Andreas Späth

White men discover something new in Africa. Again.

2014-01-13 12:27

Andreas Wilson-Späth

Excuse me while I rant cynical for a while, but I got really ticked off when I came across this article in the Guardian recently.

It tells the story of how intrepid researchers from the UK’s Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew “discovered” a patch of rainforest on Mount Mabu in Mozambique and I found myself magically transplanted to the 19th Century, the Age of Exploration and the Scramble for Africa.

Just consider some of the language and imagery used in this and similar articles on the same topic: “In a time and on a planet where we think we know everything”, the scientists identified “a lost world perched on a lonely mountain” “deep within the heart of the African nation of Mozambique”, a “mysterious mountain, clothed in dense green virgin rainforest”, a “hidden paradise”, “pristine”, “unmapped, unexplored, unlogged and totally unrepresented in the scientific collections or literature anywhere in the world”.

I half expected accompanying headlines telling me that “Henry Morton Stanley becomes the first man to navigate the length of the Congo” and “Dr Livingstone discovers the Victoria Falls”.

Reference is made, in passing, to the fact that “the locals knew of this mountain, of course”, but the subtext is clear: now men who actually know what to do with this knowledge, men of science, had laid claim to this mystical mountain and rescued it from languishing in African ignorance and obscurity.

Mount Mabu has maintained its virginal state largely because of its location in a remote and isolated area with limited road access. In addition “the civil war that ravaged parts of Mozambique from 1977 to 1992 also helped preserve this area, untouched” – makes it sound a bit like Africa’s second-longest war, a proxy of the Cold War, had a silver lining after all, doesn’t it?.

Of course the modern-day explorers accomplished their feat of discovery using their superior technology. In the days of King Leopold II it was the steamboat, gin and tonic, the breech-loading rifle and the Maxim machine gun that enabled Europeans to “open up” the continent’s interior. Today it’s Google Earth’s satellite maps.

Now you might think I’m being overly sensitive here, and if so, tell me, but I really think there is no place for this sort of science reporting. It’s arrogant, ignorant of African history and altogether disrespectful. In a word, it’s neo-colonial.

I have no doubt that the intentions behind the project are good – identifying new, rare and endangered snake, chameleon, bird, bat, butterfly, shrew, snail, insect, frog, fish and plant species in an astonishingly biodiverse ecosystem and helping to preserve Southern Africa’s largest remaining intact medium-altitude rainforest. That’s a good cause.

But if you keep telling us that you’ve “discovered” something locals have lived with for centuries and if you frame your discovery in a historical vacuum that entirely ignores the fact that European scientific discoveries of this sort have habitually gone hand-in-hand with ruthless exploitation and wholesale destruction at the expense of the indigenous population, is it such a big surprise that many locals still think that conservationists and environmentalists care more about plants and animals than they do about human inhabitants?

By all means, carry on your great and valuable scientific work, but please learn to communicate, report and write about your findings in a way that doesn’t feel like a kick in the teeth for those who live in and with the subject of your study.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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