Shape-Shifting Nature in a Contested Landscape in Guinea-Bissau

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


Studying people and wild animals based only on their strict and present-day interactions is not enough to develop a comprehensive understanding of social constructions of animal species. People encounter other species (and other people) from within particular historical, social, ecological and economic settings. In 13 months of fieldwork, I adopted a multi-disciplinary perspective, using qualitative ethnographic tools alongside quantitative ecological and interviewing approaches to seek for an in-depth understanding that provides access to multiple views about nature and nature conservation. In southern Guinea-Bissau, space and its history, magic and religion, changes in the landscape and environment, local livelihoods and trade, as well as local relations of power for accessing resources, all shape the social and cosmological terrain of the interactions between people and other living and non-living things. On the one hand, magical territories, the role animal figures play in witchcraft, local knowledge and its management, all portray nature as part of society, both as an element and an actor in society. On the other hand, when nature conservation initiatives based on fines and fences are emphasised, the social appropriation of nature envisions people and nature as separate, even antagonistic entities that negotiate each other’s existence. Land is the most important component of livelihoods as it is tightly connected to labour allocation and knowledge exchange. Therefore, by constraining people’s access to land, nature conservation policies are largely seen as affecting local people’s ability to secure their livelihoods. Consequently, constraints and benefits bestowed by conservation are negotiated locally through complex mechanisms of storytelling, witchcraft, meetings, and protests. These all play a role in challenging standing agreements, as well as expressing social tension and marking out morality. The chimpanzee, the flagship species of Cantanhez National Park, appears as a multi-faceted character capable of shape-shifting into various forms and signifiers that challenge existing power asymmetries, including those inherent within local nature conservation.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Oxford Brookes University
  • Hill, Catherine M., Supervisor, External person
Award date1 Sep 2014
Publication statusPublished - 2014


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