Project A04, Future Conservation

Project Summary

Land-use change and social-ecological transformation in much of southern and eastern Africa is shaped progressively by various forms of conservation. Transboundary natural resource management (TBNRM), community-based natural resource management (CBNRM), and conservation on freehold farmland – all new forms of conservation gaining dominance since the 1990s – are embedded in discourses on future-making: they are meant to sustain biodiversity and provide significant carbon sinks mediating climate change. They are also thought to become the hubs for non-consumptive modes of land use and present new options for future rural livelihoods. Newly established conservation areas go along with new practices of inclusion and exclusion and are closely tied to global discourses on climate change, “green” development, and participation. Conservation efforts also entail visions of “healed landscapes” and “global heritages of untrammeled nature”, as scenarios of resilient rural social-ecological systems and models of successful commodification of natural resources in general and game in particular. Future-making in accordance with the scenarios of a future of probabilities and aspirations for a future of possibilities meet here. Comprehensive transformations of social-ecological systems are orchestrated by actors operating and strategising at different scales: international organisations (e.g. WWF, IUCN, as well as Earth Peoples, Conservation International), regional bodies (e.g. SADEC), national governments, rural elites, traditional authorities, councils of elderly people and smallholders take part in the establishment of new practices of engagement between humans and nature, resulting in processes of recoupling and decoupling of the social-ecological system. While in southern Africa these shifts towards a conservation-oriented mode of land use are mainly conditioned by peaceful interactions and provide new spaces for political participation and contestation, in eastern Africa violent conflicts between communities and between the state and various agents frequently go along with conservatory practices.

Research Regions: Zambezi Region, Namibia and Kenya

Keywords:Social and Cultural Anthropology

Key Questions

How does the globally proclaimed greening of rural economies via conservation impact coupling processes in local social-ecological systems?

Do incomes from conservation lead to a de-agrarisation of rural economies (i.e. to a decoupling ) and what consequences does this have?

How are the benefits and costs of this social-ecological transformation shared?

What role do nonhuman actors play in co-determining shared futures, and how are their agencies understood, known and valued?


Qualitative ethnographic methods; structured and semi-structured interviews; household surveys; cognitive methods; cultural mapping; participatory observation; essay writing.

Key Milestones

  • 2018

    • Launch of the project, preparation of fieldwork
    • Start of fieldwork in Kenya and Namibia, data collection and analysis
    • CRC Retreat in Unkel
  • 2019

    • Intense fieldwork in both countries
    • Presentation of first results at the ECAS in Edinburgh
    • Holding the workshop “Commodifying the ‘Wild’: Conservation, Markets and the Environment in Southern Africa”
    • CRC Retreat in Kloster Steinfeld
  • 2020

    • Fieldwork in Namibia (abruptly ended by the Covid-19 pandemic)
    • Focusing on data analysis and publications
    • Namibia Research Day in Basel
    • Summer School in Bonn

Key Findings

(1) The conservation landscape and its environmental infrastructure in north-eastern Namibia has been shaped by the impact of administrative measures and the gradual decoupling of humans and wildlife in a vast wetland. The way towards today's conservation landscape was marked and marred by the enforced reordering of human–environment relations.

(2) Beyond conservation, cattle husbandry in the Zambezi region is a project of the local population, being an expression of wealth and as a means of saving. At the same time, cattle can be used in farming activities, produce milk and meat for consumption and sale, and fulfil important social functions (i.e. bridewealth payments or cattle loans). However, the needs and practices of expanding cattle husbandry often conflict with the demands and challenges of conservation and conservation-related tourism.

(3) The travelling idea of conservation (and CBNRM in particular) is detached from the lives of conservancy members who are confronted with the repercussions of conservation, such as human wildlife conflicts or past displacements. For most conservancy members conservation is by far not as relevant as other livelihood strategies, which raises the question to what extent community-based conservation, as practiced today, is a viable future option for conservancy members.

(4) Communities that were displaced in the designation and making of a conservation landscape in the Zambezi region complain about, protest against and legally contest their estrangement from their former homes that now have become protected areas. They are often relegated to supply cheap manual labour or engage in ‘cultural’ events to well-paying tourists who visit their former homeland, a homeland that is now inhabited by large herds of wildlife and where little or nothing reminds visitors of earlier inhabitants. We argue that conservation of biodiversity can only be successful if issues of past and present environmental injustices are addressed comprehensively.

(5) Traditional authorities (re)gain status and significance in the negotiation and shaping of environmental governance.

(6) Historical and intimate relations between people and natural environments play an important role in future-making practices, including the negotiation of future conservation and livelihoods.


Bollig, M. and H.-P. Vehrs (2021): The Making of a Conservation Landscape: The Emergence of a Conservationist Environmental Infrastructure Along the Kwando River in Namibia’s Zambezi Region. In: Africa. 91. No. 2: 270-95. DOI.

Bollig, M. (forthcoming). Future Conservation in Africa: Conserving what, and for whom, and how to do it? In: Greiner, C., van Wolputte S., & M. Bollig (eds) Future Africa. ECAS 9. Leiden. Brill.

Lacan, L. (forthcoming). From forest to national resource: forest conservation and state power in Baringo, Kenya. Contribution to the Edited Volume “Commodifying the ‘Wild’: Conservation, Markets and the Environment in Southern and Eastern Africa” edited by M. Bollig, S. Lendelwo, A. Mosimane and R. Nghitevelekwa.

Lacan, L. (forthcoming). Future-Making in the Forest: Re-Appropriations of a Living Ruin. Contribution to the Special Issue “Living with Ruins: Future-making, Suspension, and the Political Economy of Promise in Kenya" in the Journal of Eastern African Studies, edited by A.L. Ramella and U. Kovač.

Mosimane, A., Matengu, K. & M. Bollig (forthcoming). Traditional authorities, conservation and commodification of the wild: a Namibian perspective. A Namibian perspective.

Bollig, Michael (2021). Materiality, inequality, and future‐making as focal points of future engagement of economic anthropology with climate change. Economic Anthropology 8:180-182. (Contribution to the Forum “What does economic anthropology contribute to the understanding of climate change?). DOI

Bollig, Michael (2020). Shaping the African Savannah: From Capitalist Frontier to Arid Eden in Namibia. Cambridge University Press. Link.

Bollig, M. & H.P. Vehrs (2020). Abundant herds: accumulation, herd management and land-use patterns in a conservation area. Pastoralism: Research, Policy and Practice. Vol 10. Link.

Bollig, M. (2019). The Anxieties, Thrills, and Gains of Rarity and Extinction: From Discourses on Remnant Fauna to the Globalized Protection and Marketing of Endangered Wildlife in Namibia’s “Arid Eden”. In S. Gänger & M. Bollig (eds). Forum: Commodifying the “Wild”: Anxiety, Ecology and Authenticity in the Late Modern Era. Environmental History 24 (4). Link.

Casimir, M., H.-P. Vehrs (2019). Commenting on the article: Comparative Study of Pastoral Property Regimes in Africa Offers No Support for Economic Defensibility Model, published by Moritz, M., Gardiner, E., Hubbe, M. und A. Johnson. In: Current Anthropology. 60(5): 609-36.

Bollig, M. (2018). Themenheft "Naturschutz - Teilhabe und Konflikte." Geographische Rundschau 70 (12), darin: Naturschutz und Naturschutzgebiete weltweit: Chancen und Herausforderungen" (p.4-9) und "Gemeinschaftsbasierter Wildschutz in Nord-Namibia" (p.30-37).

Bollig, M. (2018). Afterword: Anthropology, Climate Change and Social-Ecological Transformations. Sociologus 68:85-94. Link.

Basukala, A. K., Vehrs, H.-P., Bollig, M., Greiner, C., Thonfeld, F. (2019). Spatial-temporal analysis of land-use and land-cover change in East Pokot, Kenya. Documentation, ZFL, Bonn, Germany. DOI: 10.5880/TRR228DB.2

Basukala, A. K., Vehrs, H.-P., Bollig, M., Greiner, C., Thonfeld, F. (2019). Dataset: Spatial-temporal analysis of land-use and land-cover change in East Pokot, Kenya. CRC/TRR228 Database (TRR228DB). DOI: 10.5880/TRR228DB.1

Outlook for phase II funding

A04’s activities in phase II start off from the assumption that the combination of a comparative approach, a strongly interdisciplinary agenda and an in-depth ethnographic focus dealing with multispecies assemblages (WP 6-8) will contribute to a fuller understanding of future-making via conservation in the 21st century. We seek to examine how human livelihoods, social institutions, imaginaries, and attitudes change under new socio-ecological conditions of conservation Humans are excluded from conservation areas, or land use is reduced to provide space for refaunation. Migration corridors for large ungulates are kept free of human habitation and occasionally wildlife is introduced into some areas that often have been bare of wildlife for decades. At the same time, these emergent conservation landscapes are vulnerable: global climate change endangers species compositions and enforces extinction, and important diseases and invader species threaten the “authenticity” (however such authenticity is defined) of ecosystems. We further intend to focus more on multi-species assemblages – as it is such assemblages that conservation strategies directly address. Each assemblage is comprised of a loose multi-scalar network consisting of different species populations, environmental infrastructures and technologies, human actors, and organizations.

Partner Institutions