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Conservation vs. Anthropology?

If you had to choose, would you save a dying culture, or a dying ecosystem?

This is a battle being fought across Africa and it is a question that brings two disciplines face-to-face, Conservation and Anthropology.

Conservation can be described as the effort to understand and protect the planet’s wildlife and wild places; Anthropology as the effort to understand (and increasingly to protect) the planet’s human cultures.

Both are trying to protect something that is under threat. The decline of wildlife populations and the destruction of natural habitats, by an economic model dependent on infinite extraction and never-ending growth, have been well documented. As too have the losses of ancient cultures, languages and traditions, to the ever-expanding cultural virus that is the Western way of life.

In many respects the two disciplines have a common enemy: the forces that push us to use resources unsustainably, the search for a “quick buck”, the base desires of mankind to consume more, to have it quicker, have it easier and have it cheaper.

The question then is, how do the two disciplines fight back against these forces? Are there solutions that enable both wild places and ancient cultures to survive in harmony? Or will the solutions result in conflict between the need to protect nature and the desire to protect culture?

Turning the clock back

These questions would be a lot easier to solve if we could turn the clock back a couple of hundred years. Ignoring for a moment Western civilisation and switching our attention to elsewhere in history and on the planet, there are plenty of examples of human cultures that used to live in a sustainable way with the natural world. Native Americans, Aborigines, the Khoi and San people’s of Southern Africa to name a few. Pretty much everywhere you look there are indigenous peoples who had evolved to live sustainably with their environment.

Here in Central Africa, the forest people (historically known as pygmies) are a great example of a human culture that had evolved to live in complete harmony with their natural environment. In this part of the Congo the forest people are called the BaAka. For thousands of years they lived in, and were completely dependent on, the forest habitat. They used the forest for everything: clothing, building materials, food, medicine. They hunted animals, gathered fruits and harvested honey. Because their population remained small, their use of the forest never grew beyond the point where the ecosystem stopped being able to absorb the demands they were placing on it. There was balance.

This way of life was still the norm here in the northern part of the Congo Basin up until about 40 years ago, just before commercial logging started.

Practicalities and human rights issues aside, if we could have sealed this entire area off at that moment in time, creating some kind of enormous wilderness / cultural National Park, where no activities other than those that had happened for millennia could take place, then we would we would still have stable animal populations, a thriving virgin rainforest and the preservation of an ancient human way of life. In theory, we could have preserved the balance between the natural world and the human population that had evolved over thousands of years. It would have been a win-win situation for conservation and anthropology.

But we didn’t, it probably would never have worked and we now can’t. Sadly, the world is just not that simple.

Today’s reality

The modern day reality is that we are dealing with a decimated wildlife population, poaching is rife and we have a forest that has been extensively logged and is under continual future threat from further logging. The conservation need is urgent.

The BaAka culture is disappearing too, their communities are being destroyed by alcohol and money, they have become settled and are loosing the knowledge and culture associated with their more nomadic forest way of life.

The conservation response to the wildlife crisis has been to create a National Park: a protected area of land that is intended to remain as a wild place, where wildlife can thrive, undisturbed by humans. Inside the National Park there is meant to be no hunting and no collection of materials.

The response to the anthropological crises has been less clear. There are plenty of expatriates coming and going, many study and record the BaAka culture, others set up “community development programmes” many of which fade into nothing once the white people who’ve set them up leave. There is no overall structure or coordination. The main themes seem to be to tackle the immediate problems the BaAka communities have (health, alcoholism, education etc.), to try and develop viable economic alternatives and a push to restore parts of the old way of life. Restoring the old way of life means more time in the forest, and by definition, unrestricted access to the forest with permission to hunt and gather.

It is here that we find our central conflict between the two disciplines in this part of Central Africa:

Anthropologists want to protect a culture that intrinsically depends on the BaAka having access the forest, without restriction.

Conservationists want to protect the forest, and the wildlife populations and ecosystems within, which are under existential threat from the presence of people.

These two things seem mutually exclusive. A protected area, in which people are free to run around hunting and gathering seems to defeat the point of a protected area. If it is was only a few hundred BaAka, it might be different, however that is no longer the case, there are now 15,000 other people living here, all of whom would happily run around the forest taking what they want if the protections were removed. A small number of BaAka might once have lived in harmony with the forest but you simply cannot achieve the old balance when you have a population that is an order of magnitude larger than it ever was and is now made up of different cultures.

If you allowed unrestricted access to the forest, as some anthropologists would advocate, you simply wouldn’t have a forest left.

One argument I’ve heard is that it should only be BaAka, and not Bantu, allowed to hunt in the forest. It is true that this would restrict the number of people in the forest to a sustainable level, but how would this work in practice? Would you have a line of eco-guards on the border of the National Park racially profiling people, turning away Bantu, allowing in BaAka? How would it work? Guards would be saying: “You are short and lighter brown, and your ancestors have been here for a hundred years, so you can come and hunt animals… but I’m afraid you are too tall and a darker brown and your ancestors only came here a few decades ago, so sorry, you are not allowed into the Park”. The reality is that you cannot let BaAka in, without also letting everyone else in. Make your borders porous, and all sorts of people will come. This idea would be unenforceable and fundamentally discriminatory. It is nonsensical, but something that I’ve heard proposed many times. It is telling that not one of the proponents of this idea has ever come up with a practical, realistic way to enforce it.

There is an argument too of inevitability and timing. I’ve asked the same question to every anthropologist I’ve spoken to out here: “Do you think that in 10 years time, it will be viable for BaAka culture to depend on the forest in the way that it once did?”. Every answer I‘ve been given has been the same: No. They say no because they know that the population is growing, BaAka culture is undergoing massive change that cannot be reversed and that the forest ecosystem is so fragile that it can’t support the people it once did. So, if we accept that BaAka society cannot return to what it once was, that it is going to have to eventually undergo a full transition to a culture that is no longer dependent on the forest as it once was: would it not be better to do this in such a way that there was still a healthy forest?

One thing that conservationists and anthropologists do agree on out here is the need to protect the forest. Conservationists want the forest to exist as a habitat for wildlife and as a good in itself; Anthropologists want the forest to exist to enable the old BaAka way of life to continue.


To preserve the remaining forest we have to be firm, fast and above all, we need to be right. We need to choose a model that will work, because we do not have time to be wrong.

There are various options we can pursue. Here are a couple:

There are community ownership models: where the local community own and protect their own forest. The community would be given responsibility, within certain guidelines, to manage the forest. They could hunt, gather and harvest whatever they liked within the rules of the model. They would be in charge. There has reportedly been some success with this in South America, but I have to hold my hands up to not knowing the details (please feel free to educate me below). However, back here in Central Africa, who would you give the responsibility it to here? Just the BaAka? Or the Bantu too? The BaAka might have been here for hundreds of years, but many of the Bantu now depend just as much as the BaAka on the forest. You stray into the murky waters of racially profiling again and face the difficult questions we looked at earlier. Can the local forest even support 15,000 sustainably? Let alone asking whether people would actually use it sustainably if given uncontrolled access. What we know of human nature would suggest not. With no rule of law, with social norms now so focussed on unsustainable, exploitative behaviour, you only need to spend a week in this place to realise that it would really struggle to work here. Or at least not yet. This is perhaps for the future.

An alternative model would be to build a fortress. We can stick up a fence, make a cut zone (where the forest is cut back for 100m or so around the National Park to enable better patrols), implement a properly funded armed anti-poaching operation, with modern high tech communications, helicopters, boat patrols, the whole nine-yards. The point being to make damn sure that no-one comes into the Park, no animals are killed, the forest remains standing and wildlife populations are allowed to recover without human interference. This would not prevent research and tourism, but it would be tightly controlled.

Assuming that you could implement both strategies perfectly, then which would you choose?

This is one possible permutation of the opening question. One means the BaAka culture can continue, but likely means that the wildlife is doomed. The other forces BaAka culture to change, but protects the forest and wildlife.

Save a culture, or save an ecosystem?

While, I think both these options have merits, both might be right for different places and different times, if I had to choose one to solve the problems right here, right now, then I would choose to build a fortress, to protect the ecosystem.

It certainly works on paper and we know it works in reality. Kruger National Park in South Africa is possibly the best example. With wildlife populations decimated when it was founded in the 1970s, a strict no-go policy was enforced and it worked. As an example, elephant populations in the Park recovered from being in the hundreds, to over twelve thousand thirty years later. It is true that the Park is struggling again now, but it could be argued that this is because of a weakening of the fortress policy. It might not be perfect, but this strategy protects the wildlife.

Passions run high when this is all discussed perhaps because of the urgency of the problem. We do not have the luxury of being able to make mistakes because time is really not on our side. Leave it another decade and there will barely be anything left worth protecting.

Protect the forest now, or it will be gone forever. I suspect an anthropologist would say the same thing about BaAka culture.

And of course, this is all, I admit, an overly simplistic argument: perhaps just a reflection of the particular problems that I have encountered in the northern Congo. It is unfair to paint a picture in which Conservation and Anthropology are at war. It is, naturally, more nuanced. Both disciplines are wide ranging, noble endeavours, which often do not always bump up against each other. Indeed, as suggested earlier, both disciplines need each other. The solutions to many problems in each field rely on the other.

We cannot preserve culture without protecting the natural world; and we cannot protect wild places without people.

Finding a win-win

There are choices that need to be made which will either favour wildlife or favour people and so I suppose the real challenge is to discover a win-win: a practical, workable solution, where modern-sized human populations, with a mixture of indigenous peoples and new arrivals, can sustainably co-exist with wildlife and wild places. Living in balance and harmony with each other.

The real solutions are perhaps much larger than have been covered in this post.

There are big challenges here for humanity as a whole. We need to address issues such as global overpopulation; take a new look at our extraction reliant, growth dependent economies; and we need to be more honest with ourselves about the true cost of our overly consumerist lifestyles.

Perhaps only once we have made these fundamental changes to the way humanity operates, will we have real hope for the ancient cultures and wild places of our world.

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Rwanda. Le pay des mille collines. #remarkablerwanda Rainy season sunsets Having an "office job" isn't so bad when occasionally your desk is a speedboat on a Congo river.
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