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‘Poorer people often bear the brunt of sustainability initiatives’

The effects of sustainability projects on poorer, marginalised people should be considered at a much earlier stage. This is the opinion of Marja Spierenburg, Professor of Anthropology of Sustainable Development and Livelihood, who will give her inaugural lecture on 25 February.

In her inaugural lecture, Spierenburg will give some examples of the ‘waterbed effect’: sustainable initiatives in one area that have adverse effects elsewhere. The West embracing electric cars and bikes, for instance. These may appear to be very sustainable, but the lithium needed for their batteries requires intensive mining that destroys the African and Latin American landscape. Spierenburg criticises Europe’s laxity: ‘NGOs have long been calling for stricter legislation on responsible mining. But the European Union has excluded the very raw materials needed for these batteries from stricter rules because this would otherwise jeopardise our goal of reducing CO2 emissions.’ 

Green apartheid

Another example comes from South Africa, where Spierenburg is researching what is termed ‘green apartheid’. Here many white farmers are switching from agriculture to wildlife management and nature conservation. This would seem to be a positive development, but farmworkers – generally local people of colour – often lose out. They tend not to be involved in these green initiatives and often lose their job on the estates where they also live. Their home is turned into a fenced nature reserve and the scarce water generally goes to nature conservation and the tourist industry. The South African government fails to intervene adequately, and unemployed farmworkers sometimes end up trying to make a living from illegal activities such as poaching.  

‘The local community’s home is turned into a fenced nature reserve.’

Inclusive sustainability policy

Spierenburg advocates an inclusive global sustainability policy. ‘Governments and businesses put a lot of effort into technological innovation, but they do not stop to consider how this will turn out in practice and whether the adverse effects won’t fall on people who are already struggling.’ This makes it crucial for more anthropologists to be involved in sustainability issues, she says. 

Research at Vrouwenpolder

In recent years, Spierenburg has done a lot of research in South Africa, as a Research Fellow at the University of Stellenbosch. In the coming years, she hopes to do more research in the Netherlands. She and her team recently submitted a research proposal for a large project at Vrouwenpolder in the province of Zuid-Holland. Together with municipalities, local farmers and the water board, they want to look at how different soil management techniques could reduce CO2 emissions in agriculture. They are also researching how to cultivate peat wetlands to prevent further subsidence. 

Energy transition in Leiden

Spierenburg’s students also conduct research in Leiden. For the Learning with the City project, they investigated people’s willingness to take part in sustainable initiatives and in Leiden it was shown once again that it is much easier for people with a high income to take part in green projects and the energy transition than it is for those with a lower income. Spierenburg: ‘If we really want to become more sustainable, we have to learn much more from not only the successes but also the failures.’

Photo above article: A lithium mine
Text: Linda van Putten


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