The term ‘wilderness’ is a controversial one that has been a part of our world for a long time and has been redefined from many perspectives and in multiple contexts. As progressive as the concept may sound to be, the word has in many ways created a divide between humans and nature and through it we created the concept of the ‘pristine’ and ‘untouched nature’. Environmental history provides us with an in depth understanding of why and where this word was formulated and how it traveled across political boundaries. The foundation of this debate lies in our ability as humans to define the ‘other’ and create a boundary for the ‘other’. In many cases it has been humans creating boundaries for other humans because of our inherent nature to divide based on the ‘them’ and ‘us’ concept. However, in this case a clear boundary was drawn physically on the ground because we believed and continue to believe that we can only experience the wonders of the wild if it remains untouched by humans and hence only available to us in the remote areas of our planet.
While in Tanzania in the Spring of 2016, we debated the building of a national highway through the northern region of the Serengeti National park. The creation of a National Highway through the Serengeti, which aims to connect the West of the to the East, could increase prosperity due to an increase in trade while simultaneously disrupting tourism and the annual migration of approximately 1 million wildebeest and 250,00 zebras.
This project stirred up many debates in Tanzania in a group of conservation experts, foreign students, and local staff bringing to light the interplay of privilege based on knowledge, political power, and socioeconomic status. As someone who has thought of conservation in a singular
fashion, these conversations were challenging. My first reaction was against this proposal as I believed that the ‘wilderness’ must be protected. But who should decide what is best for the country and the biodiversity. If an economist was to decide, the road would be a boon for the country and would help alleviate many challenges the country is currently facing. As an environmentalist and conservationist, the project would be a disaster for the natural ecosystem and increase threats such as poaching. Both sides on this argument could be debated because in reality this double edged sword would allow local economies to benefit from tourism while the rest of the population, dependent on trade, could giving them the agency to one day take into account the health of the natural world.
These types of sustainable development initiatives are what academics refer to as ‘Wicked Problems’, with no defined or correct solution. However, on this trip as an individual, I made an effort to always encourage a local to moderate the conversation as often indigenous and local understandings of the issues and needs are dismissed. This forced me to re-evaluate my experiences while in Tanzania in order to have a more informed and respectful conversation.