Environmental justice for refugees in host countries
A part one in a feature series on the environment-displacement nexus, this blog examines how Syrian refugees are disproportionately harmed by air and water pollution in Lebanon.
With the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, commonly known as COP27, underway in Eygpt, the NCHS is featuring a series of blogs from the Prioritizing the Displacement-Environment Nexus (DENx blog, based at the Chr. Michelsen Institute). This is the second blog in the series.
The village of Djobel has become one of the most emblematic places in Guinea-Bissau but for all the wrong reasons: it is on the verge of disappearing due to rising sea levels. Meanwhile, the government offers no viable solutions.
A Djobel villager guides us through the Cachéu river tributaries and its newly formed canals. The river is a significant biodiversity hotspot, an essential food source, and a vital transport route for the Felupe communities who inhabit Northeastern Guinea-Bissau. (Source: Cláudia Santos)
I first heard about Djobel in 2019 during an exploratory fieldwork trip to Guinea-Bissau as part of my PhD. Amadu, who was only an acquaintance at the time, had met me in a café in Bissau to talk about how climate change and environmental degradation were affecting the country. In that conversation, he told me about some killings that had occurred that week as a result of a conflict between two villages, Djobel and Arame. The relocation of Djobel due to sea level rise was at the core of this conflict. I knew then that Djobel’s case had to be included in my research on climate change and (non-)migration, so I returned the following year.
My interpreter and I left for Djobel after negotiating with the only owner of a motorised canoe we could find in a nearby village. Not everyone is willing to embark on the journey. It takes a skilled person to navigate the newly formed canals, someone who understands the water courses and tide fluctuations.
At the instruction of a Djobel villager who accompanied us on the journey, we meandered between mangroves and sandbanks: “Left, right, left, right”. Through the shallow water, he spotted the sandbanks and other obstacles. At times, the path was so narrow that we lowered our heads to avoid being hit by the mangroves. As we approached Djobel, I was staggered by how much the water had reshaped the entire village. The houses were scattered across the landscape and isolated from one another. Living here seemed impracticable.
Surrounded by seawater, the houses of Djobel have become islands. Travelling from one house to another is only possible with small wooden boats. (Source: Cláudia Santos)
I stepped out of the canoe and immediately cut my feet on the oyster shells hidden in the mud. My feet sank into the wet ground with each step, forcing me to pull them up with every stride and master some mud-walking skills at the instruction of my interpreter.
I approached the first house where a group of women were sitting together with their children. Shortly after introductions, they opened up about what it is like to live in Djobel. “Life here is very hard because of the water. At first, we didn’t want to move out but now we have no choice. We have to protect our children. Sometimes we go to our rice paddies and worry that by the time we get home our children will have drowned”, said Akoto, a woman knitting in the front row of the group.
I was told that five children had lost their lives in the water that now surrounds Djobel. When I visited the second house to see Kumulolo, a villager, I came to understand why and how this occurred. After our half-hour conversation, his courtyard had gone from being completely dry to being swamped almost up to my knees. Observing how bewildered I was at the speed of the flooding, he confessed, “My grandson is one of the children who died. You can’t get distracted for too long. It’s too dangerous.”
Sea level rise and tidal flooding have gradually displaced the villagers. According to one of the elders, Djicansobo, stronger tides and storm surges had become more frequent since 2007: “There used to be many of us here. When the water damaged something, we were able to fix it. As the water slowly entered the village, some people decided to leave.” Like Djicansobo, many villagers believe that if some of them had not abandoned Djobel, they might have been able to stop the water with their traditional dyke construction. For an outsider like me, it is hard to imagine that anyone would be able to deter the water.
Tidal flooding and storm surges are frequent in low-lying Guinea-Bissau. People have grown accustomed to coping with them. In other rural and urban coastal areas, including islands, people report seawater intrusion in fresh groundwater and increased land-surface inundation. Yet, the lack of data complicates national and regional assessments to understand how sea-level rise interacts with local factors and to more accurately forecast impacts on West African populations (Fandé et al., 2020; Nyadzi et al., 2021).
Those who had planned to build their homes in Djobel have chosen to do so elsewhere. Some moved to the capital, to larger rural agglomerates or even to neighbouring countries, reducing the number of young people remaining in the village. But many decided to stay. In 2020, half of the population was still living there and struggled with the difficult conditions, as one villager told me, “We used to walk between all these houses, but now it is impossible. To get drinking water, we have to go to another village in our canoes. It takes us four hours. Sometimes, when the wind is too strong, the canoe might even sink and we lose all our water containers – that has happened before.”
Some say it is God’s will, others blame the lack of workforce for the construction and maintenance of the dykes: “Those who are still here are not enough to make this place what it used to be.”
And yet, Djobel’s problems are more profound than sea level rise. People’s options for coping with adversity have long been constrained by blatant disregard for their concerns and needs. While the colonial presence and the 11-year liberation war against Portugal from 1963 to 1974 tore them and their neighbouring villages apart and forced them to flee to Senegal, postcolonial rule has brought them little good since their return and subsequent resettlement (Chabal and Green, 2016).
Since the flooding in Djobel began to threaten livelihoods, the people there have urged the government to help them find a new place. However, Guinea-Bissau’s inadequate governance and the latent corruption predating institutions have made it difficult to attain any viable solutions. The people of Djobel want to preserve their identity – their ultimate wish is to remain as close to their homes as possible. This allows them to carry on with their ancestral and cultural practices and to cultivate the rice fields as long as they are not entirely submerged. But relocation to a nearby location has reignited old interethnic conflicts (Temudo & Cabral 2021).
The state’s solution for moving Djobel focused on allocating them new land next to a neighbouring village – Arame. This space was already occupied by Arame’s cashew nut trees, an easy cash crop for many smallholder farmers in Guinea-Bissau. The prospect of occupation by Djobel villagers culminated in confrontations with Arame’s residents, mobilising other neighbouring villages in support or disapproval. People from Cassu showed their support to Arame and those of Elia to Djobel, amplifying the conflict to new players.
What troubles the people of Djobel is that they see the state as an ally of Arame: “When the state came to solve the conflict, we had machetes, but Arame had guns. They took the machetes from us but not the guns from Arame. Why did they not take the guns away?” asks Kumulolo. For Djicansobo, there is a reason for that: “The people of Arame have more money than us, so they can bribe the state officials.”
While the people in Djobel have difficulty understanding why their neighbours in Arame refuse to let them settle next to them, there are mixed feelings of hope and hopelessness about the role of the state: “For so long the state has not been able to do anything. Any hope to solve the conflict is little.” The more time passes, the more difficult it becomes for the villagers of Djobel to envision a resettlement solution which respects their will to stay near their disappearing homes.
Today’s struggle for relocation is perceived by the people of Djobel as a consequence of their post-colonial resettlement. The return from Senegal at the end of the war in 1974 involved rebuilding and paving all the way back to Djobel – the last village to be resettled. This was achieved through the solidarity of those who were eager to return to their villages, including Cassu, Arame, Elia and Djobel. Yet, according to Djobel’s elderly, some of their fellow villagers decided not to continue their journey from Arame to Djobel and settled in the former: “We helped them in Arame, but when it was their turn to help us, they didn’t do it. When we arrived here, Djobel was destroyed by water and it involved hard work such as building big dykes.”
A man and a child stare at our boat’s passage from their house surrounded by water. (Source: Cláudia Santos)
Faced with the undeniable threat of climate hazards, those who have persisted so far can no longer continue: “No one wants to leave, but even if we don’t want to, we will have to.” For those who have stayed in Djobel all this time, being displaced and relocated elsewhere is only a fraction of a much wider process. Protection and care for those who stay are as important as for those who leave. But there is a tendency to view the movement of people as the only issue that needs to be tamed when it comes to displacement. While the state of Guinea-Bissau continues its unsuccessful attempts to resettle Djobel and mediate the conflict, it remains inconsiderate of the many needs of those waiting for a solution.
Displacement occurring in the context of slow-onset events hardly happens at the same time for everyone. Some people move earlier than others, voluntarily or involuntarily, rendering the process highly subjective. While the reasons for mobility or immobility may vary at the individual or household level, the livelihood conditions and existing forms of marginalisation are experienced in a similar way by all people in Djobel. Limited access to health care, clean and safe water, formal employment, basic infrastructures and even education are some of the wider problems that have remained unaddressed for too long and are now conflating with sea level rise.
I have heard these wider problems repeatedly from communities and individuals across Guinea-Bissau. Whether on islands or in coastal zones, in the rural hinterland or in urban areas, there is a common narrative that places inappropriate and insufficient governance at the centre of it all. In the archipelago of Bijagós, Pedro, a former village chief who has been living all his life on one of the islands, speaks from experience: “We ask for help, they say they will help, but they never turn up.” This feeling of abandonment is shared by Cristina, a villager from the island of Soga, who has waited all her life: “We have no hope that politicians and the state will help us.” Dominique’s experience in Djobel is no different. But his reality has been aggravated by sea level rise – the rice fields are gradually disappearing and food security is harder to attain: “Sometimes we ask the government for help with rice because we don’t have enough. But they don’t help us… we can’t count on them.”
The economist and philosopher Amartya Sen (1999) famously argued that stripping people of freedoms restricts their development. Indeed, the freedom of choice of people in Djobel is not only limited by their gradually sinking ground, but also because they have been marginalised and deprived of their basic needs all their lives.
For all the media attention that Djobel’s displacement has received as a direct cause of climate change in recent years, other vital struggles have been forgotten (Bcassama Tecnologias, SARL, 2022; RTP África, 2020). And yet people fight daily to survive the cascading effects of colonialism and the poor performance of the post-colonial state. Opportunities to thrive and enhance people’s freedom of choice haven’t been pursued. The schools and teachers, the health centres and qualified professionals, the transport system and employment opportunities are all underdeveloped or absent.
Climate change is not the only challenge for communities like Djobel. Addressing displacement should not just be about relocating people from one place to another. Efforts that focus solely on governing displacement distort the experiences and needs of those who wish to stay in place before they are compelled to move. It also allows the central government to escape responsibility over long-lasting problems. Meanwhile, people need the means to survive and carry on with their lives.
Addressing displacement requires a fair balance between the needs of those who stay and those who leave. It demands an invitation to the table where people are given the opportunity to be heard. It requires that their visions and traditional knowledge be taken into account throughout the displacement process.
Guinea-Bissau’s constitution foresees the protection of cultural identity as a means of preserving human dignity and promoting societal development. Public health and education are seen as crucial to the progress and well-being of all. The exercise of democracy envisages active public participation and conscious adherence by the people. On paper, these are the kinds of basic freedoms that give people opportunities to thrive. And yet, little effort is made to preserve the cultural and spiritual identity of the Djobel community, to attend to their basic needs and to recognise their agency in the ongoing displacement process. Certainly, it is their own efforts, solidarity and the path of cohesion they have chosen within their community to circumvent and navigate precarity that opens up possibilities while they wait for all households to eventually be displaced.
 All names were replaced by pseudonyms to maintain confidentiality.
Bcassama Tecnologias, SARL (2022). Direitos Humanos e Justiça Em DJOBEL. [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/hdezCWuGL54
Chabal, P., & Green, T. (2016). Guinea-Bissau: Micro-State to ‘Narco-State’. Hurst.
Fandé, M. B., Lira, C. P., Antunes, C., & Penha-Lopes, G. (2020). Quantificação e cartografia da extensão de inundação costeira em Bissau, Guiné-Bissau: Perspetiva em cenário de alterações climáticas [Quantification and mapping of coastal flooding extension for Bissau, Guinea-Bissau: a climate change scenario perspective.] Comunicações Geológicas, 107, Especial I, 109–112.
Nyadzi, E., Bessah, E., & Kranjac-Berisavljevic, G. (2021). Taking Stock of Climate Change Induced Sea Level Rise across the West African Coast. Environmental Claims Journal, 33(1), 77–90. https://doi.org/10.1080/10406026.2020.1847873
Sen, A. (1999). Development as Freedom. Oxford University Press.
RTP África. (2020, July 24). Guiné-Bissau – Reportagem sobre Ilha de Djobel, [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/4BwZpr431hY
Temudo, M. P., & Cabral, A. I. R. (2021). Climate change as the last trigger in a long-lasting conflict: The production of vulnerability in northern Guinea-Bissau, West Africa. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 1–24. https://doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2021.1996355
This blog was originally published in September 2022 on the DENx blog (based at the Chr. Michelsen Institute) and is republished here with permission of the publishers.