Concepts of Appropriating and Conserving Nature in Africa

The notion of Time is used at the Bayreuth Academy as the central concept that cuts across the disciplines involved. This is a novel and challenging approach, in particular when dealing with the traditional objects of natural sciences.

In the sciences of nature space has been traditionally in the role which is taken by time in the Bayreuth Academy approach: Nature and culture have been widely used as central categories for organizing research on Africa. We are, however, skeptical about the appropriateness of this distinction. The nature-culture distinction as criticized by (Descola, 2005) is traditionally used as a spatial delineation: culture on one side, nature on the other. Hence management issues predominantly deal with mutual dependencies in space. In order to preserve nature, for example, a national park is separated from the realm of human culture. Here, we are concerned with temporal relationships between humans and their (natural) environments. Nature is conceptualized as an interface at which some events can be actively repeated (e.g. as sustainable utilization), or they appear as series of unique historical events. We study how different stakeholders in fields like national parks or climate change conceptualize their respective notions of ‘nature’ as historical narratives relative to their own competences of participating in this history. Methodologically, we look at the roles of models in the various case studies and disciplines.


In Western thinking, particularly in natural science, human-environmental relationships are conceptualized as natural objects related in space. This approach has been termed ‘science of seeing’ which is most rigorously exemplified by physics (Pearl, 2000). Within the natural sciences, environmental studies are perceived as applied sciences only.

Recently, humans have become experts how to perceive themselves in space. Starting from the Renaissance invention of spatial perspective, to the routine use of satellite images in Google earth, many have learned today how to cope with distortions of spatial perception; models of spatial perspective have become entirely implicit. At the beginning of the era of modern sciences, the question of where human observers and the earth were located in the universe was a hotly debated issue. Today, we know how to read (and make) pictures of any size of objects, even of the whole of Africa or the globe, and that at arbitrary spatial distances.

The second way of perceiving the world from a modeling perspective has been termed ‘art of doing (Pearl, 2000). It corresponds with notions of dwelling in anthropology (Ingold, 2011). In the project, we use ecosystem management traditions such as nomadism, pastoralism, or agriculture as examples. The ‘art of doing’-approach is hardly formalized. We want to test, whether the difference between the ‘science of seeing’ and the ‘art of doing’-approaches has historical rather than logical or factual reasons. Do temporal perceptions (of history and especially future) need similar corrections for their (temporal) distortions like those which are routine for spatial perceptions?

Today, many see themselves in a special role with respect to environmental history. Since the campaigns of Prof. B. Grzimek for the Serengeti, some Europeans feel responsible to preserve African ecosystems. The current epoch has even been renamed as Anthropocene, because humans today inevitably shape their local and global environment (Crutzen, 2002). It is evident, that the perception of the human role in environmental history depends heavily on models: of climate change or of the autonomous dynamics of ecosystems. The project will inspect several instances of such models, confronting those used by stakeholders in Africa (categorized by the project as appropriation) with occidental perceptions (categorized as conservation). We are particularly interested to find out how different models and their encounters distort the respective perceptions of time. We conjecture that all stakeholders of nature are in need of corresponding routines to cope with potentially temporal distortions, i.e. they need to know how to read historical or future events, and that at arbitrary temporal distances.

As a starting point of identifying and classifying implicit models of the history and future of ‘nature’ we use a classification of “ethno-cosmologies” from (Descola, 2005). Case studies will be firstly national parks in Africa, where we assume divergent models to clash; secondly, the appropriation of the climate change discourse in Africa, where we assume to find divergent underlying models. These investigations are cooperating with the DFG project “economy of sacred space” (U. Berner).

PICTURE: movie still from PUMZI, Wanuri Kahiu, 2009



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