Embracing biological and cultural diversity: An interview with Dr Jerome Lewis

By |2022-02-04T11:57:10+00:00July 19th, 2018|Biocultural Diversity, Citizen Science, Congo Basin, Culture, Deeper Thinking, Flourishing Diversity, In-Depth, Indigenous Peoples, Interviews|Comments Off on Embracing biological and cultural diversity: An interview with Dr Jerome Lewis

Dr Jerome Lewis is a Reader in Social Anthropology at University College London. He has undergraduate and doctoral degrees in Social Anthropology from the London School of Economics and 25 years of research experience working with Pygmy hunter-gatherers and former hunter-gatherers in the Congo Basin.

He is Co-Director of the Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) Research group at University College London (UCL) which develops tools and methods to enable anybody, regardless of education or background, to collect information to support environmental justice. He is also a director of the Centre for the Anthropology of Sustainability (CAoS) at UCL. We spoke to Jerome to find out more about his work with hunter-gatherer societies, get his views on the challenges for conservation in the Congo Basin and understand more about the role of citizen science in conservation.

Hunter-gatherer societies

Q: Where does your interest in hunter-gatherer societies come from?

I’m particularly interested in hunter-gatherer societies because of their egalitarianism. These are societies in which people are very autonomous, there is no gender inequality, no ageism. I find this egalitarianism fascinating: how to live without hierarchy, without people bossing you around, how to experience the world as an equal to everyone around you.

I have a deep interest in politics, religion and language. Understanding how these groups organise themselves and are structured has been an enduring fascination for me. In terms of religion, for example, what hunter-gatherer societies demonstrate is a religious system that has no dogma and no liturgy. It is entirely based on music, song and dance, and from an anthropological perspective that gets right to the heart of what religious experience is about.

My main academic work is on the evolution of language and of music, but that broadens out into questions of how human societies endure within a landscape, a question which has a bearing on ideas about sustainability:

What does it mean to be so aligned with the landscape you depend upon that you can live there for thousands of years?

Hunter-gatherers are currently facing a range of external pressures and challenges, most of which stem from our world, so I have also been investigating questions around forest certification, conservation, indigenous rights and human rights, particularly in the Congo Basin, where there has been a lot of conflict.

Image © Axel Fassio/CIFOR CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Flickr

Q: The idea of a culture and people that are aligned with their landscape raises questions around the extent to which people shape and are shaped by their environment. How would you describe the connections between people and biodiversity in some of the areas in which you have worked?

The first thing to say is that cultural diversity and biological diversity are not coincidental by chance. They are coincidental because they feed one another.

For instance, in the places where I work you have hunter-gatherers who roam very large areas hunting and gathering and there are farmers who cultivate much smaller areas. These two groups share the landscape sustainably, because they have very different modes of exploiting it: the actions of the farmers drive one particular environmental trend, the creation of secondary forest plots which make very good habitat for many smaller animals and for young trees to grow. Meanwhile, the hunter-gatherers, who roam over much larger areas and try to select male animals as much as possible when they are hunting, are engaging in another type of thinning, which allows the females and the young of those species to enjoy the extra resources that are freed up as a result. Different forms of economic engagement with the environment result in different impacts on that environment.

There are all sorts of ways that people also modify their environment. For example, there’s a beautiful and huge tree in central Africa called the Moabi tree that produces nuts containing very rich oil with all sorts of excellent properties. The nuts of this tree are so desirable to wild boar and elephants that they finish up all the seeds they can find on the ground, so Moabi trees have great difficulty reproducing. But when women collect the seeds to process the oil – for eating and beauty – they tend to accidentally drop a few here and there, and that is where new Moabi trees grow. So, in the national parks in the region, (from which hunter-gatherers have been evicted), it’s almost impossible to find young Moabi trees. A Moabi tree in a national park is very likely to be an archaeological site of ancient human inhabitation.

‘Paracultivation’ is another way that people modify their environment. When hunter-gatherers collect wild yams, they take out the stem – the vine on which the leaves grow – since it’s the root that forms the yam they seek. Rather than just leave the stem on the floor, they plant it back in the earth so it rejuvenates and grows new wild yams. Over many thousands of years of people collecting them and putting back the stems, wild yams have been able to flourish in the forest, benefitting both the people and the other animals that eat them. Wild yams are a vital food source for many wild species. All landscapes are the product of such interactions.

Image © Ollivier Girard/CIFOR CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Flickr

Q: What have you learnt from spending long periods of time with hunter-gatherers?

I think the fundamental thing that living with such people teaches you is that differences should not be judged as better or worse. Things are different, people are different and that is fine. It’s not something to start classifying as good or bad. In different circumstances things that seemed bad become good, and vice versa. Living with such people reinforces the importance of the equality of all: this fly or that antelope has as much right to be in that space as you the human being, or the gorilla.

It reinforces a profound sense of equality – we are all in this game of life together and we need each other to live well.

They organise their economic life by a very simple principle: sharing. Anything you take out of the forest you must share on demand. You have no right to refuse anybody. You have to share what you have if somebody else asks for it. As long as you share everything you take out properly among all present, you will always experience abundance. I think that’s a very profound insight into the quandary that we face in our society, which is based around inequalities that encourage hoarding, which is, of course, wastage. If we can internalise that this is the path to abundance then we’ll be very close to resolving many of the problems we’re facing at the moment.