A critique of the scarcity-paradigm of western conservationists in the South

The Yaka hunter-gatherers of Congo see no difference between the loggers and the conservationists, and their perspective is informed by a perspective of abundance, cointerpoised to the scarcity-creating practices of western power.

* Article: Managing abundance, not chasing scarcity: the real challenge for the 21st century. Jerome Lewis. Radical Anthropology. No. 2

This is a really fascinating essay, strongly recommended!

Key Thesis

“Conservation needs to get away from the paranoid thinking that informs the hoarding mentality underpinning industrial capitalism and much conservation activity, and cease to be enslaved to market economics.”


“Lewis pursues a classic anthropological strategy – to learn something about ourselves by paying close and sympathetic attention to how others see us. In his article for Radical Anthropology, Lewis considers what the Yaka hunter-gatherers of Congo-Brazzaville make of Western ‘conservation’ efforts. The clue to the truth of what ‘conservation’ is all about is to be found in a simple but puzzling fact: the Yaka do not discriminate between the activities of the loggers cutting down their forest for private gain – supposedly the main villains of the piece – and conservationists.

This is not because the Yaka have made a stupid mistake. It’s because both loggers and well-meaning conservationists do in fact work hand in hand. They both come from a culture that has already destroyed its forests and put a safety fence around the charred ruins that remain. Conservationists pursue a strategy that makes sense if what you want is to accept defeat and preserve the ruins. If, on the other hand, we truly want a future for the forests, maybe we should turn for advice to those who have been its custodians for millennia. From their point of view, the forest is not a scarce resource to be protected, but an abundant resource to be shared. As Lewis puts it, the onus is on us to change our point of view from “one that endlessly chases and protects scarce natural resources to one that sees natural resources as adequate, even abundant. Seeing that there is enough for everybody, but it just needs to be shared properly, is the lesson that we can learn from the Yaka”. How the Yaka achieve this sharing way of life is also touched upon in Lewis’s brilliant article.

That they have achieved it is not in any serious doubt, which may come as a surprise to those who insist that human nature must militate against such communist arrangements. This confidence about what human nature is and must be is another dominant feature of Western thought – if you like, our inherited common sense. Common sense can be a reliable guide in our lives – how could we account for its existence otherwise? But sometimes it is so disastrously wrong that we need a way to think beyond it.

We need to know the truth behind appearances because better knowledge of our human nature will allow us to make living arrangements that are in accord with that nature. We also need to know the truth if our moral codes are to be anything more than hot air – what kind of behaviour can we expect from human animals? And if that leaves something to be desired, what social arrangements can we make so that the darker sides of our inherited behavioural strategies can be better managed in the interests of all? The first question, though, must be, how are we to acquire the truth about human nature if common sense is no guide?”

Excerpt from Jerome Lewis:

“This article explores the cultural conceptions and observations that underpin their conflation of what seem to us opposed activities. The Yaka’s analysis challenges basic assumptions underpinning dominant western approaches to environmental conservation, particularly current attempts to assure the future of the flora and fauna of the Congo Basin by establishing protected areas. Somewhat surprisingly, however, the Yaka’s analysis accords with the principles behind the latest attempts to improve forest management through forestry certification schemes which allow for sustainable human exploitation of the forest.

Broadly speaking, people use two contradictory models to conceive and understand forest resources in Northern Congo-Brazzaville. In general, people coming from industrialised countries value forest resources because of their scarcity whereas those people living in or near the forest value them because of their abundance. Here it is argued that Yaka understanding of how people can maintain an abundant nature offers conservation organisations a new paradigm for conceptualising their role in the management of Central African forests, and establishes the basis for a meaningful dialogue with local people. Local conceptions of forest resources as abundant provide a more appropriate model for resource management in Central Africa than the continuing imposition of Euro-American derived models based on scarcity.

The Yaka (Mbendjele) Pygmies living in northern Congo are forest living hunter-gatherers who are considered the first inhabitants of the region by themselves and their farming neighbours, the Bilo3. Each Yaka associates her or himself with a hunting and gathering territory called ‘our forest’. Here, local groups of Yaka visit ancestral campsites in favoured places where they will gather, fish, hunt and cut honey from wild beehives depending on the season and opportunities available. Though many occasionally make small farms or work for money or goods, they value forest activities and foods as superior.

Yaka value travelling through the forest and camping in different places. Social organisation is based on a temporary camp generally containing at most some 60 people in ten or so quickly but skilfully built leaf and liana huts. Camps are able to expand or contract easily in response to changing conditions relating to the viability of hunting and gathering activities or social events and needs. If Yaka have difficulty finding game in one area of forest, they simply move to another area, allowing game to replenish. In general, Pygmy peoples use their mobility and flexibility to avoid or resolve problems like hunger, illness, conflict, political domination or disputes among themselves.

Hunter-gatherers such as the Yaka have been characterised as ‘egalitarian societies’, where differences in power, wealth or authority are systematically avoided or undermined (Woodburn 1982). This characterisation is based on an analytical distinction between an ‘immediate-return’ hunter-gatherer economy and agricultural, herding or capitalist ‘delayed-return’ economies that is helpful for understanding the differences in approach to resource management and the environment.

In delayed-return societies work is invested over extended periods of time before a yield is produced or consumed. This delay between labour investment and consumption results in political inequality because it becomes necessary to establish hierarchical structures of authority to distribute work, yields and control vital assets as labour matures into a yield. The majority of contemporary human societies are based upon delayed-return economies. Efforts by communist states to develop more egalitarian structures inevitably yielded to these fundamental forces, reasserting new types of hierarchies and inequalities to manage the delay between labour and yield.

‘Immediate-return’ hunter-gatherers such as the Yaka are strongly orientated to the present. People like to obtain a direct and immediate return for their labour – eating most of their production on the day they obtain it, as hunters, gatherers and sometimes as day labourers paid in food. They value consumption over accumulation and will share their food with all present on the day they acquire it. Without the authority and power derived from the ability to withhold vital resources, hierarchy has great difficulty establishing itself. Thus societies whose economies are based on immediate returns tend to be egalitarian societies.

These are common among hunter-gatherers such as Central African Pygmies, Southern African San and the Hadza of Tanzania, as well as among Orang Asli groups such as the Batek or Chewong in South East Asia.

Yaka, like other immediate-return societies, greatly stress obligatory, nonreciprocal sharing as a moral principle. A person who happens to have more of something, such as meat or honey, than they immediately need, is under a moral obligation to share it without expectation of return. In this way resources taken from the forest are equitably distributed among all present, and accumulation is both unfeasible and impractical. Other camp members will, if necessary, vociferously demand their shares from someone with more than they can immediately consume. Anthropologists have characterised this type of sharing as ‘demand-sharing’ and observe that it leads to a high degree of economic and social equality. There is a noticeable absence of social inequality between men and women and between elders and juniors. Any individual, man or woman, adult or child, has the opportunity to voice their opinion and resist the influence of others as they see fit. Yaka actively shun status since it will attract jealousy that may ruin their success in valued activities. Thus, in contrast to western expectations, good hunters will refrain from hunting too often. They will avoid anything that could be interpreted as boasting about their skill or success, lest their colleagues become jealous and curse them (see Lewis 2003).

The forest is idealised as the perfect place for people to live, in contrast to cleared spaces such as farms or rivers. Mbendjele Yaka women like to give birth to their children in the forest. Everyday conversations are obsessed with the forest, with the locations of desirable wild foods, with different tricks and techniques for finding and extracting them, with the intricacies of animal behaviour or plant botany, on stories of past hunting, fishing or gathering trips, or on great feasts and forest spirit performances. Yaka say that when they die they go to a forest where Komba (God) has a camp. They cannot conceive of their lives, or deaths and afterlife, without the frame of the forest around them. They express their dependency on and the intimacy of their relationship with the forest in the proverb, “A Yaka loves the forest as she loves her own body.”

The Yaka believe that Komba created the forest for them. It has always been, and will eternally be there for them. They, similar to many other forest hunter-gatherers, as Bird-David discusses (1990; 1992), have a faith that the forest will always provide them with what they need. Abundance is taken as natural. Should people not experience abundance, it is not because resources are diminishing but due to improper sharing.

The emphasis on sharing as the means to maintain abundance is peculiar to egalitarian societies. Conceiving of resources as abundant can lead to a variety of approaches to them. To illustrate this I will describe divergences between the Yaka conceptions that inform my argument and those held by their Bilo neighbours6, and others.

From Yaka perspectives conservation, like logging, makes abundant forest scarce. By sealing off areas to all except the privileged (Euro-American scientists and tourists, important officials and project workers), conservationists claim to protect wildlife. This enforced preservation of forest in some areas serves to justify the forest’s destruction elsewhere. International institutions such as theWorld Bank promote and finance conservation initiatives at the same time as promoting, funding, and even obliging governments to open their national resources to exploitation by foreign corporations.

Surprisingly, this contradictory behaviour only occasionally provokes outrage. In 2005, for instance, in a campaign spear-headed by the Rainforest Foundation and Greenpeace, theWorld Bank was widely criticised for appearing to have pushed through surreptitiously forest legislation that was advantageous to international logging interests and international conservation organisations but ignored civil society and local forest peoples’ needs. The furore that followed resulted in a moratorium on new logging concessions in Democratic Republic of the Congo and a very criticalWorld Bank Inspection Panel Report (2007). Justifying the promotion of industrial exploitation by providing grants at the same time to conservation organisations is not a new strategy. Already in 1992 Polly Ghazi, writing in The Guardian, noted how the World Bank, despite a ‘green forestry policy’, offered commercial rate loans to boost Congo-Brazzaville’s timber exports.

Both loggers and conservationists are monopolising what they conceive of as scarce resources; loggers want control of precious trees, conservationists of rare animals and undisturbed forest areas. The perception of scarcity is the ideological bedrock of both these activities, and a driving force in the industrialisation and capitalisation of the world’s resources. The Yaka’s conflation of loggers and conservationists is more perceptive than most people realise.

Most conservationists come from industrialised nations where the awesome power of industrial exploitation has devastated the original environment and turned it into patchworks of spaces in use by people in different ways, with the occasional token to the original appearance of the land in the form of well-managed parks. Industrialised nation conservationists then go out to non-industrialised nations like Congo and apply the same model of development, focusing themselves on delimiting and protecting small pockets of faunal and floral resources from local and industrial exploitation.

The competition for scarce funding puts pressure on conservation to appear to be effective; to be seen to achieve goals and be successful. Indeed, these pressures are so great that most conservation organisations need to be more concerned with appearances to the rich north than to the local area where work is being done. The quickest way of appearing to be doing something in this context is to take the protectionist approach and isolate an area of forest, exclude locals and enforce protection.

The enforcement and protection of protected areas becomes a military-like operation, sometimes described by conservationist field-workers as a ‘war on poaching’. Since the mid 1990s when Eco-guard militias became a popular conservation tool, I have recorded a number of cases of serious human rights abuses, including murder, by Wildlife Conservation Society Ecoguards in northern Congo, and complained to those responsible.

In Central Africa, rather than grasp what local conceptions can offer, conservationists constantly seek to transform how locals understand their environment. The very notion of ‘endangered species’ judges resources according to their scarcity. For people such asMbendjele, this is contradicted by their experience. To understand current conservation discourse requires a dramatic reformulation of their thinking based on counter-intuitive claims that they have little reason to do.

The current dominance of the scarcity model precludes the idea of sharing, it even encourages voracious consumption. Conservation needs to get away from the paranoid thinking that informs the hoarding mentality underpinning industrial capitalism and much conservation activity, and cease to be enslaved to market economics.

The economic considerations of multinational corporations and institutions presently dominate too much decision-making. Instead decisions should be based on the understanding that nature is indeed abundant and capable of sustaining all life, if it is shared properly.

Forest knowledge, like forest resources, has been transformed from being abundant and widely available into a scarce and controlled expertise, only recorded in formats available to those with a northern-style education – a format that so far excludes access by Yaka forest people. If current activities continue in the Central African forests, the hunter-gatherers’ fate will be sealed by the continued imposition and dominance of an ideology of scarcity. Whether forest resources are over-exploited and depleted as a consequence of industrial capitalist extraction methods or sealed off from local people by zealous animal protectionists from rich countries, the result for local people is the same. There will be no space in the forest for forest people unless they become involved in the activities of the foresters or the animal protectionists. Their livelihood and resource base have been swept away from them and control over it given to multinational companies and Euro-American animal protection agencies.

While the forest was in local people’s control it was considered abundant, and actually was so. Since Euro–Americans arrived and began to perceive of forest resources as scarce, desirable and valuable, so they have become. Now control over the future of the forest is vested in the hands of people with little or no genuine long-term or generational interest in preserving it beyond their limited engagement with it, often for just a fiscal year or two, or a project funding cycle.

This tradition of natural resource use that is based on what was done in rich countries, if widely applied through the process of globalisation to other parts of the world, will result in massive areas of farmland, urban dwellings and industrial areas, surrounding the occasional token to the original appearance of the land in small and insignificant protected areas. This is not a viable model for the future of the tropical forests of the Congo Basin.

However, there are indications that when the Forest Stewardship Council’s Principles are applied rigorously the hunter-gatherers’ model is being adopted. The Forest Stewardship Council approach, although expressed in very different language, has adopted similar principles to those of Yaka forest stewardship.When taken seriously, the FSC management model is based on maintaining the forest’s abundance through socially just and ecologically sustainable harvesting of forest resources. This is a modern idiom for talking about the same issues that concern Ekila.

Unfettered industrial capitalism is the real menace to the key world environments that we all depend upon, not Yaka hunters seeking food for their families.While happy to impose hunting bans on traditional hunter-gatherers such as Pygmies,

conservationists are surprisingly reluctant to impose logging bans on international logging companies. Unless industrialists can show their methods to be both environmentally and socially sustainable they should be prevented from continuing to exploit the forests of the Congo Basin. The reluctance to apply the same standards to rich northerners as are applied to local people is the downfall of conservation efforts in the Congo Basin.

Environmentalists can only expect non-industrialised nations to stand up to the forces of capitalism if they do so themselves, and apply greater pressure to counter the imperatives of global capital in the places from where it originates – in Europe, Asia and America. There can be no effective conservation of our planet without committed political engagement and a willingness to question the assumptions that underpin dominant attitudes to our environment. As is self-evident to the Yaka, but seemingly not to many conservationists, humanity is part of nature, not something that it is possible to isolate from nature.We need to move away from seeing natural resources as scarce commodities to be controlled by the most powerful and follow the Yaka lead to realise that nature can be an abundant provider and home for all creatures if we share whatever we take properly, and behave with consideration and respect to each other, and the planet that we all depend upon. This is the real challenge facing us all in the 21st century.”

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.