- Forests of Belonging: Identities, Ethnicities, and Stereotypes in the Congo River Basin
For a number of reasons, there has been remarkably little ethnographic research conducted among the short-statured hunter-gatherers (usually referred to in the literature as either “foragers” or “Pygmies”) of central Africa. Among these reasons is the practical difficulty of conducting fieldwork in remote regions where political and economic crises have created an often dangerous setting for research. But perhaps one of the most important reasons is that biological anthropologists, interested in appropriating these populations as ethnographic analogies for the distant human past, have dominated research on hunter-gatherers throughout Africa. Even less often studied are the farmer neighbors with whom tropical hunter-gatherers live. After all, researchers interested in human evolution had no reason to study the Pygmies’ farmer neighbors. The vast majority of publications in sociocultural anthropology that mention African hunter-gatherers rely on the work of social anthropologist Colin Turnbull, who provided the first substantive ethnographic account of the Pygmies. Yet Turnbull idealized them so much as a distinct community that he could not see that the farmers and Pygmies were inter-dependant sub-parts of a larger and more complex social system. His perspective was much too local and functionalist to stand the test of time. Now, as anthropologists attend more to indeterminacy and flux, the goal is to understand how large-scale political, economic, and ecological dynamics influence the construction of identity in even the most remote societies, but at the same time to make sure that a focus on the big picture does not mask the local.
In this well-researched contribution to the ethnography of the Congo River Basin, anthropologist Stephanie Rupp explores the approximately 5,000 Bangando farmers of southeastern Cameroon, and three neighboring [End Page 1303] groups with which they live in close association: the Baka (Pygmies), the Bakwélé, and the Mbomam. The former two speak Ubangian languages while the latter two speak Bantu languages. While previous accounts of the relationship between the farmers and foragers focused on describing the ways in which each group maintains its distinctiveness, Rupp asks how that relationship changes in different contexts. To achieve this, she draws on both oral and archival histories, ethnographic vignettes from her fieldwork, and her knowledge of conservation and development. Rupp argues, for example, that conservation efforts in central Africa are frequently based on stereotypes, reifications of monolithic identities, and fundamental misunderstandings of social identities and ethnic affiliations. She shows that a conservationist construction of a distinct Pygmy identity obscures the fact that the Pygmies share many of the same problems—whether poverty or disease—as their non-Pygmy neighbors.
Nearly all of the areas in which hunter-gatherers and their farmer neighbors live in central Africa are politically isolated, but unlike the region occupied by the Mbuti or Efe of the Ituri Forest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo—which contains little logging, tourism, or other forms of robust commerce—the rainforest of the Bangando of Cameroon has for the last several decades played an important role in the country’s export-based wealth. The logging industry quickly depleted much of the forest, and safari goers decreased the abundance of game. As one result, conservationists, led by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Worldwide Fund for Nature, among others, have launched efforts to protect the forest and its wildlife. But to which community does the forest belong? The long-standing stereotype in the travel and ethnographic literature is that there are distinct communities, Pygmy and farmer. Thus, as Rupp shows, non-governmental organizations identify the Pygmies as the true indigenous people of the forest, stereotypes them as people whose subsistence is based solely on hunting and foraging, and uses them for their conservation efforts. The farmers, viewed as distinct and recent arrivals to the rainforest, are then excluded from access to the forest. The relationship between the farmers and foragers is then viewed, as if through Turnbull’s mid-20th century lens, as a voluntary association rather than...