The major challenges facing humanity are global in nature – climate change, ever decreasing biodiversity, and deadly pandemics to name a few. In his new book ‘Peace in The Age of Chaos’, founder and executive chair of the Institute for Economics and Peace, Steve Killelea explores how the combination of Positive Peace and systems thinking can lead to a paradigm shift in the ways societies are managed so that they are not only able to survive but are able to adapt and thrive in the context of ever increasing shocks to our systems.
“Africa is usually painted as a continent plagued by violence, poverty and famine. All these things are present, but from another angle it is vibrant, flexible and full of optimists who take their setbacks with an exceptionally good sense of humour. In the 30 years I have been visiting the continent, the positive changes have been remarkable. The Africa I see is developing and there are signs of a better future.
One initiative, which comes from the plains of Samburu County in northern Kenya, especially gives me hope. The people of the area are nomadic tribal herders with a strong history of tribal conflict and intense resource competition, both between different groups and with local wildlife. The local environment has been devastated by over grazing – the native flora was being profoundly damaged – and conflict between tribes was increasing.
Groups of farmers, villagers and the government came together in the late 1990s to find ways to create a sustainable ecosystem that balanced the long-term interests of the environment, including endangered wildlife, with those of the herders and the local farming communities. The positive changes there have been truly profound and serve as a case study, or model, for a way to craft a future in the Anthropocene.
In 2004, the Kenyan government created an umbrella group called the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), with responsibility for setting the overarching policies and approaches for managing sustainability, development and conflict. The NRT now includes about half a million people and covers approximately 44,000 square kilometres in 33 conservancies, each of which is managed by local members of the tribe, who form a committee.
Among other things, there is a local governance index that measures the performance of each of the trusts. Many of the trusts have their own game park lodges, which provide them with tourist revenue. These hotels are leased and the income is derived from having large amounts of game with the profit going back to the tribe. Therefore, there is a vested interest in maintaining and increasing the wildlife population. Dispute mechanisms have been set up to discourage tribal conflict and cattle rustling. There is investment in improving the water catchment areas, which means that more cattle can be supported. As well, separate troughs are set up for cattle and wildlife, which means that there is less competition between the two. Because of the additional water, small agricultural holdings are now springing up.
More education is being provided, which improves the skill sets of the next generation. Dense grazing techniques have been introduced that replicate the historical migratory impacts on the plains. The land is slowly regenerating; elephant sightings in Sera Conservancy more than quadrupled between 2006 and 2011, for example.
It hasn’t all been peace and harmony. One morning in September 2009, 15 people were killed, and there have been other incidents. But the institutions set up by the NRT, along with the trust and the relationships between individual groups – all important elements of Positive Peace – allowed the conflict to be defused and progress to continue. The new encoded norms of the NRT area have helped people to accommodate droughts more successfully than their southern neighbours.
The key to the success of the NRT is that the various factors were all regarded as constituents of a single highly inter-reactive and interdependent system: the farmers, the villagers, the government and the herders; the environment that sustained them; and the industry that provided them with income. When the encoded norms of the old system were unable to cope with the challenges of encroachment, the system self-modified to establish a more resilient and complex structure. The path dependency of tribal society was respected in the establishment of the committees, which in turn provided efficient feedback loops to adapt when it suffered shocks, helping to create a new homeostatic equilibrium in the aftermath.
The result has been a virtuous cycle that has improved the lives of the local people, the health of the environment, and the income of both the tourism industry and the government. More traditional linear thinking might have led the government to regard the encroachment of the herders as the problem and provoked an attempt to restrict them, or encouraged the herders to see the game reserves as the cause of their hardship, leading to the sort of violent clashes that have happened elsewhere. Where linear thinking may have encouraged division and confrontation, systems thinking provided a long-term sustainable peace.
How replicable this is in other areas of Africa or in other parts of the world remains to be seen, but without appropriate sustainable management humanity is in dire trouble. To meet our global environmental challenges, we must have major structural changes. Our systems must self-modify if they are ever going to reach the levels of resilience and adaptability needed. It is evident that the way we do business today will not be sustainable. We will need to find more nuanced ways of measuring success beyond merely making money or boosting GDP.
A combination of systems thinking and Positive Peace – a transformational concept to reinvigorate our societal systems – is an excellent starting point for these much needed changes. In addition to the absence of violence, Positive Peace is also associated with many other social characteristics that create societies that are resilient and adaptable, including stronger economic outcomes, higher resilience, better measures of well-being, higher levels of inclusiveness and more sustainable environmental performance.”