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Review of Cutting the Vines of the Past: Environmental Histories of the Central African Rain Forest


By Louise Ellis

Cutting the Vines of the Past:  Environmental Histories of the Central African Rain ForestTamara Giles-Vernick.  University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville and London.  320 pp. Hb: ISBN 0-8139-2102-3 £38.95 $49.50.  Pb: ISBN 0-8139-2103-1 £15.50 $19.50.

Tamara Giles-Vernick sets out to discover how a group of equatorial Africans understand the environmental change that is occurring in their region during the twentieth century.  She focuses her work on the Mpiemu people who live in the Middle and Upper Sangha River Basin, having carried out fieldwork in this area predominantly in 1993 but with additional data being drawn from 1991 and 1994.

The central theme of Giles-Vernick’s work is to investigate how the Mpiemu people understand environmental change, through the language of doli. Doli is defined as a category of historical and environmental knowledge and a way of perceiving and characterising environments of the past.  The text argues that both the process and body of doli has changed through the twentieth century mainly as a result of the indigenous people’s encounters with external bodies – namely aid agencies.  Giles-Vernick suggests that by the analysis and study of these changes we can see how and why interventions of external conservation projects in the area have failed.

The book begins with a description of the different actors involved in the historical dynamics of the Sangha basin. This section of the book draws mainly on secondary evidence and not on Giles-Vernick's experiences. The subsequent four chapters of the text focus on specific domesticated spaces (village, field and forest) of doli and how these areas have been affected by numerous external factors ranging from colonial administrations, religious missionaries, ‘private’ owners and more recent conservation projects.

Cutting the Vines of the Past gives an excellent account of the Mpiemu’s attitude to environmental change and supplies the reader with a good knowledge of Doli and African ecology and langauage, through its appendix system.  In addition the author supplies extensive page notes.

Giles-Vernick supplies the reader with an interesting narrative and a new perspective of natural and pre-empted environmental change in Central African rainforest.  However, she does little to provide new analysis of the impact of external agents in this change and their relationship with indigenous people.  Is it not true that most peoples' behaviour and perceptions have been shaped by their own experience and those of their forefathers, particularly in an isolated area such as the Sangha River Basin?  Her concluding statement that policymakers and conservationists dismiss historical knowledge, practices and values at their peril, is hardly a new concept in this area.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 65 (2003), pp. 78-79]

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