Environmental chocolatiers: The West still cannot consume African conservation knowledge in its native form

Western academia has realized that Africa is a rich repository of knowledge and ideas, particularly in the area of sustainable use, or conservation of natural resources
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What often manifests as bias or naivete in the numerous westerners engaged in conservation of African biodiversity is actually an innate inability to acknowledge or accept that black Africa can be repositories or sources of knowledge.

The acuity and depth of this prejudice are evident in the extraordinary effort that western academia puts in trying to fashion it to meet the saviour, benefactor, and enlightener narrative. Any practitioner in the field of conservation can bear witness to an arena where in the search for continuous relevance, western academia has subverted ‘science’ to a level where its own practitioners cannot adhere to the very knowledge they purport to ‘produce’, a case in point being the dubious theory that human populations in Africa are a threat to biodiversity, which contradicts the established scientific fact that Africa is the cradle of mankind, with human populations having been present in this environment for millennia.

As a result of this subversion of science, conservation practice in Africa has been in poor health for many years, struggling with arteries blocked by fatty clichés and struggling with a massive girth driven by related nonsensical activities. A snapshot of this is the presence of droves of western foreigners in Kenya’s rangelands with big grants, driving big SUVs and earning big salaries to “create awareness” of wildlife amongst communities who have lived with these animals for tens of thousands of years.

A lot has already been written and said about the absurdities in the colonial project that is the African conservation sector, and in the last few years we have been seeing the consternation, loss of balance and straining of joints that are typical of any decrepit system trying to change direction. At this point, it is absolutely crucial that we do not give any of these pirates any credit whatsoever because this change is not driven by conscience, love for black Africans, or any moral imperative. It is driven by the need for survival.

I have written elsewhere that African conservation practice is the redoubt of charlatans and misfits who couldn’t possibly find this kind of fame and fortune in any ‘normal’ arena with a level playing field. The prominent players in African conservation enjoy immense fame, and high-flying lifestyles underwritten by donors, big and small, without actually producing anything. The absence of objective technical qualifications that underpin conservation leadership is an effective barrier to accountability and ensures that this status quo is maintained. We must remember that there is no professional path to what the ‘conservation nobles’ enjoy now, so when it inevitably comes to an end, the vigour with which they fought to control Africa’s colonial wildlife conservation structures will now be transferred to the fight for control of the liberation narrative. This is visible in the way, at the IUCN world congress on protected areas in 2021, the EU and conservation partners developed the multibillion-euro “NaturAfrica” initiative to take over vast seascapes and landscapes in Africa. The same cabal then sponsored the African Protected Areas Congress in Kigali in 2022 to recruit African collaborators in this colonial scheme. The chosen ones are already being trained in the School of Wildlife Conservation at ALU in Kigali through neoliberal flagship course ‘MBA for conservation leaders’.

In 2015, when I first started talking about racism and colonialism in conservation, I was a complete pariah in my profession, unable to find any concurring voices in African conservation. The empire was fighting back, and even my own PhD supervisors and colleagues wouldn’t be publicly associated with me. It was therefore no surprise that Mr. Gatu Mbaria, an environmental journalist was the only person willing to have conversations with me on the topic of this prejudice. These conversations eventually led to our co-authoring “The Big Conservation Lie”, which was launched in January 2017 and elicited much consternation and vigorous opposition from the conservation colonialists and their acolytes at all levels. I was therefore excited when, a couple of months following the launch, I received a call for papers for a conference on ‘Decolonization and the Politics of Wildlife in Africa’. My training in field biology has made me a keen observer, and I immediately noticed that it was organized by two European conservation scholars and hosted at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, an institution that isn’t exactly noted as a leader in Afrocentric thought or study. I had enough material to submit an abstract for each of their five thematic areas but I just chose one, prepared it carefully, and sent it off. To my surprise, the proposal wasn’t accepted, with an explanation from the organizers that their decision was advised by “…the challenge of integrating a plurality of regional, temporal, disciplinary, and thematic fields of expertise into a limited range of presentation slots…” This is ‘academics peak’ for “We don’t want to discuss the issues in your proposal”. When I saw the final program, the challenge posed by my proposed participation became clearer. There were 26 presentations, out of which only 6 were from indigenous Africans and out of those, there were only 3 who were from African universities. None of the presentations sought to address any of the prejudices I had highlighted in mine.

Later in 2019, I shared the stage with one of the organizers at a decolonization and indigenous peoples’ rights workshop in Hamburg. He told me how much ‘The Big Conservation Lie’ had influenced his thinking. But it then dawned on me how high and wide a barrier western Academia has become to indigenous African thought. This sentiment is centuries old and obviously stemmed from the ‘dark continent’ attitude and the manner in which Europeans saw their role in Africa as a ‘civilizing’ one, even as they pillaged it. What is relatively new, however, is the tension Western academia feels between this old prejudice and the need to curate African knowledge for extractive purposes. In order to extract any resource, one must first separate it from its owners, then package it into a form that can be taken away and consumed elsewhere.

In recent years, Western academia has realized that Africa is a rich repository of knowledge and ideas, particularly in the area of sustainable use, or conservation of natural resources. The most obvious indication of this is the coexistence of human communities and megafauna in shared landscapes that has persisted for millennia. This is in contrast to the near-total destruction of megafauna in Europe and North America wrought over a matter of centuries by a far smaller and less fecund, but more avaricious human population. In my periodic sojourns into Western academia, I have found fertile ground for new ideas around conservation, but they struggle to grow, because of the suffocating structure that academia has built around students and aspiring scholars. The oppression is pervasive and amorphous, and the peer-review system is its whip and shackles. In the conservation field, if an African states the obvious fact that we have indigenous conservation ethics which have helped us retain our biodiversity, the first question from a westerner is “Where is it published? Can you send me a link to the paper?” From a philosophical standpoint, this is fatally flawed logic. Should we prioritize putting our indigenous environmental knowledge into writing, and subject it to review (and extraction) by those who hitherto knew nothing about it? For instance, why would the northern Kenyan pastoralist seek to publish the fact that he knows which elephant trails to follow with his cattle in order to find water in the dry season? What will western interests do with that information other than bar him from that resource and bring tourists to see and photograph elephants without black people ‘spoiling’ the romantic image?

From personal observation, despite attaining advanced qualifications in the field and innovating new research themes and methods, African researchers could never break the black ceiling as long as they competed with westerners within a technical paradigm the latter created to empower themselves. African researchers only achieve recognition and ‘voice’ as conservation policy scholars after they deliberately rejected the “scientific publication” trap and studied the philosophy of conservation.

Today, we need to harness, curate, and process our knowledge about our environment for our own benefit as Africans. Confectioners in Ghana and Uganda have started doing it with cacao, and it is high time those of us in conservation started doing it with our natural heritage.

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