Utopia and saving the African rainforest – should Bob Geldof board this train?

By Emmanuel Nuesiri, University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, USA

Bob Geldof. Photo Credit: Eric Roset. Available via CC BY 2.0

Bob Geldof. Photo Credit: Eric Roset. Available via CC BY 2.0

Bob Geldof is in the news again attempting to ‘save Africa’ from Ebola through Band Aid. While his original effort 30 years ago against famine in Ethiopia was welcomed, his current effort has been criticized by many as ill-conceived. However, Bob Geldof is not alone when it comes to visions of saving Africa. There is a history of individuals and institutions in the developed world, inspired by a utopian impulse to save African peoples and societies from real and imagined troubles, and usher in peace and prosperity.

Take Africa’s forestry sector during the colonial era. The utopian impulse to save Africa’s ‘edenic’ and aesthetic forests led the Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire (SPWFE) to lobby for the setting up of protected areas. I show in my article in The Geographical Journal, ‘Decentralized forest management: towards a utopian realism’, that today, the utopian impulse to save the African forests has morphed into a discourse about reforming governance in Africa. Thus decentralised forest management, the forestry paradigm in place today, which has resulted in initiatives like community forestry, is not only presented as good for the forest, but as also necessary for moving Africa towards ‘good governance’. This utopian impulse to engineer an ideal society through forest sector reforms was given voice by community conservation advocates and amplified by bilateral and multilateral donors.

In 2006, as part of my doctoral studies investigating the transformative potential of community forests, I visited the Bimbia-Bonadikombo community forest (referred to as BB) in south-west Cameroon. During forest walk with BB forest patrol officers, we stumbled on artisanal loggers operating without license. The patrol officers accosted them and a violent scuffle broke out and the police were called in. The artisanal loggers protested strongly that from when BB was created in 2002, they have been restricted from using the forest and this has hurt them financially. So they are fighting for survival as they have no other source of regular cash income. In spite of its rhetoric of justice, fairness, empowerment and poverty alleviation, community forestry in this place provoked violent resistance.

Decentralised forest management might be aiming to produce a best possible world, a utopia for local forest people, but in countries like Cameroon, it has also produced strong opposition at national and local level. The romantic utopian might view this with resignation and even nihilism. The utopian realist would view opposition and even failure as grounds to revisit programme and project design, while not letting go of the utopian impulse for a just, fair, and post-scarcity society. Decentralised forest management programmes like Bob Geldof have taken some huge hit as it seeks to make a difference in Africa. However, its utopian and transformative power for a just and fairer society should continue to inspire. Where there have been failures let’s get back to the drawing board and re-examine our a priori design assumptions.

About the author: Emmanuel Nuesiri obtained his DPhil. in Geography from the University of Oxford. He is a research scholar with the Responsive Forest Governance Initiative (RFGI) at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, USA. His research interests include forests and climate change governance.     

 Nuesiri, E. O. (2014), Decentralised forest management: towards a utopian realism. The Geographical Journal. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12104

 Guardian, The (2014) Band Aid 30 becomes fastest-selling single of 2014. 18 November

 Gordon, B (2014) Why Adele was right to ignore Bob Geldof and Band Aid. The Telegraph 18 November

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