Theodore Trefon: A Social Scientist in the Earth Sciences Department

Marloes Humbeeck
25 April 2019
In December 2018 the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren reopened after 5 years of renovations. In celebration of this occasion Glo.be takes a look behind the scenes of the Museum’s research center. We talked to Professor and senior researcher Theodore Trefon about his work for the Earth Sciences Department.

Theodore Trefon is an expert in the governance of natural resources of the Democratic Republic of Congo. These resources include wood, oil, minerals, agricultural land and water.  Trefon received a BA in philosophy from NYU and a PhD in Politics and African studies at Boston University. Trained in the social sciences, he is self-taught in matters of natural resource governance.

 

Interdisciplinary research

A philosophy graduate working in the science department of a museum? That might sound bizarre to some. However, it is increasingly common in the scientific world today. ‘That is because scientists now realize that if we want to move ahead with understanding the global governance of natural resources, we need to understand social dynamics,’ Trefon explains.

Since he started working at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in 2006, Trefon has been part of several interdisciplinary projects. These are projects that combine multiple academic disciplines into one activity. The approach is incredibly useful because the study of natural resources is about more than just science. It also covers power structures, political economy and cultural belief systems.

The development of a network of African partners is a Museum priority. Hence, Trefon regularly travels to the DRC to work with African researchers on-site. Together, they design research themes, find funding, implement projects and write articles and books. ‘The biggest challenge here is to take action for development and sustainable resource use based on theoretical ideas.’

Trefon underlines that studies on natural resource management are of great importance. ‘Because if we better understand resource management challenges, we will be better able to bring forth positive change in the future.’ 

The multidisciplinary approach is incredibly useful because the study of natural resources is about more than just science. It also covers power structures, political economy and cultural belief systems.

The Congo Paradox

Sustainable management of  natural resources in the DRC is an incredibly interesting case. That is because the country is marked by a series of uncanny paradoxes. First of all, DRC is home to an amazing number of resources, ranging from minerals and oil to wildlife and forests. It has vast potential. For instance, the DRC could feed over one billion people with its agricultural space. That is the entire population of Africa! However, now it is in a situation where it has to import food because there isn’t enough.

Furthermore, the country is home to 85 million people, but still its national budget is only five billion US dollars. That is almost 50 times less than the Belgian national budget, while the DRC is 80 times bigger. Moreover, there is the paradox of growth without development. Although according to macroeconomic data the Congolese economy has been growing,  there has been little improved ranking of economic indicators. That is, the DRC remains second-to-last position in the UN Development Index. Put simply, the DRC is incredibly rich, but the people are poor.

So who is to blame? ‘We cannot point the finger to any source. National and international political and economic actors, as well as belief systems, have all contributed to the current situation. By examining all of these interrelated causes, we get a better sight of how this “poverty trap” came to be and how we can escape it.’ After all, Trefon is convinced that ‘the economic wealth of DRC will be largely determined by the way in which its natural resources are managed.’

DRC has vast potential. For instance, the DRC could feed over one billion people with its agricultural space. That is the entire population of Africa!

The importance of belief systems

Within the sphere of environmental governance, Trefon introduces a strong social dimension. His job is to find out how culture influences the way people interact with their natural resources. After 25 years of experience working in DRC, he can state with certainty that belief systems make a huge difference.

The most important cultural difference between Western and Congolese society in this regard has to do with what sociologists call ‘agency’. This refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. In the west we have a very strong sense of agency. That is, we believe that if we work hard we can move ahead and take control of our destiny. Many Congolese, on the contrary, belief in the divine will of God. They are convinced that the path of destiny is traced from above. Consequently, they aren’t eager to drastically change their practices. After all, that won’t change the inevitable course of events.

Trefon with hunters in Congo
Prof. Trefon with hunters in DRC.

Trefon recounts a conversation he had with a local farmer on biodiversity: “We were trying to explain to him how important biodiversity is. We told him that if he would not stop poaching, his children would never get to see an elephant in their lifetime. You know what he answered? ‘You say we have to do this and have to do that so our children can see elephants. Well, I heard dinosaurs used to roam the earth. We can live without them too’. These belief systems are not irrational in itself, but of course they can often complicate sustainable resource management.”

On the other hand, the DRC has a strong sense of national identity and unity. In the past, it has been suggested that Congo should be fragmented because it is too big to manage. However, this idea has always met with a lot of resistance from the Congolese people. They feel connected and are proud of Congo’s beauty, its people and its culture. ‘Congolese are proud of their cooking, music, footballers and artists.’

Thinking through a framework

Trefon underlines that it is not easy to set up projects that truly have a positive effect on resource management. ‘We need to keep several factors into account and set up a legal, but also an economic and social framework. If one of these is missing, the project will never take root.’

He has seen this happen to the Community Forestry projects. The goal is to give communities rights over their land and resources through land use planning, land tenure systems and integrated management strategies. In February 2016 a legal framework for this program was provided by the  DRC Ministerial Decree No. 025. This Decree provides rules governing concession management by forest communities.

‘Although this legal framework is definitely a step forward, there is a big difference between what is legal and what people consider to be legitimate. A lot of Congolese do not accept the fact that they now have to ask the government for a paper that gives them rights over their land, even though they have been working that land for generations. What could stop the government from taking it all back again?’

On top of that, the legal framework preceded the economic framework in this case. In order to set up community forest projects, you need community appropriation, funding and administrative support. Since this is hard to come by in the DRC, currently most of the forest concessions are ‘brokered’  by international environmental NGOs .

‘In other words, we can have a law that gives definition to a certain framework, but that law is meaningless unless we have some kind of strategy behind it to help people improve their economies. We need to think through a framework that corresponds to what communities want and need. A social, political and economic perspective are all of vital importance in this regard.’

We need to keep several factors into account and set up a legal, but also an economic and social framework. If one of these is missing, the project will never take root.

Theodore Trefon

Change our view of Congo

Although the management of natural resources and the poverty in the DRC is problematic, Trefon also emphasizes the positive aspects of the country: ‘Through my research on natural resources I also want to show that the DRC has a lot to offer. I think that people do not talk about the natural wealth of Congo often enough as presenting opportunities.’

It is for this reason that Trefon’s favorite place in the museum is the resource gallery. This room showcases the diversity of Congolese and central African natural wealth in a very attractive way. Forests, minerals, wildlife, all can be admired in the gallery. “Too often the emphasis is on Congo’s poverty instead of on its beauty,’ Trefon remarks. ‘I think that the resource gallery shows the visitors that the DRC is much more than that.’

‘In general, we can say that the renovation of the museum is a big success,’ he continues. First of all, it puts Congo and Congo’s relationship with Belgium in a new light. While the Congolese used to be presented in a paternalistic way: they needed to be civilized. The museum now showcases African culture as something far more valuable. Moreover, the new museum is open-minded about Belgium’s unequal relationship with its former colony.

This new view on Congo has positive implications for the future: ‘I believe that the museum can play an important role in improving relations with the DRC. It is a place for everyone, a venue where people can express themselves, whether they are Belgian or Congolese.’

As we pass by a group of school children , Trefon excitedly remarks ‘For some of these kids, this is their first encounter with Africa. Thanks to this Museum they will learn about the injustices of colonialism, as well as about the beauty of African culture.’

I believe that the museum can play an important role in improving relations with the DRC. It is a place for everyone, a venue where people can express themselves, whether they are Belgian or Congolese.

Theodore Trefon

Positive about the future

In the past 25 years Trefon has found out that trying to implement sustainable resource management in DRC is a difficult task. Still, he is hopeful for the future: ‘After all, the people of DRC have a lot of talent, they are clever and hardworking and of course the resources are there. Cobalt, coltan, timber, hydroelectric potential, agricultural produce,… DRC has it all.’

Moreover, Trefon has noticed that people are getting more and more well-informed. While in the past, people were often kept in the dark, the emergence of  social media has led to an increase in information exchange. ‘This is also visible in the results of the last elections,’ Trefon remarks, ‘I think the Congolese people showed a lot of maturity. That is good news, because advances in the democratic process can have positive effects on resource management and an honest distribution of wealth.’

‘All of this leads me to believe that the Congolese will take charge,’ Trefon says decidedly, ‘The state will reform and rebuild and when that happens, improved natural resource management will follow.’

DR Congo Natural resources
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