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date: 25 March 2023

Environmental Governance and the (Re-)Making of the African Statefree

Environmental Governance and the (Re-)Making of the African Statefree

  • Maano RamutsindelaMaano RamutsindelaDepartment of Environmental and Geographical Science, University of Cape Town
  •  and Bram BüscherBram BüscherDepartment of Geography, Environmental Management and Energy Studies, University of Johannesburg


State formation processes that are historically associated with the emergence of the modern state as well as the post-colony have been punctuated by the rise of environmentalism, especially the need for nation-states to respond to, as well as manage environmental challenges. Responses to these challenges by multiple actors such as the state, industry, environmental nongovernmental organizations, and financial institutions culminate in environmental governance and in the co-constitution of environment and state making. The state–environment relations have produced new forms of governmentality that refocus the activities of the state toward globally defined environmental agendas. In Africa attempts by multiple actors to manage the environment have transformed the state in five principal ways: (1) They enable global capitalism to enroll African environments in a niche area for capital accumulation but also tie up African governments to environmentally related business interests; (2) environmental governance in Africa and elsewhere leads to resistance and contestations over natural resources that in turn shape the relationship between the state and its citizens; (3) global environmental issues have led to environmental solidarity among African states, which they use to negotiate environmental agreements at the international stage; (4) environmental threats such as the poaching of wildlife in Africa integrate African states into global security frameworks that in effect threaten or corrode the integrity of the African state; and (5) environmental challenges and the opportunities that come with environmental solutions create conditions for competition among African states as well as the formation of new alliances among states. These outcomes highlight the significance of the state–environment nexus in the continuous (re-)making of the African state.


  • Governance/Political Change


States and environments share complex, co-evolutionary histories in which the state—among others—interacted with and used the environment and natural resources to consolidate, expand, and express its power. As governmental power often rested on the control and management of the environment, for example, it was in the state’s interest to shape knowledge of the environment, as evident in state-sponsored science such as forestry (Peluso & Vandergeest, 2001; Whitehead, 2017). More generally, state–environment relations have changed continuously, including from earlier orthodoxies to newer forms focused on biopolitical governmentality (i.e., the use of state power in the control of the environment and its relation to the governance of people) (Mills, 2017; Whitehead, 2017). Environmental governance, however, cannot be reduced to the state, as it involves states, nongovernmental organizations, civil society, financial institutions, industry, and other actors in governing the environment and in steering society toward environmental goals (Adger & Jordan, 2009). But this is not to say that the state is not crucial; environmental governance still often derives—centrally or partially—from state-led forms of environmental protection through regulations or the protection of people from environmental threats. This latter role is amplified during times of natural disasters, where environmental imperatives and societal needs clash and interact in unexpected ways. But as is discussed here, it is not just environmental-related disasters that reveal the biases the state maintains toward anthropocentric (human-centered) or ecocentric (environment-centered) forms of environmental governance.

This article emphasizes various elements in the relation between environmental governance and state making in Africa, thereby moving beyond the idea of the so-called green state, defined by Eckersley (2004, p. 3) as “a democratic state whose regulatory ideals and democratic procedures are informed by ecological democracy rather than liberal democracy.” Rather, it highlights a variety of elements on different levels and the ways they make, remake, and influence the African state and its role in environmental governance. A central premise hereby is that environmental governance is by its nature a sphere for political thought and action: it takes place at various levels, each level being characterized by dynamic power relations. Three considerations inform the focus of this article. First, the article confirms but also elaborates the view that the green state is a product of global forces, policies, and actions that (at least partially) (re)focus the activities of the state toward globally defined environmental agendas (Death, 2016). Second, it focuses on how these dynamics and relations are shaped by international regimes and (extra-) local parameters that define, enable, and constrain responsibilities and actions of states while also emphasizing environmental rights (Whitehead, 2017). This means taking into account “the norms, rules and institutions that regulate the decisions, actions and interactions of government, civil society and the private sector in relation to the environment” (UNEP, 2013, p. 6). Third and finally, the article emphasizes more structural power dynamics, especially the ways in which global capitalism influences forms of environmental governance and in turn forms of state making as a continually changing dynamic.

The article takes the view that there is a co-constitution in how environmental issues transform the African state as well as the role that the African state plays in (transforming) environmental governance. This role can best be understood by reference to changing state–environment relations and the political dynamics those relations engender. While Africa offers a good platform on which to discuss most environmental issues in relation to society and to the protection of nature, the focus in this article is on environmental agendas and policies at three main levels, namely global, regional, and local. It is acknowledged here that environmental problems and solutions cannot be confined to each of these levels. They cut across the global-local continuum and therefore demand flexible environmental governance frameworks and structures for managing the environment within and across scales (Callaghy, Kassimir, & Latham, 2001; Durant, Fiorino, & O’Leary, 2017). More importantly for this article, however, is the point that these complex, overlapping, and competing environmental governance frameworks “(re)make” the African state in equally complex ways.

The article proceeds from the premise that environmental issues profoundly shape the state in Africa. Death (2016) noted that the ways in which states govern environmental issues and the consequent resistance and contestation shape and reproduce states themselves. He argues that environmental issues are a useful avenue for understanding how African states, just like other states, have a Janus face (see also Mamdani, 1996). They use environmental issues to claim their place on the world stage while their political legitimacy is co-dependent on environmental policy outcomes and interventions at national and subnational levels, where the relations between the state and its citizens are enacted. The key features of environmental governance that enable, constrain, or otherwise influence state making in Africa discussed in this article are global environmental platforms, regional environmental policy, and localized environmental issues. The aim is to show how these features are useful for understanding the ways in which the state–environment nexus is constituted, how it unfolds under various conditions, and what state forms this may engender. The approach used in this article is to discuss, per “level,” the key features of environmental governance in general terms and thereafter demonstrate how it plays out in and “(re)makes” African states. This way it is possible to avoid a narrow view of African states but also to appreciate how environmental governance shapes the African state sometimes in surprising and unexpected ways.

Before continuing, it is worth emphasizing that African states are diverse. They can—and should—be differentiated in many ways including by their national economies, by governance performance, and by environmental-related indices. Notwithstanding this variation, all African states are affected by international environmental agreements, conventions, and treaties to which they are signatories. It is for this reason that the African Union has sought to adopt the common African position on these agreements as an attempt to present a unified voice of African states as well as to protect Africa’s interests. The point here is that environment issues cut across different categories of African states and that they are also crucial for the re-making of all African states.

Global Environmental Platforms

The health of the planet and its effects on people has been a subject of much discussion in the second half of the 20th century, arguably culminating into the “Anthropocene” debates in the early 21st century. At the core of the debates is the extent to which humans have profoundly changed the environment and how the devastating effects of this change should be managed for the future of humanity and of that of the planet (Steffen et al., 2015). Many efforts have been made to mobilize the global community to respond to environmental challenges. These include the Club of Rome’s projects on the predicament of humankind, the Movement for Survival’s Blueprint for Survival, a global agenda for change of the United Nations Commission on Environment and Development, environmental regimes on climate change, biodiversity, and others, and the 2015 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Most of these initiatives have focused on building policy frameworks and so-called environmental regimes, with associated obligations. These have had some success, but challenges remain plentiful and critical (Miles et al., 2001). Environmental challenges have prompted scholars and policymakers to work toward some form of planetary or “earth system” governance (Biermann, 2014), or the centralization of international environmental governance under one umbrella institution (Charnovitz, 2005). The call for environmental governance at the world scale is made on the premise that the nation-state is incapable of addressing and managing transboundary environmental problems (Speth & Haas, 2007; Durant et al., 2017). Though a “one world with one government” scenario is still far away, many forms of global environmental governance have developed through conventions, protocols, and treaties. Yet global environmental platforms and regimes are characterized by power imbalances among states; they reveal different interpretations and understandings of environmental problems and solutions; and they bring to the fore various value systems that play out in the environmental domain (Okereke, 2008). What do all these mean for the making of African states?

State making in Africa has been a subject of much debate by traditionalist and modernist theorists of the African state since independence. The question at the core of the debate has been how to reconstitute the African state from the ashes of the precolonial and colonial state, as well as from post-independence experiences, especially intra-state power dynamics related to social, political, and economic conditions (Boone, 2003; Englebert, 1997; Goody, 2018; Herbst, 2014; Mamdani, 1996; Samatar & Samatar, 2002; Young, 2004; Táíwò, 2010). The external influences on this process were linked to the paralysis of the state by Cold War politics and by the brutal forces of global capitalism (Levitsky & Way, 2010). Structural Adjustments Programmes (SAPs) of the World Bank and the International Monetary Funds restructured the African state in the 1980s with devastating social and economic consequences. SAPs are evidence of how African states are shaped by external forces, including global capitalism; but they also show that state making involves state breaking as well. State breaking takes place in various forms and is generally characterized by collapsing or fundamentally reconfiguring existing state institutions. Global capitalism sees this as a necessary condition for reconstituting the state in the interest of capital. The role played by the environment in shaping the state is often ignored in scholarly analyses, yet global environmental regimes are involved in state making that sometimes requires state breaking.

In the world economy, as in international affairs, African states and other states in the Global South participate in global environmental governance as unequal partners. Most global environmental agendas are set by countries in the Global North to secure their interests in natural resources, many of which are found in the Global South. Examples of this are policies on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) and on the conservation of biological diversity (Okereke, 2008; Asiyanbi, 2017). Global environmental policies impact on African states in different ways: They trigger competition and solidarity among states and lead to new forms of environment-related insecurities. African states have used environmental issues to compete for resources and for political status among themselves. For example, South Africa hosted two major international events of environmental significance, namely the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002 and the World Parks Congress held in Durban in 2003. As these events were held on African soil for the first time, South Africa used then to consolidate its soft power on the continent (Cornelissen, 2010; Death, 2016). In fact, South Africa claimed that it hosted these events on behalf of the continent and also for the benefit of the whole of Africa. Some critical commentators have, however, said that instead of bolstering the African state, these global events have bolstered the grip of international capital on the African state (Bond, 2002).

Yet apart from spurring competition, environmental issues have also enabled African states to forge a common position on the world stage. For example, following the adoption of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the United Nations in September 2015, Rwanda positioned itself as the hub of SDGs in Africa through the establishment of the Kigali-based Sustainable Development Goals Center for Africa. The Sustainable Development Goals Center for Africa (2016, p. 2) describes itself as “an autonomous international organization, that provides technical support, and expertise as input to national governments, private sector, civil society, academic institutions to accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda across Africa.” This UN-backed center, claimed to be a homegrown solution, positions Rwanda as a leader on SDGs in Africa (Sustainable Development Goals Center for Africa, 2017). The center has accordingly developed the SDG Index and Dashboard for monitoring the implementation of SDGs on the continent.

Environmental solidarity among African states is sometimes founded on political solidarity, especially the anticolonial struggles waged on the continent. It allows African states to present themselves as a voting bloc and as a unified African voice during negotiations for environmental agreements. To achieve this, the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN) was formed in 1985 to give political guidance to the development of Africa’s common position in multilateral environmental agreements. Since then, it has repeatedly called on highly industrialized countries to fulfill their commitments toward funding climate mitigation programs and other climate-related projects. At the 19th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations in Warsaw in 2015 AMCEN mooted and supported the idea of African Climate Change Fund into which highly industrialized countries are expected to allocate financial resources to Africa as part of their obligation to the climate change regime (African Union, 2015). Of significance to the theme of this article is that developing Africa’s common position in climate change agreements has produced an entirely new governance structure at the continental level, which is anchored on the African Union and constituted by AMCEN, the Committee of African Heads of State and Government on Climate Change, and the African Group of Negotiators on Climate Change.

Many environmental problems are increasingly being associated with national and global security concerns, including migration. Though this association is debatable (Duffy, 2016), rising wildlife crime has brought the African state face-to-face with international interventions such as anti-poaching measures that have huge implications for the security of the state. Measures such as intelligence gathering and the training of anti-poaching units by foreign agencies and individuals mean that African states and their citizens are placed under surveillance while being enabled to themselves become surveillance states with the aim of protecting “environmental assets.” A case in point is Botswana. With its economy dependent on only a few main sectors (including high-end tourism), the Botswana state has made it its explicit purpose to protect these sectors at (nearly) all costs. This includes a staunch “shoot-to-kill” anti-poaching policy that was celebrated by its environment minister at the 2014 World Parks Congress. Yet, the particular state structure this is situated in cannot be easily defined, as the Botswana government has also pursued a developmental policy that leads Hillbom (2011) to argue that Botswana should be seen as a “development-oriented gate-keeping” state. What this means is that Botswana’s “track record of economic growth and social development” should be seen in a larger context of a century-long “lack of committed strategies to encourage the private sector and flawed attempts to diversify the economy” whereby “instead, the government sector has dominated, which in turn has exposed it to elite capture” (Hillbom, 2011, p. 88). Central, therefore, to this state structure is the “close interaction between economic and political structures” (Hillbom, 2011, p. 89), which helps to explain why important resource and revenue sectors, including the environment, are protected at seemingly all cost.

Regional Policy

Taking things down a notch, regional environmental governance shows how the state in Africa is transformed at the supranational level. Regionalism as “a tendency and a political commitment to organise the world in terms of regions” or to pursue specific regional projects (Hettne, 2005, p. 545) became more prominent at the end of the Cold War. It was spurred by a number of factors including the collapse of the divide between the capitalist and the Communist blocs by economic competition and branding in a globalized world, as well as by security imperatives (Hettne, 2005; Levitsky & Way, 2010). These developments, among others, account for the rise in regional governance, in which states and non-state actors collaborate at the supranational level in the form of regional blocs. Africa has eight such regional blocs, which, with the exception of IGAD, occupy a specific geographical area of the continent.1

Though initially founded on political and economic grounds, regional governance in Africa and elsewhere is also environmental (i.e., it involves the collaboration among states in the management of the environment). Three important points to note here are that regionalism, whether in the political or economic spheres, impacts on state sovereignty and therefore shapes the state. It does so by developing common rules and policies that member states are expected to mainstream them into domestic policies. Second, the spatial dimensions of regionalism are made visible through projects. Third, regionalism is characterized by inequalities that sometimes involve the development of a hegemon. All these attributes of regionalism manifest in regional environmental governance of natural resources such as water, minerals, and wildlife. In the water sector, governance at the supranational level is institutionalized through commissions such as the Okavango River Basin Water Commission and the Zambezi Water Commission, and other structures such as the Nile Basin Institute. The main goal of these commissions is to bring together riparian states into the management of water as a shared resource.

The regional governance of water has been marked by cooperation as well as tension and conflict. A common thread that runs through different examples is that riparian states compete for sovereign rights over water, and in the process alliances are formed to push for governance structures that usually favor powerful states. In Africa, one of the most protracted conflicts over shared water resources has been on the Nile River basin. This hydropolitics has dominated the Nile Basin Initiative of 1999 that sought to include all 10 riparian states into the governance structure of the basin (Cascão, 2009). At the same time, it is clear that more powerful states can overpower and “un-make” other states in their quest for water and other resources. One of the most important examples here is the undermining of the Lesotho state by apartheid South Africa in 1986 in order to enable the construction of the Lesotho highlands water project, which brings much-needed water to Johannesburg and Pretoria (Thabane, 2000; Mwangi, 2007).

Like many other environmental resources, the governance of minerals immerses the state into broader geopolitical configurations of trade, politics, and international relations. It is thus important to pay attention to how this configuration engenders forms of governance through which the African state is transformed. Though there is often a highly antagonistic relationship between mining and the environment, it has taken a long time to develop governance structures for managing this dynamic relationship. In the 1990s, the Global Mining Initiative paved the way for conversations between the mining industry and sustainable development through projects such as the Minerals and Sustainable Development (Van Bockstael, 2018). Initiatives that seek to cut the ties between minerals trading and armed conflict have a strong focus on Africa, especially the Great Lakes Region. The environmental governance of minerals habitually takes the form of certification: a process that seeks to promote fair trade globally, to reduce the chances of using minerals in financing wars in the future, and to safeguard the mining industry against infiltration by criminals (Grant & Taylor, 2004; Van Bockstael, 2018). These measures have shifted relations between the state and rebel movements in the Great Lakes Region and in Central Africa, and between the state and other external actors whose economic fortunes and power are codependent on diamonds and coltan (Bleischwitz, Dittrich, & Pierdicca, 2012; Arribas, 2016; Ylönen, 2012). They have weakened state governance in these regions but have also transformed some of them into semi-autocratic states. The crisis of the state in these regions forced other African states to intervene in the 1998–2000 war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Dubbed “Africa’s First World War,” this historic intervention and the resultant regional conflict reveal how the environment is crucial for the formation of alliances among states in the region (Daley, 2006; Mamdani, 2014).

A much different example of regional environmental governance that pulls states into different directions concerns the development of so-called transborder peace parks. In the 1990s international conservation organizations such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lobbied for the establishment of transborder conservation areas around the world. Officially known as transfrontier conservation areas (TFCAs) in southern Africa, these areas are established between two or more countries and are often anchored on existing contiguous protected areas such as national parks and game reserves. They are created on ecological, economic, and political grounds (Büscher, 2013; Ramutsindela, 2007). From an ecological point of view, transborder conservation areas are seen as necessary for recreating and protecting the integrity of ecological systems. They are also an alternative to preserving biodiversity in island-like national parks and crucial for cooperative environmental management. Economically, these areas are viewed as a platform from which to launch an extensive tourism industry, which it is hoped would also spur local economies in impoverished areas. They are, therefore, an avenue for the penetration of capital into nature (Büscher, 2013). Politically, transborder conservation areas are viewed as crucial for conflict resolution as well as for peace building.

Africa has experienced a number of transborder conservation projects. For example, the United Nations Environment Program identified cross-border hotspots in the semi-arid environments of North Africa, and there have been cross-border conservation projects in Central, East, and West Africa (Ramutsindela, 2007). The experimentation with transborder conservation is highly concentrated in the southern African region. The reasons for this are many and include changes in political conditions in southern Africa—the liberation of Namibia, the end of civil war in Mozambique, the end of apartheid rule in South Africa—and the existence of a highly sophisticated environmental movement in the region that has extensive global networks in both business and politics (Büscher, 2013; Ramutsindela, Spierenburg, & Wels, 2011). State capacity and power, however, were crucial in this history, as Ramutsindela (2007) has shown that early on most successful TFCAs all involved South Africa as the state with the most capacity to pursue such complex initiatives.

TFCAs were integrated into the environmental strategy of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) through the SADC Protocol on Wildlife Conservation and Law Enforcement of 1999. The protocol sought to build capacity to manage wildlife as well as to strengthen law enforcement on wildlife. The political dynamics associated with this protocol led southern African states to view—and participate in—TFCA projects as an indication of their allegiance to the region. In other words, they show their commitments to the region by contributing land, wildlife, and other resources to TFCA projects. In the context of state making, TFCAs force the state to give away part of its sovereignty over wildlife (Ramutsindela, 2017). They also enable the state to increase its visibility in remote areas. The protocol also allows southern African states to build a regional identity as well as an image for global fundraising. TFCAs give an impression of a region working together harmoniously even when there are regional inequalities in other sectors such as trade and divisions over the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The development of TFCAs as the projects of the SADC also enables private capital and environmental nongovernmental organizations (ENGOs) to project themselves as facilitators when in reality they are the main drivers of these projects in the region. In this way, these nongovernmental actors produce region state-effects while at the same time, as Duffy (1997) argued, build environmental challenges to the nation-state. What she argued was that states get constrained through these international institution-building environmental governance initiatives lodged in regional political institutions. And while this is true, some states, especially South Africa, have been able to curb this challenge mainly due to the wildlife crime crisis and especially the rhino-poaching crisis in southern Africa in the mid- to late 2000s. This not only led to various forms of state-implicated green militarization and violence but—perhaps surprisingly—also a reassertion of state power and a “challenge” to environmental regional governance in the very name of environmental governance (Büscher & Ramutsindela, 2016; Lunstrum, 2014). What this example shows, therefore, is that regional environmental governance can make, remake, and unmake the state at the same time in different ways across time. How, then, do these dynamics play out at the local level?

Local Environmental Issues and Governance

Though environmental problems and possible solutions dominate discussions at international and regional forums, their impacts are largely felt at the local level, where the struggle over livelihoods is a daily routine. These struggles in turn shape the relationships between the state and its citizens, as well as shift alliances between the state and civil society groups backward and forward. It should be noted that local struggles over natural resources have been integral to broader liberation struggles in Africa. They were a critical plank of liberation movements. In post-independence Africa questions related to land have shifted from historical concerns with land scarcity and competition over land to new contexts in which land issues are shaped by “ecological aspects, divergent economic aspects, minority rights and heterodox land tenures, and urban politics” (Anseeuw & Alden, 2010, p. 3). The failure by many African states to resolve historical land alienation and to successfully manage localized conflict over resources threatens their very existence, hardens them under despotic rule, or compromises post-conflict normalization of the state (Clover, 2010).

The centrality of land in state making in Africa has deep colonial roots that have huge implications for building the postcolonial state. For example, land tenure was crucial for the creation of the colonial state in Africa in that it enabled the creation of settler societies, the separation of citizens and subjects, and the development of dual land tenure systems or legal pluralism that reinforced the bifurcated state (Mamdani, 1996). These colonial legacies hugely affected environmental governance in post-independent African states. Whereas socialist-oriented states such as Tanzania and kingdoms such as Lesotho and Swaziland sought to manage all land as state land, others maintained existing categories of land tenure, though there has been a significant move towards the privatization of land (Anseeuw & Alden, 2010; Schoneveld & Zoomers, 2015).

Land rights and forms of tenure are central to environmental governance not only because they reflect the relationships between and among people in relation to land but also because they are critical for the stability of the state and for economic growth (UNEP, 2013). The role played by land in shaping the relationships between the state and its citizens can be seen in land rights movements. For example the Uganda Land Alliance and the Landless People’s Movement of South Africa sought to change state policies on land rights while at the same time advocating for the interests and land rights of women and ordinary people, especially the landless masses and those without access to land and other resources (Hendricks, Ntsebeza, & Helliker, 2013; Tripp, 2004). In South Africa land rights movements and local community organizations have sometimes used their constitutional rights to force the state to change its land reform policy or to protect their democratic rights to participate in land and environmental policies that affect their lives (Claassens & Cousins, 2008; McDonald, 2004).

As with land, the need to govern wildlife at the local level has created tension and new relations between the state and local communities. Much of the tension resulted from the state’s reluctance to allow communities to own, and more importantly, to benefit substantially from wildlife. That is to say, the state attempts to give communities authority and ownership of wildlife with one hand but often takes away the benefits from community-based wildlife conservation with the other, as examples from community-based natural resources management (CBNRM) and co-management have shown (Dzingirai, 2003; Mbaiwa, 2015). A rent-seeking state has emerged to capture revenue from CBNRM projects. This process involves increasing the share of the state as projects become fully developed with the backing of capital. A brief discussion of the CBNRM idea is presented to contextualize these points.

The idea of CBNRM is grounded on the people-centered approach, and on the theory that communities rather than states should govern and preserve the resources they depend on for their livelihood (Dressler et al., 2010; Murombedzi, 1999). It also appreciates the relevance of indigenous knowledge systems for sustainable development and for environmental protection. The reasons for the shift from a state-centered form of governance toward a community-based approach to the governance of natural resources include the desire by ENGOs, donors, and business to bypass the state in negotiating access to natural resources, to invest directly in community-based projects, and to avoid any association with the corrupt state, at least in theory (Benjaminsen & Bryceson, 2012; Mbaiwa, 2015). It is for these reasons that even the local state—counties, municipalities, cantons, or their equivalents—is not considered an ideal structure for resource governance at the local level because it is seen as the hand of the state.

Initiatives such as the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE) in Zimbabwe, communal conservancies in Namibia, and wildlife management areas in Tanzania epitomize the theory of community-based conservation and environmental management. These initiatives have transformed the African state in two main ways. First, they give the state a democratic face—the state appears both decentralized and democratic because it allows local communities to govern their natural resources or to participate in such governance structures. Local democratic governance and ownership in relation to CBNRM is, however, questionable because CBNRM projects are often initiated by external actors and have, in the case of Botswana, undergone top-down restructuring (Mbaiwa, 2015). Second, these types of initiatives can literally “make” states. In one example described by Büscher (2013), the potential decentralization of community-based conservation in Lesotho through the Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Project (MDTP), led to the realization that there were no local state structures to embed this decentralization into. This triggered the Global Environment Fund–funded project to subsequently start enabling and building a local state structure so that it actually had a local state to decentralize community conservation to.

Another form of environmental governance that has gained prominence at the local level is co-management. Co-management is seen as necessary for effective governance because it involves, at least in theory, a collective understanding of actors and the pulling together of their strengths toward the management of natural resources (Borrini-Feyerabend et al., 2007; Lane, 2001). In reality co-management is a site of struggle between local communities and the state and is characterized by unequal power relations (Thondhlana, Cundill, & Kepe, 2016). Thus, co-management cannot be understood outside the struggles for resource rights in Africa. In the main, co-management structures are created in order to resolve struggles over ownership and management of resources. It is sometimes used in protected areas affected by land claims to resolve the stand-off between land claimants, the state, and ENGOs, and to impose land use options so as to maintain the conservation status of the land. In terms of state making, co-management tames local pressure groups while at the same time enabling the state to project itself as a “caring” polity. It helps build the legitimacy of the state in mediating conflict over natural resources.


This article has shown that state (re-)making in Africa can be understood through the lens of the environment not least because states and the environment are co-constitutive. This process has often been analyzed through the notion of the green state (Death, 2016; Eckersley, 2004). Building but also moving beyond this particular framing, this article made six main points on environmental governance and state (re-)making in Africa throughout its analysis. First, one of the defining elements of the relationship between state making and the environment in Africa is the colonial legacy and the resource endowment that link African states to global environmental agendas and global capitalism even as these states try to resolve domestic environmental and livelihood issues. These conditions enable but also constrain environmental governance on the continent. Second, global environmental concerns have put African states into sharper focus due to external and domestic competition over resources on the continent but also due to international pressure to “save Africa” (Nelson, 2003). Third, environmental protection adds a new layer of the violence of the African state. This violence is endorsed and even celebrated by the international community, ENGOs, and some sectors of civil society because it is seen as necessary for achieving environmental goals of global and national significance (Büscher & Ramutsindela, 2016). The acceptance of violence as the “new normal” in protected areas in Africa also reconstitutes state-civil society relations. Elements of civil society take it as their duty to assist the state in defending wildlife, fisheries, and other natural resources. In the process, the role of civil society, often organized through local to global environmental networks, becomes ambivalent: They use environmental issues to strengthen or to challenge or to weaken state sovereignty over natural resources.

Fourth, African state making through environmental governance is spatio-temporally complex and multidimensional. This complexity can be ascribed to multiple factors, chief of which are the dynamic nature of the African state, the deepening of the environmental crisis, and consequently, multiple environmental regimes putting more pressure on states to comply with international efforts and worries. Fifth, there is a need to see state making as happening in between different levels but without looking at these as isolated spheres. They interact, overlap, and compete in complex ways, which leads to sometimes surprising or unexpected outcomes. They enable African states to reassert themselves individually or collectively. Sixth and last, Africa has experienced the emergence of new environmental governance structures and pressures from the African Union through to the community level. These structures and pressures are not only the axis around which state–environment relations are likely to revolve in future but have the potential to limit imaginations of how Africa and its resources should be governed in the 21st-century “Anthropocene.” The increasing militarization of conservation is one example of such limitation. Imagining other ways of environmental governance therefore also entails imagining other state forms in Africa (and vice versa). New relations to global forces, institutional regimes, and forms of (capitalist) power will need to be fashioned in the process if more sustainable relations between people and nature are to form in the coming decades.


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  • 1. Arab Maghreb Union (UMA), Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), Community of Sahel–Saharan States (CEN–SAD), East African Community (EAC), Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), Southern African Development Community (SADC).