Deutsch | Franšais 



Emergence of ecological awareness

Emergence of environmental awareness in Western Ivory Coast (T. Bearth, June 2007)


Hindrances and  triggers on the path to ecological conscience in Ivory Coast

The key hypothesis derived from local analyses collected in the LAGSUS inquiry is that in a context of shortage of resources considered to be essential for decent livelihood, ecological issues, in order to be locally meaningful, must be addressed as sub-issues on an economy-driven agenda, rather than as an agenda standing on its own. Straightforward native statements in support of this methodologically and strategically important assumption have been hard to come by so far, but it is in no way contradicted by the data we have been able to collect over more than five years of field research. Yet, the best evidence in its support is silence:  Where one should have expected ecological concerns to be expressed by exponents of local leadership – in collective assessments of the local situation for instance -, no such concern is ever ventilated spontaneously, with the sole and remarkable exception of the issues around the Mont Sangbé National Park (Baya 2008, Bearth & Baya, in press).

The virtual absence of an ecological agenda in local settings should not come as a surprise in the light of the low priority it enjoys in the public sphere at the intermediate national level, as distinct from global discourse whose source is located at the level of international politics and economy. Particularly, the close interdependence between ecology and development is not as self-evident in national media and public discourse on either of the two issues and is often either ignored or suspected as being still another stratagem used by the affluent North to control resources of the South by constraining their use and exploitation on ecological grounds.[1] One may hypothesize that neither for practical nor for ideological purposes, ecological sustainability as defined at the Rio conference (1992) and reactivated in the Summit of Johannesburg (2002) closer to the period of research has translated into a major national concern let alone policy which, then, might have percolated to endoglossic majorities in countries such as Ivory Coast.

One can only speculate about the reasons for the extraordinary discrepancy between the state’s official engagement for ecologically sound management of natural resources on the one hand, as it translates into legislation and institutional provisions, and the lack of vigorous implementation on the ground in almost all domains. But, apart from war, crisis and social polarization, we suspect that the conceptual gap between economic and ecological crisis management, which are seen as belonging to two different spheres with little mutual relevance, explains the absence of public pressure in favor of enforcing ecological control and of implementing ecological reform. 

As a token, the following statement which claims to be representative of publicly admitted views in the pre-Johannesburg days summit of Johannesburg, defines development entirely in growth and commodity terms, without any reference at all to the ecological dimension : „Development can be defined as the body of actions undertaken in  a community with view of improving significantly individual and collective living conditions. It is generally admitted that the improvement of those living conditions relies on the production of goods and wealth.“ (Silué 2000:8, underlining TB).

It may be submitted, against the background of the quote from Silué’s influential work, and against recent events, that from a critical discourse standpoint, the status of ecology as an issue in public discourse is that of an emergent theme. This is very much the perspective from which the Johannesburg summit was reported in the Ivorian press a few days before the outbreak of the war.[2]

Approaching the subject from the angle of media communication, the case of ecological sensibilisation may be the most consequential example at our disposal, illustrating the principle of logical and temporal priority of thematicity over rhematicity. The issue at the stage of emergent thematicity is to give reasons why it should be admitted as a theme to be debated in the public arena; the issue at this stage is not the validity of any specific claim made on behalf of ecology, as urgent as it may seem to be. While arguments from facts may be similar in arguing for topical relevance as in arguing for specific measures to be translated into reality, communicative strategies are entirely different depending on the assessment as to whether the object of negotiation is thematic or rhematic. The wrong strategic choice with regard to the thematic vs. rhematic status of a subject may have disastrous consequences, and this is what we suspect happens in North-South communication on ecology much of the time. Misreading the communicative situation, - or ignoring it simply -, taking for granted or presupposed what is still being questioned under preliminary negotiation in the southern hemisphere, will only strengthen prejudice and heighten barriers of refusal and engender further layers of sedimented miscommunication.

The face of officialdom turned towards the outside world will readily adjust to global normative discourse on such vital matters as resource management which therefore will find itself reflected in national legislation, media releases for restricted consumption, and vocabulary training for journalists and writers of public statements. However, this in no way reflects the level of general adhesion to those norms of the players on the ground, from political parties to the local farmer via civil society at large, who co-determine real-world policy and practices on the ground. The gap between official adherence to ecologically sustainable management and its almost total absence in the public at large accounts, no less than the particular circumstances of the military crisis, for the disastrous state of the ecology and the perpetuation of destructive trends as exposed in sobering detail in the most recent EU mandated environmental profile of Ivory Coast (Halle & Bruzon 2006).

As the EU report notes (Halle & Bruzon 2006:8; 62), somewhat ruefully, official and public ecological commitment, to the modest extent that it had been taken up on the national agenda, e.g. in some sectors such as forest reserves, has lost its relative priority under the impact of the politico-military crisis: donor states, mostly EU, too (except Germany), have shifted their financial commitment from the environmental sector to what might be generally described as rescuing work, i.e. to more imminent challenges in the fields of humanitarian aid and the peace process. Under the pressure of humanitarian emergency and the political agenda, the trend of re-allocating substantial means and resources to meeting the challenges of the day, while understandable, consistently contributes to conveying to the Ivorian educated masses a message of indifference and irrelevance in respect to environmental issues and responsibility, a trend which is reflected in massive exploitation of still remaining resources and facilitated by the noticeable absence of any constraining measures.  Adding to this observations from the field spread over four years, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that large parts of the population, across all social strands of society, are caught in a cycle of disinformation, deception and unrestrained exploitation, passive and active, which, since the EU report was written, has not slowed down but if anything, has been accentuated, recovered mobility in the wake of the peace agreement allowing a greater number of less controllable actors to benefit more freely from the spoils as long as there are any left. (See SOFRECO report on “West Africa Post-Conflict Environmental Analysis”, World Bank, 2009 [still unreleased in Dec. 2009].)

To determine to what extent this general unfavorable climate at the national level conditions the surprising mental closure against perception of the long-term ecological consequences of the ravages committed through the PBI (= palm broom industry) in a remote local biotope such as the Tura mountains would be difficult, and even more so, as the western region of Ivory Coast was cut off from government media from 2002 to 2006.  But see Bearth (2007e). More recently, ecological awareness which hardly ever surfaced in prior local analysis even after the Johannesburg summit, has been raised to a significant level by the pollution scandal in Abidjan of August 2006, and, in some areas at least, the subsequent drought periods in 2007 and 2008, thus providing for the first time broad legitimacy to ecological issues as a topic in their own right.

These observations which are confirmed for the Tura area by evidence from LMR (= locally mediated research) level analysis of local discourse, need to be corroborated by further evidence from the grassroots. However, very shortly after the scandal broke out, the Tura term was coined to denote the “toxic waste” in the Tura language, and was in circulation on both sides of the line of division, in the rural areas and in the urban diaspora of Abidjan.[3] This in itself may be, in anecdotic terms, an indicator of the intensity with which this event was perceived across all strands of society. In reality or imagination, the mischief affected the lives of millions of ordinary people, among them relatives and acquaintances; the waves of shock reached remote populations in a matter of hours or days, calling for explanation: ecology became a popular term.

It may be permitted to suggest, by way of extrapolation, that these quite heterogeneous events - talk about which continues to be reported - mark the beginning of the integration of an ecological perspective into the local majority discourses on development. If this is indeed the case, it would illustrate “change from below”, triggered by new and unforeseen factors, prompting an astute and critical awareness of the ecological dimension in general, and initiating a cycle in complete dissonance with official policy, ironically perhaps, as a counter-current to the flow of subsidies.

It may be assumed, too, that ecology as a theme is now established irreversibly at the local level, and speculation is allowed if, for once, innovation in the rural areas, at least at the conceptual level, will impose itself from the grassroots, rather than trickling down from seminars and planning offices to local constituencies and actors.

Further research on local discourse currently under way will hopefully reveal how this awareness of the ecological dimension – clearly based on scanty evidence, experts would warn – provides nevertheless a landing site for an increment of ecological reasoning, knowledge and sustainable action. (See the discussion among local actors on the site It is at this point that systemic reasoning becomes of greatest interest as a creative process. Again on a purely speculative note, one would expect that the total indifference to the ecological implications of the PBI might give way, though belatedly, to a critical view relating its economic aspects to ecological ones. Development semiotics, in our opinion, provides a flexible tool for exploring, and possibly influencing, such processes of systemization, which are at the root of conceptual innovation in development and cultural activities.

The remaining part of this case study is devoted to an inquiry into the hidden resistance to the PBI practice, with the question in mind to what extent this case could provide the prolegomena to ecological reasoning and reform “from below”.

Tracking the “ecologist party” in Tura country

Follows the case study on the dual discourse agenda around the PBI.


[1] G. Singo (p.c., 13 Feb. 2009).

[2] E,g, Kagnassy, Sidi Mohammed, 2002. „Développement durable: une priorité incontournable“. Le jour 2217. Lundi 2 sept. Echo du sommet de Johannesburg.

[3] Pɔɔn gbo gi góyè yí. ‘liquid exuding from excrements’ (p.c. Diomandé Fan Monsia).