Out of sight/site, out of mind: the challenge of studying what really matters in political ecology

According to Marx, a defining characteristic of capitalism is the way that the social relations involved in the production of commodities are obscured: he called this ‘commodity fetishism’, suggesting that we see commodities as ‘inanimate objects worshipped for their supposed magical powers’ (OED). So, for example, when we buy a cheap T-shirt or the latest gadget we can exist in a bubble of ignorance about the social and ecological consequences of their production. This allows us to carry on consuming, and capitalism to carry on churning out surplus value, without too many difficult questions being asked about things like labour rights or pollution.

Political ecology scholarship regularly, and rightly, calls attention to these hidden processes and seeks to shed light onto them. For example, a recent paper by Martin Arboleda argues that one cannot understand the dynamics of urban areas, with their towers of steel and glass and hyperconsuming citizens, without also understanding the connected dynamics that produce immense holes in the ground and gigantic livestock factories in distant rural locations, with all of their social and ecological consequences. The one could not exist without the other, and so to understand them, Alboreda argues that we must understand (and therefore conduct research in) both.

This is a compelling argument, but in practice it presents two important challenges. First, it isn’t always easy to know where to look for the concealed relations of fetishized commodities, precisely because they are so well hidden. Second, even where the concealed relations that go into the production of commodities can be uncovered, studying them in detail can be very difficult, requiring fieldwork in multiple locations and sometimes multiple languages. This work can also be fraught with potential danger, as the underbelly of capitalism can be reluctant to give up its secrets.

I can illustrate these two challenges with an example from my own PhD fieldwork experience. I was studying the social and ecological impacts of mountain gorilla tracking tourism in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in South West Uganda. This activity is a classic example of a fetishized commodity, because tourists are able to travel to Uganda, stay in luxurious eco-lodges, trek into the forest to view the gorillas and then leave again, all without any need to be aware of the complex set of social and material practices that make all of this possible. The months of labour from park rangers to habituate wild gorillas and render them amenable to tourist visitation; the long distance shipping of foodstuffs and bottles of Scotch from distant markets to supply the ecolodges; the careful staging of encounters with local people through cultural performances and village walks; and so on.

My first challenge was to attempt to see beyond the tourists gaze to identify at least some of these hidden dimensions of the gorilla tourism product. In my year of fieldwork I think I got somewhere with this, helped a great deal by my decision to spend time learning the basics of the local language, Rukiga. However, if I’m honest, I probably spent too much time interviewing tourists and those directly involved in the tourism industry, which meant that I was studying the inside of the bubble rather than what went into making it.

One thing I did notice on the outside was the presence of a significant garrison of soldiers from the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF). These soldiers had been present at Bwindi since the park reopened to tourism following the murder of 8 international tourists in 1999 by (allegedly) Interahamwe rebels who crossed the border from the DRC, just 2 km away. During my time in the area in 2004 the soldiers made quite a show of their presence, accompanying all tourists into the forest and regularly driving a tank up and down the one road through the village outside the park gate. I imagine this was intended as a reassuring show of force, although I think many of the tourists were more alarmed than comforted by the sight of them.

Everyone I ever asked said that the soldiers at Bwindi were stationed there to protect the tourists, which made sense given the value of gorilla tourism to the Ugandan economy and the proximity of the deeply unstable DRC. I was studying the impacts of tourism at Bwindi, and it therefore followed that the presence of the soldiers, and what they got up to, should fall within the scope of my research. The problem was, how could I find out?

To help me answer this question, I decided to ask for the advice of the Chief Warden of the National Park, with whom I had become quite friendly. I told him of my interest in finding out more about the UPDF garrison, and my uncertainty about how to proceed. “No problem!” he answered. “Let me make a call”. Before I could stop him he picked up a two way radio and got a message through to the commanding officer of the UPDF garrison, telling him that a British researcher was here who wanted to see him. Within 5 minutes I was being led by a Uganda Wildlife Authority ranger up a steep path towards the UPDF camp, my mind racing with ideas about how on earth I could interview a senior military officer without any preparation.

The camp was large, with multiple trenches and tents, and everywhere I looked I could see surprised and suspicious soldiers staring at me. It was terrifying. I was ushered into a tent where the commanding officer was waiting to meet me, looking as surprised and suspicious as his men. I opened the interview with the least risky question I had been able to think of, which was something to do with whether the soldiers who accompanied the tourists into the forest had a rota. His reply: “That is a military secret. You will have to ask the UPDF Head of Communications in Kampala”. Not a good start, and the rest of the interview was no better. I stayed just long enough to be polite before making my excuses and getting the hell out of what was undoubtedly my worst ever research interview.

I never did get satisfactory answers to my questions about the UPDF at Bwindi. How many soldiers were stationed there? How much did they get paid? How much money did they spend in the local villages? How many local wives did they take, or how many prostitutes did they employ? In respect of these last impacts, it seemed possible to me that the large numbers of soldiers and tour drivers passing through the area in the service of tourism could be causing an increased prevalence of HIV/AIDS compared to the surrounding area. If so, this hidden and longer-term impact of military presence might dwarf any short-term economic gains from tourism, but getting research data to reveal the extent of the problem would be incredibly difficult. I am glad to see that other researchers are giving more direct attention to the role of the military in conservation in East Africa, the subject of a panel I am co-convening at the Wageningen Conflict, Capitalism and Contestation conference next July.

Political ecology research reminds us to be aware of the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ trick of the fetishized commodity. Bringing the hidden processes and relations of production into mind is the easy bit. Bringing them into our sites and our sight, illuminated with good quality data: that is the real challenge.

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