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Title: Work In The Rainforest: Labour, race and desire in a Congolese logging camp.
Authors: Hendriks, Thomas
Issue Date: 17-Jun-2013
Abstract: The present dissertation is the product of an ethnography of everyday life in and around the labour camps of a multinational logging company operating in the Congolese rainforest. It offers a first detailed account of the actual workings of a logging company and, thus, contributes to an ethnographic understanding of the realities of globalised capitalism and its particular manifestation as investments and activities in out-of-the-way places. The case of the CTI logging concession illustrates how multinational companies, as agents of globalisation, are not always the strong and powerful actors moulding their own contexts of intervention, largely disconnected from their immediate surroundings. On the contrary, the successive chapters reveal that the company?s strategies were often failing and its activities marked by doubts and uncertainties. These more vulnerable, insecure and fragile aspects of multinational corporations in action often get side-lined in a globalisation discourse built upon their supposed control. This is not to deny the real power and influence of the logging company but to stress its unpredictability. In this context, the present dissertation focuses on the everyday lives of company workers, neighbouring villagers and resident expat managers in order to understand the realities and ambiguities of a contemporary manifestation of globalised capitalism in a peripheral postcolonial region. To grasp the actual ?structure of feeling? in the CTI logging camps, the different chapters offer three main thematic perspectives on everyday life: labour, race and desire. A detailed analysis of issues of labour (Part II) is needed to understand everyday camp life in the concession (Part III). However, I will argue that one cannot sensibly talk about labour without also talking about the tricky issue of race (Part IV) and ? at the same time ? one cannot talk about race without also talking about desire (Part V). The introduction starts with a brief description of the geographical and historical context in which the CTI logging concession operated in the Itimbiri region between Bumba and Aketi. Firmly integrated in the colonial economy since at least the 1930s, the region became increasingly disconnected from the wider economy since the 1960s until the logging company arrived in the early 1990s. In chapter two, CTI is situated within the broader logging sector in the Democratic Republic of Congo and some technical, legal and financial aspects of rainforest logging are presented. The third chapter deals with what was often spontaneously assumed to be my main focus as an ethnographer of logging: the recurrent conflicts between logging companies and so-called ?local populations?. Although my ethnographic focus was mainly on the dynamics within the logging company ? more specifically on the everyday lives of its Congolese workers and European expatriates ? thesemediatised conflicts of course constituted a broader context in which CTI tried to make money. I offer a thick description of: (a) the recurrent road blocks set up by dissatisfied villagers and (b) the widespread trade in fuel stolen from the company, as examples of important obstacles and even a certain ?resistance? against the logging company. In the last chapter of the introduction I examine the methodological and ethical aspects of my fieldwork in the particularly challenging environment of a Congolese logging concession. In the first part of this dissertation I concentrate on labour, which is a basic precondition to understanding much of the subsequent chapters. A thorough description and analysis of the role of labour and, more specifically, the work relations within the logging company offers a firm basis for subsequent discussions on race and racism, sex and desire and the making of selves, time experiences and the production of ?homes? in the logging camp. I, thus, offer a workplace ethnography of the CTI concession as a ?space of exception? where formal wage labour confirmed the generalised rule of unemployment and so-called informalisation in the region. In chapter five I focus on a set of localised memories of labour in some of the places where colonial companies had been active before the arrival of industrial logging. These memories and the vernacular historiographies they support, inform the actual work experiences in CTI. In the next chapter, I turn to these experiences and their material conditions on the work-floor, focussing on recruitment practices, salaries and work bonuses, motivation mechanisms and the role of labour unions. In chapter seven, I look into certain vernacular critiques on the exploitation of labour power that were embedded in several discourses about work and the accumulation of wealth. I highlight the specificities of work experiences in different labour teams in order to achieve a generalised conceptualisation of labour as a metaphorical ?eating? relationship. I conclude the part on labour by looking at so-called ponoli practices, which explicitly identify occult forms of ?zombie? labour at the source of suspicious accumulation. The second part of this dissertation zooms in on the logging camp beyond the framework of labour. It deals with camp life by exploring three intertwined themes: the experience of time, the making of a home and the construction of selves. Chapter eight provides a detailed description of some basic facts of life in the logging camp, focussing on spatial layout, demographics, economics, company control and the main categorisation of the camps? inhabitants as ?villagers?, ?workers? or ?expats?. Chapter nine deals with time and starts from the previous analysis of labour in order to offer an understanding of the production and instabilities of a capitalist time regime. It then shifts to anethnographic exploration of the twin phenomena of boredom and heterochronia and concludes with a discussion on what I have called the ?dialectics of mobility and immobility? that so much characterised everyday life in the logging camp. Chapter ten translates the issues of time and (im)mobility into an analysis of home-making practices or ecopoiesis. A thick description of the ambiguities behind ?black? and ?white? home-making strategies reveals how they both characteristically lead to the eccentric, centrifugal and even ecstatic experiences of turning the camp into a home. In chapter eleven, I explore different modalities of the construction of selves in the logging camp. I first deal with the making of ?black? selves through a consideration of colonial memories, postcolonial masculinities, the role of the worker-body and the problematic pragmatics of sexuality. I then turn to the ambiguous construction of white expat subjectivities and their conscious strategies of self-exoticisation. In chapter twelve, I conclude this part on camp life with a more theoretical reflection on the nature of the camp as the common context in the making and unmaking of times, homes and selves. The third part addresses the difficult issue of ?race?, which was an omnipresent issue in both ?black? and ?white? everyday life. The logging concession, and more particularly its labour camps, were not so much areas where pre-existing ?races? simply came together, but sites where racial identities were produced by evoking one another. In two different chapters I, therefore, describe how, where and when ?race? was a key factor in the everyday lives of workers and expats in the concession. In chapter thirteen I give a detailed description of a so-called moral geography of race in which a multitude of stories reveal how, for both black workers and white expats, the landscape was profoundly racialised and constituted a spatio-narrative background for different interracial encounters. In chapter fourteen, I look at these actual encounters through a set of vignettes which illustrate how, in these moral geographies, ?race? was enacted and performed and how the most blatant racial prejudices and stereotypes rubbed shoulders with ambiguous anxieties, frustrations and desires. I look at how and why everyday racism works and how ?racist? identities are forged out of the specific experiences of life in the logging concession. I conclude this part with a set of more theoretical considerations on the role of stereotyping in the actual postcolony and argue for an ethnographic understanding of ?ordinary? racism but without avoiding its ethical implications. In the last part, I enter into what is apparently the least ?relevant? topic for an ethnographic study of industrial logging in the Congolese rainforest: an exploration of the dynamics of interracial ?desire?. However, just as it was impossible to talk aboutlabour without talking about race, it was also impossible to talk about race without talking about desire. In the discourses and practices of both European expats and Congolese workers, issues of sex, sexuality and desire loomed large. However, at the same time, they were often rather difficult to study ethnographically in the context of the logging concession. The fourth part of this dissertation, therefore, adopts a somewhat different format, in which I turn to acollection of texts and images that emerged during my fieldwork. A contextualised reading of the intertwining of race and desire in these texts and images gradually guided me from the past to the ethnographic present. In chapter fifteen, I introduce the porno-tropics as a conceptual tool with which to ?read? the texts and images presented in the subsequent chapters. In chapter sixteen, I look at a set of photographs taken by Flemish missionaries depicting the bodies of people inhabiting what would become the CTI concession. An informed reading of four different types of photographs ? of women, girls, boys and men ? reveals how a particular form of erotics of sin reproduces and transforms this broader porno-tropic tradition. In chapter seventeen I come back to my own ethnographic data and contextualise the production of present-day expat masculinities and sexualities within this ambiguous tradition of a localised porno-tropics. I focus on sexual discourses and practices and look at two more sets of images encountered during my fieldwork. I first offer a contextualised reading of a softly erotic calendar produced by a well-known chainsaw manufacturing company and illustrate how it played a revealing role in the particular economy of desire in the logging concession, as a symbol of the attraction of black workers to white women. I then look at a specific interracial porn site that was shown to me during my fieldwork and which further complicates the dynamics of interracial desire. I conclude this part with a theoretical reflection on the ambiguities of racialised desire and desired race from my own ethnographic experiences.
Publication status: published
KU Leuven publication type: TH
Appears in Collections:Institute for Anthropological Research in Africa

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