October 22, 2017

Social and cultural destruction

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Published as Chapter 3 of The Social and Environmental Effects of Large Dams: Volume 1. Overview. Wadebridge Ecological Centre, Worthyvale Manor Camelford, Cornwall PL32 9TT, UK, 1984. By Edward Goldsmith and Nicholas Hildyard.

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Resistance to resettlement

Perhaps it is not surprising that those who are earmarked for resettlement are frequently unwilling to move. That unwillingness is such a common feature of resettlement schemes that the authors of a recent paper prepared for New Guinea’s office of Environment and Conservation were led to remark: “Love of birthplace, no matter how inhospitable it may appear to strangers, is quite possibly a universal characteristic”. [1]

Where it is a tribal society which must be resettled, that “love of land” takes on a significance which does not generally apply in societies where land is viewed as just another commodity to be bought and sold. Land is the very charter on which a tribal culture is based; the resting place of ancestors; and the source of spiritual power; it is thus frequently regarded with a reverence that is difficult to understand in the West.

That sense of reverence is remarked upon time and again by anthropologists: it is also expressed in mythopoetic language by the tribal people themselves – often sadly in last minute pleas to be allowed to remain unmolested by the forces of ‘progress.’ Thus, at the height of the controversy over the proposed Upper Mazaruni Hydro-Electric Scheme, the headmen of Guyana’s Akawaio Indians wrote to the Prime Minister, Mr. Forbes Burnham:

“This land is where we belong – it is God’s gift to us and has made us as we are. This land is where we are at home, we know its way: and the things that happen here are known and remembered, so that the stories the old people told are still alive here. This land is needed for those who come after us. . . . This land is the place where we know where to find all that it provides for us – food for hunting and fishing, and farms, building and tool materials, medicines. Also the spirits around us know us and are friendly and helpful. This land keeps us together within its mountains – we come to understand that we are not just a few people or separate villages, but one people belonging to a homeland. If we had to move we would be lost to those who remain in other villages. This would be a sadness to us all, like the sadness of death. Those who moved would be strangers to the people and spirits and places where they are made to go.” [2]

That mytho-poetic view of the world – alien as it is to Western minds – is fundamental to Akawaio culture. Flood their lands, and one would be flooding not only earth and rocks but also a moral ‘map’ – for their moral and cultural values are etched into their landscapes incisively as the Ten Commandments were supposedly etched onto Moses’ tablets. As Survival International, the London-based organisation set up to protect tribal rights, explained in its report, The Damned:

“The Akawaio have invested the landscape with special significance. It is an environment transformed by their ancestors in conjunction with the mystic forces of the universe. All its features – its rivers, falls, mountains, rocks, savannahs and valleys – were designed by their fore-bears, whose names and deeds are recorded in myth, song, dance and poetry. The vital forces of each locality are linked to the human community. They protect, guide, feed and even chastise its members. Thus the landscape is dynamic, every part is living, functional, has meaning and moral value.” [3]

Summing up the feelings of the CREE Indians, who have been resettled as a result of Canada’s James Bay Project, Boyce Richardson notes:

“From one end of the region to the other, it is the same refrain. If you destroy the land, you destroy the animals, and if you destroy the animals, you destroy the Indians. Money? We do not want money. Jobs? How long will these jobs last? Money and jobs are impermanent. They disappear. They do not last. When they are gone, the land will still be there. If the land is not destroyed, we can return to it – live off it as we have always done. That is the only way we know how to live.” [4]

One of the most bitter complaints voiced by the 57,000 Tonga resettled under the Kariba Dam scheme was that they were being forced to leave the land where their ancestors were buried.

“Women in particular felt close identification with alluvial gardens (and their associated shelters) which had been cultivated and inherited by members of their matri-lineage for longer than they could remember,” reports Professor Thayer Scudder. “Tied to other gardens as well as to shrines by ancestral sanctions, neighbourhood ritual-leaders feared for their health and that of their kin should they move elsewhere.”

Before the Chico Dam was halted in l982 the Bontoc and Kalinga tribesmen who were to be resettled made numerous deputations to the Philippine Government to argue their case against the dam. Like the Akawaio, they stressed their bond with the land – a bond moulded (in the case of the Kalingas) by the belief that the God Kabunian had entrusted the land to them for safe-keeping. As Ceres P. Doya writes in Manila’s Bulletin Today,

“To them the land is sacred. The God Kabunian has gifted them with the land and, therefore, they must be good stewards of the gift. . . . Their dead do not go away for ever. They are buried right in their very own yards to form part of the earth which they have worked and caressed. The dead became one with the guardian spirits who make the land yield flowers and fruit abundantly.” [6]

Anthropologists who have studied the region take a more functionalist view of the Kalinga’s bond to the land. Indeed, it is worth quoting at some length from a paper delivered, shortly before the dam project was cancelled, at the 3rd National Annual Conference of the Anthropological Association of the Philippines:

“The traditional religion of the people of the Chico Valley is characterised by ancestor worship, belief in and fear of the spirits of forest and field. Even today, where Some accept Christianity, the respect for the power and integrity of the traditional ancestors and gods over all areas of day-to-day living prevails. All the many ancestor and spirit gods are associated in the people’s minds with the land of the home region. The remains of all who die, even those who may die many miles away, are brought home. . . Ancestors and spirits are capable of bringing sickness and misfortune to the living if neglected or not given the proper respect. Most sickness, mental ill-health and accidents are believed to be caused by angry spirits. Once the people allow the villages to be submerged, this will mean the greatest displeasure of the spirits who would forever haunt and bring disaster to the lives of the living . . .

“Aside from the local religion, the political institutions for which the people of the Chico Valley are noted is also tied up with the land of the home region. The peace pact (Kalinga bodong, Bontoc pachen) prevails over certain defined territories which the present village occupy. Each separate peace pact between two communities defined the specific land area over which it is to prevail. Submersion of these lands and the dislocation of the people from their communities would mean the destruction of the peace pacts prevailing over the areas.

“The peace pact and its system of laws (pagto to bodong) is today still the most effective mechanism for social interaction and control in the peace pact areas. The barrios to be submerged by the Chico IV alone hold a total of 180 peace pacts with each other and with other Kalinga, Bontoc and Tinggian communities. Submersion of the land and transfer of the inhabitants would nullify all of these. And if the peace pact system presently prevailing were to be rendered inuitle by dam incursion into specific territories, the whole supportive system underlying the social structure of local society would be undermined.” [7]

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Ethnic differences ignored

Once resettled, those who have been moved frequently have to contend with planning authorities who are often insensitive to their cultural traditions. A case in point is the Volta River Project where 69,000 people from over 700 villages were resettled in just 52 new settlements. As a result, villages were split up and thousands of people from different ethnic backgrounds – speaking different languages, worshipping different Gods and following widely different social customs – were resettled together without any regard for those differences.
According to Dr. Asit Biswas, former director of the Environmental Systems Branch of the Government of Canada, and now an independent consultant,

“The complex emotional relationships between the different tribes and their lands were not properly understood. The development of a socially cohesive and integrated community having a viable institutional infrastructure, became hard to achieve.” [8]

To make matters worse, the new settlers were bitterly resented by the original inhabitants of the area, land disputes and outbreaks of violence becoming increasingly common as the resettlement got under way.

Those same mistakes were repeated at Khashm El-Girba (New Halfa) the resettlement project built to rehouse the 30,000 Sudanese Nubians uprooted by the Aswan High Dam. Although to their credit, the authorities tried to avoid splitting up villages after they were resettled, this was not always possible: in some cases, the old villages were too large to allow all their previous members to be rehoused in the same settlement. As a result, the social structure of many villages severely disrupted, exacerbating the psychological stress of resettlement and fermenting considerable social tension.

That tension was further compounded by the decision to settle three major ethnic groups at Khashm el-Girba. Two of those groups – the Shukyra and the Beja – were pastoralists, settled under a government scheme to ‘sedentarise’ half of the area’s nomadic population. The third group consisted of Halfans, a people with a long tradition of agriculture and with a proud cultural past. As Dr. Hussein Fahim reports in his study of the resettlement programme,

“After being the dominant group in their former area, the Halfans became just one of several ethnic groups living in the Khashm el-Girba region. The resettled Halfans still fear that their contact with the nomads and other groups in the scheme will eventually erode the distinctive qualities of their traditional Sudanese Nubian culture.” [9]

The majority of those in Shukyra group are of Butana origin. The Beja group consists of four tribes – the BeniAmer, Bishariyeen, Amarar and Hadendawa. Recently a fourth ethnic group has begun to establish itself and – though not numerous – has already caused considerable stress. As Hussein Fahim reports:

“Because the New Halfan settlement is located close to the Ethiopian border, Ethiopian entertainers have moved in and opened anadis (licenced clubs for drinking, smoking and promiscuous entertainment) that operate around the clock, with activities increasing at night. These anadis are located in Halfa town in the central part of the New Halfa community. Clients are served marissa (a fermented drink made of yeast and corn) and are entertained by female Ethiopian dancers. Halfan informants often expressed their resentment of the introduction of these elements and worry about their effects on the physical and social health of the Halfan people, especially the youth.”

Those fears are inevitably heightened by relgious differences: to the Muslim Halfans, the Christian Ethiopians are simply ‘pagans’. The alcohol is, of course, strictly forbidden under Islamic law. (Hussain Fahim, Dams, People and Development, Pergamon, Oxford,1981).

The Halfans’ wariness of other tribes in the area is entirely mutual. Thus, whilst the Halfans consider the nomads to be “aggressive and dishonest”, the nomads consider the Halfans to be “intruders” on their lands. Indeed, the nomads see no reason why they should cease grazing their sheep on the land now farmed by the Halfans – even though it has been bought by the Sudanese Government. To them the land is theirs, simply because it has always been theirs in the past. By the same token, the nomads refuse to pay for bus tickets where the bus is travelling in their traditional homelands.

The result has been numerous and bitter disputes over land rights – disputes which became so heated in 1974 that the army had to be called in to keep the peace by preventing the nomads from grazing on cultivated land. Small wonder, perhaps, that one settler likened the Khashm el-Girba project to a “cage where the government put a lamb and a wolf and ask them to figure out one way or another to live peacefully”. Naturally, he told Fahim, the experiment had not worked. [10]

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Inappropriate housing

For their part, the nomads at Khashm el-Girba were also resentful that the Halfans had been rehoused in modern buildings, whilst they had only been provided with traditional mud-and-wattle housing. There is more than a touch of irony in that resentment, however, for the Halfans themselves were deeply dissatisfied with their new houses – and with good reason.

It was not that the houses lacked modern facilities – indeed, by Sudanese standards they were luxurious – but rather that the designers had paid little heed to the social needs of the uprooted settlers. Hussein Fahim notes,

“Part of the dissatisfaction was due to the assignment of the new buildings according to the estimated cost of the old ones, instead of according to the size of the families who were to live in them. Large families, whose old homes were valued at less than 100 Sudanese pounds, received two-room houses and thus were unable to accommodate their members, whose numbers ranged between seven and nine persons on average. The addition of extra rooms was practically impossible because of the sloping tin roof and the cost of construction in the area. Furthermore, many of the houses were poorly built: their design ignored the basic social aspects of Nubian architecture, such as the need for high walls to provide security and privacy. The seclusion of women, a traditional notion supported by their Islamic religion, was always emphasised in Old Nubian House designs.” [11]

Across the border, the Egyptian Nubians were experiencing similar problems:

“The old Nubian houses were large and spacious. Built on one floor with walls as high as 6 to 8 metres, each house had several wide rooms roofed with either brick vault domes or palm trunks and reed, which in either case suited the hot dry weather. These rooms, which had several holes near the roof for ventilation, usually opened into a large open-air courtyard, an essential feature of Nubian architecture. The lack of these elements had been given, among others, as an important reason for the Nubians’ displeasure with their new living quarters . . .

“The basic design did, and still does, constitute a major source of stress among the relocatees. The transfer from spacious homes to compact, contiguous dwellings with relatively low walls has also caused problems. In addition, the distribution of the new houses on the basis of the family size resulted in the fragmentation and dispersion of the already established social and economic units of the family-based neighbourhoods. Widowed, divorced and elderly people, who previously lived with their immediate relatives in one household, are now scattered in one room blocks, that often are not within walking distance of their kin. Those people feel helpless and have caused strain and anxiety for their families.” [12]

Small wonder, perhaps, that many Egyptian Nubians chose to abandon their settlements and return to the shores of their now flooded homelands.

In many senses, the insensitivity with which the new houses had been designed can be seen as a metaphor for the failure of the whole resettlement scheme:

“In Old Nubia, the homes were constructed with privacy in mind and were aesthetically very appealing. They were decorated with elaborate, beautifully coloured designs and natural scenes, all of which signified the importance of nature and its beauties to the Nubians. The new structure, however, was designed with modernisation and space efficiency in mind and were not only displeasing to the Nubians for aesthetic reasons, but offensive in the lack of privacy they afforded.” [13]

In Ghana too, the design of the new houses in the Upper Volta resettlement scheme caused considerable social friction. On the face of it, such friction should have been avoided: indeed, the Volta River Authority is at pains to point out that it made every effort to design the new villages “to maintain the traditional life-style as closely as possible”. To that end, recalls the ex-chief executive of the VRA, settlers were housed “in their own tribal or clan groupings . . . With the same neighbours as in their original settlements”. [14]

Nonetheless, in the design of the settlers’ houses, the VRA made a fatal error. They omitted to take into account the size and structure of the traditional family unit.

“Polygamous for the most part, the settlers objected to the concrete houses which had been constructed for them by the Volta River Authority” reports Stanley Johnson, now a member of the European Parliament. “It was not the concrete they minded. On the contrary, a concrete house back in his ‘home town’ is the average Ghanaian’s idea of paradise. . . . No, what bothered them was the size. In the traditional village houses, the wives had separate rooms. The man moved from one room to the other, changing monthly or weekly, depending on taste or circumstances – whether a wife was pregnant or lactating, for instance. The new houses offered only one room for the man and all the wives.” [15]

In its defence, the VRA argued that it always intended the settlers themselves to expand their houses – and had given them space to do so. Few villagers, however, had the wherewithal even to maintain their houses, let alone add to them. Indeed, Akosambo – the model village built to house construction workers at the dam site – has now fallen into such a state of disrepair that it is not little more than a slum.

Whatever the prestige value of concrete houses, building in concrete has brought its own problems. Concrete houses are singularly unsuited to Ghana’s climate, being hotter during the day and colder at night than traditional mud and thatch houses. That much was admitted by the VRA. In fact, the Authority initially considered using traditional building material but decided against it: “The time required to carry out construction in local materials would have been much too long for the overall project schedule”. [16] Expediency was thus allowed to take precedence over the comfort of settlers.

More serious still, the decision to build in concrete meant that settlers could often no longer undertake their own building. Where once materials had been freely available, they now had to be bought on the open market. That change had implications far beyond the envious loss of self-sufficiency – a point well made by Amos Rapoport, senior Lecturer in architecture at the University of Sydney. Discussing the general problem of housing design and cultural change, he points out:

“The building of houses in a traditional society is more than an economic or technical activity: it is frequently co-operative and this co-operation sets up networks of obligations, solidarity of community etc. A change to building carried out by experts for cash may lead to disruption of these social arrangements – a substitution of the moral order by a merely technical one with far ranging consequences.” [17]

Although not directly affected by the Volta Dam (or any other large-scale water project), the Nabdam people of Northern Ghana provide a good example of Rapoport’s point. The Nabdam live in family compounds, consisting typically of a man, his wives and their children. (Like most of the tribes in the area, the Nabdam are polygamous). As the heads of households die, or men get married, so new compounds are built and old ones are expanded. Until recently, such building work was carried out by the men of the compound, with the women taking an active part in the planning and decorating of new houses. Ian Archer, an architect who has made an extensive study of Nabdam settlement patterns, describes the building of a new house after a man has got remarried:

“Traditionally, when a man takes a new wife, the general distribution of the new buildings is discussed by the family and the Tendaana and marked out on the ground. The buildings are then erected by the men, and rendered and decorated by the women who are to occupy them. The wall paintings are bold and, within limits, exciting varied from house to house, so that each woman’s domain is physically and stylistically delineated.” [18] (The Tendaana – or ‘custodian of the earth’ – is a tribal priest.)

Today, much has changed. Many Nabdams now take jobs in the South, returning with enough money to employ builders to put up their compounds. The new buildings bear little resemblance to traditional Nabdam houses: indeed, Archer argues that the introduction of professional builders has spelled the end for traditional housing styles – not least because people are no longer able to participate in ‘the tailoring’ of their homes. Certainly, his description of one of the new compounds – belonging, in this instance, to the son of a local chief – highlights the difference between the ancient and the modern in Nabdam:

“Sampana had lived in the South for many years and when he returned North he built a compound closely resembling those built by the Ashanti, with a corrugated aluminium roof. It is probably significant that this compound was almost always empty of people. The sharp definition of inside and outside space does not equal the range of environments produced by the screens, walls and semi-enclosures of the traditional construction, which so aptly accommodates the complex climate, and the segmented living pattern of the Nabdam. The traditional form of building can be manipulated to create easily a small environment for each wife. The wife will normally decorate the walls of her area by finger-marking the wet rendering as she applies it. Abstract patterns are then applied with vegetable dyes. Sampana’s compound had none of this and one felt that the women had been unable to identify with their homes.

“In many respects, the Nabdams are fortunate. At least, the changes brought about in their traditional settlement patterns and housing designs have been introduced by fellow Nabdams – not forced upon them by an anonymous bureaucracy. Even so, Archer warns that the subtle social effects of those changes are already making themselves felt. In doing so, he makes an important point: “The impact of change in the area is all the more apparent because of the synthesis of all aspects of Nabdam life. Time has mellowed and refined their farming techniques, their architecture and their social conduct so that all are an essential part of total existence.” [20]

The cultural ‘coherence’ is by no means unique to the Nabdam. Time and again, anthropologist have noted how in tribal societies, all aspects of daily life – from the religious to the economic – fit together to form a unified whole. With regard to tribal settlement patterns, for example, it has long been observed that the arrangement of houses is not random: rather it reflects a tribe’s social structure and – in some cases – its cosmology. Those same concerns also influence the design of houses in traditional societies. Rare – if not unknown – is the house whose design if purely functional.

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