Abstracting Congolese forests: mappings, representational narratives, and the production of the plantation space under REDD+

Catherine Windey
Discussion paper 2020.01

Inspired by Science and Technology Studies and using findings from a multi-level field research in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), this paper analyses the construction and use of controlling geospatial-driven narratives and seemingly neutral cartographic representations of Congolese forests for producing green economic landscapes under REDD+ process. I first show how simplified satellite-based maps, in a messy socio-political context, perform as neutral actants for identifying culprits and assigning blame, leading to a uniform ‘national consensus’ on community-induced threats to nature while letting industrial extraction off the hook. This understanding says very little about socio-political and power relations that shape forest use and change, and virtually ignores local knowledge, thinking and living models. Local communities’ subjectivities and livelihoods are carefully framed into homogeneous ‘poor unproductive but harmful shifting cultivators’, a figure rooted in colonial discourses which permeates people’s imaginaries of forests and of what is possible, plausible and desirable. Despite purported inclusive REDD+ strategies, this framing legitimizes geospatial control over local socio-spatial practices and the production of a monoculture of productivity and bounded rationalized space, materialized in the privately-held and extractive plantation or concession to the detriment of communities’ sovereignty. This model, I show, produces standardized subjectivities of the ‘socially responsible green company’ and the ‘enviropreneurial commodity petty producer/labourer’ integrated in international markets, leaving social and environmental injustices totally unaddressed. My findings emphasize the interlinkages between epistemic and material dispossession and shed light on ongoing processes of slow violence that have long term socio-ecological consequences. 

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