To understand portions of one’s own culture demands a lifetime; to become familiar with another’s depends upon a host of enthusiastic interpreters, attentive listening, experiencing a multitude of unfamiliar activities, a receptive heart, and good fortune. Throughout my life, a major focus has been the contrast between Northern (Western) and African perceptions (neither of which is homogeneous) and their relationships to wildlife and how these motives and practices have played out in conservation policies and through political-economic power. How have such policies affected local or indigenous populations? How thoroughly have they disrupted earlier relationships? What about the impacts on ecological interactions? Undoubtedly, my concern is part of a legacy from a childhood and youth spent equally in temperate North America and tropical Central Africa, of immersions in dissimilar cultural and environmental settings, an early absorption of three languages, of childhood roles and adventures under conditions favoring explorations in both cultural and environmental domains, and of subsequent career choices allowing the time, resources and the connections to follow these interests and to write about them (Marks, 1984,1991,2005, nd.).
This passion for different world views and for wild animals came as I reflected upon earlier experience while temporarily stationed among the Inuit in the Bering Straits in 1962. While there, I realized that my Inuit associates were not seeing the same animals that I was taught in graduate studies. My hosts on St. Lawrence Island possessed a more inclusive connectedness to the lives of neighboring creatures, expressive of longer term relationships, both spiritual and epistemological, upon which their welfare depended. These exposures and thoughts challenged me to expand my own awareness beyond what was considered then appropriate in the academy. Accepting this ordeal has taken most of a life time to observe cultural and environmental processes in just two small places. In the process of completing intermittent field studies with members of one central African society (Marks, 2008; nd), I am asked to share some musing with readers of On the Human. I will give some background and findings from this longitudinal study before posing some questions that may affect, if not implicate, us all.
In Zambia’s central Luangwa Valley, the Valley Bisa share their landscape with dense populations of large and small wild animals. These Bisa have been my hosts and teachers during intermittent stays spread over half a century. Like many of their neighbors, this society is matrilineal and organized into chiefs’ and commoners’ lineages. They are subsistence hoe cultivators, dependent upon rain-fed sorghums/maize, upon collecting and hunting wild products, as well as upon wage employment. Gender largely determines who farms, cooks, raises children, collects, hunts, or seeks wages. Residents’ numbers have doubled in fifty years (10,000 people in 2006), now skewed decidedly towards the younger ages while their communities are challenged by a weak government’s retrenchment in education and in other social services. Today most residents are experiencing growing poverty and persistent resource scarcities as shifting climate regimes affect their subsistence agriculture and as government edicts restrict their gathering and hunting of bush products. Unlike their neighbors, the Valley Bisa were a comparatively small and “marginal” group somewhat distanced from outside administration until recently (accessible by a rough, unimproved road since 1960), yet with sizeable portions of their land appropriated initially by the colonial and later the Zambian state as game reserve and as national parks respectfully. Today, they inhabit a narrow Game Management Area (a “buffer corridor” of some 2500 km2) surrounded on three sides by national parks with a steep escarpment on the fourth which separates them somewhat from developments elsewhere.
Since the 1980s, these imposed institutional boundaries, supported in the “mental furniture” of conservation officials, backed by considerable international funding and enforcement on the ground, have had a devastating impact on Valley Bisa welfare and culture. One way to illustrate this quandary is to list the names given to their domestic dogs, which, as the state has disarmed the local population, have become residents’ close associates in their conspiracy against the state’s limited economic vision for wildlife. Unlike the domesticated dogs found in many Northern societies’ households, which are brought into the family hearth, well-fed, and treated much as kin, the names of and condition of Valley Bisa dogs are symbolic of their despair and fragmenting social relations. Dogs are rarely fed or cared for and, in times of duress, are sold sometimes to safari operators for target practice. In 2006, these given-names reflect the recent individualization and social alienation taking place under increasing uncertainty and poverty, for the monikers were either derogatory or punitive evocative of unsanctioned sentiments (even in translation): “we have no relatives” [after no one came to inquire about a wife maimed by a crocodile], ”hatred”, ”not yours”, “no justice”, “remember me”, “not sure why I married this woman”, “if your marriage is unstable- you will travel”, “mistake”, “shut up”, “you offend the whole household”, “jealousy”, “rudeness”, “chaos”, “no appreciation”, “stinginess”, and “you will see.” To me, this litany is symptomatic of the depth to which a once brave and resourceful people have descended in their relationships with their neighboring animals and to each other.
Valley residents depend upon wildlife as an important complement to their agricultural products and especially as a safety net in times of famines. For some of their men, the hunting of and protection from wildlife are both necessary and customary. The necessity comes from the endemic presence of the tsetse fly, which prevents livestock husbandry, and from the need to protect human life and crops from wildlife competitions both in its large and smaller forms. Wild meats are important supplements in diets and the produce of a few men selected by their lineages. Gender roles dictate that women engage in “mundane” agriculture and serve as the structural core of villagers, while most men assume the expansive and chancy activities of hunting, trading, and local or migrant labor.
Valley Bisa relationships with the wild animals around them are diverse, complicated, and, in some cases, seem contradictory. While wildlife competes with cultivators and collectors for food, some animals reciprocally become important sources of meat and of power when used as medicines and in witchcraft. This dialectic is the basic social organizing principle in which matrilineally-related women, identified symbolically with subsistence agriculture and the “community”, are contrasted to wildlife and its potential destructiveness of human life and sustenance. Men (mainly marrying into the group) with their wide-ranging activities are identified with wild animals, hunting, trade, and the bush (Morris 1998). Local people employ familiar concepts to classify wild animals including their grouping, relations between these categories as well as the same images to interpret behaviors, “spirits,” and power. Their folk classifications express utilitarian and anthropocentric values. Historically, relationships with and knowledge of wildlife were the domain of few men belonging to specific lineages.
Whereas “mammals” are presumed to have their own autonomous reality, local hunters’ categories encapsulate lineage interests, needs, and uses as well as expressions of personal fears, histories, and experiences. Historically, hunters managed and addressed their roles tangentially through beliefs in spirits, through the tangible uses of culturally mediated rituals and prescriptions, and through following the normative distributions of its products and procedures. Lineage elders used unseen agents (spirits, ancestors) and observable agency to monitor the compliance of their subordinates while imaginatively structuring and legitimizing the ethical order in times of crisis and uncertainties.
Linguistically and historically, the Valley Bisa did not separate themselves from other forms of life nor do they typically objectify “nature.” No indigenous word exists for the Northern idea of “nature,” or “environment” as such, although their noun “nchende” is sometimes translated as such by outsiders pushing a conservation ethic. The vernacular meaning of this term includes people, place, and the resources (“fipe”-baggage, goods, or “properties”) necessary to sustain people within a particular site. The term to convey something of the meaning for a “natural resource” is “ifilingwa waleza” (literally God’s gifts). The ideal of wildlife “conservation” requires a whole phrase- “kusunga ifilingwa waleza” (caring for God’s gifts). Yet, this indigenous term denotes more intrinsic and spiritual meanings than the English term, as it assumes that humans and the other lives around them constitute a seamless whole. Both are integral parts: no “nature” exists outside the morality of the human community, for reciprocal obligations extend outward from the village embracing other forms of life as well as spirits. The bush becomes responsive and responsible to residents as their ancestral spirits reside there as former embodiments of the current community. Causality embedded in moral principles and human intentionality are the bedrock explanations for why “good” and “bad” things happen; the latter might happen even to “good” or innocent people because someone, somewhere has violated ethical expectations and norms. The “how” and the “why” questions of life are often embedded in the same search.
For most Valley Bisa, their recent transformations have been precipitous and traumatic, brought on by many dynamics seemingly outside their influence, and expressed through the consciousness of increasing scarcities and decreasing welfare. Within this synthesis of progressive factors is a steady inflation in the national economy since the late 1970s, the death of a long-reigning chief in 1984 with an interregnum until 1990, a weak and truculent government unresponsive to local needs, uncertain rainfall regimes and climatic shifts. In addition, the AIDS epidemic and a doubling in population size (since the 1960s) mean that the majority of residents are young, with little formal education and facing local resource and productive land scarcities as well as few opportunities for employment. This demographic shift has brought its losses in cultural and local ecological memories as many residents reject the earlier “limited” communal worldview of ancestors for conversions to Pentecostalism with its individualistic expectations and anticipated rewards. Under donor pressures, government has further aggrieved local welfare by legally commoditizing the value of wildlife to generate revenues, thereby privileging access by safari hunters and international tourists rather than local users. Towards this goal, the administration employs large cadres of wildlife police officers to arrest those killing wildlife without formal licenses and harassing others while dispossessing residents of the firearms formerly used to feed and to protect themselves. Officials offer no proactive protection to residents or compensation for their losses. While enduring a high level of arrests and losses, residents resort to “hidden transcripts” (secrecy) and earlier devices (snares, downfalls) to deliver their protests, to protect their properties, and to acquire their animal protein. Another way is through the recent husbandry of domesticated dogs as co-conspirators in protection and for acquiring prey.
I do not pretend to present a final, definitive picture for these cultural dynamics or for the biological commons in this central Luangwa Valley. What I have witnessed will continue in various shapes and versions as current cultural tragedies and policies continue in that part of the world. Finding the words to match the meanings and expressions for my experiences in this distant valley has, for me, become an instructive hunt, if only a mental one. Nevertheless, this quest has enlarged my range in curiosity, taken me across new conceptual terrain and provided different “targets” of opportunity. The pursuit to reconfigure “the place of nature within the space of culture” essentially becomes one of redefining “ownership”, “possessions”, and “belonging” and remains necessarily elusive as the perpetrators in time often become victims (Buell, 2001). Comments of fellow trekkers, as well as those of others, are welcome as what I have learned leads me to some inferences about the acquisitive structures and presumptive natures of our (northern) societies. I conclude with a few of these reflections.
For an indeterminate past, wild animals were around and with us, in our minds if not in our stomachs, and vice versa. According to our myths, these associations were essential for humans evolving and for reflective definitions of our humanity. Humanity’s place within nature became a topic of modern European philosophers, who agreed on human superiority even as they differed on the specifics as to what humans had that other animals lacked. It is assumed that only humans have language and practical intelligence that allows imagination, speculation, and deliberation about death and what comes after. With European exploration and colonization worldwide, and later its own industrialization, wild animals began to disappear from human life as environments became fundamentally transformed under the egis of ideas about hierarchy, dominance, and utility. Today most descendants of and operatives within these European worldviews must travel far to witness the diversity of wild animals, even if these animals are now found in contrived surroundings elsewhere; otherwise, they remain surrounded by domesticated types bearing human utilities as pets and food. As human livelihoods and wants have become the major impact on the evolutionary trajectories of most forms of life, I wonder if animals, particularly in their “wilder” forms, will continue as a major epistemological category in human development and thought. If animals are no longer the standards, what might take their place as holistic contexts on life recede and comparisons become increasingly reductionist? (Thomas, 1963; Lippit, 2000)
Scott Atran and Doug Medin (2008) show how the remarkable breadth in biological and ecological knowledge of some indigenous people compares with that of modern literates in the United States. Some of these smaller groups, whose worldviews include spiritual and ethical links to their environments, strive to maintain “sustainable” resources within livable environments, often while in conflict with more powerful and imperial groups claiming privileged (but truncated) worldviews based in distant and “unsustainable” cultural appetites for material resources. Other indigenous groups, such as the Valley Bisa, resist the odds by persisting with their own claims and identities despite its high cost. What I find remarkable about this discrepancy in biological knowledge is that many people in the Northern Hemisphere, even those working for organizations proclaiming their mission as protecting the environment, seem oblivious to the limitations of their own perspectives and prefer to remain in the dark about the high “hidden” human costs in their own overseas activities. My view is that we would learn a lot from listening and learning from people who know about formal, and even informal, restraints and from long term perspectives that our histories have repeatedly yet to teach us. Unfortunately, we seldom venture beyond our invented environments and the comforts of our insulated lives, including the pets that bear our marks, as seekers rather than as tourists.
What I have described for the Valley Bisa is not a unique event, for similar episodes have occurred in the past and continue into the present. In many respects, these incidents are reminiscent of persistent biological drives submerged in imperial cultural demands for resources and territory. In this case, it would be a basic biological need for territory and resources sanctioned as a cultural necessity controlling (managing) disorder, unknowns, and diversity spatially (Sheets-Johnstone, 2009). In a recent remarkable book, Anderson (2004) depicts how colonists in North America used their domestic livestock to undermine indigenous Indians of their rights to land and resources, which once obtained, settlers then transformed into commodities that they considered more manageable. Anderson (2004:246) concludes this tragic story thus: “Indians found room in their world for livestock, but the colonists and their descendants could find no room in theirs for Indians.”
My experience leads me to think that those who strive to preserve biological diversity in terms of their own worldviews, restrictive in its visions of cultural diversity, are imperially pushing their own control of “nature” rather than broadening our common understanding about what “sustainability” of life might be about. For the Valley Bisa, the story begins with wild animals, a cultivated and cultured landscape; it ends with domesticated animals bearing the imprints of their makers, with the human vision dimmed, the land cartelized by new proprietors none the wiser. The national park might just be “America’s best idea,” according to the recent Ken Burns’ documentary; yet a closer look at this cinema graphic shows that it is really about our violent history and displacement of indigenous peoples, about our heroes and villains, about the cultured versions of our interpreters and scholars, about our technologies and acquisitiveness, about our class-based disparities in wealth, about our cultural concepts of work, play, and leisure, as well as our definitions of a “good life.” How can such an idea be expanded and disciplined to serve a more universal ideal?
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