Epistemology – now there’s a word you don’t encounter in every day conversation! It simply means a set of beliefs about the world which inform our perception of reality. In a formal sense it’s the study of knowledge – the study of epistemology investigates the origin, nature, methods and limits of human knowledge. So what does this have to do with our relationship with nature? In Africa it has a great deal to do with how we perceive and conceptualise nature and is at the heart of a lot of conflict when it comes to managing natural resources. Let me start with an example. I was recently a speaker at an online webinar on African landscape ecology and the subject of fire came up. Fire in African landscapes is a controversial subject and I can’t begin to count the number of discussions and arguments I’ve had around the campfire about the role of fire in African ecosystems. One of the participants asked the question, “what is a natural fire regime”? This question is loaded with so many epistemological assumptions I didn’t know how to start answering it, so let me start by picking apart the different threads.
There is a strong, deeply held belief among many people who care about Africa and her natural resources, that there was a time when humans were absent from the landscape, when animals roamed free, untouched by man and elephants migrated across huge swathes of the continent along ancient paths known only to them. At the same time, the discoveries of Raymond Dart and Phillip Tobias in South Africa, the Leakey’s in East Africa and more recently Lee Berger and his group working at the Cradle of Humankind, have shown convincingly that humans evolved in Africa. The discovery of ‘Mitochondrial Eve’ has provided further genetic support to the fossil evidence that humans evolved in Africa. There are two things that emerge from these facts:
- There certainly was a time when there were no humans in Africa. Modern humans emerged about 200,000 years ago.
- There is wide consensus that Homo erectus used fire about 400,000 years ago. Estimates for the earliest use of fire by humans ranges from 200,000 years ago to about 1.7 million years ago
There is strong evidence from Kalambo Falls in Zambia that humans used fire between 60,000 and 110,000 years ago. So if humans or human ancestors have been using fire for so long, and we can safely assume that this would have included burning large areas of the landscape, whether intentionally or not, what is a natural fire regime? More importantly, why isn’t human use of fire and burning of the landscape part of a natural fire regime? It comes down to how we perceive the role of humans in nature and unfortunately, Western philosophy places humans as separate to nature. It’s at the heart of Western epistemology.
It’s the fault of Descartes. The French philosopher placed the mind (and by extension the soul, which represented God and his perfect human creation) separate from the body. This Cartesian dualism has affected almost every field of Western knowledge from medicine (where problems with the body are treated as if the mind does not exist), to our relationship with nature, where the influence of humans is regarded as an imposition on a perfect Eden. This is behind the widespread idea that any influence by humans in an ecosystem is an aberration or an interference in a larger, natural order. I’m afraid I don’t think these ideas are tenable.
If humans evolved in Africa, and have had the power to use fire for hundreds of thousands or even millions of years, the only way I can join the dots is to say that humans are integral to shaping the environments we know today. There is no natural fire regime that excludes humans, unless you go back to a time when there were no fire-using anthropoids on earth. Is this really the natural Eden modern conservationists are trying to recreate? How far back in time do we go ? There was a time when there were no elephants, lions or giraffes on earth, and only large reptiles dominated the megafauna. If we follow this thinking then why aren’t the habitats that dinosaurs lived in a more natural environment than the one which came later which included mammals, and then later, humans? The idea of a snapshot in time when nature reigned supreme without humans or human influence becomes just a silly idea when you try and pin it down. The problem is that this silly idea is at the heart of the conservation movement in Africa, and fundamental to the original formation and current management of national parks.
Of course we can argue that human impact on the environment was much less in the past than it is today, and I wouldn’t dispute that. However, the formation of a national park is not about lessening the impact of humans to levels of the past, it’s about excluding humans altogether to create an Eden that never existed. No wonder they are so unpopular among African people, especially those who used to live in the national park. Thousands of people have been moved over the years to create these parks, with no apparent sense of irony on the part of the people who were involved in their formation. In his first report to the Government of Northern Rhodesia, Pitman (1934) wrote ” The native population should be removed from the game reserves as soon as possible.” And so they were, in their thousands.
I’m not going to write a history of removals from National Parks in Africa, but if Africans are going to reclaim their national parks, and indeed, reclaim a role for rural African people in managing natural resources, we need an African epistemology of nature that articulates how African belief systems view nature. A recent paper by Mavhunga (2014) makes an attempt at describing an African epistemology of nature. The ideas he records will no doubt vary widely between different African cultures, but in describing some Shona customs from Zimbabwe and making an explicit link between epistemology and nature, he places the Shona people in a continuum of environmental history that makes conservation an imperative for the preservation of that culture. Too often Africans feel excluded from conservation because it is perceived as a postcolonial artefact, but the more we can place African cultural practices in environmental history, the easier it becomes to justify conservation. It also becomes trivial to justify community participation in natural resource management when we unify humans and nature and see them as part of the process of making landscapes, rather than a blot on the landscape that must be excluded. To some extent Africans are responsible for the deficit in this regard. Africans must write this narrative, because no one else can. African scholars must place the narrative in its ecological and environmental context rather than rejecting conservation as a postcolonial imposition. Most of the published indigenous epistemology around nature comes from native American thoughts, although studies of Amazon tribes have revealed a well developed epistemology of nature. Where are the Africans? Obsessed with the past and filled with resentment about colonialism ? Intent on throwing the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to conservation? Come on African scholars – write a detailed, well researched and contextualised African epistemology of nature which replaces this outdated Disneyland fantasy which currently governs the management of national parks and other natural resources. Place yourselves in your history or other people will place you in their version of events as they have done for hundreds of years. Carpe diem.
Pitman, C. (1934). A report on a faunal survey of Northern Rhodesia. Government Printer, Livingstone.
Mavhunga, C. C. (2014). Seeing the National Park from Outside It: On an African Epistemology of Nature. In Mauch, C. and Robin, L., editors, The Edges of Environmental History: Honouring Jane Carruthers, pages 53–60. RCC Perspectives.