A changing climate demands change in narratives

Last year I wrote — here and here — about my study of how media portrayals of pastoralists in China, India and Kenya can contribute to policy narratives that limit people’s resilience to climatic variability. IIED has now published my research and a short briefing paper that presents the main findings and recommendations.

Here is a summary of the research paper, which you can download here [PDF].

Resilient food systems depend on appropriate policies that enable people to take advantage of their own adaptive capacity. Pastoralists use their mobility to take advantage of resources – pasture and water – that are patchily distributed in space and time. Pastoralism can make major contributions to food security, livelihoods and economic prosperity. However, these benefits often go unacknowledged – by policy makers, donors and the public at large. This is in part because of development and media narratives that paint pastoralism as something bad that needs to change. This paper explores how the media portrays pastoralism. To do so, we analysed the content of newspaper articles about pastoralists in Kenya, China and India, and also invited journalists in these countries to complete an online survey and telephone interview. We identified significant gaps – and inter-country differences – in the media’s portrayal of pastoralists.

And here is a summary of the briefing paper, which you can download here [PDF].

Mobile pastoralism contributes substantially to food security, livelihoods and economic prosperity, and can increase resilience to climate change; but policymakers, donors and the public at large tend not to appreciate its benefits. Policy narratives portray pastoralism as an outdated practice, and the media stories that help shape policy processes and public opinion often contribute to these false portrayals. An IIED study analysed the content of stories from media outlets in Kenya, China and India, and surveyed journalists in each country. It identified significant knowledge gaps and inter-country differences in how journalists perceive and portray pastoralists and pastoralism. The analysis also found that media outlets in these countries under-report climate change, the economic value of pastoralism and the links between pastoralist mobility and resilience. Journalists, researchers and pastoralist communities need to work together to improve media coverage of pastoralism, and by doing so highlight pastoralism’s potential contribution to sustainable development in a changing climate.

Guardian ‘international development journalism’ contest excludes journalists from developing nations — again

[I am reposting this piece from 12 March 2012 today, as once again the contest is for UK writers only.  Once again it invites writers who ‘have never been to the developing world‘ to submit articles rather than inviting journalists who know their stories intimitately. ]

Once again The Guardian has announced a journalism competition that has international development as its theme, but which excludes journalists in developing countries from entering. Continue reading

Why following the herd can be good for journalists

Banditry, robberies, infiltration of small arms, poaching in the region’s game reserves and national parks and frequent outbreak of livestock diseases are now being attributed to the uncontrolled movement of pastoralists and their animals.

This sentence, from a 2006 article in Kenya’s The Nation newspaper, encapsulates the way the country’s nomadic herders have been — and continue to be — portrayed in the media there. It echoes the dominant policy narrative, which says pastoralism is a backward system that takes place a harsh, unproductive environment and that when herders move to seek water and pasture they create problems for other people.

But this, say researchers, is a dangerous narrative, one that is blind to the true nature of the lands the pastoralists move across and to the knowledge they draw upon to take advantage of resources that are distributed there in an unpredictable way.

Today, the meat and milk pastoralists provide help to feed a nation. As the climate grows more variable, these people could become even more important cornerstones of Kenya’s economy and food security.

But, in the pages of newspapers there, the herders are not heroes — they are harbingers of conflict and other problems. In short, Kenya’s pastoralists have an image problem. This much became clear when I analysed 100 stories about pastoralists that Kenyan newspapers published between 2000 and 2012.

My study, which will also examine articles from India and China, is part of a larger Ford Foundation funded project. It aims to promote more progressive narratives, and policies that support mobile pastoralism as a rational, productive livelihood in lands where water and vegetation vary in space and time. Some patterns soon emerged:

  • In Kenya, pastoralists tend to feature only in ‘bad-news’ stories – 93% of the media reports referred to conflict or drought.
  • While 51% of stories that mention conflict presented pastoralists as a cause of problems, only 5.7% suggested that pastoralists might be the victims of the actions (or inactions) of others (e.g. farmers or government policies).
  • An astonishing 22% of all articles referred to pastoralists as “invaders” or as having “invaded” land.
  • Pastoralists have little voice. They were quoted in only 41% of the stories journalists wrote about them.

I supplemented my content analysis with an online survey that 42 Kenyan journalists completed. “The media only gives special attention to pastoralists when there is a crisis, like a major drought or famine where large numbers of people and animals have died,” said one. Another said: “Pastoralism is generally ignored. It only makes headlines when there is cattle-rustling and scores of people are killed.”

I asked the journalists to state five words they associated with pastoralists. The figure below shows the words they chose, with word-size reflecting how often a journalist used it.

It’s a problematic portrait. Yet when asked more specific questions, the journalists revealed knowledge and opinions that seem to contradict the dominant media narrative.

Most (91 per cent) of the journalists acknowledge, for instance, the importance of pastoralism to Kenya’s economy, with more than half of them stating that this is major. This surprised me, given that this was invisible in the stories I analysed. Only 4 per cent of them mentioned it, and not one published a figure such as a shilling, dollar or GDP value.

Other things the journalists said suggest that there is an opportunity for a new narrative to emerge in the Kenyan media, one that does not ignore the social, economic and environmental benefits pastoralists provide.

“The media has neglected pastoralism, since its takes place in far flung areas of northern Kenya which the government has neglected for years,” said one journalist. Another noted that: “Pastoralism has a chance to become a key growth sector for Kenya’s economy if supported by media and policy makers alike.”

A 2011 article, by Peter Mutai for China’s Xinhua news agency, shows another narrative is possible. It manages to overturn much of the prevailing one in just its opening sentence:

As hunger spreads among more than 12 million people in the Horn of Africa, a new study finds that investments aimed at increasing the mobility of livestock herders, a way of life often viewed as “backward” despite being the most economical and productive use of Kenya’s drylands, could be the key to averting future food crises in arid lands.

Mobility is the key that pastoralists use to unlock the scattered riches of Kenya’s drylands. The landscape may appear barren, extreme and risky to city-based journalists but the pastoralists have the knowledge and skills to take advantage of the land’s variability and diversity.

The old proverb that says “a fool looks for dung where a cow has never grazed” can perhaps be turned on its head to serve as a reminder of the riches – of stories and more – that a reporter can find if they follow the herd.

[This post was first published on the IIED blog]

Journalists are dying to tell stories of environmental plunder

It’s a sad reflection of reality that my first reaction to the news of Hang Serei Oudom’s murder was not one of shock or surprise.

The Cambodian journalist’s body was found last week in the boot of his own car. He had apparently been axed to death just days after reporting on links between the military and illegal logging there.

Oudom’s story was just the latest in a series that had shed light on the corruption and criminality that are tearing Cambodia’s forests apart for quick bucks to line powerful pockets. As the Bangkok Post reports, a military policeman has now been charged with his murder.

My lack of surprise as this grisly crime stemmed from the fact that Oudom is not alone, as I have noted in an earlier post here called ‘They kill environment journalists, don’t they?’.

It describes how journalists in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the former Soviet Union have been intimidated, threatened, beaten or even killed for coming too close to exposing the ways powerful figures enrich themselves while harming the environment that everyone else depends on.

The extent of these threats to environment journalists makes a mockery of the 20-year old commitment by almost all nations on Earth to ensure that the public has access to adequate information about the environment and can participate in decision-making about how it is managed.

Press freedom is key to delivering that information but, too often, powerful figures in governments, the military and environmentally destructive sectors see local journalists as nuisances who can be intimidated, bought off or shut up forever.

With the internet at our fingertips there is no longer any reason for such elites to succeed in silencing the stories of their plunder and what they are prepared to do to sustain it.

What’s needed now is for journalists across the world to join the dots. Because blood spilt in – for instance — a tropical forest can often be connected now with notes deposited in a Western bank or luxury hardwoods bought in a high-street store in China or Chicago.

When a journalist dies to tell a story, it becomes a story that deserves an audience like no other. When that story is about the flows of money and natural resources that make tough men rich and put poor people in peril, it doesn’t take much effort to see that it is a story that can touch us all.

[This post first appeared on Andy Revkin’s Dot Earth blog at the New York Times website]