What is in a Coconut? An Ethnoecological Analysis of Mining, Social Displacement, Vulnerability, and Development in Rural Kenya

by Willice O. Abuya

Abstract

Studies have shown that corporate-community and state-community conflict in mining communities in Africa revolves around at least four issues: land ownership, “unfair” compensation practices, inequitable resource distribution, and environmental degradation. These issues underpin conventional discourses on equity and compensational justice. A relatively obscure line of analysis concerns the meanings that communities attach to the biogeophysical environment, whether this can be fairly compensated, how these intersect with local experiences of natural resource extraction, and how they structure conflict. This relatively obscure theme is at the heart of ethnoecology—the interdisciplinary study of how nature is perceived by human beings and how the screen of beliefs, culture, and knowledge defines the community-environment nexus. Based on a deconstruction of local cultural symbolisms and narratives about the ‘ordinary’ coconut palm, this article unveils the intricate web of attachment that the local residents of Kwale District, a titanium-rich community in Kenya’s Coast Province, have to the environment. The community was displaced from, and ostensibly “compensated” for, their ancestral land to make way for titanium mining. The article shows why local residents remain unappeased and agitated, and, more importantly, how ethnoecological insights could help leverage the economic benefits of mining development in Kenya’s natural resource-rich rural communities. This article is based on field research carried out in 2009-2010 among the displaced community members in Kwale, Kenya.

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Willice Abuya lectures in the Department of Sociology and Psychology at Moi University, Kenya. His current research interest lies in environmental sociology, demography and criminology.