books climate change

Book review: To Cook a Continent, by Nnimmo Bassey

I’ve been searching around recently for books on climate change written by African writers – let me know if you’ve got any recommendations. Here’s one I came across: To Cook a Continent: Destructive extraction and the climate crisis in Africa, published in 2012. It’s by Nnimmo Bassey, a Nigerian writer, poet, activist and the chair of Friends of the Earth International.

The book demonstrates how Africa suffers in both the short and the long term from fossil fuels – first by the destruction of the extractive industries, and then by the climate change from the burning of their products. As resource stocks are depleted in other parts of the world, there has been a scramble of multinational corporations to do business in Africa. That includes fossil fuels and other forms of mining, but also plantations and long term land leasing. These deals are extractive in more ways than one. They draw resources out of Africa, and also withdraw the value of those resources. Countries and regions are essentially plundered.

I was reminded of Paul Collier’s use of that word. He uses the formula ‘nature + technology + regulation = prosperity’ to describe how countries can profit from their natural resources, and contrasts it with ‘nature + technology – regulation = plunder’. Chapter after chapter outlines plunder of that kind.

Some of this is naked corruption – as much of half of Nigeria’s oil is stolen, for example. But blaming corrupt African elites gets other actors off the hook. Corporations routinely misprice resources to avoid taxation – using one price to value resources in the country of extraction, and a much higher price in the country they export them too. To do this, they rely on the multinational accountancy firms such as PWC or KPMG. They, in turn, work within international agreements and standards negotiated through the World Trade Organisation or the World Bank, which have huge imbalances of power. The plundering of Africa is supported by an entire international system, with little interest in or awareness of what that looks like for the people at the sharp end.

Nimmo Bassey knows. He describes a journey to a village near a gold mine in Sierra Leone. Billions of dollars worth of gold had been extracted from the region, but the local people were still living without electricity or basic sanitation. Instead, they get a landscape full of dangerous and unfenced pits, piles of mining waste and polluted water. When the miners organised to demand a pay rise, the firm sacked 200 of them on the spot. The firm involved was RandGold, funded and based out of London – though, needless to say, officially registered in the tax haven of Jersey.

The book details case after case across the continent: people displaced for mining or plantations and never compensated; regimes destabilised by foreign powers to oust an ‘uncooperative’ government; African representatives sidelined or literally locked out of international negotiations; activists arrested on trumped up charges or murdered to silence protest. And on top of all of this comes climate change, already devastating communities and with the worst to come.

There are stories of resistance too, movements of solidarity and community organising. They face formidable odds and success stories are few, and of course the roots of the exploitation often lie elsewhere. Justice for African communities will need international action, not just local protest.

That’s why books like this one are so necessary. It is easy for citizens of the world’s wealthier countries to cast an eye over recent history and conclude that the global economy works well enough. Eye-witness accounts like Bassey’s demonstrate how blinkered that view is. The global economy categorically does not work for those at the bottom of the pile, and the only thing trickling down is the environmental consequences of Western affluence. As my friend Katherine Trebeck says, that’s not because it’s broken. The system is working exactly as it’s designed to do – to drive wealth upwards to those at the top. That’s Why Global Justice Matters, to quote a book I reviewed recently, and why questions of sustainability cannot be separated from questions of poverty, equity, colonialism and justice.

  • To Cook a Continent is not available from Hive, my recommended book retailer, but it can be ordered through Amazon UK or Amazon US.
  • Follow Nnimmo Bassey on Twitter for more on environmental action in Nigeria and elsewhere.

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