This afternoon, at 3 p.m. sharp, I finished working in my 8th village since I left for Gabon eight weeks ago.
In that short amount of time I’ve learned an incredible amount about northeastern Gabon’s rural landscape, including the fragile relationships between forest-dependent communities and greater forces such as logging companies and national parks, how rivers and streams can completely shape the way in which communities use the forest around their villages, and how the colonial government’s regroupment regime in the 1930s — entirely “regrouping” villages across the rural landscape — forced many to reconsider the traditional ways of managing their resources.
I came to Gabon to study how communities use and value their forest resources, what they see is threatening their resources and why all of that might differ across the landscape. All of the information that I’ve heard, seen and read about over the summer are painting a detailed picture of exactly that.
Mapping it out
Not surprisingly, the best way to learn about how a community uses its forest is to simply ask them. More specifically, ask them to map it out. I’ve spent most of the summer community mapping, which is as simple as it sounds — creating a map of the community, with markers on paper or drawing in dirt on the ground. Community mapping is used in many disciplines to identify community needs and plan community-based projects, from conservation to public health, as well as for research.
In mapping out where and how they use the forest, we’ve drawn rivers, logging roads, sacred areas and water springs, just to name a few. We’ve also mapped where elephants trample manioc plantations, where commercial bushmeat hunters threaten an important source of protein for the village, and where a mining site has rerouted and polluted streams. A quick village tour allows me to learn even more details about the areas we drew, and to collect GPS points to ground the maps we’ve created.
Local values are central to how people interact with the forest. Forest products might be important for economic, subsistence, health or cultural reasons, and most often it is some combination of these factors. Understanding local values, and which parts of the forest cover the greatest number of values, can also play an important role in helping communities manage their natural resources. For my work, I decided to test a new technique to map out these local values across the landscape. It looks a lot like arts and crafts – taping small bits of colored paper across an already colorful map. Indeed, my field pack looks more like I’m heading to an art class than to the field for research.
Logging, parks and elephants (oh my)
Ultimately, I hope to identify the major factors that influence the interactions between communities and their forests, which can help inform forest management at both the landscape and community level. I’ve already seen several examples: the arrival of a logging company might make it more difficult for villagers to find highly valued moabi trees, but their logging roads also make it easier to walk farther to hunt, collect wood or even start a plantation. National parks can create jobs as guides or eco-guards, but may also place strict limits on how much forest a bordering village can use. And the ecological importance of forest elephants, who are protected by national law, is overshadowed by the fear and frustration felt by so many farmers upon seeing the aftermath of a herd’s late night stroll through their fields.
Only two villages left to go until I head back home with 20 colorful maps and a maze of GPS tracks, ready to start piecing together the puzzle. Stay tuned!
A sign at the entrance to Ivindo National Park which reads “Hunting, fishing, access prohibited.” Photo courtesy of Nina Hamilton.
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