Imposing Wilderness Critical Review Essay

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Nature conservation in Africa is a powerful Western discourse influencing legislation, the international flow of money and state alienation of land. There is the need to explode the historical notion that national parks are prehistoric landscapes of natural order existing outside human time. Focusing on Arusha National Park in Tanzania, Roderick Neumann works toward this end in his book Imposing Wilderness, Struggles Over Livelihood and Nature Preservation in Africa, originally a doctoral dissertation undertaken as fieldwork in Tanzania (1988-1990).

The book revolves around the central theme of national parks in Tanzania emphasizing powerfully that the preservation of these areas is essential to maintaining Africa in its true identity for future generations to see. The appeal is made to conservationists, ecologists and developmental specialists in a very eloquent, objective and simple manner. The wonderfully picturesque Arusha National Park in northern Tanzania is a hot spot and a protected area.

Roderick Neumanns detailed analysis unfolds the various political-ecological dilemmas facing this park and shows how this park can be taken as a symbol of such dilemmas facing protected areas throughout the African continent. The park is situated on Mount Meru. The neighboring Meru peasant communities face poverty, population growth and ignorance. There is an ongoing struggle between the park and the peasant community living nearby. According to Roderick Neumann, the root causes of these struggles are much deeper than those due to poverty, population growth and ignorance.

He traces the struggle as one that began during the colonial rule. By imposing a European ideal of pristine wilderness, Neumann says, African identity has been destroyed. The establishment of national parks and protected areas has displaced African meanings as well as material access to the land. Neumann further underlines the symbolic importance of natural landscapes among various communities in Africa and how this importance can be linked to the conflicts between peasant communities and the state.

This is a valuable and thought-provoking book. While it is both analytical in style and logical in approach, the book is immensely readable. According to W. M. Adams, Environmental Planning and Management, the analysis put forth by the author is both mature and direct and his arguments have become invaluable to academic debates on society and nature and for the raging policy debate about people and conservation. The author, Roderick P. Neumann is Associate Professor in the International Relations Department at Florida International University.

The book is divided into six major sections: Landscapes of Nature, Terrains of Resistance; Political and Moral Economy on Mount Meru; Conservation versus Custom: State Seizure of Natural Resource Control; Protecting Fauna of the Empire: TheEvolution of National Parks in Tanzania; Patterns of Predation at Arusha National Park and Village Moral Economy and the New Colonialism. This book seems to be a compilation of a series of popular articles written by Neumann in the realm of political ecology. The main drawback of the book is that because of these articles, this book seems to cover very little new ground.

Moreover, the book focuses more on a set of theoretical ideas and empirical points and lacks a holistic perspective. In his introduction, Neumann proposes to analyze the conflicts [between African peasants and international conservationists] . . . in their historical and socio-political contexts (p. g). In this quest, Neumann sets out to answer a series of questions: Who decides what nature should look like? Who constructed the idea of an African landscape and what does this constructed landscape mean for the Africans who inhabit it?

Through the answers to these questions, Neumann traces the Western worlds view of what Africa should look like. He concludes that the creation of national parks was the result of commodification of nature and landscape. Imposing Wilderness by Roderick Neumann can be considered as a treatise on conservation in Africa. The author has combined a theoretical perspective with a sensitive humane angle to analyze the case study of Arusha National Park. He has based his arguments and observations on meticulous field work, survey data, and interviews among three communities adjacent to the beautiful Arusha National Park on Mount Meru.

This location is one that is rich in wildlife and has volcanic soil. The book relates in a compelling manner how these communities have struggled during the European conquest against European exploitation of their natural resources. Both the German and British colonial governments and the post independence government of Tanzania have oppressed these communities by denying them their traditional rights to graze, hunt, and occupy large areas of their mountain homeland. Originally, Meru land was taken under the pretext of advancing the claims of settler farmers and the cause of civilization.

Later, the same land was alienated in the name of wildlife preservation and civilization. For Africanists thus the regular story of colonial oppression, bureaucratic indifference, and capitalist exploitation. But, in this book, not only does Neumann document a case of colonial and postcolonial abuse, he also explores the causes of dislocation of Africans and the nature of conflict between nature preservation and traditional land use patterns. His central argument is that we need to locate the origins of these conflicts in the contradictory perceptions of natural African landscape and the role of humans in the landscape.

According to Neumann the British and Germans conceptualized nature as being free from people and human-caused change. Hence they were interested in creating landscapes devoid of humans in Africa. If at all humans were to be part of this landscape they can only be primitive hunters and gatherers. They cannot be farmers or herders. These idealistic notions of the European conservationists were responsible for the creation of game preserves and national parks in Africa. In his book Imposing Wilderness Neumann briefly and clearly documents the rise of protected areas from early colonial period through the post-independence period.

In the case of Mount Meru, the Tanzanian state changed it into a national park only after independence. However, Neumann suggests that this could be mainly due to the early colonial influence and pressures from the World Wildlife Fund. Neumann suggests, moreover, that the creation of national parks in the post-colonial period might have been promoted by linking notions of what it meant to be a modern nation-state and wilderness preservation. This argument does not sound much valid as it involves a lot of assumptions and hypothesizing.

One of Neumanns interesting arguments is that during the colonial era, game reserves and national parks became controversial due to differences between conservationists in London and colonial administrators living in Tanzania. While conservationists felt that the landscape should be preserved, the colonial officials felt that moving Africans out of these territories would destabilize British control over them. However, history shows that the conservationists won. Neumann notes that Meru property rights did not vanish suddenly. They were rather slowly taken away due to prolonged negotiations.

For example, the legislation that created Arusha National Park explicitly maintained a right-of-way for local residents through the park, yet in recent years local park officials have closed the path to residents. Not all of Neumanns arguments are convincing. He frequently cites political economic or state building reasons but does not develop these explanations empirically or theoretically. No clear linkage is shown between the political economy and conflicting notions of nature and land use. Despite these drawbacks, Neumann covers vast territory and this book is a pleasure to read.

At the end, one wishes there is more theoretical development and empirical detail. The analysis of Meru land and natural resources is not really powerful enough and lacks vision. It is truly difficult to compare the lofty visions of landscape artists and aristocrats in London with the daily routines of local African peasants. Neumann makes the African view look impoverished. There is a short chapter that illustrates the tragic impact of lofty conservationists policies on Meru after which the author takes a positive view of the future.

By examining the idea of a Village Moral Economy, Neumann reviews the growth of a policy that takes into account local African needs and values. He examines tentatively community-based conservation schemes in Tanzania and elsewhere. Even these conservation schemes seem out of context to the African peasant visions of the African landscape. Real constructive conservation success in Tanzania is possible only through education, better understanding of local economics, and sustainable development.

The book is however significant from the historians point of view because the history of the imposition of western conservation ideas on African peasants is well narrated. The authors style of simplifying complex ideas and presenting them in a clear and concise style makes the book readable and useful for people with an interest in environmental history. Sources: Roderick P. Neumann. Imposing Wilderness: Struggles over Livelihood and Nature Preservation in Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

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