Welcome to LeidenGlobal. Check out our highlights.


Including Local Communities for a Sustainable Africa

15 June 2023
Meet the Expert | Marja Spierenburg

Marja Spierenburg is Professor in the Anthropology of Sustainable Development and Livelihoods at Leiden University. She is also a Research Fellow at Stellenbosch University South Africa, member of the Water, Energy and Food Nexus Knowledge Action Network of Future Earth, and member of UNESCO’s International Advisory Committee for Biosphere Reserves. Prof. Spierenburg’s research centres around the role of the private sector in nature conservation and land reforms in Eastern and Southern Africa. More specifically, she focuses on the impact on and inclusion of local communities regarding decisions on nature conservation and land reforms.

Prof. Spierenburg’s passion for African local communities in relation to sustainability and livelihood was born during a visit to a friend staying in Botswana, who took her on a trip to Zimbabwe. There, Prof. Spierenburg witnessed the unequal social relationships between black and white people, which caught her attention. It moved her so much that she decided to study anthropology, with a specific focus on the legacy of colonialism regarding land distribution in Eastern and Southern Africa. She returned to Zimbabwe for her doctoral research, where she spent considerable time. After doing some work for UNESCO, she returned to academia, and worked at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Radboud University. Then she saw an open position for a professor in the field of anthropology at Leiden University, which was the start of a fruitful career with countless publications.

At the basis of Prof. Spierenburg’s research is the question how humans engage or should engage with land and nature. Because of her work, she notices how in Eastern and Southern Africa indigenous populations are often blamed for land- and nature-related problems. They are deterred or excluded from their land by external parties, who come with their own initiatives to benefit from the local land and nature. Prof. Spierenburg mentions ‘game farming’ as an example, which concerns the domestication and marketing of wildlife. During her Research Fellowship at Stellenbosch University, she critically examines whether these and other so-called sustainability initiatives are as sustainable and create as many jobs as  claimed. She sometimes encounters resistance from the concerned initiators who are unhappy with her research mission; yet, this resistance does not hold Prof. Spierenburg back from continuing her work.

When asked how hopeful Prof. Spierenburg is about the impact of her research, she points out that some ‘myths’ about land reforms and nature conservation created by exploiting parties in Africa unfortunately remain persistent. More hopeful, however, is that prof. Spierenburg sees how the issue of climate justice is increasingly on the agenda in the region. In the rest of her career, she would still like to focus on two main topics: the impacts on land and nature of the transition from a fossil fuel-based to a green economy, and the lessons we can learn from new agricultural initiatives that are co-created with the surrounding population. After all, Prof. Spierenburg is convinced that understanding and collaborating with local populations is crucial if we want to build a sustainable future.

Interview by LeidenGlobal intern Nina
June 2023

back to overview