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Marginalized voices from resource conflicts enter the mainstream via video

  • The “Seeing Conflicts at the Margins” project lets communities embroiled in resource conflicts in Kenya and Madagascar share their experiences by shooting videos.
  • A national launch for the videos produced under the project, funded by the U.K. government, took place at the residence of the U.K. ambassador to Madagascar on Feb. 18 in Antananarivo.
  • One of the videos, shot in Antsotso village, deals with the effects of a local forest being protected by a mining company owned by mining giant Rio Tinto.
  • All the videos had been screened for members of the participating communities before the national launch.

IABOAKOHO, Madagascar — The only light for many miles came from the glow of the makeshift screen as a cool July evening descended on the Iaboakoho commune. A generator whirred outside. Inside the roomy shack, several dozen men, women and children sat on wooden benches and the floor, watching intently as grievances traded at teashops, out in the fields and by the river took on a new life — onscreen.

This month, the same videos made by Malagasy villagers were screened for the guests of the U.K. ambassador to Madagascar, Philip Boyle, at his leafy residence in the capital, Antananarivo, roughly 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from Iaboakoho. It was the national launch of the video series, produced under the “Seeing conflicts at the margins” project.

The initiative, launched in 2017, is funded by the U.K. government and led by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), U.K. It lets communities in Kenya and Madagascar tell their side of the development story through videos shot by locals. Four villages in the Anosy region and three in the neighboring Atsimo-Andrefana region in southern Madagascar made eight videos that grapple with issues surrounding mining projects, cattle raiders, and the creation of protected areas.

In its film, Antsotso village in Iaboakoho commune captured problems arising from a biodiversity offset that the mining company QMM has established to protect a forest in the village’s backyard. QMM is a subsidiary of the U.K.-headquartered mining giant Rio Tinto. To compensate for forest and biodiversity losses at its ilmenite mining site about 60 km (37 mi) from Antsotso, the company sought to protect the Bemangidy-Ivohibe forest that villagers in Antsotso have relied on for generations for fuelwood, food and subsistence farming. The creation of the offset has restricted people’s access to the forest and forced them to seek other livelihoods.

The community screening in Iaboakoho commune in July. Image by Malavika Vyawahare

“In Madagascar when you are looking at development, poverty reduction, conservation issues around conflict …they all come to the fore of what makes or breaks a project,” Boyle, an avid birder himself, said at the launch. “They make the difference between success and failure.”

In the audience that day at the ambassador’s house were villagers from Antsotso and other Malagasy communities where the other films were shot. They were selected through consultations between the research team and villagers. Through the project, the communities decided how their videos would be made and disseminated, and how to engage with civil society groups, aid agencies, and the media.

“Our aim is to understand where digital narratives can be useful in giving people voice where there are natural resource conflicts,” said Barry Ferguson, a British-Irish activist based in Madagascar. Ferguson was part of the Madagascar team, which included international and Malagasy researchers. Apart from IDS, experts from the University of Toliara and the NGO Andry Lalana Tohana (ALT) Madagascar were part of the initiative.

At the start of the project, the villagers selected about a dozen residents to shoot on loaned iPads and cameras. People use mobile phones around Antsotso, but iPads are a rare sight. The medium was new, but those doing the interviews were familiar faces, and interviewees appeared to talk unguarded. A professional team, with guidance and feedback from the villagers, edited the footage into an approximately 20-minute-long film. Many iterations of the films were created, and the villagers validated the final version. The end product is not glitzy, and some sequences are strung together in the style of a home video.

The Antsotso video opens with an interview about the people’s relationship to the land where their ancestors are buried. A lengthy account of traditional cultivation practices follows. Though the video unfolds like a documentary, it does not attempt to include interviews with other stakeholders like mine officials or government representatives. The focus is strictly on the villagers. It is not for audiences looking for an introduction to the issue at hand; rather, it is for those looking for a better understanding of it — a record of how resource conflicts are experienced on the ground. Here, communities are not just a quote in a story; they are the ones shaping the narrative, and doing so in ways that are familiar to them.

“Governments, investors, and development professionals often ‘see’ rural landscapes and development needs of rural communities very narrowly, in universalized terms,” said Amber Huff, the lead investigator for Madagascar. “This view ‘from above’ is shaped by a priori assumptions about rural life, people’s interactions with nature, and economistic notions of poverty. Films made by outsiders, particularly by European and American filmmakers, about life in rural Madagascar tend to reproduce these dominant narratives and perspectives.” Huff added that such “pejorative” depictions of rural life, poverty, and environmental degradation did not fully account for local ecology, traditional values, economic conditions, inequities and “long histories of attention and neglect by governments and other ‘external’ actors.’”

Before the national launch, the videos were shown at the regional and community level. The regional launch for the Antsotso film took place in September in Fort Dauphin, the capital of the Anosy region, where Antsotso, the QMM mine and the offset are all located. Local and regional government officials, representatives of key agencies, civil society groups, national ministries and representatives from mining companies were invited to the regional and national launches. Representatives from QMM and Base Toliara, a subsidiary of the Australian mining company Base Resources that runs a mine in the Atsimo-Andrefana region, were present at the event in Antananarivo, where suited men mingled with purse-carrying ladies on the green lawn of Attenborough House.

The July community screening at the church-turned-learning center turned out to be a cross between an evening’s entertainment and a public service broadcast. There were no email RSVPs, just old-fashioned word-of-mouth invitations. Some in the audience had been lured by the prospect of seeing themselves on the big screen, others by the excitement of seeing their handiwork.

Victoria Numeni, right, after the community screening. Image by Malavika Vyawahare

The audience occasionally lobbed comments at the screen, and a few times, peals of laughter echoed in the darkened space. During the screening of another village’s video, a particularly feisty interviewer was met with approving smiles bordering on amusement. It was the first film screening for Victoria Numeni, 38, a resident of Antsotso, who weaves mats for a living. She was impressed. Partly, she told Mongabay, it was seeing their daily struggles writ large. But she said she was equally intrigued by what she saw in the videos made by the other Malagasy communities that were also shown that day. The periscopic videos allowed them a glimpse into the lives of their compatriots, some of whom are separated by many miles and broken roads. “We can see their suffering. We see that they also suffer like us,” she said.

Two of the villages showcased the need for development in their area and the security problems caused by cattle raiding. Another centered on the exploitation of children in small-scale mica and sapphire mining. In Kenya, the videos tap into the discontent among displaced Maasai pastoralists who were resettled to make way for geothermal power generation infrastructure and for Africa’s largest wind farm. The first video to emerge from the project was called Beyond Despair. The videos from Kenya are available online, and those from Madagascar will be uploaded soon.

The team says the videos are for research and not advocacy; but out in the wider world and the internet, the videos have acquired a life of their own. The Narasha Community Development Project that promotes Maasai rights in Kenya and the Pastoral Development Network of Kenya have leaned on the videos to highlight the plight of these communities.

Malavika Vyawahare is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @MalavikaVy

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