Heart of Whiteness: The Stories Western Philanthropists Tell Themselves

Why do Western efforts to help the environment and Africa so often fail?

Laura Orlando

(Owen Sherwood)

INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT DIVIDES THE WORLD INTO OBJECTS AND IDEAS. The objects (children, elephants, forests) are saved by ideas (Western). Stephanie Hanes’ brilliant first book focuses on one object of development, the Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, and holds it up so that we can see the many hands shaping its story. She describes her effort as a safari of sorts through our African stories, a voyage into how we got here and what we do now.” Though it could easily fall into the category of environmental writing or development studies, this book is a page-turner rooted in investigative journalism.

Hanes’ most direct critique of development is saved for the book’s title, White Man’s Game: Saving Animals, Rebuilding Eden and Other Myths of Conservation in Africa. She resists cynicism throughout, sticking to her central question: Why do Western efforts to help the environment and Africa so often fail? “[It] is not because of bad planning or poor investment strategies,” she writes. We fail — although we almost never admit it — because we are stuck in our own mental framework. We cannot see the other narratives, even when they actively clash with our own.”

Gorongosa National Park is part of a spectacularly beautiful but war-battered ecosystem in central Mozambique. At its heart, both geographically and spiritually, is Mount Gorongosa, a heavily forested mountain that creates the conditions for the year-round water that feeds the park’s floodplain.

In the mid-2000s, Gregory Carr, an American with millions of dollars of extra money to put into philanthropic enterprises, witnessed Mozambique’s beauty and decided it was the country’s secret weapon,” Hanes writes. Perhaps, he thought, he could take part of this stunning landscape and turn it into a development engine.” Carr became Gorongosa’s champion and de facto owner. He shaped its boundaries and defined its narrative.

Hanes effortlessly eases us into discursive analysis, not with Michel Foucault, but with the simple structure of a five-act play. She explains this tidy narrative’s utility to a philanthropist like Greg Carr: He can control the plot line. His five-act play, she says, goes like this: Act 1 is the backstory. People who care about Gorongosa — Portuguese colonists — establish an exclusive hunting reserve in Gorongosa in the 1920s. Its conservation begins. Act 2 is the rising action. National park status is designated in 1960, hunting is banned, and thousands of buffalo, zebra, hippos, antelope and other animals thrive. The rich and famous come to see its beauty for themselves. Act 3 is the climax. The park closes in 1981 because of war. Soldiers and poachers kill nearly all the animals. Local people continue to kill what animals remain and deforest the mountainside. Act 4 introduces the protagonist. Carr and his foundation come to the rescue. Act 5, the resolution — still to come — is what Carr calls, Happily Ever After.”

Hanes contests each of these acts not by challenging their facts, but by showing what is left out. Consider the park’s efforts to stop controlled burning, the use of fire to prepare land for crops, and poaching, the killing of park animals for their meat.

At last count, 150,000 people live in the official buffer zone” around the park border. Almost all of them either worked for the park, poached from the park or lived with someone who did one of those two things,” Hanes reports. She introduces us to one young man, Tomás Jeremias, who lives a half day’s walk from the park and was employed there for a year. After that temporary job ended, he resumed poaching to support his wife and three children. The park managers thought salaries, even short term, would endear local people to their conservation mission. They were wrong. Political stability, land security and food sovereignty stop poaching. The rest is wishful thinking, like happily ever after.” We deny the right of other stories to exist. We find them threatening and offensive. We want to build a powerful alliance to destroy or at least discredit them.

What about fires? Surely lighting up Mount Gorongosa can’t be good for biodiversity. That idea seems straightforward enough until Hanes gives an account of the work of Harvard researcher Heidi Gengenbach, who lived on the mountain and learned that agricultural fire use in Gorongosa was in fact stunningly sophisticated.” Gengenbach’s research convinced Hanes that the ecology of Gorongosa was still as rich as it was not despite these peasants, but because of them.”

Hanes warns that the development approach leaves us decidedly unprepared to recognize the realities that other people inhabit. We have become so good at reciting our own particular script that, on some level, we recognize only those actions and plot points that fit within it.”

Hanes herself only gets boxed into a narrative once. She describes post-civil war Mozambique working diligently with the World Bank and the IMF to make the structural changes they recommended for pulling the country out of poverty.” But another way to tell this story is to say Mozambique had taken out loans from the international banks and let them manage its economy, resulting in a debt burden that it cannot escape. As Hanes would say, there’s never one true story. She is not wrong when she describes the country’s fast economic growth from foreign investment. There are some winners, but the losers are a millionfold. The country pays more to service its debt, which now is 100 percent of GDP, than it spends on healthcare and education. Here is yet another example of stories within the story.

After the book went to press, Carr attacked Hanes. He and his surrogates sent several letters to her and her publisher and began a coordinated campaign against the book. She dedicates its afterword to an account of how she responded to these attacks (with grace). We live in a time of shouting,” she writes. And so, although I was taken aback at first by the reaction to this book from people who had not read it, I soon recognized that it was just a microcosm of what is happening in our larger society. We deny the right of other stories to exist. We find them threatening and offensive. We want to build a powerful alliance to destroy or at least discredit them. But this doesn’t move us toward any solutions. For real change, we need to grapple with others’ viewpoints, however uncomfortable they may be.”

Who doesn’t want zebra, elephants, hippos and rhinos to live undisturbed in a tropical paradise? The author does, and in recognizing the counternarratives to Carr’s five-act play, she weaves a vision for the park that includes the poor and their struggles, a philanthropist and his goals, and a nation stepping out of the long shadow of colonialism.

Western conservationists and the local population actually had quite a bit in common,” Hanes writes. Most important, they shared a deep love and appreciation for the land and all the species it supported.” Hanes cautions that we begin by listening, not doing. What would have happened if the whole project had started differently: if at some point, well before committing to work there, Greg Carr (or whichever philanthropist or group was involved) had started to learn the stories of central Mozambique, and had interacted with the people who lived there, not only to figure out how to help, but also whether to help?”

Hanes confides, Our stories are both the foundation and the scaffolding upon which we construct our worlds. So my goal is not simply to tell my version of Gorongosa, but to reveal the hidden conflict that is playing out among the various tales.” Goal accomplished, to the delight of her readers.

Laura Orlando is a member of the Rural America In These Times Board of Editors. She is a civil engineer and teaches in the environmental health department at the Boston University School of Public Health. Laura grew up on a farm near Benton Harbor, Michigan. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.