Monday, May 23, 2011

Hasty conclusions

So I've been talking with a lot people about how I am interested in starting up a lake monitoring research program. Most mzungus (Westerners) have responded to my plan with a weirdly similar narrative and the rest of the conversation follows a very predictable arc.

1. Initially most Westerners respond with cautious optimism. They advise that "out here" getting such a program started will be difficult but that if I could manage it it could be a worthy thing.

2. They then begin speaking about how unfortunate it is that the lake is overfished and offer a few ways of fixing this problem. Fish farming is often mentioned. Setting up more national lake parks under some sort of community based management scheme is often mentioned. One fellow even said I should teach the fishermen how to build fiber-glass canoes instead of their traditional dug-out ones in order to save Malawi's forests. While others suggested that I find funding to start some "community gardens" to offer the fishers an alternative livelihood.

3. I am then am asked my opinion about all of these ideas. At this point the conversation gets a little awkward for me. I usually begin by saying that their suggestions might work but that I am not an expert on any of them. Knowing a little bit about the history of development projects in Malawi, I do however usually add that fish farming, community gardens, etc., have all been tried with very degrees of success and failure.

4. I then try to steer the conversation back to my proposed lake monitoring program by stating that, if one actually reads the existing studies, very little research has been done on the lake and even less is currently on-going particularly in its northern half.

5. After about 5 or 10 minutes most people lose interest and the conversation dies, always with an amicable "good luck."

I think I can pull a couple important lessons from this. First, I am not a very talented salesman for my project. I mostly knew this already. Second, and more interesting to me, is how powerful and persuasive what I call the "conservation narrative" is amongst Western communities in African countries.

This narrative begins when Westerners collect anecdotal information from various sources about the conditions of a particular natural environment and conclude from that that it is over-exploited. Then various measures are suggested to remedy this situation which generally have a connection to the expertise of whoever is suggesting them. Healthcare specialists promote HIV awareness programs (bizarre but true, see here). Biologists promote national parks. Engineers promote alternative livelihoods. Ichthyologists call for fish-farming and entrepreneurs ask for easy loans.

In Malawi this pattern is obvious in how Westerners have approached issues of resources use on the lake. Despite there being a pitifully small amount of actual data on the health of Lake Malawi's natural systems, most Westerners here by default, and with great certainty, "know" that they are being unsustainably exploited, overfished, cut down, polluted, etc.

Why? What makes this "conservation narrative" so appealing and so persuasive to us? It is certainly not its scientific merits, however clothed in that jargon it may sometimes appear. The data simply does not exist to back it up. Perhaps we simply abhor a vacuum? Saying "I don't know" is admittedly pretty unsatisfying. Or, as many Africans think, is this narrative just a pretext for our nascent neo-colonial ambitions? Or is it something else, perhaps more noble? I certainly don't know but it seems worth reflecting on.


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