Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity      January 1999 Volume XXI Number 3

Late at night, the young female elephant ambled toward Katwishi's plot...
She stopped at his garden and began to tear up the ripening maize five or six stalks at a time. She knocked their roots against the ground to remove soil, and shoved them into her mouth. Nearby, her family also feasted. Katwishi watched helplessly from his doorway.



by Judi Hetrick

Clark Gibson wants people to consider human factors and human decision making when they think about wildlife in Africa and other natural resource issues. "The bottom line," says the assistant professor of political science at Indiana University Bloomington, "is that most citizens of the United States view Africa through the lens of television and movies, which focus predominately on animals, not people."

Clark Gibson, assistant professor of political science, Indiana University Bloomington, studies the politics of wildlife in Africa. --credit

Through his research and teaching, Gibson is supplying other lenses. The vignette about Katwishi is one of several employed by Gibson in his forthcoming book Politicians and Poachers: The Political Economy of Wildlife Policy in Africa. He also asks his readers to think about the viewpoints of a European professional safari hunter, a district governor, and a wildlife scout. What does each person get out of--or how does each suffer from--current policies toward game preservation?

Gibson is one of the first scholars to advocate focusing the lenses of political science--not just those of natural science--on wildlife conservation. The approach Gibson uses to start his political analysis is rational choice theory, which tries to understand people's incentives. Gibson points out: "The average African has incentives like you do--they want their kids to go to school, they want better schools, better water, better sanitary conditions."

But in Zambia and other African countries, many people have to deal with issues Westerners have a hard time imagining. Gibson notes: "Nothing's sadder than a village after a kid's been taken by a crocodile. But more frequently, many rural Africans must contend with many different kinds of animals trying to eat their crops. In one night, an elephant could wipe out your full year's crop. One night."

These events need to be seen as part of the bigger picture, Gibson believes. His goal as a researcher and teacher is to show people that decisions based on only part of a story have real world consequences--even if those consequences aren't seen on TV. "For Africa and its wildlife, we're still at the level of 'conservation is good for everybody.' We have to question that assumption and really understand the benefits and costs to different groups," he says.

Politics is the lens Gibson uses to broaden the picture, to bring out details, and to help people see more. "You see students in class waking up when you show them that conservation is more than just the cuddly giraffes and elephants on Animal Planet" he says. "An average rural African, if you got them to speak honestly, would rather have most animals wiped out around their area. Students are surprised by this until they realize that when they wake up in the morning here in Bloomington, and open the door, they're not afraid of wolves, bears. . . . Why aren't they afraid of them? Because we killed them all. . . . Why did we kill them all? A lot of reasons. One was personal safety. You don't want your kid being eaten alive by an animal. Another is crops. You don't want your crops being hammered by wildlife. Another is that we eliminated their habitats. Many of the same reasons motivate the African farmer."

A crocodile from a farm in the Luangwa Valley, Zambia. Crocodiles pose a constant threat to Africans who live nearby. Villagers who collect water from rivers--usually women and children--are the most vulnerable to attack. --credit

Gibson does not advocate killing animals or considering only the viewpoint of local people. He asks about the incentives of a broad array of people who affect policies or have policies affect them. He looks at both economic impacts and the way people's lives are affected locally, nationally, and globally.

"Clark's contribution marks a new course in African studies: that of applying 'rational choice' forms of political economy to the study of African politics," says Harvard Government Professor Robert Bates, who supervised Gibson's doctoral work when both were at Duke University. "He joins Kathryn Firmin-Sellers, Jean Einsminger, and a handful of others in pioneering this important new perspective. It is important because it enables political scientists to study both the impact of market incentives as well as political incentives, and thus offers an integrated approach to the study of political economy."

Gibson complicates the rational choice approach with an approach to the issues called the "new institutionalism," which looks at institutions as rules, not as organizations. "We study how people create rules: How do rules affect behavior? How do people change rules? How does this change behavior?" Gibson explains. The approach considers both formal rules (such as those set forth by national governments or international agreements) and informal rules (such as those local forces influencing the behavior of a local wildlife scout and his decision whether or not to report the killing of animals to a central authority). "New institutionalists want to explain behavior," Gibson says.


Gibson, a native Californian, became interested in African studies while attending Notre Dame. "I had a fantastic professor from Africa who taught an English course. We read only African novelists. It was great!" he recalls. After he graduated in 1983, he joined the Peace Corps, certain that with his interest and background in Africa he would be posted there. His assignment, however, was Nepal. The difficult conditions there (Nepal has a 50 percent attrition rate, among Peace Corps volunteers) sent him home for medical reasons after barely four months. He returned to California, where he worked as a paralegal and then taught at a private high school for two years. "If you can teach forty kids five periods a day who are driven by everything except subject matter, it is a great way to learn how to teach," he says. "You learn how to summarize and present complex ideas simply."

He got an opportunity to expand on that teaching experience--and to visit Africa--when he began graduate study at Duke in the late 1980s. "I went to Africa for the first time as a teaching assistant on a Duke summer course. We went to Zimbabwe and Botswana. And while there, I was looking around for the interesting development issues of the time. Zimbabwe had a new and famous community management program for wildlife. I also took time to fly to Zambia and found that they also had an interesting new wildlife program." That got him on track for his study of the politics of wildlife in Zambia--but not without one significant detour that started in 1991.

"I was over there doing fieldwork for my dissertation, and this was right before many of the first multiparty democratic elections on the continent took place," he remembers. He'd watched the Zambians move from one-party rule to multiparty elections, while doing his own research. "I'd been there for a year and seen the development of the election process. When I came back from the bush, I rolled up in my LandRover in front of the Intercontinental Hotel, where Jimmy Carter and his group of observers were and said, 'I've been here for a year. I'm a graduate student in political science. Can I help out?" They said yes! So I worked with them, and it was tremendously exciting to see that transition firsthand.

"This was before many elections had taken place, so it was really an untested enterprise. Protocols weren't well ironed out, host countries didn't know what they should or shouldn't do. Many dictators weren't sure about election observers so they didn't know how far they could push them around. Everyone was formulating positions," Gibson explains. "The governments who were doing the observing didn't know how hard they could push on internal matters. It was tremendously exciting. . . . I got to do a lot of work with many interesting people, including President Carter. . . . That was one of the first early multiparty elections. How many people have worked on multiparty observing at that point? Not many. So my phone started ringing off the hook, as a graduate student, because I had done it." His experience with the Carter delegation led to work with elections in Ethiopia, Lesotho, Malawi, Romania, and Kenya; he was on the United Nations official delegation to the first Russian Federation elections.

Besides that accidental specialty, Gibson's focus is the politics of natural resources. He worked as a postdoctoral researcher at IUB for three years--one with the Workshop in Political Theory and Political Analysis and two with the Center for the Study of Institutions, Population, and Environmental Change--before joining the faculty last year. He currently teaches comparative politics, the politics of conservation and development, political economy, and a course called Ballots and Bullets: Democracy and its Enemies. In addition to his book on wildlife politics and policies in Africa being published by Cambridge University Press, his work is also expanding into issues of deforestation in Latin America, where he works as part of a multidisciplinary team and brings the lens of "new institutionalism" to the picture.

Elinor Ostrom, Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science, has worked with Gibson in her roles as director of the Workshop in Political Theory and Political Analysis and co-director of the Center for the Study of Institutions, Population, and Environmental Change. She notes: "He brings a rigorous theory to what has been for many a murky area of dirty politics that was not amenable to rigorous thinking. . . . His capacity to know the field settings in both Africa and Latin America is a substantial advantage. He can genuinely teach comparative politics based on extensive research in Africa and now a growing body of research in Latin America."

One similarity Gibson has noted across regions is in the battle to control land and its resources. Just as animals are important to life in Zambia, the forests are critical to daily living in Central and South America. "The battle for forests is often a battle for land," Gibson explains, "clearing the land for agriculture. Again, the nuts and bolts of daily living. So if the question is 'Why is there deforestation in country X?' you have to do a multilevel analysis. One level must be the institutions of national and regional governments. What are the government policies? Why are they the way they are? . . . Why does deforestation help the government? Maybe it helps individual politicians, maybe it doesn't. . . . Then you have to look at deforestation at a very local level, asking questions about what are the informal rules of this community and the relationship with the forest. . . . Why do locals collect firewood Tuesdays and Thursdays? How did that start? Who controls that? Has it changed?"

As part of the forestry work, Gibson co-teaches a research seminar in international forestry resources and institutions. That has led to publications about the politics of Indiana forests, because the seminar research is based in Bloomington and the same methods and techniques apply. "It's about local communities. How do they value their resource? Do they or do they not construct rules to protect and manage it? Although here in the U.S.A. most people are less dependent on forests for daily living, many still value the forest for its products."


Gibson hopes his research leads to better choices about the way natural resources are managed. "In the realm of natural resource policies, very little is inevitable in this world," he says. "It's all about choices, outcomes, and contingencies. I think politics is a great way to explore these natural resource issues." When it comes to African animals, some change is taking place. "There is considerable movement toward involving locals in wildlife management policies," he notes. "In some new programs the local people get some benefit out of the fact that these big mega-fauna are stomping around. They get some of the safari revenue; they get some of the tourism revenue. For years they haven't been receiving any of that! So they've paid all the daily costs and received none of the benefits."

Through his research and his teaching, Gibson hopes to generate better solutions to these natural resource issues. But it's the daily joy of finding other lenses and looking through them that keeps him involved. He says, "Studying politics is like reading a mystery novel. It's endlessly fascinating. What's going on there? Why is this happening? . . . What's going on here? Why is it going on like that? All that's really exciting! How do you piece this puzzle together? And every day you work to find another piece."

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