(Gosh, that was all getting a bit emo there for a minute wasn’t it? Like a fleeting return to my early naughties LiveJournal days. What’s needed here is some decent deconstruction to chase the melancholy away. I know just the thing…)
The tourists arrived in two open top safari cars, the sound of the over-powered 4×4 engines practically drowned out by the flickering of camera shutters and the wondering gasps of rich Western city-dwellers confronted by the sight of mud-brick houses roofed with leaves. They were bedecked in the greys and khakis and greens of expensive jungle gear bought especially for this short sojourn into the fringes of the rainforest, their necks adorned with high-end camera bodies attached to pricey glass. They descended, cameras glued to their faces, shooting wordlessly as curious villagers came to greet them. With some bemusement they were shepherded over to the village chief, sat by the remains of a fire in his deerskin chair, who proffered a hand for each of them to shake. Then they were shepherded back again, cameras still snapping, to a row of plastic garden chairs; fine luxury in this part of the world, laid out especially for them. They settled – each with one camera in their laps and one poised, ready, viewfinder to eyeball – to watch the singing and dancing that would take place in their honour. And not one of them had any inkling of the mess their fleeting collision with this other world had caused.
Visits to indigenous villages have become a staple of tourism in the so-called Global South, as sightseers from across the price spectrum – luxury travellers and backpackers alike – have proven themselves hungry for glimpses of peoples and worlds unlike their own. Such ventures are often marketed as alternative livelihood solutions for communities living in poverty – particularly in conservation areas where local people are no longer permitted to hunt and gather as they used to. Branded as “eco-” or “sustainable” tourism, the fluffy language in which they are couched for consumption by the globetrotting occidental middle-classes serves largely to mask the deep power imbalances and pernicious consequences that tend to permeate such projects. This was only the third time tourists had visited Mboka*, the most easily accessible indigenous village on the outskirts of the National Park where I’d been working – and just as on the previous two occasions, (and completely unbeknownst to the camera-laden Swedes and Americans), it had been preceded by several days of arguments, in-fighting and, sometimes violent, conflict.
The theory goes that tourism can generate a supplementary income for communities like Mboka, but it is precisely this income that lies at the root of many of the problems. Cash is something of a poisoned chalice in the rural landscape of Congo, where the economies of local and indigenous villages have only recently begun to monetise. Where previous subsistence practices, based on immediate-return hunting and gathering, had drawn on a cosmology that emphasised the necessity of sharing and ensured more-or-less egalitarian social relations between people, money has introduced alien concepts such as private property and the capacity to store and conceal value from others. All fairly well when the sums are small, but Western tourists become rapidly associated with untold riches that no one can agree on how to divide appropriately. To further complicate matters, the “indigenous people” that the tourists come to see are so entangled in discriminatory relationships with their agriculturalist neighbours that any money the tourists bring in is soon captured by local elites. And, when spent, it rarely goes on the schools and medical care that the tourists desire to provide, but more often on problematic consumables, such as alcohol.
The National Park’s social team are trying hard to work out how to introduce a tourism scheme that won’t result in rampant alcoholism and elite capture, however most of the proposed solutions are necessarily paternalistic and deny much self-determination to the indigenous populations in deciding how money earned from tourism will be spent. In fact, some suggestions that the population have made – such as corrugated tin sheets to replace the leaf roofs of their houses – have been directly denied, for fear that the tourists will be put off by such an “inauthentic” look. At the same time, concerns that if the tourists’ visits are not “structured” enough then they won’t feel like they’ve gotten their money’s worth are motivating Park employees to push communities into developing hierarchical organisational structures, and to “packaging” indigenous dances, songs, households and culture into repeatable, accessible morsels removed from their wider cosmological and ecological significance. This sort of approach can serve largely to exoticise and “other” indigenous lives in the eyes of those who come to watch, while at the same time rendering the actual practices on which the tourist-friendly versions are based things of a half-remembered past.
The irony of the whole situation is that if it wasn’t for the presence of the National Park then an income from tourism wouldn’t be necessary in the first place. While it was established to protect elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, and other coveted species (coveted, that is, by foreign markets and conservationists, rather than necessarily by local people), the Park itself is one of the biggest drivers of the species loss it seeks to avoid. Indigenous people have hunted and gathered in remote areas of forest like this for thousands of years using sustainable practices that have ensured animal populations can thrive. However, the establishment of the Park brought tourists and management staff, and the tourists and management staff needed roads and a service economy. The roads make access easier for illegal poachers intent on feeding ivory-hungry Chinese markets. The service economy has prompted the development of a thriving bushmeat trade. Both hunter-gatherer and farmer populations are now denied access to large swathes of land, and therefore to the ability to move around as animal populations fluctuate. Formerly sustainable practices have been rendered unsustainable, and draconian enforcement measures used by Park-employed “ecoguards” mean that local people end up not just hungry, but often badly abused.
Short wonder they are wary of new livelihood initiatives the Park is bringing in; as our research assistant commented: “I think that the people here would prefer it if the white people left altogether and they were able to get on with hunting like they want to.” I’d be inclined to agree, if it wasn’t for the fact that in the face of the current global land grab the National Park is almost certainly the only thing keeping out forestry firms, palm oil companies, and now coltan prospectors. The Congolese government is already planning a new road through this region; when it arrives, tourism may be the least of their worries.
*I’ve used a false name, for obvious reasons. While my feelings about indigenous tourism and fortress conservation come across pretty clearly here, I have an enormous amount of respect for the National Park employees working in this context – they have a tough brief and not a lot of options in the face of global forces they can’t control.