Mistakes of conservation and science: Batwa, Fossey, Tarzan, and the loss of traditional knowledge

In to preserve the cultural heritage of people such as the Baka and Batwa, including their knowledge of traditional plants that can be extremely helpful in medicine, as well as the forests from which they were expelled, we should tell their real history, empower them, and learn from them
Published in Ecology & Evolution
Mistakes of conservation and science: Batwa, Fossey, Tarzan, and the loss of traditional knowledge

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Who is Tarzan? According to the myth he is the ‘good’ Western 'king of the jungle’, that knows everything about and is friend of the African animals and fights against the ‘bad’ Africans. Jane Goodall, the famous English primatologist and anthropologist who has been studying and working with chimpanzees for more than 60 years claimed she would be a great fit as his spouse. So far this sounds like a fairytale. However there is more to the story, as there always is.

As part of the anthropological research I do at Howard University and within the mission of this landmark institution, I did research in Gabon, Uganda and Rwanda this spring and summer, together with an international team of scientists, physicians and filmmakers. Our work included topics as diverse as cultural and biological anthropology, science dissemination, evolutionary medicine, conservation, and the use of traditional medical plants. In particular, we visited several villages that are largely inhabited by so-called ‘African pygmy groups’ such as the Baka in Gabon and the Batwa in Uganda and Rwanda. These groups - mainly native to the Congo Basin in Central Africa - subsisted for millennia on a forager and hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Many of them were later acculturated by African agriculturalists such as those of Bantu-speaking groups. However part of them, including of the Baka and Batwa, continued to live in the Congo Basin forests and to hunt big animals such as elephants, gorillas, and chimpanzees for centuries. This is where the ‘bad Africans’ narrative gets introduced into the modern Tarzan fairytale. In the last decades groups such as the Baka and Batwa have been legally forbidden to hunt large animals that were a crucial part of their diets, and were mainly displaced from their ancestral habitats as a result of the creation of national parks for animal protection, in Gabon, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, and other countries. Basically, they were often condemned to ‘live as beggars’, facing  discrimination, abuse, and even violent attacks from the Bantu-speaking populations of the regions to which they were obliged to relocate.

Accordingly, they are often designated as “historically marginalized people”. In Rwanda, for instance, the name “Batwa” cannot even be officially used by the government and its agencies, or in public schools, as the government is bent on denying ethnicity by using the 1994 genocide as an argument. The way people like the Batwa are seen in both the Western Tarzan narrative and the official policies of the Rwandan government is deeply related to the Darwinian view that hunter-gatherer human groups are “naturally condemned” to either be “extinct” or “integrated” into agricultural societies. Such a view is evolutionarily and historically flawed because humans were able to live for several millions of years by gathering plants and fungi and hunting animals, without putting in risk the survival of our species and the sustainability of Earth’s ecology. In contrast, as emphasized in a brilliant quote from the environmental organization Greenpeace, "the Earth is 4.6 billion years old.. let's scale that down to 46 years.. we've been here for 4 hours.. our industrial revolution began 1 minute ago.. in that time we've destroyed more than 50% of the World's Rain Forests.. this isn't sustainable".

This point is very important, because apart from the huge problems affecting the Batwa and Baka since they were forbidden to hunt big animals and expelled from the forests, there is also a major impact of such ‘conservation’ policies on the forests themselves, which has been too often neglected in the media and academic literature. As statistically shown in a recent study published by Alejandro Estrada and colleagues in the journal Science Advances, the forests in which indigenous people such as the Baka and Batwa lived tend to have a much higher biodiversity than other forests have. A major reason for this is that the cultural beliefs and practices of such indigenous people were precisely often developed to preserve the ecological equilibrium and sustainability of those forests. Not because these people are necessarily “good savages” – which is, in a way, a racist Western narrative – or “guardians of the forest” – which is a human-centric narrative - but simply because hunter-gatherers depend directly on the forest for the plants they gather and the animals they hunt, contrary to agriculturalists. For instance, when the Baka hunted big animals, they settled nomad camps at a certain area of the deep forest, hunted and gathered there for several days or weeks, and then moved to another, often far away, region of the forest to do the same. Within the immensely large Congo basin forests, this means that they would not come back to the same region for a very long time, so the animals they hunted and plants and fungi they gathered would “regenerate”, as the Batwa and Baka elders explained to us.

This point stresses a major problem created by those conservation policies that expelled the Baka and Batwa from natural parks and that is virtually absent in public discussion on these topics. That is, precisely because they were hunter-gatherers, these people actively contributed to the ecological equilibrium of the forests: they were part of it, as are elephants, gorillas, leopards, and so on. Numerous empirical studies have shown that when predators such as wolves, for instance, were decimated in certain geographical areas by humans that wanted to protect their cattle from them, this led to a dramatic ecological disequilibrium in those areas. By expelling people such as the Baka and Batwa from the forests, certain species of plants and animals that they traditionally hunted or gathered might over-reproduce, the preys of those animals might then be over-hunted, and so on. In this sense, a chief flaw within the way conservation-policies were applied, particularly in the 70s, 80s and 90s, by Western scientists and conversationists such as Dian Fossey and by policy-makers is that they often focused on the well-being of a single species, such as gorillas or elephants, rather than on the whole ecological context. This narrow focus deeply contrasts with the in which the Baka and Batwa see and understand the forests - and the traditional practices they accordingly applied when they were living in them - , which is in general much more holistic. Gorillas, elephants, leopards, snakes, plants, flowers, honey, bees, mushrooms, people – everything is connected, and interdependent, within the very delicate ecological equilibrium of the forest.

Accordingly, another major impact of expelling such indigenous people from the forests concerns the enormous, and irreversible, loss of knowledge about the biology and behavior of the animals and other organisms living in them and, also crucially for our future as a species, their utility for medical practices. When we visited the Baka and Batwa villages, we have seen, over and over again, how both the ‘white Tarzan vs. bad Africans’ and the ‘naturally condemned’ narratives have been applied to these people, either by the government or other organizations, including NGOs that work closely with these communities. In almost all of the villages the elders told us that their communities did not receive any kind of economic compensation from the government when they were forbidden to hunt big animals and expelled from the forests. Indeed, in almost all the villages the Batwa and Baka were largely wandering, waiting for us or for Western or local NGOs to arrive and “give them something”. Many of them said they were literally starving, and in one of the Baka villages near Minvoul in which the chief was a Bantu-speaking elder, they did explicitly complain of physical abuse. In fact, in such cases the relationship between the Bantu-speaking chiefs and the Baka often becomes one of modern slavery. Another disturbing phenomenon that we documented in almost every village was alcoholism: not only of adults but, tragically, also of kids and even babies. Distressingly, in many cases the alcoholic drinks were provided directly by the NGOs that are supposedly trying to “help” them, but ultimately end up contributing to the ”beggars”-cycle by giving money, drinks and other ‘gifts’. Fortunately, there were a few exceptions, such as the Pygmy alliance, which is building schools and cooking places in some Batwa villages in Rwanda.

When indigenous people such as the Baka and Batwa are either forced by the government or “helped” by NGOs to be “beggars” or to “integrate” to “modern societies” in such a way, this accelerates even more the tragic loss of their fascinating cultural traditions – including their unique dances, ‘water-drum’ practices, and polyphonic songs – and incomparable knowledge of the forests, their species, and their medical utility. This point was made in a recent paper by Adam Amir, entitled “Who Knows What About Gorillas? Indigenous Knowledge, Global Justice, and Human-Gorilla Relations”. As pointed out by Amir, the way in which we view science and ‘knowledge’ is often highly Western-centric. You can check it yourself right now: just google “world’s main expert on gorillas” and a huge list of entries about Dian Fossey comes out as a result. Dian Fossey spent several hours observing gorillas, for many years, so she obviously acquired a vast knowledge about their behavior that was unique, within Westerners, at that time. However, the Baka and Batwa communities spent dozens of millennia among gorillas, sleeping in the same forests, observing what they eat, how they mate, how they self-medicate, and so on. That knowledge was passed over, and further expanded by, thousands of generations. Therefore, while a Western scientist that spent many years studying gorillas clearly knows a lot about them, one cannot compare that knowledge to the knowledge accumulated by literally millions of indigenous people living in the Congo basin forests for more than 50 millennia. The “world’s main experts” on gorillas and their forests are people such as the Baka and Batwa.

A fascinating example, ‘fresh from the oven’, that I collected in my interactions with the Baka in Gabon, and that if confirmed by ‘science’ will represent a dramatic change about what we know regarding gorillas and human evolution, was that elders from different villages repeatedly told me that gorillas eat fish. Strikingly, they repeated those stories without me asking about it, within conservations about something completely different. When I explained them that according to Western science, gorillas “don’t eat fish”, that they mainly eat plants and sometimes just some small invertebrates, they laughed, and answered “of course they do”. Here I was, a Western scientist telling them what we ‘scientifically’ know about which behaviors the animals with whom their communities have lived for millennia supposedly can, and cannot, display. But the reality is that animals have local adaptations cultures, and in such large, deep forests is indeed not only plausible, but almost inevitable, that they do things that we Westerners have never seen. For instance, while scientists have been studying Japanese macaques for a long time at Koshima island in Japan, their first report of fish-eating by these macaques was only in 1979, and was made purely by chance during routine work. These examples remind me of the story, published some months ago in newspapers across the globe, that “science” was celebrating the 100-year “discovery” that the platypus, a strange monotreme mammal, lays eggs. What most of those newspapers did not mention was that the Australian aborigines knew that from times immemorial, because they were eating those eggs. The problem is that if an Australian aborigine says the platypus lays eggs, or a Baka says that gorillas eat fish, this is considered to be “an anecdote”. If it is a Western scientist documenting the very same behavior, then it is “a scientific fact”.

Another statement we repeatedly heard from the Baka elders may also contribute to deeply rethink what we know about human evolution and the history – and, importantly, the future - of medicine. They told us that they learned about many of the medicinal plants they use by observing gorillas and chimpanzees using them in the first place. Such a statement goes against the core of not only Western-centric but also human-centric scientific narratives. Medicine, as a field, is often constructed as being mainly developed by Westerners, and uniquely by humans, as if we humans did everything by ourselves, in a vacuum, without observing the animals around us. So, what the Baka said can only be an “anecdote”, it can’t be a “fact”, right? When I returned to the USA after my trip, I contacted Michael Huffman, a researcher that has been investigating self-medication in non-human animals for decades, and I asked him this question. He answered that there are indeed many confirmed reports that humans learned medical practices by observing other animals self-medicating. What is new and unique in this case, he told me, is that he does not know of any account where people such as the Baka or Batwa specifically explained how they did so, as they did to us. Namely, various Baka elders told us that when the Baka lived in the deep forest as nomads, if they would see a chimpanzee with a wounded leg, for instance, they would often stop going where they were going, and settle their nomad camps near the group of chimpanzees, in order to observe them, for several days. They would pay special attention to what the chimpanzees would put on the wound, be it from the soil or the vegetation. Then, when the Baka would have similar wounds they would try to do apply the same components.    

This account indeed makes perfect sense when we take into consideration the evolutionary history of self-medication: mainly, it develops by trial and error. Nobody is arguing that chimpanzees, gorillas, or orangutans know the chemical components of the plants they use to self-medicate. They simply had millions of years to try several plants, and check which ones helped to alleviate pain, heal the wounds, and so on. Accordingly, it makes sense that when Homo sapiens arrived to let’s say the tropical Southeastern forests thousands of years ago, instead of exclusively applying this trial-and-error practice from scratch, they would also observe what animals that looked more similar to us, such as orangutans, were doing. By doing this, those people would dramatically reduce the number of needed trials-and-errors, because they would incorporate knowledge that the orangutans had accumulated throughout their trials-and-error practices for several millions of years. This gave us an important head-start to adapt to those new forests and self-medicate using their local species. In this sense, what we Westerners do when construct what indigenous people say as mere ‘anecdotes’ or part of their ‘beliefs’ or ‘magical healing rituals’, is to condemn ourselves to start the trial-and-error process all over again, from scratch, neglecting all the valuable information that has been meticulously collected by them about the forests in which they lived for several millennia. The cure for certain cancers, or against the next generation of super-bugs, or a particularly powerful natural analgesic, might be in the Congo-basin forests, and we may never know because either we will destroy those forests, or neglect the immense traditional knowledge accumulated about them.

What is even more tragic, emblematic, and enlightening in the case of Rwanda, concerning all these crucial issues, is that such a demise and loss of traditional knowledge was related in a very direct, emblematic way to the conservation policies that were originally promoted by Westerns within the longstanding racist Western narrative of the white Tarzan. Just that in this case the Tarzan was not a man, but a woman: Dian Fossey. This constructed narrative became widespread in Western countries particularly after the release of the movie Gorillas in the Mist in 1988, in which Sigourney Weaver played the role of Dian, and is still the predominant story displayed at the Dian Fossey Fund headquarters in Musanze, Rwanda. I myself was deeply influenced by this narrative, which was precisely one of the main reasons why I wanted to go to Rwanda to see and interact with the researchers of the Dian Fossey Fund. As the story goes, Dian arrived in the region, began to study gorillas, became in love with them, and started to take care of them, protecting them from the ‘bad’ Africans that wanted to hurt them, who ultimately were involved in her tragic murder.

Dian did indeed do amazing things for science and for the gorillas and their forests by bringing attention to them and their endangered status, no doubt about that. However, as both the Batwa and Bantu-speaking elders repeatedly told us in several Rwandan villages, this Tarzan myth neglects the fact that Dian was overtly racist, mocked their traditional knowledge and practices and amalgamated very different groups of ‘Africans’ into the group of the ‘bad Africans’. For instance, she included in this group the Batwa, who were hunting gorillas for millennia without putting in danger their survival as a group and their ecological habitats, and the Bantu-speaking poachers, who are often impoverished locals that can make money by trafficking gorillas and elephants, or part of their bodies. As has been reported by people that knew Dian very well and that cannot be constructed as ‘bad Africans’, including her former associate Bill Webber, she begun to obsessively take it upon herself to be the ‘savior’ of gorillas and combat the ‘bad Africans’, to the point of having the latter being tortured or kidnapped. In fact, one of the main reasons why it is not clear, until this day, who was responsible for the tragic and very sad loss of Dian, is that, contrary to the Tarzan narrative, it was not only a small group of few ‘bad Africans’ that did not like Dian. As put by several elders of the Batwa and Bantu-speaking communities, as well as by researchers from local universities, Dian actually made a lot of enemies in Africa. Not only because she protected the gorillas from ‘bad poachers’, as the story goes, but also because she considered all Batwa to be ‘poachers’, and did not respect – and overtly mocked - the traditional knowledge and practices of the locals of both the Batwa and Bantu-speaking local groups. Crucially, she failed to understand that it was precisely the traditional knowledge and practices of the Batwa that helped to keep the ecological equilibrium of the local forests - including the gorilla communities - for millennia, much before Westerners even knew about those African forests.

In other words, such ecological equilibrium was in great part due to the Batwa, not despite of them. The gorillas only begun to be endangered due to the later expansion of the farms of African agriculturalists and the pressure of colonialist and subsequently post-colonialist non-African countries to obtain the resources from those forests. However, the narratives created by agriculturalist groups, both African and non-African – be them the ‘white-Tarzan’ myth, or the ‘naturally condemned hunter-gatherers’ narrative, or others - has led to turn this reality up-side-down. That is, whereas non-African countries continue to rape Africa forests from their resources, and African agriculturalists continue to expand their farms into those forests, groups such as the Batwa were the ones that were constructed as the ‘enemies of the animals’, blamed for the demise of those animals, and thrown out of the forests to basically become beggars. In order to preserve both the cultural heritage of people such as the Baka and Batwa, including their fascinating knowledge of traditional plants that can be extremely helpful in medicine, as well as the ancestral forests from which they were expelled, we urgently need to revise such erroneous narratives and flawed conservation policies.  What we should be doing is to tell their real history of those groups, empower them, and importantly learn from them how they were able to coexist and maintain an ecological equilibrium with animals such as gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants for millennia and what they know about the forests, their numerous species, and their medicinal properties.

Heaven and hell in a Batwa village in Musanze, Rwanda: after a fascinating traditional dance, it is time for everyone to drink alcohol

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