3. From extraction to caring for creation

We see the interplay of connection and extraction throughout our history and across our land. At this moment, when the climate crisis threatens us all, we recognise that we have not done enough to care for the wellbeing of people or the natural world that God made and on which we rely. People are an integral part of the natural world. As we rebuild from the COVID-19 pandemic we have an opportunity to reset our health systems and our relationship with the natural world – so that the whole of creation can flourish.

Land is an important aspect of Africa identity. African soil carries our stories, our birth and our culture. It has also been the site of death, of dispossession and of disconnection. Our deeply held value of ubuntu has been affronted by centuries of exploitation of people and the rest of creation for financial gain.

In Eden our original purpose was to tend a garden fed by rivers. We lived in harmony with nature, and in Genesis 1, we see that God declared all creation to be very good. After the Fall, these relationships were broken, but God’s work is restoration. He partners with us to care for, not extract from or destroy, all creation – from the soil to every person who lives and tends it.

Who owns and benefits from land, and natural resources both on land and in the ocean, is critical to creation flourishing – and is often disputed. Control of land was a key pillar of colonialism in Africa. In the 21st century this pursuit has continued in a different form as foreign investors and governments seek to acquire resource-rich African land. How much land? The lack of records and transparency makes it difficult to know, but for a sense of scale, in just five years nearly 2.5 million hectares of agricultural land from just five African countries were transferred in large-scale acquisitions. This is happening in the context of persistent land and border disputes, often driven by a complex interplay of historic disagreements, trauma, cycles of violence, cattle raiding, and competition for natural resources. Over 20 million people across Africa are separated from their land, living as refugees or Internally Displaced Persons.

And yet the land continues to hold deep spiritual meaning and economic significance. Seven out of ten Africans depend on agriculture for their livelihoods.95 But the life-giving quality of the land that our growing population relies on is under threat. Ecosystem destruction from human activities takes many forms. Deforestation. Mining. Extraction of fossil fuels. The result is fragmentation, biodiversity loss and degradation of the land that God made and we depend on – often while exploiting local communities.

The climate crisis is already exacerbating these threats. In 2019 in Mozambique, the strongest storm to ever hit Africa left 374,000 people in need.96 Flooding in 2020 affected six million people in East Africa, destroying homes and livelihoods. The dry seasons across the Sahel are getting longer, threatening a thousand-year-old tradition of pastoralism that over 20 million people rely on. The climate crisis threatens us all, but it affects people living in poverty the most. African nations have contributed the least to the climate crisis, and yet there are already 86 million internal climate migrants in sub-Saharan Africa.

These and the COVID-19 virus100 are just the first pangs of a growing environmental crisis. They show the gap between lived reality and our goals for prosperity (Aspiration 1), health and wellbeing (SDG 3), responsible consumption and production (SDG 12), and climate action (SDG 13). As we build back better from the pandemic, we have an opportunity to reset exploitative practices and find ways for all of creation – people and planet – to thrive.

Abundant ideas for caring for creation

We therefore call on…

Churches to model and teach inclusive and sustainable land use and management. Churches could play a significant role in caring for the environment as they own considerable land in cities and rural areas. Some churches have been implicated in land grabs under the colonial system and have often promoted a Western approach that encourages utilitarian use of land. These are areas that need to be approached with repentance and humility, but in leading by example the church could be a powerful voice in shaping land use in the future, both culturally and ecologically. Church land should become sites for modelling and teaching sustainable land practices based on sustainable agriculture principles, like the Foundations for Farming scheme.

Governments to invest in local community health systems that are low-cost and create dignified local jobs. Good community health systems have played a key role in limiting the spread of COVID-19 in Africa. At the same time, the pandemic has highlighted that we have not done enough to invest in the wellness and wholeness of people. We need a healthcare system that integrates communities and faith-based organisations as key trusted and influential contributors. These systems should be low-cost and low-carbon, improving health through reducing waste and pollution, and creating dignified jobs and strengthening local economies.

Governments and the AU to promote and implement secure, inclusive and equitable land-tenure systems for community lands and individual plots. Legally recognised indigenous and community lands have been shown to be better at decreasing deforestation rates, reducing emissions and actually storing carbon. Ensuring the rights of communities and families living in informal settlements and slums creates a sense of belonging and makes them less susceptible to corruption or exploitation. Increasing the efficiency and transparency of land administration services through new low-cost global positioning systems is a key step in empowering communities. It’s not enough to recognise the rights of land ownership; laws and regulations that recognise ownership by local communities, indigenous peoples and women need to be implemented so they can benefit from Africa’s land.

Governments to incorporate nature-based solutions into national development plans and climate plans and to invest in the restoration of ecosystems. The five-yearly review cycles of these legislated plans enable citizens and local communities to monitor and engage as active champions of the environment they depend on. This will help facilitate green investment and set countries on a path to a low-carbon and sustainable future.

Governments to deliver on their commitment to allocate 10% of public expenditure to agriculture. There should be a clear budget line dedicated to sustainable agriculture and at least 10% of the annual agricultural budget allocated to sustainable agriculture to facilitate the prioritisation of sustainable production and support to smallholder farmers.

Governments to end subsidies to harmful extractive industries (especially carbon extractives) as a first step to radically reducing their impact. Our economic recovery cannot be built on industries that pollute the environment and exploit people. We should shift towards nurturing industries, such as renewable energy, which create dignified green jobs. Where it is necessary to mine, governments must ensure that environmental and social restitution leaves the area twice as healthy as when the extraction began.