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Fieldwork in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Mama Ngokonda (Lys Alcayna-Stevens, 2013) Congolese WIldlife Authority ICCNForest Foliage (Lys Alcayna-Steven, 2013)

I am currently completing 18 months of fieldwork in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I conduct ethnographic research in scientific communities studying wild great apes, and in the rainforest villages of their local collaborators. I am examining knowledge-making practices, as well as the relationships between scientists, local communities, state actors (such as the paramilitary Congolese Wildlife Authority), ‘poachers’ and the great apes being studied. I am interested in the ways in which natural resources are conceptualized and inequalities in power, wealth, ownership and mobility are evoked and negotiated. I am working in particular with a group of Bongando villages who have formed their own representative organization in order to attract the collaboration of international NGOs and the benefits of ‘bondele’ (foreign) wealth through scientific tourism, by habituating great ape communities within their ancestral forests. I aim to ground the community’s aspirations, and the resulting negotiations with international NGOs, scientists and the state, within broader Bongando cosmologies of capture, predation, influence and the redistribution of people, objects, animals and wealth. It is hoped that the thesis will speak to wider academic debates concerning environmental and indigenous politics, human-animal relations, market-based environmental policy, the ‘frictions’ of encounter and post-colonial scientific knowledge.

Fom top right:

Mama Ngokonda - every ethnographer needs a matriarch who will patiently show her how to make her own ‘losingi’ basket, how to tell a ‘bosembo’ (truth) from a ‘lokuta’ (lie) and how to keep going with her work when things are tough.

The paramilitary Congolese Wildlife Authority (ICCN) conducts patrols in protected areas in order to combat the burgeoning bushmeat trade, which has rendered several species – such as the forest elephant – extinct in many parts of DR Congo’s rainforest. At times, the relationship between eco-guards and forest communities is a fraught one. Communities in Bandundu Province talk of eco-guard ‘tracasserie’ (extorting money, food, cigarettes, drink and domestic animals from people) and complain that Wildlife Authority guards are sometimes ex-poachers themselves.

Aspiring scientists must learn to rapidly read the cues of the great apes they are studying – in order to grasp their intentions, as well as tracking them through dense foliage and staying far enough back not to disturb them. An aspiring anthropologist must do the same with her scientists.