Connor is on a scholarship exchange at the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala for two months to complete vital parts of his dissertation.

Digging for environmental justice in the NAI library

Political ecologist Connor Cavanagh is studying the politics of land and environmental protection in Kenya. He divides his time between Oslo and Nairobi, but some of the most crucial sources for his research, sensitive documents from the Kenyan government, he found at the NAI Library in Uppsala.

Connor Cavanagh is a PhD Fellow in International Environment and Development Studies. He divides his time between the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in Ås, just outside of Oslo, and the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, where he’s a Research Fellow.

"Official explanations of environmental degradation in in Kenya are somewhat problematic, Connor answers when asked to explain his research. But let’s start with deforestation, since that’s where my research is mainly focused".

"The Kenyan state argues that a growing local population is increasingly converting indigenous forests into cropland and pasture land. Overgrazing and the production of charcoal, fuelwood and lumber are also said to increase deforestation. As a response, the Kenyan government, with the support of the UN and the international community, has redoubled its efforts to enforce the boundaries of the county’s forest reserves. But in the name of forest protection the authorities sometimes violate the land rights of indigenous people."

Evicted by force
One of Kenya’s forest reserves is the Embobut forest on the slopes of the Cherangany Hills in Western Kenya. This is where Connor has conducted extensive fieldwork. The Embobut forest is the home of one of Kenya’s traditionally hunting and gathering societies, the Sengwer.

"Since their land has been designated as forest reserves, the Sengwer are being evicted by force, even though archaeological evidence suggests that people have inhabited the Cherangany Hills for at least 900 years. Their struggle to stay has, however, won some support from civil society, and the Kenyan government has been criticized by the World Rainforest Movement, Survival International, and many other NGOs. The Sengwer’s customary system of resource management can only be said to be sustainable", says Connor, although it has more recently been undermined by recurring eviction attempts.

Challenging dominant explanations
The Sengwer are a small community, all together about 30,000. Many of them have already been forced to leave the Embobut forest but it’s estimated that approximately 10,000 are still clinging on to the forests and glades where their ancestors are buried.

"One part of my research looks at how these people are being pushed out of their ancestral land, whilst another part challenges dominant explanations of deforestation in the region. Although population growth and agricultural expansion are often identified as the key drivers of deforestation, such explanations usually do not account for land grabbing and illegal logging facilitated by corrupt elites"

Connor has just arrived at the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala where he will be staying on a scholarship exchange for two months to complete vital parts of his dissertation. Even before his arrival, Connor found, by searching in the NAI library’s databases, that it houses documents of crucial importance for his research. He now has them in his possession and can start to look for links and connections that he hasn’t been able to investigate before.

"I found protocols and reports from the Kenyan government, papers that relate to the illegal and irregular acquisition of public forests. I’ve been trying for a long time to get hold of them in Nairobi, but such sensitive documents are not always easy to acquire", says Connor Cavanagh.

NAI’s study scholarships

You can apply too – deadline is October 1st!

The Nordic Africa Institute encourages research and studies on Africa in the Nordic countries. We welcome master students as well as PhD students to apply for our scholarships.

Every year we grant a number of scholarships allowing students to come to us and use our library’s unique resources and take advantage of the expertise of our researcher teams. The study scholarships cover travel expenses and include a shared office and free accommodation in Uppsala for a full month.

The time to apply for next year’s scholarships is now – send your application no later than October 1st, here’s how you do it!

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