In L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between he writes, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” In dealing with conservation and sustainable development I frequently encounter the opposite – the past echoes through to the present continuously and a consideration of history is essential for understanding the present. The problem with sustainable development programmes that employ development aid workers who are newly arrived in a country, is that they seldom have any understanding of the history. They almost never understand how history has affected local conditions in the area where they are working. In fact, most newcomers to Africa think that history started about two weeks before their plane touched down at the airport. This is part of the reason they fail to implement policy around sustainable development that has a long lasting effect on the lives of rural people.
The area of western Zambia known to some as Western Province, but to the people who live there as Barotseland, is a good example of where history reverberates powerfully in many of the conservation and sustainable development issues today. Unusually for many areas of Africa, there is a well documented history of Barotseland over the last 150 years and it is only by understanding this history that we can approach the problems of sustainable development in the region. As anyone who has a passing interest in history will know, history is frequently manipulated by those who seek to tell a version of events that supports their claims to current legitimacy. This is the reason, as practitioners of sustainable development, that we should always be aware of history. It is frequently manipulated and abused in order to establish legitimacy that does not necessarily exist, or to support modern day conflicts which have not been resolved.
Clear boundaries are needed for any conservation and development project to proceed. In the Nobel Prize winning work of Elinor Ostrom on Common Pool Resource theory, she cites clear boundaries as one of her eight design principles for successful common pool resource utilisation. Boundaries of areas are frequently in dispute, and it is here that history becomes important for solving these disputes and moving forward. The parties will no doubt have their own very different interpretations of history and an awareness of this helps to place the disputes in their local cultural context. People may not be disputing boundaries because they are greedy and want access to resources, but because they hold to an historical interpretation of events which informs the modern day situation. Understand the history and you understand the motivation behind the dispute. Once you have a clear understanding of this you can move towards a solution.
The ignorance of African history is both justified (by those who are ignorant) and epitomised by comments from the eminent Oxford historian Hugh Trevor-Roper. He claimed that Africa has no history prior to the arrival of European settlement. His view that Africa’s past consists of “the unedifying gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe” is a damaging perspective when one is attempting to understand present day political problems at a local scale. While it is true that the overwhelming majority of African historical research looks at the colonial period, it is the pre-colonial period that accounts for some of the way people see themselves, the way Chiefs and traditional leaders justify their legitimacy and how boundary disputes are viewed and argued. A persistent problem with documenting African history is the lack of a published historical record, but this need not be a problem when trying to understand local history. The important thing to be aware of is not the authenticity of these histories, but that they exist and that they interpret events differently and that these interpretations are used to justify power and access to resources. It is almost always impossible to reconcile versions of history, especially when it is oral history, but this makes no difference to reconciling disputes in the present day. Solving modern day disputes always requires compromise, and in some ways it may be better to let people believe their version of history (which is closely tied to their identity) and move forward on a new footing to solve problems of sustainable development. In this way, the past does become a foreign country, where things were done differently and a new way of doing things can become a break with the past that may be needed to solve disputes. Local history is a fascinating subject in rural Africa and needs to be documented. Just like my call for an African epistmelogy of nature I make a call for local African oral history to be written down. It doesn’t matter whether it is a true version of events or not. It is the story of how people see themselves and like all history it informs people’s identity. This is really important in understanding how to implement sustainable development. C’mon African scholars – start writing!