My research and writing revolve around the convergences and dynamics of nature conservation, sustainable tourism, development and indigenous people. Empirically, I have explored and studied these mostly in southern Africa (Namibia and South Africa), where I have lived and worked in the past (Namibia). I conducted my PhD research in this same area, based on discourse analysis and ethnographic fieldwork among the San (Bushmen) people. As a heavily marginalised group, these indigenous people often end up in tourism settings (not always by their own choice), and so become part of the larger global tourism industry and networks. Since tourism in southern Africa is mostly nature-based, and because most of the San people live in rural areas, their involvement in tourism cannot be seen apart from their involvement in nature conservation; many have ended up in ecotourism development projects, often as an important element of larger Community-based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) programs. A crucial element in my research was to analyse power relations and to investigate the San’s perceptions on these dynamics.
This research has allowed me to become involved in broader academic debates, which in turn have given my research global relevance and reach. For example, I have argued that tourism—often presented these days as a crucial instrument for nature conservation and sustainable development—tends to mask and at times even fortify socio-economic inequalities and marginalisation. Moreover, through my deconstruction of the concept of indigeneity, I am also responding to a global, essentialised and commodified image of indigenous peoples as ‘ecological stewards’ of nature, while showing how indigeneity is mainly an important political instrument to articulate belonging. In turn, I have argued that such overarching structures and ideas enable and constrain people’s actions and (development) possibilities.
Building on the above, I have also become involved in a research project entitled ‘Crisis Conservation: Saving Nature in Times and Spaces of Exception’. This has opened up two new empirical trajectories for my research:
1) Human-wildlife interaction: Tourism and rhino poaching
In this research, I explore how the tourism industry adjacent to the Kruger National Park, in the South African Lowveld, is affected by the contemporary rhino poaching crisis and how they respond to it. The focus on one particular animal, in this case the rhino, reveals a large variety of human-wildlife interactions that strongly relate to inequality, race, marginalisation and wealth. Different people relate to the rhino in different ways; the animal has a very different meaning for a tour operator, a trophy hunter, a nature conservationist, a tourist, a local cattle farmer, a poacher, a park ranger, a game breeder or a middle-class consumer of rhino horn. In my previous research, I have already investigated socio-economic dimensions of human-wildlife interactions, more specifically human-wildlife conflict that indigenous people encountered in community-based conservation programs. However, there are also various ways in which people can benefit from such animals, for example through tourism, trophy hunting, subsistence hunting or (commercial) poaching.
2) Wildlife estates
I also investigate how people who live at so-called ‘wildlife estates’ in the Lowveld articulate their ‘belonging’ to the area in this new nature conservation/tourism model. Wildlife estates are gated communities that are also (over)stocked with wildlife, on which many houses often function as ‘second homes’ and are rented out part of the year. And although this is a relatively new phenomenon, such estates (and similar ones which together are called ‘eco-estates’) are currently spreading over South Africa and into neighbouring countries. They are fully privatised geographical areas, and because most inhabitants are not originally from the area (but from Europe or elsewhere in South Africa) I have investigated how these—generally white—people articulate their belonging to the area (or not). Wildlife estates have important socio-economic and cultural consequences for a much larger geographical area, in relation to land acquisition, labour, inequality, sustainability and race. This research builds on my previous work about indigeneity and belonging.
These current trajectories have shown me once more the importance of global structures, in particular the further neo-liberalisation of nature and its many potential commodities, and what the consequences of these developments are for inequality and marginalisation. Over the next couple of years I am planning to work on this further, and so contribute to academic debates on nature conservation, sustainable tourism, development and, to a lesser degree, indigenous people.
For the near future and building on this research, I aim to develop new, empirically relevant, research areas, most especially related to the convergences between ‘new’ types of tourism, nature and sustainable development. Two important trends that I will focus on are the following:
1) Overtourism and nature
Recently, there have been many media reports on ‘overtourism’, and I want to investigate how this works out in different geographical areas, such as the Netherlands/Europe (e.g. de Waddeneilanden in the Netherlands, Iceland, the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean) Asia (e.g. Thai islands, Bali), and southern and eastern Africa (e.g. the Maasai Mara in Kenya/Tanzania, Kruger National Park in South Africa). Overtourism is a relatively recent phenomenon that has, in my opinion, so far not been taken seriously by influential policymakers such as the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), who tend to continue the promotion of the endless growth of tourism, often neglecting its unforeseen and foreseen consequences (e.g. land privatisation, changes in power relations, intensification of market mechanisms, an enormous impact on climate change, paternalism, and so on) and fortify promotion of tourism as a panacea for sustainable development. Importantly, overtourism is not as new as it appears in the media, where it has come up recently with a strong focus on ‘too many tourists’ in urban contexts. I suggest, however, that it is a phenomenon that has a longer history and is essentially based on ‘too much tourism’ that does not necessarily always translate only into tourists being a nuisance for local hosts. In the media, overtourism is often presented as an urban phenomenon, but when you look at it as ‘too much tourism’ it also applies to nature-based tourism at times. For example, in the South African Lowveld where I have worked over the last few years the enormous amount of land privatisation due to tourism has significant socio-economic consequences, but is not described as overtourism. In the meantime, ever more luxurious lodges appear in the area, most of whom claim to positively contribute to sustainable development in various ways.
2) Philanthrocapitalism and tourism
Another new, and also growing, type of tourism that I wish to explore further is what I have dubbed ‘philanthrotourism’, which is based on theories about philanthrocapitalism. In philanthrocapitalism, the ‘very rich’ engage in a large variety of developmental and conservation projects, under the assumption that those mechanisms that made them rich, are also the best mechanisms to sustainably address inequality, marginalisation and environmental degradation. However, I consider ‘philanthrocapitalism’ a much broader phenomenon than only philanthropy from the ‘very rich’; much more important and influential, I suggest, is the spreading of values and ideas that are associated with it, in nature conservation and in development. I explore its relation with tourism, which has so far not been done despite tourism being the largest global economic sector and an important driver of philanthropy and of capitalist values. Today, wealthy tourists engage in various unconventional activities, for example to join preventive anti-poaching operations or other ‘spectacular’ nature conservation activities, usually joined by a request for donations. Moreover, another take on ‘philanthrotourism’ that I have investigated is how and why particular groups of Dutch donors of development projects visit the projects that they support (in this case to Kenya and Ethiopia).
Important theoretical threads that run through the above empirically relevant themes are the neo-liberalisation of nature, philanthrocapitalism, the different perceptions on sustainable tourism for nature conservation and for development, and the different ways in which people articulate belonging.
My work has the ability to be beneficial to southern African indigenous peoples in particular and to indigenous peoples worldwide. However, based on my research it is evident that it is not always clear who are indigenous and who are not, and that the issues of inequality and marginalisation are generally more important. Therefore, I hope to keep addressing issues that concern those who are politically and socially excluded, as well as economically marginalised.
In addition, I expect that a recently approved grant for the CON-VIVA project will have a societal impact because at its core it challenges contemporary views on nature conservation and it is an attempt for a ‘transformation to sustainability’ (which is also the name of the overall programme through which it is funded). An important element of this project is that social scientists and ecologists collaborate with globally important and influential NGOs, such as WWF and IUCN, as well as with smaller NGOs in the four countries where the fieldwork will be conducted.