Third Nature: Making Space and Time in the Great Limpopo Conservation Area

Peer Reviewed

Editor's Overview

"Park Map." November 16, 2012.

In the May 2005 issue of Cultural Anthropology, David McDermott Hughes analyzes the relationship between "communities" and "experts" as both categories of people negotiate the Great Limpopo Conservation Area, which is a conservation area situated between (and in) three different African countries: Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa. Hughes illustrates how these relationships, alliances and groups of people are both historically situated within their notions of "area," "nature" and "use" as well as exclusion/inclusion different people have to their access to utilize resources within the boundaries of the park. He explores how economists, ecologists, anthropologists, NGO workers as well as Manesa and Chibuwe men and women all construct and relate to boundaries, borders, animals and agriculture differently contingent on their cultural, historical and geographic location. As some groups are investing in "nature" they are at the same time negotiating both how nature is constructed and how scientific and economic knowledge is organized and deployed in the world.

Interview With the Author

David McDermott Hughes, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Human Ecology and a Graduate Faculty Member in the Department of Geography at Rutgers University, discussed "Third Nature" with Ashley Carse, Ph.D. Candidate at UNC-Chapel Hill, as part of a larger conversation about the anthropology of water published in the September 2010 Water Virtual Issue.  In the interview below, Hughes illustrates the difficult fieldwork that might elucidate the material role of water in shaping social relationships, explains why he challenges students to think like water molecules, and links his past work on water and present research on petroleum in Trinidad.

Ashley Carse: Water can facilitate motion.  Rivers, lakes, and oceans have historically enabled – even shaped – the movement of humans and non-humans through space.  But water also constrains.  It marks boundaries and edges.   Anthropology, meanwhile, has  traditionally demanded motion by the researcher across boundaries as we travel to and across “the field.”  Using the research conducted for your CA article as a point of departure, help us reflect on the relationship between water and fieldwork.  First: How has water materially shaped your fieldwork?  Anthropological fieldwork generally?  Second: What does (or might) an anthropology of water call for in terms of ethnographic method?

P.J. Ginn, "Sketch map of Kariba Lake shoreline." November 16, 1995.

David McDermott Hughes: Let me answer this question by referring to some fieldwork that I did NOT complete (partly because an ethnographic method centered on water is quite difficult to implement).  Around 2004, I was interested in exploring the ways in which the Zambezi River had established conditions for tourism, photography, and other mostly white pursuits.   I eventually wrote an article (“Whites and Water”) and devoted a large chunk of Whiteness in Zimbabwe to Lake Kariba, a reservoir on the Zambezi which posed particularly challenges to white Rhodesian ethics and aesthetics.  As it filled in the 1960s, the reservoir drowned entire ecosystems and mammalian populations.  Despite this anguish, conservation-minded whites soon reveled in the lake’s intricate shoreline, corresponding as it did to a more British geometry of sightlines, vistas, and enclosures.  All that analysis centered on standing water and its fairly self-evident (to me) qualities: opacity, reflectivity, navigability (due to lower friction).  Moving water posed an entirely new challenge, as I discovered when I took the ethnography upstream to the Batoka Gorge.  Just below Victoria Falls, white Zimbabweans, Zambians, Americans, and New Zealanders were running rafts through 23 rapids, many of them Class IV and above.  Local smallholders were fishing along the same stretch of river and crossing it in dugout canoes to trade, smuggle, and so on.  Livingstone, Zambia’s fourth largest city, also lay just a few kilometers away.  These conditions seemed to me unprecedented – or at least understudied: tourists, natural resource based-communities, and an urban population were all making use of the same landscape without apparent conflict.  The Batoka Gorge, in other words, might provide a model of how to reconcile production and scenery, or local people and parks.  And water made it possible.  In order to prove the last point, I would have to investigate quite specifically how the properties of water segmented the river, providing separate spaces and times for various users.  First – and this was the easier part to show – water has the capacity to pick up and carry material.  Over millennia it had eroded its way more than 100 meters downwards.  As a consequence, the rapids lay deep in the gorge, from which Livingstone was not visible.  Optically, the lip of Batoka gorge segregated the city from the wilderness.  The rapids themselves resulted from deposition, which occurs when water becomes overloaded with material and drops sediment, rocks, and so on all at once.  Water tends to lift and deposit sediment at regular intervals. (Regarding all liquids, an equation describes this transport property as it relates to velocity, depth, and a measure of viscocity called the Reynolds number.)  Hence, rapids – known as riffles in the technical jargon – alternate with still pools in a fairly even spacing.  In this way, the river separated its users again: rafters bounced along the riffles, only relaxing through the pools.  Local inhabitants fished and canoed across the pools.  Also – further to separate users – bends in the river tended to shield riffles from pools.  Such meanders result from another property of water, which I describe in the next answer.  So far so good, but I needed to understand the riffles much better.  What made them exciting to the rafters, and how did the guides exploit specific hydraulics to enhance the apparent and real dangers of rafting the river?  I wanted to explain how the precise movements of water around sunken stones (holes, standing waves, etc.) created the experience of “adrenaline tourism.”  As a method, I would have had to run the river with each guide at high, middle, and low water, noting the “lines” they took through each rapid and discussing it with each guide afterwards.  Videos would help, and fortunately the rafting companies produced a DVD of every trip.  (See the video embedded below).  Yet, as you can imagine, I did not have the time and patience for such an investigation (Also, the relationships between rafters and the local community did not prove be quite as harmonious as I had first heard).  I mention it, though, because it demonstrates the kind of technical precision that would help us more fully to explain the role of water in specific social contexts.  As it is, I settled for the more general observation that adrenaline tourism reconciles (black) production and (white) leisure far better than has photo tourism.  Pocket parks, such as Batoka Gorge, provide a more just wilderness experience than do the vast savannah parks displacing smallholder agriculture.  Whiteness in Zimbabwe ends with this recommendation – the coda to a larger argument on the co-production of white African identity and the wilderness ideal.

AC: Stefan Helmreich recently argued that water has sometimes served in cultural anthropology as a “theory machine” (the term is historian of science Peter Galison's): an object in the world that stimulates a theoretical formulation.  In recent years, “watery metaphors” – flows, fluidity, circulation, etc. – have been mobilized by anthropologists and others with increasing frequency to theorize the era of globalization.  Has water prompted or formatted your own thinking about social dynamics?  If so, how?  What do you see as the advantages – or risks – of using watery metaphors in theorizing society, culture, and political economy?

DMH: I am wary of conflating metaphor with theory.  Therein lies the risk you imply.  Nonetheless, I would say that much of anthropology and the social sciences are stuck in an unacknowledged set of metaphors regarding solids, particularly soil.  I often tell my students to stop thinking like clods of dirt. By that I mean that they should relinquish the assumption that social distance varies directly with Euclidian distance within a land mass. In Euclid’s geometry, the shortest distance between two points is a line.  The length of the line indicates the degree of proximity between two objects and the effort that one or both will have to expend in order to meet and interact. This notion underlies conventional assumptions about place and community and, particularly, about the “community of place.”  As an alternative framework, I encourage my students to imagine themselves as water molecules.  Water moves almost without friction, and so do vessels floating on it. Therefore, a longer journey (in Euclidian terms) by water is almost always faster and easier than a shorter one by land.  Indeed, water itself always tends away from direct paths.  Over time, rivers erode and deposit their banks to form a meandering course.  Ever so slowly, the meanders conform to a sine-generated wave.  When compressed, a saw blade bends in same sinuous fashion, distributing energy evenly across the distance.  Even in a frictionless flume, falling water slows itself down with this slalom.  Entire civilizations, empires, and markets have risen and fallen by these liquid principles.  Nonetheless, scholarship tends to treat marine units – notably the Atlantic System and its resultant African Diaspora – as peculiar.  Social units linked by water seem unnatural, almost Herculean, constructions in comparison to the quotidian, ubiquitous “neighborhood.”  Why should a field once steeped in marine travel – recall Argonauts of the Western Pacific – now operate mostly within a terrestrial, dirt-clod framework?   Perhaps we have adapted too readily to the jet age.  For those who can afford it, the airlines have reestablished Euclidian travel.  By plane – as by foot - the shortest distance between two points is a line.  But the pendulum is swinging back again.  In virtual space and along fiber optic cables, there is no distance.  This compression strikes us as new, but we might learn much from the comparison with water-borne movement  We might also reflect upon how anthropologists’ means of travel have shifted the spatial assumptions of our fieldwork and theory.  Although I shudder to think of it, internet-based ethnography cannot be far off.  The web is full of people thinking (and feeling) like liquids.  To grapple with them, anthropologists will have to develop an aquatic substitute for the sedimentary, village study.

AC: At the conclusion of a water panel at the 2009 AAA meetings, discussant Kim Fortun provoked panelists with the following questions: What would it look like if anthropologists took water seriously as a topic of research and action…as seriously as, for example, capitalism?  What theoretical, political, and/or personal reasons attracted you to study water?  What do you see as the political stakes and potentials – if  any – in how anthropologists engage water?

DMH: Water is a juggernaut, if ever there was one.  As my forgoing responses suggest, I take the biophysical qualities of water seriously.  In Bruno Latour’s sense, H2O is an actant.  Water has properties and capacities that can effect change in the world, and some of these capacities are essential, rather than socially constructed.  Take landscape, for example.  Anthropologists, geographers, and historians are increasingly emphasizing its “scape” aspect – of the land as something seen, where perspective, cropping, and so on drive everything.  To my mind, Craig Childs provides a useful corrective when he writes – in a popular book on deserts (The Secret Knowledge of Water) – “water build[s] a land that will carry it” (p. 209).  He means that viscocity, friction, sine-generated, waves, and the Reynolds number – together with geology and gravity – sculpt the mountains and valleys that we know today.  They form the template for aesthetics, religion, politics, and engineering to work with.  (Childs goes too far, in my opinion, when he suggests, “water … created life in order to reach odd [uphill] places” [p. 50].)  In other words, wherever the environment is meaningful or contested, an interaction of biophysical and cultural factors has made it so.  How might this insight cause one to practice engaged anthropology differently, as you ask?  Let me give two examples from my past and current research.  First, between 2000 and 2007, I carried out ethnography in an area of white-owned agricultural estates in Zimbabwe.  Over the previous decade, these commercial farmers had dammed rivers and created irrigation reservoirs.  Beyond the benefits to their crops, the farmers celebrated the reservoirs’ beauty.  Their intricate shorelines offered enclosed bays and inlets, in which one could fish, watch birds, or camp in seclusion.  Anglers imaged themselves in the wilderness, and some stocked their shorelines with antelope and other game.  When, beginning in 2000 government para-militaries seized the farms, the dams, the fish, and the wildlife, whites often protested on environmental grounds (as well as on those of human and property rights).  Some international conservationists spoke out as well.  The minute one considers water as an actant, however, their arguments crumble.  The shorelines were intricate – dendritic in the technical jargon – not because they were wild, but because they were artificial.  Over time, as the lakes aged, water would erode and smoothen the banks, making reservoirs more and more circular.  To believe that the shorelines were wild was to naturalize a (white) engineered object – and to pathologize all (black) uses of it other than conservation.  I wrote about these reservoirs in the “Hydrology of Hope” article and in Whiteness in Zimbabwe.  (The attachment is a sketch showing a reservoir deliberately designed to maximize shoreline and bird habitats.)  At a more abstract level – and this is the second example – I am interested in the property of liquidity.  My current research centers on hydrocarbons, that is oil, natural gas, and some heavier ones, such as, asphalt.   These substances have mostly failed to attract cultural meaning.  Unlike water, petroleum carries little aesthetic charge.  For the most part, it neither strikes us as beautiful nor as ugly.  We simply don’t see it.  We only tend to see oil when – as in the Gulf of Mexico this summer – the systems for extracting and delivering it go terribly wrong.  Oil becomes a visual and political problem on the rare occasions when it spills in water – and rarely on the constant occasions when, after being burned, it spills in air.  Of course, the biophysical qualities of hydrocarbons contribute to this invisibility, and I have just returned from a year’s fieldwork in Trinidad investigating their influence among oil and gas institutions.  Trinidad and Tobago is arguably the world’s oldest petro-state, and even environmentalists tend to overlook oil-based pollution.  (The water body shown on the activist photo to the right, for example, is heavily polluted with hydrocarbons.)

David McDermott Hughes, "Anti-smelter activist poster." November 16, 2010.

Related Links

The Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park

Peace Parks Foundation

South African National Parks

Southern Alliance for Indigenous Resources (SAFIRE), and

Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources Project (CAMPFIRE) at USAID

Sustainable Development Case Study: CAMPFIRE at Global Eye


Limpopo River

Limpopo Tourism

MAKALALI Private Game Lodge, Limpopo -South Africa -Tourism Advertisement

Living Labs: Limpopo River Basin

Question for Classroom Discussion

1) Explain what First Nature, Second Nature and Third Nature are theoretically. Then use concrete examples from the text which illustrate each of these concepts and how they fuction for the author on the ground. Last please use these concepts to explain another case from this class material. Do these concepts work for the other case? How does the author's concepts help you (or not) analyze other concervation projects?

Related Readings

Essays from Cultural Anthropology Cited in this Article

"Putting Hierarchy in Its Place"- Arjun Appadurai. Cultural Anthropology February 1988, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 36-49

"The Song of the Nonaligned World: Transnational Identities and the Reinscription of Space in Late Capitalism"- Akhil Gupta. Cultural Anthropology. Feb 1992, Vol. 7, No. 1: 63-79.

"National Geographic: The Rooting of Peoples and the Territorialization of National Identity among Scholars and Refugees"- Liisa Malkki. Cultural Anthropology. Feb 1992, Vol. 7, No. 1: 24-44.

"Subaltern Struggles and the Politics of Place: Remapping Resistance in Zimbabwe's Eastern Highlands"- Donald S. Moore. Cultural Anthropology. Aug 1998, Vol. 13, No. 3: 344-381.

"'Local Theory'": Nature and the Making of an Amazonian Place"- Hugh Raffles. Cultural Anthropology. Aug 1999, Vol. 14, No. 3: 323-360.

"The Global Situation"- Anna Tsing. Cultural Anthropology. Aug 2000, Vol. 15, No. 3: 327-360

Essays That Have Cited This Article

"Governmentality, Language Ideology, and the Production of Needs in Malagasy Conservation and Development"- Paul W. Hanson. Cultural Anthropology. May 2007, Vol. 22, No. 2, pp. 244-284

"Hydrology of hope: Farm dams, conservation, and whiteness in Zimbabwe"- David McDermott Hughes. American Ethnologist. May 2006, Vol. 33, No. 2, pp. 269-287

"Parks and Peoples: The Social Impact of Protected Areas"- Paige West, James Igoe, Dan Brockington. Annual Review of Anthropology, October 2006 Vol. 35: 251-277

Additional Works by the Author

David McDermott Hughes's Webpage

Additional work by David McDermott Hughes


From Enslavement to Environmentalism: Politics on a Southern African Frontier. Seattle: University of Washington Press (2006)

Journal Articles

"Hydrology of hope: Farm dams, conservation, and whiteness in Zimbabwe"- David McDermott Hughes. American Ethnologist. May 2006, Vol. 33, No. 2, pp. 269-287

"Whites and water: how Euro-Africans made nature at Kariba Dam."- David McDermott Hughes. Journal of Southern African Studies. December 2006, Vol. 32 No. 4, p823-838

"Cadastral politics: the making of community-based resource management in Zimbabwe and Mozambique"- David McDermott Hughes. Development and Change. September 2001 Vol. 32 No. 4, pp. 741-68.

"Rezoned for business: how eco-tourism unlocked black farmland in eastern Zimbabwe."- David McDermott Hughes. Journal of Agrarian Change. October 2001 Vol. 1 No. 4, pp. 575-99.

"Refugees and squatters: immigration and territorial politics on the Zimbabwe-Mozambique border"- David McDermott Hughes. Journal of Southern African Studies. December 1999 Vol. 25, No. 4, pp. 533-552

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