Good Reads: Boomtown slum, democracy in progress, and 'rewilding' in the Netherlands

This week's good reads include a day in Kenya's bustling Kibera slum, the struggle to promote democracy in the Arab world, and a radical conservation theory in the Netherlands.

Noor Khamis/Reuters
A hairdresser braids a woman’s hair in her salon in Kenya’s Kibera slum.

The image of an African shantytown does not usually conjure up hope for economic prosperity. But Kibera, one of Nairobi’s slums and arguably Africa’s largest slum, is exactly that for the Kenyans who call it home. In The Economist, a writer chronicled a day in Kibera, describing the slum’s ebbs and flows, capturing its entrepreneurial spirit. People from all over Kenya leave their towns and villages for a chance to find work in Kibera’s “thriving economic machine.”

The half-mile-by-two-mile area accommodates roughly 1 million people, wedged together in repurposed wood-and-corrugated-tin-roof structures. The alleys that wind through the slum vary in size, but there is no room for cars. Many of the residents work in nearby factories or offices. Others find economic opportunity in providing goods and services for Kibera’s residents.

When Cecilia Achieng moved to the slum, she started a school, at first renting space from an empty church. She eventually saved enough money to build six makeshift classrooms. After school, Ms. Achieng starts her second job: catering. She caters church events, funerals, and is even trying to get into weddings. In the evening, Achieng goes door to door offering her services as a hairdresser.

“To equate slums with idleness and misery is to misunderstand them,” the correspondent writes. “Slums are far from hopeless places; many are not where economic losers end up, but rather reservoirs of tomorrow’s winners.”

The promise of the Arab Spring

As post-Arab Spring countries struggle to establish democratic institutions, pessimism about their ultimate success misses a broader lesson: Stable democracies have historically evolved from violent uprisings, initial failures, and stumbling blocks.

“These troubles ... are not a bug but a feature – not signs of problems with democracy but evidence of the difficult, messy process of political development through which societies purge themselves of the vestiges of dictatorship and construct new and better democratic orders,” writes Sheri Berman in Foreign Affairs.

Critics who see Egypt, Libya, and other transitioning countries as democratic failures ignore the inherited social, cultural, and political dynamics in these countries, and a broader historical perspective. New democracies are not blank slates, writes Ms. Berman. In the aftermath of overthrowing dictators, countries must overcome the baggage that comes with authoritarian regimes – distrust, animosity, and lack of civil organizations to deal with people’s demands. Islamism is filling that void in Egypt after Hosni Mubarak’s fall as religious organizations were the only places where people could participate and express themselves.

Berman also points to history, particularly the political trials of France, Italy, and Germany on the democratization journeys. France took decades to establish a stable government, restructuring its economy in the process. Both Italy’s and Germany’s democratic experiments were interrupted by fascist takeovers.

Recall of the wild

The future of conservation may not be in saving nature from destruction, but rather creating a “new wilderness.” An ecological experiment in the Netherlands is turning traditional conservation theory on its head, and it has inspired a new movement called “rewilding,” which claims that nature can be created, not just managed or destroyed.

In the Netherland’s Flevoland Province – which used to be under water until a drainage project uncovered it in the 1950s – biologists used some of the new land to create a habitat similar to that found during Paleolithic times.

In The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert describes how biologists convinced the Dutch government to save a 15,000-acre reserve of the drained land – known as Oostvaardersplassen – as grazing land for herbivores most closely linked to their extinct predecessors: aurochs, red deer, tarpans, and European bison. The theory is that Europe used to have a more “parklike landscape,” which was maintained by herds of animals eating the vegetation. The reserve created an opportunity to see how this ecological system operated, and to see if other animal species would return.

“What we see here is that, instead of what many nature conservationists think – that something that is lost is lost forever – you can have the conditions to have it redeveloped,” Frans Vera, an ecologist, told Ms. Kolbert. Rewilding has spread to other areas in Europe as well, including Spain, Portugal, and Siberia. The scientists say the idea represents a “proactive agenda” as opposed to waiting to see what happens in nature.

Oostvaardersplassen attracts tourists who come to see the almost safari-like setting, but there is some controversy. Because the reserve aims to represent the wild, animals are left to the elements and suffer from such things as food shortages. Mr. Vera anticipates that the reserve will eventually attract the region’s natural predators – wolves – to reduce herd overpopulations.

“On a planet increasingly dominated by people – even the deep oceans today are being altered by humans – it probably makes sense to think about wilderness, too, as a human creation,” Kolbert writes.

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