In her sure-to-be-controversial first book, Christian Science Monitor correspondent Hanes investigates why so many Western-led conservation efforts in Africa go so wrong so often.
The author’s answers are not especially reassuring, nor are they intended to be. At the center of her story is the Gorongosa National Park in central Mozambique, a park that well-meaning Western businessman-turned-conservationist Greg Carr has championed for many years. Certainly Carr is no villain. He sees himself coming from a human rights–driven tradition, he is earnest in his desire to save African wildlife, and he has many admirers and supporters. However, earnestness, fawning admirers, and good intentions don’t always guarantee positive outcomes. One of the author’s central arguments is that Westerners tend to seize upon a single narrative strain when they engage in conservation efforts in Africa, ignoring other stories, including those that come from the voices of the local populations, who are most likely to face the unintended consequences of these efforts. Hanes chronicles many examples of Western interventions, especially in southern Africa, and shows how most of them have ended up falling far short of their goals. For all of its supporters’ ambitions, the Gorongosa project is at best a mixed bag. It is telling that in recent months, as the author reveals in the afterword, an increasingly coordinated campaign of intimidation and disinformation emanating from Carr and his many well-connected allies has tried to fight this book’s publication. Hanes falls short of posing her own solutions beyond recommending listening to other voices and narratives—a vitally important point, to be sure—but her skepticism comes from deep research and far-ranging interviews. She writes gracefully and sympathetically, and regardless of whatever campaign emerges to discredit this book, a disquieting but hardly hostile work, she is fair and convincing.
As this fine book shows, when it comes to Western interactions with Africa, meaning well is a necessary but far from sufficient condition.