Book shows how communities in Yukon and Africa fight energy projects

·4 min read
Atlin, B.C., author Kate Neville. (Archbould Photography - image credit)
Atlin, B.C., author Kate Neville. (Archbould Photography - image credit)

In the early 2000s, as global economies started to struggle and people around the world grew more concerned about climate change, the need to find new sources of energy became a more pressing concern.

But in the rush to develop those new sources of energy, many communities were forced to ask some difficult questions about projects proposed for their area — and when they didn't like the answers, those communities rose up in protest.

Author Kate Neville explores how communities in Yukon and Kenya protested against proposed energy projects in her new book Fueling Resistance, and how that opposition looked very similar despite the huge geographic, political and cultural divides between those communities.

The cover of Neville's book, Fueling Resistance.
The cover of Neville's book, Fueling Resistance.(Kate Harris)

"The big question became why," said Neville. "Why are these dynamics so similar? It seems as though they should be so different.

"Parts of them are different. We're looking at very different histories and places and ecologies and political context[s]. But there was something about how communities came together, and fragmented, in particular ways that I thought needed to be understood better."

Neville is an associate professor at the University of Toronto who divides her time between Canada's largest city and an off-grid cabin near the community of Atlin, B.C. Fueling Resistance is the result of research she did for her post-doctoral fellowship.

She started by looking into various renewable energy projects. That work took her to Kenya, where proposed bio-fuel projects were intended to move local communities away from fossil fuel-based methods of transportation. Crops that could be used in the production of those bio-fuels were to be planted on land thought to be under-utilized.

At the same time, debates over the possible benefits of hydraulic fracturing in the Yukon heated up. It was believed so-called "fracking" could reduce the territory's dependance on fuels imported from outside the territory. Neville travelled to communities in Yukon with a government sub-committee gathering public opinion on the issue.

"The dynamics that were unfolding sounded so similar," said Neville. "These debates over what energy ought to be produced, and where, and by whom. So it tweaked me that these projects weren't so separate. I actually needed to start thinking about responses to new energy projects beyond our usual divides over renewable and non-renewable, the global north and the global south."

Cattle near the Tana River in Kenya.
Cattle near the Tana River in Kenya.(Kate Neville)

As proponents of these projects began to apply pressure on local communities to approve them, Neville said people began to ask basic questions such as who was going to pay for the work and who would profit.

She said that's when resistance began to increase.

"There was some skepticism about whether that gas was actually going to go to the Yukon, would it actually serve the Yukon, was there a large enough market in the Yukon to make this economically viable. And so then the question became if not, who's benefiting from this," she said. "We're looking up tearing up areas that had not otherwise been used for extractive industries, and what is this for, ultimately, who is this energy serving. And those debates were also happening in Kenya."

Neither project wound up going ahead, but Neville said the debates are likely to start up again, if not in Yukon and Kenya, then somewhere else.

"We need to be more cautious in our embrace of new energy technologies and our assumptions that certain kinds of energy will avoid the need for these kinds of social and political negotiations," she said. "I think we have these hopes that if we turn to bio-fuels or to solar energy or to wind energy then we don't have to do the hard work of figuring out out who's benefiting and who's bearing cost.

"We know that in the Yukon, whether it's natural gas or changing the level of the Southern Lakes or implementing new wind farms, that ultimately these are also political questions," she said. "We can't just solve our energy and climate concerns technologically, we also have to do this political work."

"It really is about people caring about their local communities and their local places, as well as the broader global context."