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Nema is neoliberal and is selective on land evictions

Lubigi wetland evictions

Lubigi wetland evictions

An interesting intervention in the ongoing National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) evictions has been provided by Dr Jimmy Spire Ssentongo, in form of a cartoon.

In it, it seems to me, a man from NEMA had revisited a wetland to update a public signage, according to which all residents were reminded that ‘building in wetlands is illegal’ in Uganda.

While this reminder may be seen as clear enough, residents were not sure whether it actually meant what it said. For in practice, the law does not apply to everyone. So, in Spire’s cartoon, the man from NEMA, armed with an orange paint enclosed in a yellow container, goes back to the wetland to clarify matters.

While it remains true that ‘building in wetlands is illegal’ in Uganda, an orange sub-text is appended to the original in the public signage: ‘if you are poor.’

It is interesting to think through this critical intervention in making sense of these ongoing NEMA evictions. Even if NEMA itself will never update its public notices to read that, in fact, it is illegal for the poor to build in wetlands, its law enforcement practices infuse truth into such an idea.

For in fact, those perceived as poor, those subsisting and reproducing their modest lives in wetlands, are the targets of our ‘principle public agency’ charged with ‘environmental management’ responsibilities. In an important sense, therefore, Spire’s depiction is an important take on public perception, itself informed by practices of NEMA’s staff at work.

What we see thus far is an agency that operates while wearing classist lenses. We curse it for its double standards, for its unequal implementation of otherwise unquestionable environmental laws, for targeting the poor.

It seems we are willing to sacrifice those wretched in our midst for as long as everyone having anything to do with protected wetlands is evicted – including that chain of ‘industries’ located in wetlands across the country. The attempt, thus far, is to address a seemingly contradictory and inconsistent mode in which NEMA does its work.

Yet, if we probe further with the aid of particular questions, it may as well be the case that there is nothing contradictory or inconsistentin NEMA’s war against the poor in wetlands. NEMA cannot be seen as a state agency doing environmental watchdog(ing) as an end in itself.

In fact, it describes its work through the language of ‘environmental management’, and it organizes all its environmental management activities in order “to contribute to socio-economic development and wise use of natural resources” and spaces like wetlands.

Thus, however horrible it definitely is, NEMA would justify its eviction of hundreds off Lubigi wetland (save for a major fuel-vending establishment) by arguing that as far as it is concerned, the affected hundreds were not using the wetland “wisely.” We cannot make sense of how exactly these terms are defined if we engage NEMA as if it exists in a vacuum.

To understand how NEMA defines “wise use” of natural resources and spaces like wetlands, we have to constantly remind ourselves that NEMA is an agency of a nation-state that is at once postcolonial and neoliberal. From the operations of this agency, it is obvious that the neoliberal logic of our state is fully embodied in it as a guiding rationality.

Thus, when it sees its activities as contributing to “socio-economic development and wise use of natural resources,” in practice, these terms are simply translated into promoting only those activities that can be justified as contributing to economic growth. NEMA approaches wetlands and the environment in general as a scarce economic resource, on or out of which market-destined products must be generated.

It does not matter to such an agency that, in the name of economic growth and pushing export volumes, an ‘investor’ is singlehandedly dismantling hectares of a regional wetland to do rice farming. But it will use all its power to evict an old woman subsisting on a piece of a wetland with some of her orphaned grandchildren.

NEMA will violently put her humble home to the ground, and extend the same violence to her crops. This is for the simple reason that: NEMA rightly sees no connection between the activities of this old woman to its economic growth-oriented conception of ‘wise use.’

With such an understanding, our NEMA ceases to be what its public image deceptively suggests. Contrary to being a public agency guarding against reckless destruction of our part of the planet, NEMA is coordinating its ruthless destruction by capitalist projects of all kinds.

If NEMA is doing environmental protection work, it is only protecting wetlands and the environment more broadly for big capitalist projects, and from encroaching on poor natives. With such an understanding, we can see the futility of all ongoing pleas for NEMA to enforce environmental laws in a non-discriminatory manner.

After all, such fairness would still be extremely unfair and unacceptable to those who are forced by our economic and political circumstances to look for basic material sustenance in these wetlands. In our neoliberal political setting, NEMA is an agent of neoliberal forces. It prides itself in middlemanship, overseeing and coordinating the effective destruction of our critical natural spaces such as wetlands by big capital projects.

To think that this is a harsh accusation is to forget that all those large assembling plants dubbed industries sited in wetlands were sanctioned and legalized by the state through NEMA. How else can we justify their protected presence in these places?

This is the predicament in which we find ourselves today. It is difficult to imagine how such an entity can act otherwise. A modest way to begin is to disestablish NEMA itself.

The writer is a PhD fellow at MISR, Makerere University.

X: @adventino88

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