By Jessica Lavelle

Originating from a strictly quantitative conservation biology background that found me fitting GPS collars to track elephant movements in the Greater Kruger National Park, it has taken me some time to discover environmental humanities and the very poetic works of the multispecies scholars including Donna Haraway (When Species Meet, 2008; Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, 2016), Anna Tsing (The Mushroom at the End of the World, 2015a) and Thom van Dooren (Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction, 2014).

I wandered into this kaleidoscopic world as over time I shifted from doing conservation to analysing conservation with a special interest in the impact of policy, legislation and conservation interventions on marginalised communities in rural Namibia. With questions of social-ecological (in)justice this directed me into the world of political ecology, that branch of geography that interrogates the relationship between politics, economics and social factors in relation to the environment.
But over time the critical perspectives that define much of political ecology scholarship began to feel oppressive without offering any inspiration for alternative pathways to enabling much-needed human and non-human care given the existing intersecting crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and deepening inequality. Yet in amongst the surplus death and destruction of political ecology’s gaze there are also stories of life-making, resilience and restoration. It follows there had to be methodologies and theories to understand and explore how to nurture what is working – there are kinships with nature and pockets of thriving human-nonhuman wellbeing so there must also be existing possibilities for distributive, regenerative futures beyond the turbulence of the systemic chaos we are currently experiencing.

While political ecology is very necessary to understand the challenges at hand, we need something to imagine and inspire with towards positive future-making that goes beyond stating the problem and pointing at the accused.
If green militarisation is not the answer, what does green sovereignty look like?

If capitalism and market-based mechanisms are driving inequality and destruction, what examples do we have of human-nonhuman exchange that recognise the cost of social-ecological loss and value of regeneration to counter the hegemonic force of extraction and consumption for profit?

If the nature-culture dichotomies of colonialism have ruptured our identity as nature, how do we (re)sense into radical interdependency?

Critical perspectives alone will not inspire change but making existing paradigms obsolete and offering alternatives can. Daily narratives of crisis are increasingly leaving us in a state of paralysing despair but we don’t need more techno-managerial fixes. Within humanity and our complex multispecies relations we already have the wisdom, knowledges and practices to live prosperously within ecological limits. Where then can we find these stories of deep interconnection and of other worlds and knowledges beyond ourselves?

Multispecies studies have emerged in recent years to conceptually bridge science and society with the understanding that human life is interconnected with the natural world and to understand both requires an interpretation of historical and causal relationships between human and non-human worlds (Morris 2014). Exploring ‘multispecies assemblages’ and their histories and knowledges within landscapes and paying attention to the ‘contact zones’ where humans and non-humans interact are encouraged to elucidate nuanced, place-based understandings of humans in relation to nature (Haraway 2008, Tsing 2015b). Further, by drawing on Indigenous worldviews and knowledges and recognising the interconnection between people, species and place, multispecies studies offer a counternarrative to the hegemonic colonial epistemology of nature-culture dichotomies that have dominated Western conservation practices and violently ruptured human-nature relations in the creation of ‘wilderness’ landscapes (Aisher and Damodaran 2016).

But as with any scholarship, multispecies studies have their limitations. Notably, with this body of thought emerging predominantly from the Global North it has been critiqued by political ecologists for perpetuating social injustices in conservation landscapes by turning attention to and (re)prioritising nonhumans without first redressing (certain) human needs that have been diminished by capitalist domination (Büscher 2022). In the Global South, there remains ongoing dehumanising of most Indigenous and Black people through dominant structures that diminish the needs of the majority world while serving the capital accumulation of the White elite in the Global North.

Greco (2022), drawing on Marx, elaborates further that in the Global South the alienation from nature that so deeply concerns multispecies scholars is the result of capital accumulation that violently separates people from their means of production, creating struggles for survival, often intensified by conservation, while the middle classes and elite benefit from this dispossession yet suffer alienation from nature in the accumulation of capital. Thus, the alienation from nature that multispecies scholarship seeks to remedy is experienced in wholly different ways between the Global North and South, necessitating historical and nuanced interpretations.

How then can multispecies scholarship inspire possibilities for recuperation in the Global South in the face of ongoing suffering?

The described tension and lesser-known aspects of multispecies relations of significance to the Global South including pre-colonial history, intergenerational knowledge, and spirituality, are currently being explored in a writing collaboration through the invitation of Professor Michael Bollig and postdoctoral fellows Dr Hauke-Peter Vehrs and Dr Léa Lacan from the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Cologne. Bringing together scholars from Namibia, South Africa and Germany the collaboration is towards a special issue in Anthropology Southern Africa to be published in 2024.

Through this collaboration we seek to turn attention to the political, historical and situated and elevate the multispecies relations of rural southern Africans, going beyond the usual charismatic species of Northen attention to those of deep significance to people’s everyday lives – donkeys, fish and antelope amongst others – to begin to unravel what are the stories of kinships ruptured, resilient and restored, of multispecies dying and life-making and of other worlds beyond the realm of the human.

My own research focuses on the unique multispecies relations of the Mayeyi people along the Kwando River in north-eastern Namibia. The Mayeyi identify as Batsara Batsapi – people of the water ‘like the mighty stream of water which cannot be stopped’ – and historically lived across the Okavango-Kwando wetlands of Namibia and Botswana with their culture finely adapted to fishing, floodplain farming and hippo hunting. However, with domination by other ethnic groups, successive relocations by colonial authorities and post-independence conservation interventions, the wetland multispecies relations of the Mayeyi have been violently unmade resulting in cultural erosion, food insecurity, nostalgia and grief. The research seeks to trace the historical decentring of Mayeyi river relations through relocations for colonial agendas of tsetse fly control and conservation, the intensification of alienation from the introduction of commercial fishing, fishing regulations and no-settlement zones and the recent recentring of fish relations through community fisheries reserves. Ultimately, by exploring the Mayeyi’s contemporary values, beliefs and aspirations as they relate to the wetlands the research hopes to reveal possibilities for multispecies recuperation through more culturally sensitive conservation focused on the wetland ontologies and epistemologies of the Mayeyi.

Aisher, A., & Damodaran, V. 2016. Introduction: Human-nature Interactions through a Multispecies Lens. Conservation and Society, 14(4), 293–304.

Büscher, B. 2022. The nonhuman turn: Critical reflections on alienation, entanglement and nature under capitalism. Dialogues in Human Geography, 12(1), 54–73.

Greco, E. 2022. Engaging with the non-human turn: A response to Büscher. Dialogues in Human Geography, 12(1), 90–94.

Haraway, D. 2008. When species meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Haraway, D. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press.

Morris, B. 2014. Anthropology, ecology, and anarchism: a Brian Morris reader. Oakland: PM Press.

Tsing, A.L. 2015a. The Mushroom at the End of the World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Tsing, A.L. 2015b. Feral biologies. In: Inaugural conference: Anthropological visions of sustainable futures. Organised by Brightman, M and J. Lewis. London: Centre for the Anthropology of Sustainability (CAOS), University College London. February 13, 2015.

Van Dooren, T. 2014. Flight ways: Life and loss at the edge of extinction. New York: Columbia University Press.