Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

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

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

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

Article excerpt

Cutting the Vines of the Past: Environmental Histories of the Central African Rain Forest. By Tamara Giles-Vernick. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002. Pp. xiii, 293; 6 illustrations. $49.50 cloth, $19.50 paper.

This is a rich and important, if challenging, book. It makes a major contribution to central African historiography, especially the literature on the equatorial forest. More importantly, Cutting the Vines of the Past suggests an entirely new way of doing environmental history, one that proceeds through African eyes, sensibilities, and memories, while using colonial and postcolonial sources to trace a history of interventions in this forest region of Central African Republic.

Cutting the Vines of the Past maps out how the Mpiemu people of the Sangha river basin have interacted with their forest environment and a range of stranger-patrons who have appeared in their midst from the late nineteenth century to the present, while striving to create wealth and reproduce persons and knowledge. At each juncture, the Mpiemu exploited the potential of the environment, farming and hunting, while also negotiating relations with these stranger-patrons. The succession of strangers included French and German colonizers, Catholic and Baptist missionaries, and various concessionary companies and labor recruiters. The history culminates with those strangers present at the time Giles-Vernick did her field work in 1993: the conservationists and anti-poaching patrols associated with the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, notably personnel of the World Wildlife Fund.

Giles-Vernick innovates within the field of environmental history by arguing that "interactions between bodies, persons, things, and places are at the very heart of environmental relations" (p. 5). The forest itself is made an agent within this history. Cutting the Vines of the Past makes much of the concept of doli-a local term for memory, oral tradition, and historical practice. Doli is a rich, complicated, and refractory concept. Giles-Vernick resists ever making a simple gloss for the term for readers, a refusal worth respecting perhaps, though since its multiple meanings do not easily stick either, readers are reminded at frequent junctures of its multiple valences-as a process, as a body of knowledge, as a set of narratives, as physical spaces, as embracing what was told to her by informants in the field. …

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