Our lives are based on myths. We all have personal myths that we live by and which define who we are. They make us secure in the knowledge that we are living a good life. Adhering to the myths that are more widely shared in society help us gain the approval of our peers and have a strong role in binding communities together. Religion is a good example – a set of myths which guide us to living a good life and earning approval from society. Calling these ideas ‘myths’ can generate a lot of anger and controversy. No one likes being told they believe in a fabrication. I am not using the word in a pejorative sense – I think it’s good to have a set of ideas through which you construct your world view and which binds communities together in common purpose. However, some myths are dangerous and have damaging consequences for wider society and deserve to be challenged. Islamic fundamentalism is one of the most dangerous myths which need to be challenged. Exposing religious myths often generates anger and controversy, but challenging the wilderness myth must come a close second. It results in the same reaction – an outpouring of invective and a declaration of jihad against all non-believers. It pains me to do it, because many of my friends and colleagues believe in this myth, but in my post this week I’m challenging the myth of African wilderness.
In an act of wilful ignorance, a long line of preservationists and romantics have constructed a reality about the natural environment which is simply not true. Unfortunately they have had some help from the most prominent Western philosophers such as Descartes. The separation of humans from nature is a deeply held belief both in Christianity, Islam and in secular philosophy. Made in the image of God, humans were supposed to be better, higher, omniscient and most of all separate from the natural world, which existed all around us but of which we were not a part. The idea that humans can shape the world, and that the natural world we see around us is the product of human influence is not something the wilderness preservationists like to admit. Many forests in West Africa were started by humans planting fruit trees and the forests expanded from the nucleus that this provided. Vast areas of both North America and Africa were burned by humans, influencing the landscape in a large scale gardening operation. Without humans, many landscapes, including the one of the most famous landscapes of all, the Serengeti, would simply not exist. Fire, cattle grazing and cropping have all had an impact on the landscape over thousands of years.
In Africa, we have inherited the wilderness myth from the preservationist/wilderness movement in the United States. The story of John Muir and the formation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 inspired the creation of the first African national parks such as Virunga in 1925 and Kruger in 1926. Later huge parks such as Hwange (1928) and Kafue (1950) were proclaimed along with many others in East Africa, all following the American model. It was all based on the idea that large areas of land should be kept free from humans who were the despoilers of nature and interfered with the natural processes. Unfortunately, no one seemed to appreciate the irony that every single African national park required the removal of people before it could be proclaimed as the natural Eden that it was supposed to become. In Yellowstone, the last Native Americans were moved out in 1967. The history of forced removals from African national parks is the inconvenient truth behind what many conservationists consider pristine wilderness. Many conservationists don’t want to hear this and are as wilfully ignorant of the facts as the early romantics such as Muir.
In their book “The Myth of Wild Africa” Jonathan Adams and Thomas McShane discuss the role of the rinderpest outbreak in forming the perceptions of wilderness that are related in the accounts of early explorers. It is estimated that the human and cattle population of Africa reached its lowest level between 1898 and 1930. The rinderpest epidemic killed the cattle, and the people starved to death soon afterwards. The early explorers who described areas devoid of humans were describing the results of an epidemic that killed off all the people just before they arrived. They were not discovering some kind of special Eden where man had not set foot. However, the timing of these discoveries coincided well with the wilderness preservation ideas coming out of America at the time, and early colonial governments embraced these ideas enthusiastically.
Most of my research is conducted in the Mulobezi Game Management Area in south west Zambia. The community under the Chieftainship of HRH Chief Moomba is remote and lives a subsistence lifestyle. I have seldom encountered a more settled and well governed community anywhere in Africa. I have been measuring the impact of these communities on deforestation over the last 30 years and the short story is that there has been almost no degradation of the forests and woodlands due to subsistence activity. People plant crops, harvest forest products for their own use and sale in nearby towns like Livingstone and Choma, they collect traditional medicines and honey and they have strong institutions of local governance. However, government own all the wildlife so if they kill a duiker or even a guinea fowl for their own consumption, they can be arrested and thrown into jail for years. If they step foot in the neighbouring Kafue National Park, they will be instantly arrested. Those who advocate the maintenance of pristine wildernesses as necessary for ecological integrity or flourishing wildlife populations would do well to look at Mulobezi. There is a community of people living in harmony with their surroundings and it feels far more like the real Africa than a sterile national park with nothing but the ghosts of old villages and fields which have been trampled under the myth of pristine African wilderness.
So if Africa was never a pristine wilderness, how should that affect how we approach the governance of African national parks today? Should we get rid them? I don’t support getting rid of national parks, but I do support recognising the myth that they were free of human influence and I do support fundamentally changing the way we manage these areas. Along the boundaries of many African national parks, communities that once farmed and hunted in national parks, now live in poverty. This is unacceptable, and is a source of huge conflict. Poachers come from these come communities, many of them hunting for meat in areas where their parents remember hunting in the past. The communities are a ready source of resentful young men who will risk their lives to do the dirty work of commercial ivory poachers. The people who are caught poaching rhino in South Africa are not from China or Vietnam where rhino horn is sold, but more often than not they are from the local community. I’m not suggesting that massive human impact in natural areas is acceptable, or that national parks should be opened up to uncontrolled resource use. I’d like to see a clear recognition that people who live around these national parks have a right to use the resources sustainably to improve their lives and smooth over some of the uncertainty that is unavoidable in a subsistence lifestyle. How we achieve this is open to negotiation, but the myth of wild Africa needs to go.