Friday, September 30, 2011

Mixed Feelings

It has taken me forever to finish Laurens Van der Post’s, A Journey into the Interior, in which he tells about his trip to Malawi to explore Mt. Mulanje in the south and the Nyika plateau in the north. Van der Post is an elegant, but for my tastes, pretentious and long winded writer whose prose, though aspiring to Shakespeare, usually sounds more like cheap Freud. On the other hand as I read his book I couldn’t help but admire the skill with which he, and the British Empire in general, were able to navigate through, and really thrive in, the African Bush which at the time of his travels was a pretty inhospitable place for non-natives. And yet this was also a man, and an Empire, that (among many other worse deeds) ordered native village chiefs to round up 45 men to be porters for their mountain explorations and whose condescension and bald racism towards Africans made me cringe as I read. And yet again, several generations before Van der Post’s journey Livingstone, the most renowned British explorer of Malawi, was also its most vigorous anti-slavery activist trekking through the country trying to convince the natives not to sell each other to Arab slave traders.

I have also been reading the reports of the Joint Fisheries Research Organization (JFRO). Based in Nkhata Bay from 1954 and later moved down to Monkey Bay in the 60s, this organization was responsible for much pioneering work on the limnology and biology of Lake Malawi. And once again I am torn between an admiration for their work and a great sadness in the colonial motivations and force that made such work possible.

Scientists and explorers have always had to deal with this kind of situation though until quite recently (the last thirty years) it was rather taboo to explore its implications too far. Thanks to some historians of science and technology such as Deepak Kumar (India), Lewis Pyenson, (Indonesia), and Micheal Osborne ( French Africa), this has changed at least for the colonial era. We now know how integral a role science played in the subjugation of what we now call the developing world. There has even been some attention to the role that science played in the more recent history of the Cold War (see here for a good review.)

However attempts to understand the continuing role that Science plays in Western attempts to aid the developing world have not been well studied. Hopefully, that’s where my own research comes in, at least in regards to the tiny world of coastal and fisheries management. While certainly responsive to the critiques of the excessively technocratic development paradigms that dominated the scene until the 70s and 80s, more recent coastal and fisheries management schemes have still been remarkably inattentive to social and cultural underpinnings of their projects when applied in non-western countries. So-called “international best-practices” cannot run away from their own history simply by being labeled so. Who developed these practices that are supposedly “best” and “international,” under what circumstances, towards what goals, and upon what assumptions, are all important questions that are too rarely asked.

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