refugee-situations-explained/.

[2] “Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2018,” UNHCR, June 20, 2019, https://www.unhcr.org/globaltrends2018/.

[3] “Refugee Data Finder,” UNHCR, updated June 16, 2022, https://www.unhcr.org/refugee-statistics/.

[4] UNHCR. (2003, May 1). Framework for Durable Solutions for Refugees and Persons of Concern. UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency. https://www.unhcr.org/partners/partners/3f1408764/framework-durable-solutions-refugees-persons-concern.html

[5] S. Allison, “World’s Largest Refugee Camp Scapegoated in Wake of Garissa Attack,” The Guardian, April 14, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/14/kenya-garissa-dadaab-scapegoat-al-shabaab.

[6] E. A. Marshall, T. Roche, E. Comeau, J. Taknint, K. Butler, E. Pringle, J. Cumming, E. Hagestedt, L. Deringer, and V. Skrzypczynski, Refugee Youth: Good Practices in Urban Resettlement Contexts (Victoria, BC: Centre for Youth and Society, University of Victoria, 2016).

[7] Marshall et al., Refugee Youth.

[8] “Dadaab: Growing up in the world’s largest refugee camp,” report by M. Guiheux, France 24 English, January 7, 2017, https://youtu.be/LE6H0GGWrq8.

[9] M. Duale, “‘To Be a Refugee, It’s Like to Be without Your Arms, Legs’: A Narrative Inquiry into Refugee Participation in Kakuma Refugee Camp and Nairobi, Kenya,” Local Engagement Refugee Research Network, May 5, 2020, https://carleton.ca/lerrn/2020/to-be-a-refugee-its-like-to-be-without-your-arms-legs-a-narrative-inquiry-into-refugee-participation-in-kakuma-refugee-camp-and-nairobi-kenya/.

[10] “Refugee Data Finder,” UNHCR.

[11] AJ Plus, “Finding Hope in Africa’s Largest Refugee Camp,” December 10, 2019, https://youtu.be/61VLuz5e0co.

[12] M. Dathan, “Home Office Anger over ‘Racist’ Rwanda Policy,” The Sunday Times April 22, 2022, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/home-office-anger-over-racist-rwanda-policy-vp8gzbw2q; and O. M. Osman, “The Somali Refugees Whose Lives Were Halted by Trump’s Travel Ban,” Al-Jazeera, July 2, 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2019/7/2/the-somali-refugees-whose-lives-were-halted-by-trumps-travel-ban.

Dismantling While Preserving the Pastoral Commons in Olderkesi, Southern Kenya

June 16, 2022
By 19806

The Maasai community of Olderkesi in southern Kenya is in transition from the traditional pastoral commons to individual land tenure. Kariuki Kirigia, a 2012 Sylff fellow and 2016 SRA awardee who conducted his doctoral fieldwork in Olderkesi, writes about what prompted this shift, what the process entailed, and the community’s efforts to avoid the shortcomings of such a change, as well as potential areas for concern.

  * * *

Introduction

When I arrived back home in Kenya in 2017 from Montreal, Canada, to conduct my doctoral fieldwork, I often found myself imagining what kind of place Olderkesi would be. Constituting the southern border between Kenya and Tanzania and neighboring the iconic Maasai Mara National Reserve and the Serengeti National Park, Olderkesi looked every bit the nucleus of biodiversity conservation that attracts safari tourists, nature scientists and enthusiasts, and conservationists from all corners of the globe. My efforts to get to Olderkesi virtually, however, fell short owing to the limited information available online about Olderkesi. In the current digital age where a click on a web page or a tap on a smartphone unveils superfluous information, Olderkesi seemingly ignored the clicks and the taps.

What Olderkesi had heeded to and espoused was the push to transition from pastoral commons to the private individual tenure. I set out to conduct an ethnographic study on the process of land subdivision in Olderkesi, which is one of the few remaining Maasai commons in Narok County and southern Kenya. In this piece I focus chiefly on the important ways that the Olderkesi community has sought to preserve the welfare of the commons despite efforts to transition to individual landholdings and on the imaginaries of life under individual tenure. 

Sheep grazing on the Olderkesi commons. (Photo by the author)

Kenya’s Maasai rangelands have for long constituted the quintessential site for the coexistence of humans and wildlife. But increased fragmentation of the rangelands in the push to confer private individual tenure has left a mosaic of fenced parcels on its trail, curtailing the mobility of both wildlife and pastoralists in the process. As pastoralists are forced to pasture livestock within their individual plots, thus fencing out other pastoralists and wildlife, grave concerns have arisen regarding the likely future of wildlife, primarily because the majority of wildlife in Kenya is found outside the state-protected areas (Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association 2020). Meanwhile, whither pastoralism?

Wildlife in Olderkesi. (Photo by the author)

My interest in land governance stems from living and, later, conducting research in rural Kenya, a time when I learned and appreciated how invaluable land is to people’s lives in Kenya’s countryside. The primacy of land to rural lives only increased as I expanded my geographical focus across sub-Saharan Africa, including conducting research among smallholder farmers in the Ashanti region in Ghana and southern Ethiopia. For rural dwellers to reap maximum rewards from their land, De Soto (2000) strongly argues, it is imperative to ensure the security of tenure through rendering land a private commodity. As Manji (2006) asserts, the privatization of tenure in Kenya in particular, and sub-Saharan Africa in general, has been motivated by the quest to liberalize land markets in the region. With its external, market-driven genesis that fails to account for local pastoral conditions, the private individual tenure has often negatively impacted pastoral livelihoods including by loss of land through the market, reduced pastoral mobility, unfair land allocations, and local land accumulation through dispossession (Galaty 2013; Mwangi 2007; Riamit 2014). It is following such negative impacts that Leeson and Harris (2018) refer to the individualization of tenure in the pastoral rangelands of Kenya as a form of “wealth-destroying private property rights.” Given these ominous realities, why then have the people of Olderkesi chosen to dismantle the commons in favor of private individual tenure?

 

Experiences, Expectations, and Negotiations

Propositions to subdivide the Olderkesi commons started in the late 1990s, but it was only in 2010 that formalized discussions began at the community level. Community meetings led by the community land adjudication committee[1] were held in different villages in Olderkesi. The meetings were primarily attended by men, and women were only invited to attend if they were widowed.

Having seen Maasai communities near and far subdivide land, the residents of Olderkesi felt it was just a matter of time before Olderkesi went through a similar process. Subdivision around Maasailand effectively restricted access to pasture by Olderkesi residents. At the same time, Olderkesi remained accessible to non-Olderkesi residents, thus becoming a wet-season grazing area for many pastoralists from outside Olderkesi, which limited pasture in Olderkesi during the dry season. Faced with this external demand for pasture, Olderkesi residents felt that the only way they could regulate external access to the Olderkesi land was through subdivision and individualization of tenure, where each individual could regulate access to their plots. This push toward private individual tenure echoes Tania Li’s (2014, 591) argument that “to turn it [land] to productive use requires regimes of exclusion that distinguish legitimate from illegitimate land users, and the inscribing of boundaries through devices such as fences, title deeds, laws, zones, regulations, landmarks and story-lines.” In this regard, the private individual tenure became a tool not only to render Olderkesi residents legitimate within Olderkesi, but also to render non-Olderkesi residents illegitimate as the landowner saw fit.

Following community-wide agreement to subdivide the Olderkesi land, the registration of the bona fide members of Olderkesi started. The bona fide members were to be males born by the closure date of the registration process (year 2015), and there would be a maximum of three male children per household. If the household head had passed away, the spouse (widow) would be registered as the household head. Olderkesi comprises 25 villages, and each village has a representative member in the land adjudication committee. Each of the 25 village leaders was tasked with verifying that the persons registered from a given village were indeed bona fide members of Olderkesi.

The government of Kenya had promised to facilitate land subdivision across the country, but upon requesting funds for land subdivision, Olderkesi leaders were informed that there were no finances for subdivision. The community land adjudication committee was then given the green light to proceed with land subdivision by employing a private surveyor. Land subdivision is an expensive undertaking, and every member registered to be allocated land was required to pay 23,500 KES (approximately 235 USD), termed as the surveyor fee. The next step was to search for a private surveyor to carry out land demarcation. The community land adjudication committee conducted interviews with three potential candidates before settling on a surveyor who had ample experience demarcating land in other areas in Maasailand.

 

Indigenizing Land Privatization in Olderkesi

The private individual tenure is largely a foreign concept in the Maasai rangelands, and the Olderkesi community has made efforts to indigenize the privatization process to account for local realities, culminating in a hybrid of land ownership and governance strategies that both uphold and challenge the idea of privatization in a pastoral context. The first phase of land subdivision entailed the identification of communal resources, which included water sources, schools, health centers, churches, a wildlife conservancy, and salt licks. By setting aside these resources, it ensures their access by Olderkesi residents even after relocation to individual plots. Olderkesi in this regard charts a different path from many other areas where land subdivision entailed individualization of communal resources, whether by design or illegitimately. Olderkesi therefore demonstrates an art of communal governance that has proved elusive in many other parts of Kenya’s Maasailand. This mode of governance generates optimism in that, on the one hand, it can be adopted by other groups transitioning from the commons to private individual tenure in the future and, on the other hand, it can form a firm basis for challenging earlier subdivision processes where individuals illicitly appropriated communal resources.

While the Olderkesi community has made efforts to avoid various shortcomings that come with the transition from the pastoral commons to private individual tenure, potential challenges remain. One such challenge stems from the land adjudication committee members having been vested with complete adjudicative powers over land allocation. This means that individuals having weaker social networks in the community could be allocated plots of land with less potential to support livestock and farming. This was the experience of Mr. Tulei, who now resides in Olderkesi but hails from another Maasai community. As Mr. Tulei narrated, “They gave me a piece of land that is on a hill full of rocks. You cannot graze or do anything with that piece of land. It is as if I am landless because I cannot use the land for any meaningful purpose.”

Asked why he thought he had been allocated such a low-quality piece of land, he responded, “Maybe it is because I have been spending most of my time in Olderkesi and not in that community. Also, you need to know people for you to get a good plot.”

 

Conclusion

The subdivision of the Olderkesi commons demonstrates the complexity of land privatization processes in the Maasai rangelands of Kenya. As one of the last areas to subdivide land, Olderkesi positions itself as having learned from the mainly “wealth-destroying” transition from the pastoral commons to the private individual tenure. While these lessons have been upheld and institutions put in place to correct for potential land injustices, there remain critical areas for concern. For instance, the expectations that life under the private individual tenure will secure the future of the Olderkesi community fails to account for the reduction in the mobility that has been instrumental in supporting life in the Maasai rangelands. At the same time, subdivision elsewhere resulted in reduced pasture access by the Olderkesi residents, underscoring the need for individualized control over pasture access. As these land privatization dynamics become indigenized in Olderkesi, they are at the same time couched within global dynamics of capital flows that have largely liberalized land markets in sub-Saharan Africa.

 

References

De Soto, H. 2000. The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else. New York: Basic Books.

Galaty, J. G. 2013. “The Collapsing Platform for Pastoralism: Land Sales and Land Loss in Kajiado County, Kenya.” Nomadic Peoples 17, vol. 2 (December): 20–39. https://doi.org/10.3167/np.2013.170204.

Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association. n.d. “Overview.” Conservacies. Accessed June 1, 2020. https://kwcakenya.com/conservancies/.

Leeson, P. T., & C. Harris. 2018. “Wealth-Destroying Private Property Rights.” World Development 107 (July): 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2018.02.013.

Li, T. 2014. “What Is Land? Assembling a Resource for Global Investment.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 39, no. 4 (October): 589–602. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12065.

Manji, A. 2006. The Politics of Land Reform in Africa: From Communal Tenure to Free Markets. London: Zed Books. http://catdir.loc.gov/catdir/enhancements/fy0659/2006045280-t.html.

Mwangi, E. 2007. “Subdividing the Commons: Distributional Conflict in the Transition from Collective to Individual Property Rights in Kenya’s Maasailand.” World Development 35, no. 5 (May): 815–34. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2006.09.012.

Riamit, S. 2013. “Dissolving the Pastoral Commons, Enhancing Enclosures: Commercialization, Corruption and Colonial Continuities amongst Maasai Pastoralists of Southern Kenya.” Master’s thesis. McGill University. https://central.bac-lac.gc.ca/.item?id=TC-QMM-123174&op=pdf&app=Library.

[1] The locally elected group ranch committee morphed into the land adjudication committee following the community-wide agreement to subdivide the Olderkesi GR.

Prestige and Dominance in Finland and Colombia

May 30, 2022
By 27764

In her PhD project, 2020 Sylff fellow Maija-Eliina Sequeira combines ethnographic and experimental methods to explore how the sociocultural environment shapes children’s understanding of social hierarchies. Following a study in Finland, she is currently conducting further research in Colombia using an SRA grant. The outcome of the comparative study will shed light on how children in the two countries differ in their preferences for prestige or dominance and how they develop these preferences.

* * *

Humans must be understood as both social and biological beings; a focus on nature or nurture alone is not enough to explain both the diversities and the consistencies in how humans across the globe structure and live their lives. Instead, underlying universal human cognitive tendencies and capacities, such as the capacity to learn language or the tendency to ascribe agency to nonhuman beings at a certain age, are shaped by various factors including the sociocultural environment within which a child is socialized. This socialization occurs through active processes such as teaching, as well as through more passive exposure to norms, structures, and patterns in the world around them. Certain tendencies and capacities might be taught, encouraged, or nurtured in the growing child, while others are stifled or simply not given attention, depending on local norms, values, and customs—which themselves vary between individuals and across time periods. In short, I consider that children learn what it means to be human within a certain historical setting and in the context of specific social groups—such as their local community, family, and the wider society—and that these factors shape and direct their development throughout their lives.

With this in mind, I took on a PhD project that allowed me to combine “bottom-up” exploratory ethnographic methods—and generate the deep, nuanced understandings of social relationships that they lend themselves to—with the more structured “top-down” experimental methods that enable fruitful comparisons between two groups. Having lived in Colombia for several years before moving to Finland in 2019, I was struck by just how different the two countries are at the societal, familial, and school levels. I knew that such stark differences would provide an interesting and informative backdrop for a comparison of the socialization of children.

 

Children painting. (Source: Canva)

Basis of Social Status: Dominance or Prestige

My research explores how children’s sociocultural environment shapes how they understand, use, and navigate through social hierarchies in their everyday lives. Human societies tend to be stratified; they have certain people with more power or influence than others, although such stratification takes many different forms, ranging from more systematized and explicit caste or class systems to very subtle differences in influence according to age, gender, or some other marker of status in a relatively egalitarian society. Research from psychology suggests that an individual’s high status can be built on two different processes: dominance processes, a coercive process based on fear, strength, or intimidation and threat, and prestige processes, which are based on merit and knowledge or on skill in a locally valued domain.[1] Dominance processes are found in many nonhuman primates and other animals, whereas prestige processes appear to be a uniquely human phenomenon, and it has been suggested that prestigious imitation—the tendency of humans to choose to learn from and copy prestigious individuals—might serve as an important social learning mechanism for cultural transmission in human social groups.[2] It is therefore very interesting to consider how and when children learn to identify dominance and prestige and to determine how their sociocultural environment shapes the way in which they react to prestige and dominance.

 

A scene from the experiments, showing the dominant, prestigious and subordinate characters.

Research from developmental psychology suggests that children start to develop a basic ability to reason about rank, and particularly to identify dominance, from when they are just months old, which suggests that there are universal cognitive mechanisms underlying the ability. This is supported by the fact that cues of dominance appear to be similar cross-culturally and are also consistent with dominance cues found among nonhuman primates, such as “squaring up” behavior. Prestige, meanwhile, is dependent on local cultural value placed on different skills and behaviors, since what is valued and considered to be an important ability or knowledge varies dramatically across different societies: in one it might be the ability to hunt a specific large animal and in another to sing in a particular pitch, while in others it might be associated with the accumulation of highly specific knowledge about local fauna and flora. Therefore, as children grow and are socialized within a specific sociocultural environment, they must develop a much more nuanced and locally specific understanding of how power and influence are distributed in their society, and they must learn to navigate within these complex systems.

There is cross-cultural variation not only in the understanding of what behaviors are considered prestigious, but also in people’s preference for dominant and prestigious leadership. In societies characterized by instability and resource inequality, dominant-style leadership is considered to be more acceptable and, in some cases, preferable to prestigious-type leadership.[3] In my PhD work, I use a combination of ethnographic and experimental methods to explore and compare how children in Finland and Colombia—two extremely different sociocultural environments—learn, use, and navigate social hierarchies. Colombia has high levels of insecurity and extreme socioeconomic inequality, making it a very different social environment from the equality, stability, and safety net of a generous social security system that Finland is known for. Interestingly, despite these differences, both Colombia and Finland have been named “happiest country in the world” depending on the measures of happiness that are used.[4]

 

Tents at the summer camps where I carried out ethnographic fieldwork in 2021.

 

Conducting Research in Helsinki and Santa Marta

In 2021 I carried out 12 months of ethnographic research with children and families in Helsinki, Finland. This was followed by a series of experiments to investigate whether children (i) infer high social rank from cues of dominance and prestige, (ii) differentiate between prestigious and dominant individuals, (iii) show a personal preference for prestige or dominance, (iv) assign leadership skills to prestigious or dominant individuals, and (v) choose to learn from a prestigious or dominant individual. I tested over 170 children aged 4 to 11 years over a series of weekends from December 2021 to March 2022, basing myself at Heureka science museum. The experimental data are still in the process of being checked for validity, and so analysis has not yet started, but through ethnographic research I have identified a strong aversion to dominant behavior among children living in Helsinki, which I expect to be reflected in the experimental results.

 

Research assistants during testing at Heureka museum in Finland.

The SRA grant allowed me to hire a research assistant, Valeria Aza Barros, and to collaborate with the research group on cognition and education at the Universidad de Magdalena, Colombia, to replicate the same experiments with children in Santa Marta. After undergoing training and pilot studies via Zoom and checking the translations of the experiments to ensure that they were locally valid, Valeria conducted the experiment with 160 children—our required sample size—between the ages of 4 and 11. Although I am still coding the data, after which they will undergo validity checking and then be analyzed in the coming months, they show signs of very different patterns compared to the data from Finland.

Upcoming ethnographic fieldwork in Santa Marta from August to December 2022 will allow me to contextualize the findings within local norms and hierarchies. This combination of ethnographic and experimental data allows me to interpret the experiments while considering contextual information that might influence the choices and answers of the children during the experiment. Future analyses will reveal whether the children in Colombia really do show a greater preference for dominance over prestige and allow me to determine whether they trust in and prefer dominant individuals to a greater extent than the children in Finland do.

Research in hierarchy is relevant to ongoing debates in many academic fields, such as those related to the evolution and nature of cooperation and morality. However, this project is not just of academic interest; it also holds important societal lessons about the lifelong impact that the early socioeconomic environment can have on individual people and wider society. A preference for dominance in the face of insecurity may have been highly adaptive when the insecurity stemmed, for example, from small-scale warfare with neighboring groups. In such circumstances, dominance may indeed have been the best strategy to ensure survival and prosperity for a community. But such a preference may be maladaptive in modern industrialized societies where a dominant-type leader, who depends on threats and intimidation to gain and maintain power and influence, is unlikely to provide any genuine benefits to people living in situations of insecurity and economic inequality. If individuals raised in more insecure, unequal societies are more inclined to prefer and ultimately choose dominant leaders (such as in elections), they may ultimately be doing more harm than good to themselves and their communities. Dominant leaders are not necessarily the best placed to improve the circumstances of the average citizen and instead might serve to simply perpetuate the cycle of insecurity and inequality that leads to them being selected as leaders and given power in the first place.

[1] J. T. Cheng, “Dominance, Prestige, and the Role of Leveling in Human Social Hierarchy and Equality,” Current Opinion in Psychology 33 (June 2020): 238–244, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2019.10.004.

[2] M. Chudek, S. Heller, S. Birch, and J. Henrich, “Prestige-Biased Cultural Learning: Bystander’s Differential Attention to Potential Models Influences Children’s Learning,” Evolution and Human Behavior 33, no. 1 (January 2012): 46–56, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2011.05.005.

[3] R. Ronay, W. W. Maddux, and W. von Hippel, “Inequality Rules: Resource Distribution and the Evolution of Dominance- and Prestige-Based Leadership,” The Leadership Quarterly 31, no. 2 (May 2018), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2018.04.004.

[4] D. Roos, “Colombia, Not Finland, May Be the Happiest Country in the World,” HowStuffWorks.com, March 26, 2018, https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/emotions/colombia-not-finland-may-be-happiest-country-in-world.htm.

India Should Be a Human Rights Concern for Japan

May 16, 2022
By 28804

Amit Singh, a 2020 Sylff fellow, is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. In this article, he discusses how Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s March 2022 trip to India was paradoxical in the light of the latter’s poor human rights situation. But Japan has the potential to influence that situation by using its financial leverage, he says.

*   *   *

The recent visit by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to India was a normal diplomatic trip that occurred under abnormal circumstances, given that the Indian government is waging an indirect war against its own citizens—the Indian Muslims, seculars, and liberals. Indeed, these are not normal circumstances for democracy and human rights in India. And signing trade agreements with a country that is currently on the list of countries at risk of genocide brings the human rights commitment of the Japanese government under question. Japan supports the idea that protecting human rights is the most fundamental responsibility of any nation and affirms that the human rights of all people should be respected, regardless of their countries’ cultures, traditions, and political and economic systems. In addition, it recognizes the importance of a thriving civil society and attaches great importance to dialogue with it. But even as Kishida shook his hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India’s scathing assault on human rights and civil society continued unabated.

Narendra Modi and Fumio Kishida in New Delhi 19 March 2022, Source: Government of India

 

Japan and India

Relations between Japan and India go back to the sixth century, when Buddhism was introduced to Japan. Since then, with the exception of some intervals, their relationship has continued to today.

In principle, both Japan and India are committed to taking bold measures to tackle challenges to sustainable development and global peace. But this task becomes even more difficult than it already is when democracies around the world are gradually overtaken by authoritarian and populist rulers who could seriously undermine the rule-based international order. Without strong democracies, it is hard to imagine a fair and just world. As such, the dismantling of Indian democracy should be a concern for Japan, an old ally of India that is connected with the latter through shared values of human rights, democracy, and the Buddhist precepts of nonviolence and peace.

Labeled as “partially free” and an “electoral autocracy,” India is currently governed by Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was once shunned by Western governments due to his complicity in the Godhra massacres. Even though India’s being a secular democracy provides constitutional safeguards to religious minorities, Hindu nationalists do not support the idea of religious equality. Hindu nationalism is radically far right, and given its belief in Hindu supremacy, it is a dangerous mix of religion and politics; it supports the discriminatory caste system, negates racial and religious equality, and disregards the discourse of human rights. Since 1925, The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has been India’s staunchest proponent of Hindu nationalism. The RSS is a parental organization of the current ruling party of India, the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP). Modi was a full-time RSS worker in the past, notorious for his complicity in the Godhra communal riots when he was the chief minister of the Gujarat state in 2002. Since Modi’s ascendance to power in 2014, a consistent move to curtail freedom of speech, the right to dissent, freedom of press, and religious freedom has descended India into a state of “elective despotism.”  


Kishida’s Human Rights Diplomacy

Against this background, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida landed in India on March 19, 2022, to strengthen Japan’s special relation with its old ally, ignoring ongoing human rights violations in India. Interestingly, Kishida wrote an article in an Indian newspaper highlighting the commonality between two countries, noting that they are “linked by universal values such as freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.” During his visit, however, there was no scrutiny of the current human rights situation in India or constructive dialogue on the subject with the Indian government. Even though Kishida supports a forceful brand of human rights diplomacy and firmly believes that the promotion and protection of all human rights is a “legitimate interest” of the international community, dialogue on this “legitimate interest” was absent in his India visit, as if his government did not want to offend the Indian government. His human rights concerns seem limited to China, Tibet, and Hong Kong.

There is a strange paradox between the two countries: whereas Japan has consolidated its democratic political structures and developed policies for the promotion and protection of human rights, the Indian government is in the process of dismantling democratic structures, vandalizing independent institutions, and vaporizing constitutional safeguards meant to protect its citizens. In the 2020 Human Freedom Index, which ranks countries based on civil, economic, and personal freedom, India was ranked 111th. Another report by the Economic Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index highlighted the “democratic regression” and “erosion of civil liberties” in India. In the land of Mahatma Gandhi—who introduced “civil disobedience,” a method of peaceful protest, to the world—the criminalization of peaceful expression is becoming a legal norm intended to stifle democratic dissent.

Procession of Hindu religious nationalists during the Hindu festivals often turns violent.


Potential for Japanese Influence

Using its financial leverage, though, Japan can support human rights in India. As Japan is currently India’s largest aid donor, it could positively influence the Indian government’s hostile attitude toward human rights by adding human rights conditionality (in trade negotiations), that is, providing that preferences can be withdrawn in case of systematic violations of human rights. In this context, Japan could follow the example of mainstreaming of human rights in European Union trade policy. To make human rights more effective, Japanese academic Maiko Ichihara suggests that human rights assistance to non-state stakeholders  could play an important role in supporting human rights abroad. It should be noted that Japan’s entire international aid apparatus is currently built around government-to-government assistance, excluding civil society and the human rights community of the beneficiary country.  

Observing Prime Minister Kishida’s efforts to promote human rights domestically and globally, however, his silence on the human rights situation in India has seriously impacted Japan’s positioning as a trustworthy and credible supporter for human rights worldwide. His reticence on the human rights situation in India also questions his noble intention to promote freedom and democracy as a universal value.

While Japan had hitherto been reluctant to intervene into the human rights affairs of other countries, this is likely to change under the Kishida government with the creation of a new cabinet-level position of special adviser on human rights, who would coordinate mainstreaming human rights issues across Japan’s ministries and in its foreign relations. But in order to promote and protect human rights abroad, Japan’s human rights diplomacy must go beyond realpolitik in its foreign relations, and the country needs to be more assertive in matters of human rights, particularly with its old ally India. Without a “serious commitment to human rights,” Japan’s human rights diplomacy will be ineffective in bringing any real, intended change.  

 

The European Citizens’ Panel on Democracy: An Opportunity for a Holistic Approach to EU Values

April 12, 2022
By 24301

In this contribution, 2017 Sylff fellow Max Steuer presents his insight on the first session of the European Citizens’ Panel (ECP) on democracy, jointly organized in Strasbourg by the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union, and the European Commission in September 2021, which he attended as a “citizen participant.” He highlights a key risk as well as opportunities of the European Citizens’ Panels for developing a more robust and inclusive democracy in the EU.

* * *

The Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) is a flagship initiative in deliberative democracy and experimentation. The Joint Declaration of the EU institutions organizing the CoFoE speaks about “open[ing] a new space for debate with citizens to address Europe’s challenges and priorities” that will generate authoritative conclusions by 2022, including on the potential needs for a structural reform of the EU. The European Citizens’ Panels (ECPs), of which there are four, are at the heart of the “experimental face” of the initiative: they provide randomly selected citizens with the opportunity to articulate their visions of the EU in a structured environment with the possibility for the outcomes to be taken seriously by policymakers.

While the impact of the expected conclusions from the CoFoE is uncertain, the ECPs can already be seen as a success from a symbolic perspective after the first sessions in September and October 2021; as the European Parliament was the venue for all four meetings, citizens replaced parliamentarians for a (very) short while and presented their ideas in the Strasbourg Hemicycle.

Based on my experience as one of the approximately 200 “citizen participants” of the ECP on democracy (second ECP), I argue that the key challenge ahead of the ECP is an approach to EU values that divides them into separate streams and limits the discussion about them as integrally connected and inseparable. On the bright side, three moments from the second ECP—where an alternative, holistic approach to EU values surfaced in a bottom-up fashion—point to the ECPs’ potential to foster EU democracy.

 

The start of the first ECP plenary session in the European Parliament Hemicycle in Strasbourg, September 24, 2021. All recordings of the plenary sessions are publicly accessible. (Photo: Max Steuer)

The Procedure in a Nutshell

The second ECP was set out to focus on “European democracy/values, rights, rule of law, security.” The title itself is puzzling, because the list of EU values, as defined in the Treaty on the EU (Article 2), encompasses “respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities”; hence, the rule of law and (human) rights are part of EU values, alongside democracy and others, rather than standing separate from them.

During the first session of the ECP, citizens were invited to articulate their visions of the EU in 2050 by drawing their “EU vision trees” and then “zoom in” on specific questions that they consider important to be debated during the subsequent sessions. Most discussions unfolded in working groups composed of around a dozen citizens. These were accompanied by a few plenary meetings introducing the session, which also included discussions with experts, and a final plenary devoted to approving several main topical “streams” to be addressed during subsequent meetings as they emerged from the “sum total” of the working group discussions.

Thus, the design of the sessions—and that of the ECPs more generally—was intended to work in a bottom-up fashion. The problem here is that democracy does not come with its exclusive pool of questions. All major questions on the EU’s future are also questions of democracy. Moreover, if “democracy questions” are not to be reduced to those of elections, they are integrally related to other EU values, including human rights and the rule of law.

Citizens were not constrained to engage with particular values while formulating the topics. Yet the limitations posed by the separation of individual values became apparent during the final plenary. Here, based on the citizens’ identifications of key questions, the moderators presented the key topical areas (called “streams”) for subsequent sessions. These, in the version voted and approved by the plenary of the panel, encompassed rights and nondiscrimination, protecting democracy and the rule of law, institutional reform, building European identity, and strengthening citizen participation.

A Key Challenge

As noticed by some citizens, questions categorized under human rights could equally be discussed under democracy, and vice versa. For example, the protection of human rights in the context of pandemic-induced restrictions is not merely a question of democracy, and gender equality is not merely a question of human rights. The danger in preparing neat “streams” is that connections between the topics become less visible and the final recommendations less informed.

 

One of the “EU vision trees” produced in the ECP working groups. Participating citizens were encouraged to place their visions near those of their fellow citizens that are most appealing to their own vision. September 25, 2021. (Photo: Max Steuer)

In addition to topical separation of EU values in the ECP discussions and emerging “streams,” the risk of failing to achieve a holistic approach to EU values stems also from the formal “eligibility requirement” that needs to be met in order to “have a voice” at the ECP: EU citizenship. The exclusivity generated by this requirement comes across as particularly pertinent when “democracy” is explicitly listed in the ECP’s title. In short, the CoFoE that sets out to address the future of Europe is not open to all Europeans. Even if accepting the (by no means obvious) assertion that the future of the EU can be debated between EU citizens on their own, the future of Europe as a continent is hardly limited to EU citizens, with other Europeans standing “on the outside” of democratic deliberations.

While there appear to be no easy solutions to this conundrum, one could potentially be found directly in Strasbourg. The Council of Europe brings together all Europeans (except the citizens of Belarus, whose plight clearly falls within the subject areas of this ECP). Yet there are virtually no signs of collaboration between the Council of Europe and the EU on the CoFoE. Inviting representatives of the Council of Europe, including those of the European Court of Human Rights, to interact with the conference participants could help foster knowledge about both institutions and emphasize their common goals. Furthermore, discussing human rights as sources of legal protections in Europe via an intertwined web of mechanisms and institutions could provide very useful impulses. Ultimately, an involvement of all Europeans, and not just EU citizens, is necessary for an inclusive debate on the future of Europe.

Another possible solution is specific to the five discussion “streams” as they have been approved for the second ECP. An increased focus on noncitizens could also have been part of their formulation. While migration is one of the main themes of the fourth ECP, it should not be absent from the ECP addressing EU values.

Three Signs of a Unique Opportunity and Potential

The impact of the second ECP on the discussions about democracy as an overarching basis for all ECPs remains to be seen. Challenges ahead encompass the capacity to foster holistic approaches to EU values and inclusive conversations. This does not require embracing the unity of value, but it does invite discussions that avoid “us” (EU citizens) versus “them” (everyone else without EU citizenship) dynamics.

Yet the first session of the second ECP still generated several particularly promising moments for a holistic, as opposed to fragmented, understanding of EU values. One is the connection between democracy and key societal issues that were not originally anticipated to be discussed by the second ECP—notably, climate change and socioeconomic development. Discussing climate change as a question of democracy, fundamental rights, and the rule of law might yield refreshing perspectives and facilitate bridges with the other three ECPs, reinforcing the impact of all of them on the CoFoE plenary.

Secondly, an emphasis on connecting economic security to democracy, understood as the possibility to effectively participate in public life, was added as a result of the “feedback round” to the thematic streams preceding the final plenary. This indication of a more democratic understanding of security may open the door for including security as a public good into the discussion on EU values and democracy, rather than seeing it as potentially justifying restrictions on fundamental rights that are the bedrock of democracy.

In front of the EP Hemicycle after the end of the ECP, September 26, 2021. (Photo: Max Steuer)

A third promising moment lies in the emphasis on education on democracy as a matter of EU values. As pointed out during one of the expert presentations, one is not born a democrat but learns to be one. Education as a tangible life experience of the ECP participants may raise awareness of the importance of free media and open communication, fostered by independent institutions, and encourage a “tree-like” perspective, much in the spirit of the “EU vision trees” drawn by the working group participants.

 

This post is an edited and abridged version of a contribution that appeared via Verfassungsblog.de, a major forum for debates on constitutionalism in Europe and beyond. Since its publication, the ECP on democracy completed its work in December 2021 with a series of recommendations that are currently being considered by the CoFoE plenary.

The COVID-19 Pandemic in the Islands

April 6, 2022
By 30091

Maria Riwana Sahib, a 2012–13 Sylff fellow, looks back on how the COVID-19 situation unfolded in her native Fiji. As has been the case everywhere, the pandemic’s impact on the Fijian economy amplified the issues of domestic violence, unemployment, and xenophobia and affected school education. But the silver lining, Sahib says, has been the revival of the barter system, which has helped many weather the pandemic storm.

 * * *

Living in the Pacific Islands has many advantages and disadvantages. It is probably one of the most unsafe places when it comes to infectious diseases. Historically, populations have been depleted by infectious diseases due to our geographical location, that is, our isolation. But COVID-19, or the novel coronavirus, has changed the course of history in the modern age of technology and globalization. It has certainly caused a paradigm shift in terms of how we conduct our business and our lives. It is one of the many experiences throughout my life that has been etched in my memory, and as a millennial, it is one of the most interesting times.

 

Departing Majuro

I have worked and lived in the Republic of the Marshall Islands away from my island home of Fiji for the last seven years. In early 2020, I was contemplating returning home, unsure of my future and unaware of the realities that would follow. The novel coronavirus was declared a pandemic in March 2020, right around when I booked my flight back to Fiji. The flight was during the week in which the Marshall Islands declared that it was closing its borders. Subsequently, all flights going into and out of the islands were canceled. In this haste of closing the borders, many tourists in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, were stranded with no guarantee of the next available flight out. Among the stranded was me! My heart sank as I read the email from Nauru Airlines two days prior to the flight day, in which it provided options for the next available dates of flights going out of Majuro. I felt helpless and frustrated. I remember my friends Laisa, Kelesi, and Melba encouraging me and filling me with positivity. I believed more in their faith than I did my own.

I would like to believe that their prayers and mine were answered, as I sat in the last flight out of Majuro two days later. It was an eight-hour flight with two stopovers before I finally reached Nadi, three hours away from Suva, my home. Although I had come back numerous times before, it had never felt the way it did that day when the plane landed at Nadi International Airport. I was home, finally! The anxiety, the fear, the dreading had all been over, and I felt a weight had been lifted from my chest. I was finally home to see my beautiful daughter. She was initially the reason for my return, but I think the pandemic fueled my decision to return promptly.

Fiji went into lockdown one week after my return, as a case was soon discovered. People immediately went into panic mode, and naturally, panic buying followed. During the lockdown, a curfew was implemented together with movement restrictions and social distancing. These actions resonated with many countries where the coronavirus had spread. This was when reality hit home—that we were as vulnerable as the most developed countries, where the virus had far worse effect. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a way of mother nature telling us that we needed to slow down our development and put a brake on exploiting our natural resources, contributing to the greenhouse effect, and harming our planet.

The economic downturn due to the virus had serious implications for the tourism industry (the largest revenue generator) in Fiji, and this affected thousands and thousands of Fijians. COVID-19 has led to an increase in social issues such as domestic violence, unemployment, and even xenophobia toward the Chinese people. The restriction measures brought out the best and worst in people including me. Fearing for the lives of our loved ones and taking to social media to hit back at people who broke the restriction measures were some of the traits displayed that I am sad about. I, for one, always try to empathize with people and their situations, but during this particular occasion it became clear that the worst in us could be brought out even when we try to the find the best in others.

 

Sahib and her daughter.

COVID-19 also affected the way education was conducted. My daughter’s private school was prepared to provide full-time online classes, as they already were using online platforms for learning at school. The transition to schooling full-time from home was a big adjustment for both my daughter and me. I am a single parent. Firstly, home is a place for relaxation, and it did not mesh well with the idea of schooling. Secondly, focusing on your own work while supervising your child’s schoolwork can sometimes be challenging when you both have deadlines to meet. It took me a while to adjust myself first before I could start focusing on my child. So instead of writing up a schedule, I followed a routine while flexibly switching the times of doing assignments and researching. My daughter usually had her scheduled Zoom classes (Zoom became a boom in 2020) in the early mornings. That would leave me some time to get my work organized.

I could not help but wonder about those who did not have the convenience of good Internet connections and those who could not afford the Internet. Schools were closed indefinitely as the government kept extending the opening date of normal school hours. The government went into overdrive and maximized their resources to provide subject lessons via Walesi, Fiji’s digital television service. This proved useful but to some extent only; students still had to print their notes and submit assignments at school, which meant mobility and exposure to the virus. The pandemic undeniably brought many social challenges, and it has been an economically trying time for many.

There is always a silver lining in a grim situation, they say. An ancient system was reintroduced in Fiji called the barter system. In the eighteenth century Adam Smith, a Scottish economist, philosopher, and author, argued that markets and economies existed before states. The father of modern economics believed that money was not created by governments but from bartering for goods and services. Anthropologists argued otherwise, saying that exchanges of goods and services occurred between strangers for reciprocity and redistribution. In any case, the pandemic revived this ancient trading system through Barter for Better Fiji, a Facebook page created by Marlene Dutta, a Fijian, in the spirit of giving when money has been tight and employment tough to find. This innovation through the use of technology connected people all over the country and the world, bringing solidarity to the human race in the belief that we are all in this together. This form of trading of goods and services without the use of money has assisted hundreds of people across the nation. For instance, in exchange for goodwill and groceries, six men known as K9E from the western side of Viti Levu, Fiji’s largest island, provide services ranging from indoor work such as maintenance, clearance, painting, moving homes, and light plumbing work to outdoor work such as grass cutting, farm preparation, backyard land cultivation, chicken shed construction, flower bed preparation, cutting, trimming, and pruning of trees, firewood collection, and fishing.

It has not all been hunky dory as far as the bartering goes, as there have been reports of dishonesty and fraudulent services. One of the challenges of dealing with strangers is that there is risk involved. Nevertheless, it has brought to many the assistance they desperately needed. Bartering has even assisted university students who suddenly had to stay home and study remotely. Although there has been a huge economic downturn in Fiji and across the globe, bartering has helped many to survive this pandemic.

One can only hope and pray that we can all bounce back from our situations and improve in 2022. Our new normal is the one in which we need to collectively support each other during a time of crisis, and perhaps bartering is a result of the new normal.

 

The Sustainability of Food in Japan

March 28, 2022
By 19606

Motivated in part by his experiences living in Japan, 2002 Sylff fellow David D. Sussman conducted a review of current research about the sustainability of food in the country. Here he shares his findings, observations, and recommendations for improving Japan’s food sustainability—in a nutshell, eat less meat, consider the origin of food and associated energy use, and reduce waste in food and packaging.

* * *

Japan is renowned for both its popular cuisine and the health and longevity of its population. At the same time, present concerns about planetary health and climate change are receiving more attention than ever, with food playing an essential role in achieving sustainability. Given these circumstances, what does a review of existing research (in English) reveal about steps that Japan can take to increase the sustainability of its food?

My research on this topic is motivated by personal experiences while living in Japan, as well as my work as a fellow at the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies. I conducted a review and assessment of the latest literature, both international and within the country, about the sustainability of food in Japan. This summary presents relevant research findings, alongside some personal observations, and provides three key evidence-based recommendations. The observations are not a critique of Japan—as an American, I know that my own country’s per-capita ecological footprint is more than 1.5 times that of Japan.[1] Instead, my approach is one of noting the current situation and thinking about how Japan can apply some of its cultural strengths, such as planning, attention to detail, cohesion, and following social norms, to improving the sustainability of its food.

Importance of the Topic

While there is now overwhelming evidence that humans are influencing the Earth’s climate, what might not be at the forefront of everyone’s mind is the important role that food plays in sustainability. In short, to be sustainable means using natural resources in a way that is balanced in the present but also enables them to be preserved for future generations. However, the global threat posed by climate change is now readily apparent, and the food system accounts for approximately 18.4% of all carbon emissions. This is an astounding number—with these emissions from “agriculture, forestry and land use” in the ballpark of those from energy in industry (24.2%), transport (16.2%), and energy in buildings (17.5%).

Another important reason for examining food is its basis for human health. If we were to eat in a way that is planet friendly by consuming more plant-based food and cutting back on meat, there would also be health benefits amounting to, by one estimate, more than ten million lives saved annually.[3] As Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, stated in 2018 at a sustainability conference in Yokohama, “If we get it right on food, we get it right for the planet.”[4]

What is the current situation with food in Japan? When living in Tokyo, I have seen both Japan’s prosperity, such as a large spread of food at a restaurant meal with friends, and its profligacy, with the same event leading to half a plate of unfinished items that would be thrown away. My curiosity about food and sustainability in Japan was another motivation for to this investigation.

Food waste in Japan. (photo: Kyodo news)

What Can Be Done

Food can be considered “from farm to fork,” which means analyzing how it is produced, manufactured, transported, sold, and used—and also disposed of. The research I reviewed suggested a focus on core areas where actions could best be implemented and make a difference—namely in diets and choice of eating, the production of food, and the issue of food waste.

Food Choices

Japanese (as with denizens in many other industrialized countries) generally view having a piece of meat or fish as an integral part of every meal. Some restaurants—like popular ramen places—do not offer a nonmeat option, with the broth also based on pork or beef. Bento box lunches found at school, social, and business gatherings inevitably include meat or seafood. Anecdotally, I have found many Japanese to be unaware of or uncertain about vegetarianism, whereas it is commonly offered as a meal option in the United States.

Increased meat consumption in Japan is not surprising given the post–World War II time period when hungry populations benefited from food imports, while advertising companies also presented Western plates of food as an ideal.[5] Over the following decades, supplies of meat increased 5.8-fold and trade pressure from the United States led to further imports, ranging from beef to oranges.[6]

As a basic step to increase sustainability, people can eat more vegetarian meals. Food is personal and for that reason accessible as a means for change. Multiple times a day, what we eat is an opportunity that we (in more developed countries where access to food options is generally not a concern) have to make an impact on the Earth—or at least to lessen our impact.[7] In the aggregate, our individual choices make a difference, and when we eat morning, noon, and night, we can see it as an opportunity for choosing the more sustainable option.

Food Production

Japan’s level of productivity and development is special given that more than 80% of its land consists of mountains. It is not surprising that many foods need to be imported, with approximately 63% of food calories coming from outside the country. What happens, inevitably, is that Japan’s reliance on food from overseas leads to the use of land, energy, fertilizer, and fuel for transport, which are associated with carbon emissions embedded within the foods. As such, the Japanese could further consider the origin of their food. With high levels of imports, there are sometimes significant production- and transportation-related carbon emissions.

Conversely, it is also worth noting that some foods grown in Japan are very energy intensive; in some cases, it would therefore be more eco-efficient for them to be grown elsewhere, in warmer climates. A 2011 study of hydroponically grown lettuce in Japanese greenhouses found that its CO2 emissions per kilogram were seven times greater than those grown in open fields in California, United States.[8] A BBC story titled “Japan’s Obsession with Perfect Fruit” featured a melon grower who said that despite his extremely careful methods, only 3% of his melon produce achieved the top grade, even as his three medium greenhouses burned through more than 50 liters of oil on a daily basis.[9]

In the end, the complexity of the food chain is apparent. Even though food is an essential part of our daily lives, we rarely know how something was grown and where it traveled from before ending up in our supermarket. What we have better control of is our use of the food after purchase and on our plates.

Food Waste

Waste associated with food occurs across the supply chain, from farm to fork, and must include all waste that happens from production onward. Related to this investigation, “significant quantities of food waste are generated by supply chains originating outside of Japan.”[10] Within Japan, the previously mentioned focus on perfect-looking fruit means that more resources are expended on producing them and items that are not up to an exacting standard discarded. Composting is still rare, meaning that food scraps and leftovers end up being incinerated with other trash.

Japan, as with other industrialized countries, prizes convenience, and this leads to a reliance on pre-prepared meals. The presentation and packaging of food in Japan is readily apparent to outsiders, with a commonly cited example being the plastic-enclosed bananas (which already come with their own natural protection) or individually wrapped apples or pears. It is not anything new to say that Japan is big into cleanliness—and with this comes a reliance on single-use products as well as packaging. Plastic or foam bento boxes are almost always single-use disposables. When it comes to drinks, vending machines seem to be on every corner and plastic bottles ubiquitous. In modern society, little thought is given to using something for a minute, or ten minutes, and then tossing it away.

Imperfect fruit does not have to be thrown away. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Japan, however, is also a leader in terms of its focus on food waste through policy initiatives. A Food Waste Recycling Law, for example, led to measurable improvements, though more at the level of manufacturers. While households account for about half of the food waste that is incinerated, “there has been little behavioral change towards food waste reduction at the consumer level.”[11] In the end, “food waste and loss remain a critical issue, owing to the country’s low food self-sufficiency rate and shortage of available landfill sites for waste disposal.”[12]

Next Steps

The sustainability of food in Japan can be seen as a challenge but also as an opportunity. In particular, the country’s food sustainability is worth considering because it may be a harbinger of the future. A highly industrialized country, “Japan’s diet and demographics make it a bellwether for other Western and Asian nations” in that the population is highly urbanized, aging, and eats foods that is less traditional and more processed and convenient.[13]

When Japan sets its focus on something, it can really make terrific progress. Its rebuild and development after World War II is a classic example. More recently, we have seen how it started more slowly on COVID-19 vaccines but steadily progressed so that it now stands as one of the most vaccinated countries in the world. Its approach to food and sustainability can be the same. There are available options, and it is now a matter of aligning policy with the most planet-friendly options—shifting people’s preferences so that they eat less meat, focusing on environmentally sound growing practices, and cutting down on waste. It will be exciting to see what the country does in the coming years.

 

[1] “Ecological Footprint by Country 2022,” World Population Review, https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/ecological-footprint-by-country.

[2] Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, “CO₂ and Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” OurWorldInData.org, last revised August 2020, https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissions.

[3] Walter Willett et al., Summary Report of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems (Stockholm: EAT-Lancet Commission, 2019), 3, 14, https://eatforum.org/eat-lancet-commission/eat-lancet-commission-summary-report/.

[4] International Forum for Sustainable Asia and the Pacific 2018, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies.

[5] Atsushi Watabe et al., “Uneaten Food: Emerging Social Practices around Food Waste in Greater Tokyo,” in Food Consumption in the City: Practices and Patterns in Urban Asia and the Pacific, ed. Marlyne Sahakian, et al. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016), 162–3.

[6] Watabe, 163–4.

[7] Kate Hall, Reducing Your Carbon Footprint in the Kitchen (New York, NY: Rosen Publishing Group, 2009), 5.

[8] Eugene Mohareb et al., “Considerations for Reducing Food System Energy Demand while Scaling Up Urban Agriculture,” Environmental Research Letters 12, no. 12 (December 2017), https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aa889b.

[9] Roland Buerk, “Japan's Obsession with Perfect Fruit,” BBC News, March 15, 2012, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-radio-and-tv-17352173.

[10] Chen Liu et al., “Food Waste in Japan: Trends, Current Practices and Key Challenges,” Journal of Cleaner Production 133 (October 2016): 563, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2016.06.026.

[11] Liu et al., 562.

[12] Liu et al., 558.

[13] Keiichiro Kanemoto et al., “Meat Consumption Does Not Explain Differences in Household Food Carbon Footprints in Japan,” One Earth 1, no. 4 (December 20, 2019), 465.