Moving Forward

If there is one thing I really wish we’d had a class on when I was a fresh-faced, enthusiastic masters student three dim and distant years ago, it’s exactly how wrong fieldwork can go. They’ve introduced such a thing now in the anthropology department at UCL, giving post-field PhD students the opportunity to talk to those just beginning their MPhils about the moments they thought their research was scuppered – when war broke out and they had to be evacuated, when they spent months on end sitting around some major capital trying to get research permissions, when the day after they arrived in their new field-home the head of their host family suddenly passed away. I’ve heard UCL Anthropology is even thinking of introducing post-field therapy sessions for final year students – a bold plan that could benefit many an anthropology department across the planet. When everything collapsed for my own fieldwork last year – figuratively in terms of my research, quite literally in terms of my lungs – I quickly realised that I was far from the only who’d had cause to make use of UCL’s excellent Student Psychological Service. In fact, anthro students who haven’t had to hump some major fieldwork crisis are probably very much in the minority. But there’s a kind of machismo to anthropology that sometimes stops us being open enough about the difficulties we’ve faced. Even if ethnographic fieldwork and all its attendant disasters is something of a right-of-passage for the fledgling anthropologist, I don’t think that should stop us being honest about the fact that sometimes it just really sucks.

New year, new fieldsite - the Dzanga-Sangha special reserve
New year, new fieldsite – the Dzanga-Sangha special reserve

I was amazingly lucky last year in having a hugely supportive cohort of PhD student friends (not to mention a hugely supportive network of non-PhD student friends, colleagues and family) to grab my back when I needed them most. Equally, while having two major operations on my lungs was not exactly a pleasant experience, it did force me to take some time out from my PhD and get exactly the kind of distance and space I really needed to process what I’d gone through in the field – the frustrating mess of being an applied, “activist” researcher trying to push an agenda that doesn’t match up with local bureaucracies, the physical and mental hardship of dragging one’s poorly adapted, unprepared and heartbroken body across unforgiving terrain, the *millions of fucking bees everywhere*. When the year finally turned, and with my lungs successfully secured to my chest wall to prevent further collapses, I could have chosen not to return to the field – I have more than enough material, I think, to write up my PhD as is. But instead I’m penning this from the rainforest, in the Central African Republic this time, chasing a lead that I think shows far more promise for my work – that, as Viveiros de Castro would put it, of “the ontological self-determination of the world’s peoples”[1] – than anything I tried to engage with in Congo. And this time I have the luxury of approaching the field fresh from the lessons of last year – I’m cautious in my optimism, my deep enthusiasm for ExCiteS’ work is tempered by the experience of its messy nature, and I have a much stronger awareness than before of my own limits and need for rest. Physically I’m much weaker than I was when I hiked through the Lefini Reserve and the Ndoki forest last year – I’m only 5 weeks out of lung surgery after all, and still very much on the road to recovery. But mentally I feel more prepared for the field than ever, just by virtue of having encountered exactly how unprepared I really am. As ever, I’ll let you know how it goes.


[1] I’ll write a post explaining this soon, I promise 🙂

Making Mess

Success stories are a powerful trope of international development and conservation work. They structure the way NGOs, governments and companies engage with powerful donors and public opinion. They also smooth over complexities, efface failures, and ignore contradictions. They present ongoing situations as if they are done, dusted, and thus can legitimately stand as a lesson to others who seek to achieve similar goals. They clean up mess. But conservation and development work is all mess.

Making mess...
Making mess…

As my ethnographic work proceeds here in Congo, it’s hard to keep a lid on all the mess I encounter. As I sit in Brazzaville trying to make yet another workplan for the coming months that I know is unlikely to stick, I fear the mess may overflow and overwhelm me. It’s been there from the start, from the very first day I started working on Extreme Citizen Science, but it’s here – in the field, at the point of implementation – where mess makes itself most apparent. Success stories are powerful (particularly those that begin with failure) and certainly I’ve told my fair share of them. But I’m beginning to understand that without accounting for mess it’s impossible to make sense of what is actually happening in the complex, multi-layered, power-laden realities of development and conservation work, or the global industrial processes this work simultaneously denigrates and supports. If we are to be faithful to mess, and we urgently need to be faithful to mess, then we need to unlearn old narrative tropes and engage with something quite different. We need to learn how to tell, and we need to learn how to listen to, unsuccess stories.

This is a tall order in an industry dominated by one principle agenda – securing the next round of project funding. It’s a tall order in a world obsessed with the inspirational force of TED Talks, Disney movies and cheery motivational posters. It’s a tall order when the storyteller risks upsetting or offending friends and colleagues, and the listeners risk treating unsuccess as failure, which is quite a different beast. Unsuccess is not intended to be judgemental. It’s just a story of what is, on the ground, sur le terrain. A story of mess.

I’m still thinking this through, but here’s a (tame) example from my recent work. I wrote a blog post for ExCiteS about the potentials of using ExCiteS’ icon-based software Sapelli to support a group of community-organised ecoguards to collect data about wildlife and hunting activity in the Lefini Reserve. We piloted the system in the context of a research project, and the two ecoguards who participated were very enthusiastic about the possibilities. So far so successful. But what I left out of the story was that these ecoguards are supposed to be engaged in the same process as the conservation organisation that supports them – trying to stop other members of their community from hunting. This means that they are not only not necessarily representative of, but are often directly opposed to, the community at large – so what then for the radical community participation philosophy of “Extreme Citizen Science”? Furthermore, the conservation organisation does not have a government mandate that allows it to provide official support to the ecoguards – and thus the sustainability of the project is questionable and rests on political decisions being made at the national level. Additionally, there are some doubts within the conservation organisation as to whether it is strategically desirable to continue working in Lefini at all rather than focusing on “priority” landscapes where elephant poaching is a bigger issue.

There is worse mess here, but I am struggling to find a way to tell it. To be faithful to it I’ll need to weave narratives that may directly contradict the success stories my colleagues and I have told in the past. But if we are to make any progress towards the lofty aims of Extreme Citizen Science – to support truly community-driven, bottom-up processes of data collection, analysis and use – then however uncomfortable it is, these messy unsuccess stories will need to be told.

Finding My Forest Feet

The beautiful Lefini Reserve
The beautiful Lefini Reserve

The first time I ever walked properly in the Congo Basin rainforest was two years ago. I felt like a huge, clumsy elephant – although that’s a terrible metaphor because elephants are actually pretty competent at walking through the forests here and just smash apart anything that gets in their path. But I got my head and my arms and my legs stuck on bushes and twisted under branches and sucked into boggy marsh, and army ants kept running up my trousers and biting me, and I kept getting lost because I was dreadfully slow and always at the back of the group. I was hideously unfit at the time – I’d been working night shifts for two years to fund my way through the masters I studied for by day. Three months after I returned from Congo that year my left lung stopped working for six weeks, for no real reason the doctors could determine other than complete exhaustion. In 2014 I got fitter. I ran and I swam and I lifted weights. I had two functioning lungs. When I returned to Congo in January this year the people of Gbagbali – my favourite Mbendjele camp along the Sangha River – commented that when I first came to visit them I walked very slowly in the forest, but now they could see that I am much faster. I was pleased. I thought I was prepared.

I wasn’t.

Me at the end of the second day, looking the part at least
Me at the end of the second day, looking the part at least

The Lefini Reserve is in the south of Congo-Brazzaville – it’s a hilly savannah-forest complex where I was accompanying a researcher from Imperial and a team of ecoguards to map signs of wildlife populations and evidence of hunting activity. I have never in my life been more completely unprepared for the extremes of the terrain. From the marsh we crossed at the beginning where I messed up where to put my feet at every step to the long uphill hikes in the blazing midday sun to the swathes of grass and brush as high as my head or more that lashed against my skin as we hacked our way through, every step was a challenge. Each night when we made camp it was as much as my aching, shaky, dehydrated body could do to pitch my tent and force down some smoked fish and manioc (cooked by my incredibly kind and caring companions – I may not have made it through were it not for them). Perhaps normally I could have laughed it all off, but I was sad about other things going on in my life, which circled round my skull as I walked like so many vultures. When we made it back to our origin point after four days I wish I could say I felt an enormous sense of achievement. It was, I think, the most physically demanding thing I’ve ever done – and I’ve hiked a fair few enormous mountains in my time. But I picked up my emails and some of the other work I’m supposed to be doing in Congo had suddenly gone tits up (as stuff in Congo tends to), and all of the embarrassment and exhaustion and heartbreak and disappointment hit me like a wave. I sat on a ridge overlooking the beautiful Lefini River and I cried and cried.


Sometimes it’s time to power on through and keep on hiking. But sometimes it’s time to admit that you’re not, in fact, the female Ray Mears. Sometimes it’s time to return to Brazzaville, lick your (physical and mental) wounds and nurse your injured pride with beer and chips. As they say here, c’est ça, le terrain.

Worlds Collide

(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…)

IMG_5519The 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.

IMG_5497The 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.

IMG_5499The 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.

Travels in the Congo: First Things First

The ExCiteS team in the Congolese forest

So, I’ve been travelling and working in the Congo for about a month now and I already have an awful lot to write about – both the awesome and the not-so-awesome. But before I launch into posts about corruption, inequality and diminishing biodiversity I wanted to start with something positive. And since I haven’t blogged for a while because of the whole load of “life” that’s been happening to me over the past six months I guess it might be a good idea to explain a bit about why I’m here and what I’m doing. But first things first – because I know it’s what you’re all wondering, and I don’t intend to bring up the subject again in this blog: Yes, I am in the Congo and no – I haven’t seen anyone drink Um Bongo. I don’t expect I ever will. Sorry Children of the 80s – advertising lies.

Right, now that inevitability is out of the way, let’s get down to business. For the past two years I’ve been studying a

Tree trunks waiting to be processed, Tala Tala

part-time Masters in Anthropology, Environment and Development at University College London. Being the massive geek that I am, my principal research interests lie in the application of digital technologies in development and conservation projects – so for my dissertational research I have been lucky enough to be invited to accompany a team from the UCL Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) Research Group as they develop and test a smartphone application that can be used by local farming communities and hunter-gatherer populations in the Republic of Congo to map the natural resources they use and record evidence of illegal logging. The idea is to develop a system of participative forest management in which local people can play an important role – by giving direct feedback on the behaviour of the logging companies who control the areas in which they live to the local watchdog IO-FLEG (Independent Observation – Forest Law Enforcement and Governance). Up until now, these communities have seen little benefit from the logging that takes place in their localities (despite the timber industry being the second most important source of income for Congo after oil) have had little say in how the logging concessions are managed, and have no recourse if a forestry company cuts down some of the resources on which they depend for their day-to-day needs. The ExCiteS project, run in conjunction with the local watchdog, seeks to capitalise on the introduction of the new EU FLEGT (Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade) law in the Congo. The Congolose FLEGT Voluntary Partnership Agreement accords a number of new rights to local communities, and places obligations on logging companies vis-a-vis the local population.

A colleague explains the decision tree using large versions of the icons

The mission at this stage is to test the software, which uses an icon-based decision tree to enable users to record the position of key resources or incidents of illegal logging via GPS. As we are working with remote communities who don’t have access to electricity, and most of whom will never have used a phone or a computer interface previously, it is important to ensure that the software is usable – what might seem intuitive to someone who uses computers everyday may not be at all intuitive to a forest hunter-gatherer. Because the software is intended for use by anyone – including people who are illiterate and innumerate – there is no text and no numbers, only pictures. However, pictures are not uncomplicated either – because we will be working with communities who are not used to working with 2D representations of objects and situations, the way the pictures are drawn are important. Cartoons are not likely to be understandable – previous projects in this region and in Cameroon (mostly by my MSc supervisor – you can read all about him here) have found that simple line drawings in the correct proportions are most effective. But even then someone who doesn’t know the context well can make big mistakes as to what are the most important features of a given wild fruit or plantation crop or animal so its vital to get feedback from the end users to make sure the drawings are meaningful.

A group of women learn how to use the software

However, the most important thing to test is the relevance of the software itself to the people it is designed for – do they want to participate in forest management? Do they believe there is value in making a map of their resources that outside actors can understand? And if they are to participate in a project of participative forest management like this, what are the terms on which that participation will take place? Both participation and technology have been hailed at various points in the history of conservation and development as panaceas for the ills of the world – however in reality things are never that simple and often projects based on one or the other can end up doing more harm than good. And that’s where my MSc research comes in – I need to understand the opinions of our “end users” regarding: their current situation in the landscape of forest management in Congo; what the software the UCL team has developed could do for them; and how they would want to engage with a larger project if they are, as we hope, interested in being involved. I also need to understand the context in which these interactions are situated – who are the other stakeholders and what are their points of view? How would a potential project like this interact with the law? What would we need to do to ensure that participation at the grassroots is meaningful and not just a vehicle to further extend outside control over natural resources? It’s a lot of questions for six weeks, but so far research seems to be progressing pretty well – stick around and I’ll let you know in more detail how I’m getting on…

(NB. All photos in this post are by my colleague Matthias Stevens. They are reproduced here with his permission and copyright belongs to him. I have been shooting in RAW, but my netbook can’t really handle my digital darkroom. I’ll post up some galleries when I get back…)