Seeking Heritage in Environmental Borders: Burkinabé Environmental Migrants

30 minutes
The openness of African borders has often been linked to people reacting to the precarity of nature. the The fluidity of borders facilitated the movement of pre-colonial Burkinabé and Malian farmers between cocoa fields in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire during the rainy season. More recently, countries like Uganda have provided temporary refuge to neighboring country migrants fleeing the eruption of Mount Nyragongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Furthermore, institutions like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has helped to make this region less politically and economically fragmented, thereby reinforcing its porous borders. African border scholars have often focused on how African migrants have manipulated colonial borders for their own benefit. Asiwaju argued that such boundaries allowed Burkinabés to migrate to the Ivory Coast and Ghana in protest of French taxes (1976). In East Africa, the Ethiopian Nuer constantly switched sides of the Sudan-Ethiopian border, in accordance with their political alliances (Vaughan 2013). These cases demonstrate the ineffectiveness of focusing on the territorial sense of border, while ignoring social aspects regarding the identities and groups confined within borders (Newman 2011). In Africa, concepts of space and identity have long been problematic for NGOs and bilateral programs that try to help local communities to manage natural resources. Approaches like the gestion de terroir villageois, widely used in Francophone West Africa to delineate village territory in accordance with the area exploited by communities, have been criticized for ignoring multiple land usage by different ethnic groups and activities performed beyond the terroir (Batterbury 1998). In addition to the boundaries decreed by nation-states and ethnic groups, borders are defined by cosmological, social, political and geographical notions of space (Hagberg, Tengan 2000). Indeed, traditional tenure systems raise interesting questions about these micro-borders of exclusion by linking land and belonging to indigenous populations (Jacob Le Meur, 2012). Internal migrants fleeing environmental degradation must therefore negotiate these local boundaries in order to gain access to social benefits in the local community. By examining borders within the conceptual framework of environmental migration, this paper will underscore increasingly restrictive notions of heritage that arise in a situation where environmental degradation and population increase are putting strains on land access, and altering the traditional relationship of the ‘host’ and the ‘stranger.’ It contributes to critical heritage studies by investigating the interplay of colonially prescribed concepts like autochthony and citizenship (Geschiere 2009) in the prescription of current mental barriers of exclusion and inclusion, often built along the distinctions of first-comer allodial land holders and latecomer migrant land borrowers. On a larger scale, as climate concerns have mounted in the past decade, climate-induced migration has been drawn into the global border security debate (Trombetta 2014). While most environmental migration is South-South, the phenomenon is being framed as a security issue for the North rather than a humanitarian issue (White 2011). Military strategists extol the rise of high tech frontier controls to protect countries from the imminent arrival of “starving millions" in a world where temperatures reach 5.6 ° C (Buxton, Hayes 2015), while European governments externalize their borders via FRONTEX and rigorous negotiations with African governments. Relying on fieldwork conducted in Burkina Faso in 2012 and historical cases of migration linked to environmental events, this paper will highlight the implications of imposing global institutions of border securitization on a West African heritage born out of contiguous borders where environmental migration has played a key role in conceptualizing borders on the local level. This paper investigates how the hardening of boundaries around land – that which represents belonging in West African traditions – affects heritage, particularly when climate change acts in a borderless way.
University of Liège