October 17, 2019

Opinion: Fishing in Africa

To meet Ikal Angelei in a Wilshire Boulevard coffee shop, as I did this week, is to traverse oceans and travel through deserts. Angelei is an activist from Kenya specializing in the geopolitics of water, a 32-year-old powerhouse who just won a highly prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, said to be the “the largest award in the world for grassroots environmentalists.” The award, for which she was sponsored by the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) and which brings with it $150,000, was created by the late San Francisco-based philanthropic couple Richard N. and Rhoda H. Goldman, who in addition to their environmental advocacy were active supporters of the arts and Jewish culture.

It’s a long way from our world to Angelei’s, but hers is an important story for us all — raising issues of how our tax dollars are spent in faraway lands, how genocide can be prevented, how the effects of global warming have become very real to some people, and how one person can make a very big difference just by lending an ear and using her voice.

Angelei is fighting to save her land’s most important natural resource. East Africa’s Rift Valley and Lake Turkana is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the source of some of the world’s oldest fossils, as well as for its crocodiles, hippos and other wildlife. The region is home to six tribes of indigenous peoples who are farmers, herders and fishermen, and who in recent years have begun to fight one another for resources for their crops and their cattle.

“These people don’t see borders,” Angelei told me. “They see the delta that once was in Ethiopia, and now it’s in Kenya. They don’t understand the difference.” Over the past 40 years, due to climate change, the lake has receded, decreasing water supply — and increasing the salinity of what is left — a problem both for animals and for people.

“Last year, we lost 124 people in one day of violence,” Angelei told me with a disarming equanimity. She said she was in the village of Todonyang, in the northeastern corner of the Turkana region, when the attack took place. “I work in that village, and I still sleep there. My family hates that I do.”

The intertribal violence will get worse and likely could turn into all-out genocide, Angelei predicts, if a dam called the Gibe 3 Dam is completed along the Omo River, the source of 90 percent of Lake Turkana’s water, the life source for a region whose indigenous population numbers about 500,000 people. The dam project, begun in 2006 in Ethiopia, is designed to provide hydroelectric power to both Ethiopia and Kenya, supported by both nations.

Normally, we might think that providing electricity is a good thing in a primitive region, right? The problem is the Gibe 3 Dam, often compared to China’s Three Gorges Dam, would, Angelei asserts, severely damage the lake and leave people without food or livelihood.

Think of the violence and destruction in the Sudan — of the advocacy work now being done to repair lives — and consider how that could be the future of this region of Kenya, an entirely preventable outcome if construction of the dam is reconsidered. Because when the plans for the Gibe 3 Dam were put in place, no independent environmental review was done. The fact is, the dam wasn’t being built just to bring electrical power to people, Angelei says; the project, funded in part by China and, initially, with money promised by the World Bank, was expected to encourage multinational corporations to get a foothold in the region.

For the moment, Angelei, this fearless young woman with an enormously bright smile, is attempting to bring a different kind of power — a voice — to her community. And she’s had some success. She is a community organizer, and she has told the story of the coming dam to tribal elders, chiefs and anyone who will listen. Before her, they knew nothing about it, despite its looming impact. Angelei described to me how she has sat for hours listening to elders tell their own stories, just so she could get a chance to share hers as well. And in the process, she’s brought together all six tribes with just one cause: halting the construction. In 2009, the locals created a “Lake Turkana’s People’s Declaration” allowing Angelei’s organization, Friends of Lake Turkana, to represent them.

Angelei and other tribal members took their mandate to Kenya’s leaders and convinced its parliament to endorse the first independent environmental review of the project. She also was instrumental in getting UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee to pass a resolution to halt construction of the dam until further review, and she convinced the World Bank, the European Investment Bank and the African Development Bank to withdraw consideration of financing of the dam. For the moment, her voice — the people’s voice — has been heard.

So what’s our part in all of this? Allison Lee, the L.A. regional director for AJWS, host for Angelei’s visit to Los Angeles, explained that U.S. tax dollars support aid to foreign lands through the U.S. Farm Bill, which is up for reconsideration right now in the U.S. Senate. What makes this related to Angelei’s cause is that our Farm Bill, as currently written, only supports food aid to foreign lands through delivery of food products from the United States. This does not allow for how our gift might affect food production there. U.S. food gets delivered to, say, Kenya, and as a result, local farmers can’t afford to price their own goods competitively. Add that challenge to drought, wars over rights to build a dam, and we’re all complicit in a potential collision of interests where the indigenous men, women and children on the ground get hurt.

What can we do? We can advocate for reform in the Farm Bill. We can support the Friends of Lake Turkana and their right to have a voice in determining what happens to their land. In doing so, we will help prevent genocide. These farmers and fishermen need our advocacy for their efforts, not our food. As Lee put it, “We need to recognize that Ikal [Angelei] and the people in Ikal’s village are best-suited to implement change.”

Maimonides taught us that the highest form of charity is to teach a man to support himself. Similarly, an ancient Chinese proverb instructs: “Give a man a fish, and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he can feed himself for life.” 

These people know how to fish. They want to care for themselves. What we have to do is figure out how to help people like Angelei to allow them to keep their resources and their ability to continue to do so.