I remember the heated conversation with a guest in one of my African Studies classes on the topic of the lingering impact of colonialism in Africa. More specifically, on that day we were discussing colonialism’s effect on African economies today. My guest held the view that colonialism was dead and gone, and poor performances of Africa’s economy were solely the fault of Africa’s leadership class. While I make no excuses for the many failures of Africa’s leadership class, in my view it does not take much effort to see that colonialism is implicated in the continued instability in the DR Congo.1 It does not take much to see that colonialism has a firm grip on the monetary policy of the dozen French-speaking countries in West and Central Africa, and consequently on the economic struggles of these countries.2
However, let’s go with the assertion that colonialism is dead in Africa and our poor economic performance is fully of our own doing. What then can we say about the plethora of forest and biodiversity conservation initiatives in Africa today that continue to restrict local access to forest resources just as was the case in the colonial era? Local people across Africa whether in Senegal,3 Nigeria,4 Cameroon,5 DR Congo,6 or Tanzania,7 continue to experience restrictions or outright refusal and even human right abuses as they seek to use the natural resources in their locality for survival. These policies and abusive practices against local people mirror the colonial experiences of their forebears that I have likened to the experience of being haunted by a ghost. In this case, they are being haunted by the ghost of colonialism.
What about restrictions on forest resource use by local people in the pre-colonial era due to local traditional values, norms, and taboos? Why are these not also haunting legacies on local forest-dependent people in Africa? The answer lies in their legitimacy in the eyes of local people. These forest governance regulations were extensions of organically developed norms of self-rule, with context-specific and locally appropriate sanctions for rule-breakers. The colonial rules on the other hand were externally imposed and illegitimate in the eyes of local people. The modern African state as the inheritor of the roles and responsibilities of the colonial state is thus viewed with the same type of governance animus by local people. Seeing the state restrict access to the forest is thus like seeing a ghost from the colonial past.
If using the allegory of the ghost seems too hyperreal and otherworldly, ghosts are very much members of human society everywhere given their huge popularity in human works of fiction.8 What are ghosts and why is human society full of ghost stories? One author state that ghosts ‘emanate from specific cultural fears and fantasies.’9 I agree – our ghost stories are often about persons and things that strike fear in our hearts and minds; and in many African countries the eco-guard or forest guards as they were known in colonial times, struck fear in the hearts of our forebears and continue to strike fear in the hearts of many in local communities today. Forest and biodiversity conservation in Africa is filled with legacy colonial issues like these that still bring sorrows, tears, and blood to African people in a very real way.
Colonialism advanced the forceful integration of the peoples and economies of tropical Africa into global industrial capitalism.10 While the trans-Atlantic slave trade was a blunt force entry of tropical African peoples into global industrial capitalism abroad, colonialism was blunt force entry of African peoples into global industrial capitalism at their doorstep. The setting up of plantation economies all over colonized Africa and in addition extractive industries in countries with precious minerals led to huge loss of forest in Africa and fed the insatiable industries in Europe and America that polluted their environment. Consequently, the desire for unspoiled nature by Europeans and Americans led to gazetting of forest reserves for game hunting and conservation in Africa, which unfairly restricted local people’s access to their forest.11
In my own research, I have been following the management of the Bimbia-Boandikombo community forest (BBCF) in Cameroon for the past 20 years. Local people were granted rights by the forestry department to manage this 3,000-hectare community forest in 2002. This was after four years of groundwork to meet the requirements of Cameroon’s 1994 decentralized forestry law that regulates the management of forests in the country. The law allows for community rights to manage local forests at a maximum of 5,000 hectares for a period of 25 years to meet community socio-economic needs. This is a great piece of legislation for recognizing the role of local communities in forest resources management. However, making this work on the ground in Bimbia-Bonadikombo has not been without significant difficulties, some of which arise from the colonial history of this place.
Bimbia looms large in Cameroon’s colonial history.12 It was a slave-trading port along the Atlantic coast, the first school in Cameroon was set up in Bimbia, and it is part of the fertile strip of land in west Cameroon known as the Cameroon Volcanic Line.13 Thus, some of the earliest cash crop plantations in Cameroon were established by German colonial entrepreneurs in this region more than a century ago. When the local people were not willing to work on the plantation to the satisfaction of the German owners, forced labor was brought in from further hinterland to come work in the plantations. While the land was forcefully taken for plantation purposes, other forestlands were taken from the people and gazetted as forest reserves.
So, when the government allowed for local people to manage a limited portion of their local forests, and the BBCF was created it had to deal with legacy issues from the colonial era. It turned out that most of the population in the area (over 90%) were from groups that moved into this area during the colonial period. These were the largest numbers of forest users who were exploiting the forest without access permits from the local Bakweri people with ancestral claims to the land. By putting in place a process where these forest users were to first secure access permits from the community forest managers before using the forest, there was plenty of conflict between the community forest patrol team and forest users, some of which were sufficiently violent to seek the assistance of the police to restore order.
Interviews in this community by this author reveal that the violence was in part fueled by mistrust, going as far back as the colonial era, between the Bakweri and the non-indigenous forest users. Mistrust between local groups in African countries related to colonial social engineering was one of the many causes of the Rwanda genocide.14 The conflict between local people in the Bimbia-Bonadikombo area overuse and management of the community forest resources is one more instance where the ghost of colonialism haunts forest conservation in Africa. In this context, not between local people and the state, but among local people that have long viewed one another with mistrust sown in the colonial era.
Thus, industrialization in Europe and America led to colonial-era forest restrictions in Africa and contributed to the ecological crises today. Measures to address the ecological crises are in turn driving much of the forest and biodiversity conservation efforts in Africa, which are continuing the practice of restricting local people’s access to their forest resources. If this sounds like a vicious cycle, it is – colonialism oppressed the people and spoilt the environment. By fixing what colonialism spoiled, we still end up oppressing the people. The ghost of colonialism is everywhere we look in tropical Africa and forest conservation is one of its apparitions.
Where are the ghostbusters when we really need them?
The author is grateful to Jude Ndzifon Kimengsi for reviewing an earlier version of this paper.
Read the entire Decolonizing Science series:
1. Introduction: Decolonizing Science and a World Turned Upside Down by Madhusudan Katti and Jess Auerbach
2. Towards a New Understanding of the Relationship Between Humans and Nature by Shubhobroto Ghosh
3. What Will It Take to Decolonize Ecology? by Adriana Romero-Olivares and Prakash Kashwan
4. If Colonialism in Africa is Dead, Would That Make Forest Conservation its Ghost? by Emmanuel Nuesiri
5. What Does Decolonization Mean for Conservation? by Subhashini Krishnan and Sutirtha Lahiri
6. Decolonizing Science Means Taking Indigenous Knowledge Seriously by Dina Lupin
7. On Decolonizing the Law: Views from a South African Legal Scholar by Caiphas Brews Soyapi
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Header Image: Field Camp of BaAka Rangers in Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, Central African Republic by GRID-Arendal via Flickr