- Narrating Equatorial African Landscapes: Conservation, Histories, and Endangered Forests in Northern Gabon1
In the preface to The Problem of Nature, historian David Arnold points to a fundamental dualism in environmental history. On the one hand, environmental historians trace the “physical reality” of what has taken place in the natural world and how human beings and other biotic communities have both shaped and been shaped by that world. On the other, they historicize changing perceptions and representations of nature and human interaction with it (Arnold 1996:vii). Along similar lines, anthropologist Arturo Escobar (1999:3) has called for a balanced approach to environmental anthropology “that acknowledges both the constructedness of nature in human contexts . . . and nature in the realist sense, . . . the representations of which constructivists can legitimately query in terms of their history or political implications.” It is important, however, as historian Tamara Giles-Vernick (2002:13) has recently argued, to avoid “importing tired assumptions about divisions between ‘people’ and ‘environment’ or between ‘humanized’ and ‘natural’ spaces.” Both Arnold and Escobar grapple with the longstanding “human-environment” dichotomy while recognizing that neither representations nor practices exist outside “nature.” Moreover, as this article argues, representations can have very real impacts on environments and the people who live there.
This article seeks to historicize interpenetrating representations of and human practices in an equatorial African landscape — that of Minkébé forest in present-day northern Gabon. Both recent conservationist and earlier colonial representations of threatened forests reveal strong continuities. African land-use practices are portrayed as wasteful and destructive; therefore, only external intervention can save the forest while making it economically viable. Both colonial and conservationist writers advocate the control and surveillance of colonized spaces. Yet while colonialists sought to exploit African labor to intensify the collection and production of commodities, contemporary conservationists seek to preserve pure natural landscapes by excluding African productive activities altogether. At the same time, these sources provide crucial insights into the history of human practices in the northern Gabon forest. The goals of this paper are thus twofold: 1) to juxtapose colonial and contemporary conservationist discourses of nature, and 2) to suggest the contours of an environmental and spatial history of Minkébé forest that will include the history of both ideas and human practices.
Mapping the Historical Production of Emptiness
The recent environmental history of Minkébé is necessarily embedded in Gabon’s colonial past. French colonization began in 1839 when anti-slaving patrols signed a treaty with King Denis Rapontchombo on the left bank of the Gabon Estuary. In the 1840s, American Missionaries founded a mission station in Glass and the French established a settlement in nearby Libreville. Over the next half-century, Libreville served as the main staging point for trade and the gradual exploration and later colonization of the heavily forested Gabonese interior. As the slave trade diminished in the nineteenth century, ivory, ebony, and rubber became primary trade goods2. By the eve of World War I, a skeleton colonial administration had been established in many of the less accessible interior regions, in part through the economically and socially disastrous concessionary company regime modeled on that of King Leopold’s Congo Free State. In the 1890s, the French government had leased vast tracts of land to some forty concessionary companies, who in exchange for their trade monopolies, were to build roads, improve the land, and remit fees to the colonial government. Most companies, due to mismanagement, under-capitalization, and the decline of the international rubber market, soon went bankrupt (Coquery-Vidrovitch 1972). The Minkébé region fell in the concession of the particularly inept Compagnie de N’Goko-Sangha, which undermined older long-distance trade networks while plunging this already marginal region deeper into economic stagnation. It is against this background that Minkébé post was founded in 19103.
Although of little interest to the colonial French, the name Minkébé itself is laden with history and significance. It refers to a colonial post and the surrounding region, a recently created game reserve, and a larger swath of forest stretching eastward from the upper Ivindo River to Mitzic, Oyem, and Minvoul. The most dramatic human process of Minkéb...