Narratives about the Wild Coast Project
Here we synopsise from Masterson et al. (2017b) the three main narratives that could be distinguished from each other in the data. We present here the storylines and the meanings of place which are employed in each narrative either in support of (two narratives) or in opposition to the project (one narrative). While the narratives (also summarized in Table 1) are not mutually exclusive, each narrative has main proponents and supporters as told to us through the interviews.
Narrative 1: an opportunity for restoration of unique biodiversity and wilderness
The first narrative focuses on the need for protecting unique forest biodiversity and wilderness, which conservation and forestry officials (some of whom are White and non-local) as well as community forest guards claim is threatened by illegal resource extraction and alien-invasive species. To set up the urgency for protecting the forest, this narrative references the increased rate of harvesting and sale of indigenous plants and animals, particularly by outsiders and younger generations. The threats to the forest as a unique biodiversity refuge are described with the use of technical understanding of ecological processes such as concern over the removal of understory forest layer, and specific concern for slow-growing species with episodic recruitment in forest.
The proponents argue that co-management of the reserve is a solution to overharvesting by including communities in the benefits of conservation. Proponents reference the uniqueness and “irreplaceability” of this place by pointing to its biodiversity and that the forest patches represent a priority area for national and provincial protected area expansion under the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act (No. 57 of 2003). Many community members praise the project’s work in removal of invasive alien species such as Lantana camara. They refer to people employed to remove invasive vegetation as “cleaners” which builds on a meaning of the forest as pristine and wild. This reifies the meaning of the forest as having been mismanaged and in need of saving, and illustrates how the project contributes to restoration and purification of the forest. The project plan to reintroduce indigenous antelope and buffalo is also used in this narrative to show how the project contributes to “restoration of the natural ecosystem” and the place meaning of wilderness.
Through this narrative community land is presented as suitable habitat for grazing game species, and this is mobilized in arguing for the inclusion of community land in the reserve. This is also based on meanings attributed to this communal land that it is degraded due to previous cultivation and overgrazing.
Narrative 2: hope and development for future prosperity
The proponents of this narrative describe the need for development initiatives by representing communities as suffering under poverty with little access to infrastructure or job opportunities. The project and the protected area are portrayed by project staff as a way to develop the community and as “a catalyst for socio-economic growth”. The potential for breeding and sale of buffalo is a very important storyline here. Disease-free buffalo fetch very high prices on the market, and have the potential to attract tourism. Most of the project staffFootnote 7 use this as a motivation for the economic sustainability of the project:
If [the community] goes into a co-management agreement which has a legal basis, it provides them with some sort of equity which they wouldn’t have had before. If you say we’re in a deal with [the provincial conservation authority], and they are going to give us 20 buffalo, and in five years’ time there are going to be 30 and we’re going to auction off six. Government’s going to take 3, and community will take 3; it’s on a 50/50 basis. […] They’re equal partners in the reserve itself; there’s this kind of equity.
After the project staff took the PFMC (including some of the traditional authority representatives) to a buffalo auction, the high value of buffalo became a very important and often repeated storyline for community proponents of the project too. It involves the specific retelling of the hypothetical example above and how proceeds from the auction of buffalo would be invested in infrastructural assets for the villages. In this way again, conservation and the protected areas also sustain employment for local game guards and justify fencing off the forest to community members.
Fencing the forest also resonates with community members who want to protect the forest as an asset belonging to the whole community. To this end, this narrative makes use of the meaning of the forest and landscape as a scenic and aesthetically beautiful place with the potential to generate income from ecotourism. Some community proponents mention their own experiences of tranquillity in the forest to motivate why tourists would want to visit.
In this narrative, there is a focus on customary tenure of community land. Community members refer to the sadness and regret about abandoned fields that have been encroached by acacias and which people no longer have the financial means to plough.Footnote 8 However, they argue that these areas now represent the chance to be part of the project because they are required to support grazing buffalo. In this way, the community land, the plantations and the forest are emphasized as communal assets.
Narrative 3: exclusion and encroachment on ancestral land
The community members who argue against the project claim that the nature reserve threatens ownership and use of community land for grazing and building. This narrative makes use of stories of dispossession of their land during Apartheid to underscore the importance of maintaining ownership of land. Opponents of the project claim that their fathers were successful in resisting Apartheid era schemes to “steal” their land,Footnote 9 and, therefore, they have a duty to retain sovereignty over community land. This also draws on the meaning of the plantations which are referred to as ihlathi abelungu, literally translated to “White man’s forest”, as this resident explains: “Our fathers were cheated. Their land was taken away from them and gum trees were planted there. […] Had they known before, they would have said no, because the trees suck all the water to the last drop. It’s very dry where they are”. This is also employed to demonstrate the meaning of the forest as appropriated land. Opponents describe how they have been excluded for many years from the indigenous forest which has sacred value as the location of benevolent ancestral spirits, denoted by ihlathi lesiXhosa or “Xhosa forest”. The opponents claim that the forest remains a place of exclusion since the PFMC captures many of the benefits of the project, especially the investment into micro-enterprise activities. One community member speculates: “seemingly those people were not striving for the good of the whole community but for their own stomachs”.
The narrative also draws a parallel with this Apartheid dispossession of land and points to the threat that the project poses to the agricultural meanings attributed to this community land. Each abandoned field is referred to by the household name and the sacred and symbolic significance of the ancestral heritage and de facto ownership of this land is emphasized. Community land also carries meanings of being suited for a small-holder traditional agricultural lifestyle and precious grazing land for livestock. There is also emphasis on how the buffalo would endanger community members (the unpredictable nature of buffalo makes them very dangerous to humans).
Coalitions amongst actors
Here we examine in detail the coalitions of groups and individuals who use the same meanings and storylines within the narratives above, to argue for or against the project in these villages. We examined how actors who strategically make use of a particular storyline may also carry alternative meanings, dissonant with the dominant narrative for and against the project.
Coalitions in support of the project
Narrative 1 (conservation and restoration) brings together the project staff, conservation and forestry officials and community forest guards who argue for conservation of the forest particularly. The project staff and conservation officials are educated White men, who do not reside in the area. As part of the project operations, they represent the authority on the project aims and implementation and are dominant in shaping this narrative. Additionally, they each have a role in providing access to the project funding for this community. These actors employ the meanings of unique biodiversity and vulnerability of the forest to exploitation by local (Black) people in poverty, mirroring mid-century race-biased narratives of degradation of land. Part of their narrations focus on sustainable use and the need to include local people in the management of local resources through the project, mirroring the community-based conservation rhetoric that has gained popularity in South Africa in the democratic era (see supplementary material) and this is particularly important to the conservation and forestry authority officials. Community members who are employed as forest guards (the majority of whom are women who were unemployed before the project) and some other community members are convinced by this narrative. This traditional healer who made use of the forest extensively for medicinal plant harvesting was trained by the project as a community forestry guard and describes how her meaning of the forest changed:
How I viewed the forest changed after I was employed. At first I thought the forest was just there for me to do with whatever I felt like. For example, if I wanted a bundle of firewood, I used to just go into the forest and get it. But now it’s different because I have been taught a lot about the forest. […] Now I know that it’s wrong to go there and do whatever you feel like, debarking the tree the whole way around the trunk and killing it. I was unaware of that fact.
The project staff and forest guards also express the desire to protect “wilderness” and restore the natural system and biodiversity. These meanings reveal traces of fortress conservation notions in the urgency of protecting biodiversity resources and not allowing use of threatened forest resources. This reveals a tension in this narrative coalition: for project staff, there is acknowledgement of local communities’ need to use the forest for medicinal plants, and cultural rituals, but this is eclipsed by the notion (and old racist narratives of degradation) that the unique forest and particular species are under threat from poachers and illegal harvesting of medicinal plant resources for sale in markets in the cities. Interestingly, the exclusion of communities from the protected area is also supported by the community forest rangers. These traces of fortress conservation are also reflected in the way this community forestry guard privileges technical and expert knowledge in management: “What could the community do with the forest? They would only destroy it. They can’t manage this place. They must go to school and learn more about nature. Otherwise they can’t manage it”. This group of forestry guards thus set themselves apart from the rest of the community who they view as implicated in destruction of forest resources, by referring to their own education and awareness and effectively arguing for the importance of their own jobs guarding the forest.
The project is presented by project staff as a win–win solution for conservation and development of communities with an emphasis on the protected area as a catalyst for development and “spinoffs from conservation” (as one project staff member described it). Through the storylines of narrative 2 (development), the project staff makes use of the storyline that the forest and abandoned fields will be used as equity in the project and for the communities’ benefit, which convinces many community members. Harnessing the dominant and powerful broader discourse of win–win interventions means that proponents of narrative 2 find themselves in alliance with proponents of narrative 1, and a conservation agenda. To argue for any development benefits, they must argue for a protected area with buffalo, which limits access to land for the surrounding communities. On the surface, narratives 1 and 2 appear to be compatible, for example, the desire to protect wilderness and biodiversity (conservation narrative 1) could be compatible with the desire to protect the forest as a community asset that could be used for ecotourism. However, this win–win discourse coalition also presents a tension for community members who use the power of both narratives to argue for the project in that their meanings of scenic beauty of the forest are aggregated with the ideas of threatened wilderness which consider Black communities a threat to the landscape. This mirrors a colonial discourse still prevalent in conservation which Neumann (1997) refers to as ‘good natives’ and ‘bad natives: the closer local people are to nature, the ‘better’ the more deserving they are of economically benefiting from such initiatives, but the more ‘modern’, the more they pose a threat to conservation.
Another tension is particularly evident in the stories told by the elected community group, the PFMC, who were the community liaison for the project (and, therefore, also the gatekeepers of the information about the project to the community), and were benefiting from the micro-enterprise activities. In describing the benefits of the project for development, this group presented the forest and the plantations as a development asset and repeated the storyline that buffalo breeding and sale would benefit the communities. However, this is held in tension with the view of the forest as critical to the community and their well-being through the provision of forest products such as poles, medicinal plants, and the cultural and aesthetic importance of the forest for rituals and spiritual well-being. For example, this PFMC member walks in the forest almost everyday and says, “That forest is so important to me. My life. My health. Even the breeze there makes me feel relaxed”. But when asked how the forest should be used, he responded, “In order to develop the community through the forest, we should not allow people to go as they please, and do what ever they feel like there, damaging the forest”. There was little attempt by this group to reconcile the ability to walk and experience the forest (also required for hiking based tourism) with the presence of dangerous buffalo.Footnote 10
To argue for the development benefits of the project, these community members strategically align with the narratives of the project staff and the economic benefits of contributing and giving up community-owned land for conservation. This is despite their cultural attachment to the forest. This is a significant tension in this coalition mired further by assumptions about the superiority of a Western worldview, as illustrated by this White project staff member who attempts to discredit the significance of cultural use of the forest by stating that the importance of cultural practices would always be second to the need for employment:
I do believe that there are strong cultural connections to the forest which are real, but I think that the need to generate income overrides any bloody thing they like. If you were to say you’ve got to clean that [ancestral] grave away here because we want to build a hotel which can employ 40 people, they’ll put up a bit of a stink but they’ll move the grave. They want the hotel, you know.
Changing allegiances: opposing the project
Interestingly, the traditional authorities and some powerful community elites first made use of narrative 2 and its place meanings to argue in favour of the project, describing the forest as “a place that can help communities develop” through jobs and projects. However, by the end of the project, the traditional authorities had turned against the project. The traditional authorities explained this change of position as a loyalty to their constituents who opposed the project. However, the project staff and the PFMC cast this in a light of political interference as a project staff member explains here:
The opposition to the forest being expanded onto communal land comes from a politician who has an influence over [the traditional authority]. There are also a number of plans proposed by a developer, which include building a mall and low cost housing, as well as a hotel on the land which would have fallen within the proposed reserve and the Coastal Conservation Area.
Here, place meanings of the coastal forest indicate a tension and consequent shift in allegiance. The traditional authority presents the coastal forest as aesthetically beautiful and with tourism and development potential. However, this conflicted with the idea of the coastal forest as protected as a Coastal Conservation AreaFootnote 11 (over which the traditional authority does not have jurisdiction). The traditional authorities who were invested in the plans for the mall (colloquially known as ‘the mall project’), began to emphasize the place meanings of narrative 3 of the coastal forest and community land in that area as belonging to the community.
With the support of the traditional authorities, the counter-narrative could no longer be ignored. It is this narrative that eventually succeeded by stalling negotiations around the project.Footnote 12 However, in this counter-narrative too, actors do not necessarily have the same agendas, despite using some similar storylines to argue against the project. Many community members align with and benefit from the support of the traditional authority, but do not support the mall project. Many of the more vociferous community members behind the third narrative are cattle owners. Instead of the mall, these community members argue for importance of agriculture and grazing land to the community, as well as for the freedom of use and access to community land under insecure tenure.
But there is also tension in the narrative opposing the project which argues against restricted access to land that would be part of the protected area. While they refer to the sacredness of the forest and a desire to use the forest, they also express concern that people are destroying the forest through overharvesting. This respondent, Mr M, who argues against the project, concedes that the state forest portion of the land belongs to the state now and that the community has no power to do anything about the access that they would lose if a fence were to be erected:
That forest is a good place, to me it’s a sacred place. There are species there that they need for customary rituals and the species there in the forest are used when addressing the spirits. [Fencing the forest for a reserve] will affect people because if it’s fenced, people won’t get access to the forest. We just agree because we can’t do otherwise. If you take heed of each thing that will affect people, that forest would never be fenced.
Potential common ground
The tensions in place meanings presented above, reveal some potential common ground for these opposing coalitions. As we have shown, individuals and groups hold more than one meaning of each part of the landscape (Table 1), and often hold these in tension. Underlying and sometimes despite the meanings co-opted and created through each of the opposing narratives, we observed some commonalities in personal significance of places within the landscape, particularly for the forest as a tranquil and soothing place restoring well-being. Interestingly, these meanings of tranquillity were reported by actors across agendas, genders and race. For example, this isiXhosa-speaking female forest ranger describes how: “the forest is important to me, and how I feel. My health changed due to the atmosphere there. I learnt about animals. The different scents inhaled here make your body invigorated”. Mr. S, the male isiXhosa-speaking PFMC member mentioned earlier, ascribes great personal significance to the forest and the relaxation of walking through the forest, a meaning echoed by one of the female traditional leaders: “The forest is a different world, a different atmosphere—listening to the birds. I go there when I’m stressed”. An opponent of the project, Mr M, also mentions the unique species and desire to protect to the forest. And, the English-speaking conservationists also spoke of the personal significance of the forest and a sense of well-being that it brought as well as how it was “unsettling to see the forest in decline”. We identify this overlap in meanings across actors, as a potential leverage point for future negotiations.