CES Transformation Fund Field Report: Change and Wellbeing in the Congo

Blog post written by Co-PI Adam Boyette regarding the project on Globalization, Culture, and Well-Being in Congo.

Adam Howell Boyette

Our CES Transformation Fund project examines the ways in which global cultures and economic systems influence people’s daily lives in a village in the rural, northern part of the Republic of the Congo (ROC). Life for many people in this tropical forest region exemplifies the complexities and contradictions of international development and globalization. New economic and cultural opportunities come at the expense of control over land and an increasing necessity for cash. What determines people’s choices in this unstable economic and ecological landscape? And what is the impact of globally-influenced environmental change on people’s wellbeing locally?

In a grassy area, a white sign with blue writing which reads "Restaurant <> Cafetariat. La Marche Vers le Développement"
A restaurant sign in the study village. While people generally welcome economic development, the benefits are so far unevenly distributed. Credit: E. Ngalekandza.

While cash is integral to people’s subsistence, the majority of the economy in the study village is local: People procure resources directly from the forest, harvest crops from their expansive gardens, or fish in the river. They then typically sell their surplus to others in the village to buy the complementary foods they need to complete their families’ daily meals. However, this livelihood faces a complex set of challenges.

As part of state economic development efforts, the forest surrounding the village was leased to an international timber company about 20 years ago. The company established a mill in a village 5km from the study village and, as the region’s largest employer, prompted an influx of immigrants to the region and the growth of a regional market center, with many small shops, bars, and services—all supporting and supported by the active harvesting of timber from the forests. At the same time, the state also supports international efforts towards biodiversity conservation in this ecologically important region. As such, a national park—managed by an American NGO—was established to protect a part of the forest neighboring the timber company’s land in a region traditionally used by people in the study village.

On the one hand, the mill and the park bring employment opportunities and an influx of resources the state has not been able to provide – such as electricity and a cell phone tower. On the other hand, the combined threats of deforestation, population increase, and restricted forest access threatens people’s ability to acquire the resources they need.

What insights into these processes of change and adaptation does cultural evolutionary theory (CET) provide us? For one, we know that culture is dynamic. Environmental change was likely central to the evolution of human culture, and encounters between different groups with different technologies, norms, and practices have been critical to innovation and adaptation throughout the history of our species. Thus, in some ways, globalization is not new. CET also predicts that cultural change operates in patterned ways based on the characteristics of individuals and groups. This is because human populations rely on learning from others for the spread of new cultural traits (i.e., practices, tools, knowledge and so on), and certain traits require different social learning mechanisms, and travel by different pathways through people’s social networks. For instance, someone whose parents are hunter-gatherers or farmers will need to learn from someone else how to work in a timber mill, a clinic, or a school, and their education will likely involve specialized training. Because of existing diversity, not everyone will have the same learning opportunities or the same capacity to learn new skills (e.g., Is literacy or numeracy a prerequisite?). This diversity becomes a source of cultural variation over time, and can also be a source of variation in wellbeing if new skills mean better pay or new opportunities. We employed these ideas to design data collection tools to use in the study village in the ROC. We wanted to know, given the changes, what are people’s economic strategies and what led them to their choices? How are the changes effecting their food security and psychological wellbeing?

To collect data for this study, we recruited a talented team of students and professional researchers from Congo, working closely with the Institut National de Recherche en Sciences Sociales et Humaines and the École Nationale Superieure d’Agronomie et de Foresterie. Members of the team organized the translation of psychometric tools to measure wellbeing into Lingala and Yaka. Then, the team travelled to the north to collect these and a range of other data at the study village—on sources of income, typical expenses, employment histories, food security, and perceptions of resource availability. In the study village, the team was augmented by our local translators—who were critical for our integration and understanding of the local cultural landscape—and members of our kind host family—who cared for us throughout our stay.

A group of people in two rows, the back row standing and the front row crouching down.
The study field team. Top row, from left: Idrise Mboumba, Derland Bihoundou, Adam Boyette, Obama Singa, Francine Manyale, Merveille Dzabatou, Amé Aboula, Reische Ouamba, Evrahd Ngalekandza; Bottom row, from left: Brel Koubemba, Nafi Dzabatou, Cedric Dowe, Mboutou Chanceline. Not pictured: Lié Basoumboka, Issa Dzabatou, and Moise Dzabatou.

These exciting data are being cleaned up and entered into digital databases for analysis, so we do not have statistical results to report yet. However, a few things became clear during data collection and throughout many conversations between the field team and people in the village. For one thing, people’s views on conservation and the timber industry vary. Some people welcome change, and others worry that they will be left behind. For instance, people highly value school and see it as the gateway to economic security. Yet, school is effectively inaccessible to part of the population. The BaYaka ethnic group, typically called “hunter-gatherers” by anthropologists, maintain a way of life that prioritizes equality and autonomy—values that can conflict with a school system demanding obedience and a strict calendar set by officials in the capital city 800 kilometers south. Those BaYaka children who choose to go school with the children of the majority Bantu-speaking farmers feel discriminated against, and so rarely stay. This issue is complicated—see the CES applied working group that is grappling with the broader problem for other groups like the BaYaka—and was a constant topic of concern during fieldwork (see also a summary of the issue written by the grant team). As forest specialists who trade or sell forest foods, medicines and other materials to other groups, the BaYaka are critical to the local economy. Some BaYaka men also work for stints as tour guides for the national park. Yet, their pay checks often rapidly disappear to pay perpetual debts to farmers. Thus, they remain disenfranchised, and their means of further involvement in new economic opportunities remain limited.

The combined impact of deforestation and conservation was also something very evident in the reports of forest elephants and other protected species, like the African buffalo, destroying people’s gardens. While research is needed to confirm the true impact of logging on these animals’ behavior, people expressed feeling like they were in a battle with the other species for resources. As the elephants and buffalo flee from the noise and bad smell of the timber industry machines, the narrative goes, they come to the protected forest next to the village, and end up foraging for bananas, corn and other crops in people’s gardens, leaving little for the farmers. More alarming are reports of elephants attacking people or damaging structures. This unfortunate ecological reality also turns people against the conservation agenda, as currently the park does little to compensate the population.

Our project is poised to help shed some light on the ways in which the global cultural and economic marketplace intersect with people’s lives in this remote village, and the impact of such intersections on people’s wellbeing. Much more research needs to be done, but ideally our work will help us understand the mechanisms through which such changes and health are linked in general. We also hope that our data—from interviews with nearly every household in the village—can validate local people’s concerns about the changes occurring around them and provide some evidence that they can use to direct the course of development down a path that everyone can walk together.

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