Guest Column with Dr Samantha Balaton-Chrimes

November 12 / 100

In Africa's most notorious informal settlement, a community of 10,000 people claim their ancestral land is being grabbed. Descended from Sudanese colonial soldiers, the Nubians have lived in Kibera, Nairobi, since 1902, but have been unable to secure land title. They now share their small patch with more than 250,000 other people. UN Habitat is piloting a slum-upgrading project in Kibera, but far from looking forward to new housing, Nubians see this as yet another threat to their land. While to the Nubians, Kibera is their ancestral land, a place to be safe as an ethnic group in a nation divided by ethnic territorialism, to others, Kibera is a cheap place to live as they hustle in Nairobi to make a living. These urgent and conflicting needs and interests make Kibera a tinderbox of tensions.
 
Meanwhile, the Batin Sembilan indigenous group in Indonesia is also struggling for their land. Originally forest dwelling people, they have had little power to prevent the destruction of their forest for a palm-oil plantation. Their struggle now is for compensation to give their children a chance at a different future. This battle they fight is against a palm-oil company which has (mostly) all the right permits and licences, granted to them by (sometimes corrupt and often confused) government administration, which makes their struggle all the more difficult. The International Finance Corporation, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and multiple local, national and international NGOs have facilitated mediations, but no progress has been made.
 
In a similar story, the Dongria Kondh in Orissa, India, find their rights to land threatened by a mining company. Where the Dongria Kondh see a sacred mountain, the home of a living God, the company see a bauxite reserve. At least in part because of their traditional lifestyle and isolation from Indian society, the Dongria Kondh have attracted campaigning support from organisations like Amnesty International and Survival, but they are not the only ones affected. Other less exotic groups, including low-caste people, are also affected, but are less supported. These communities face an uphill battle against the State government and the company, who share an interest in the project in the name of 'development'.
 
In cases of conflict and extreme inequality our beliefs in and about citizenship encounter their limits. How is meaningful citizenship, including the capacity to claim rights, constructed in different cultural contexts? And how are inequalities and conflicts between citizens and other actors to be addressed? How can we encourage respectful relations between citizens when the stakes are so high? What kind of inter-personal, intra- and inter-community exchanges best counter the tendency towards violence in such contexts? 
 
Through exploring these questions in these challenging scenarios, my research and that of my colleagues on the ARC Linkage project 'Evaluating non-judicial redress mechanisms governing the human rights practices of transnational businesses' aims to deepen our understanding and practice of contemporary democracy.
 
Dr Samantha Balaton-Chrimes is a Research Fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences.

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