Nature and people connected

by Hanneke van  't Veen

Let me tell you a story about the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Not so long ago, DRC was ruled by king Leopold II of Belgium, who had great dreams of making Belgium one of the main players at the world stage, alongside Great Britain and France. He wished to use the incredible natural richness of the DRC to generate income for the Belgian State and improve the lives of Belgian citizens. From 1890 to 1900 there was a major rubber boom all around the world, rubber prices were skyrocketing. To king Leopold II’s delight, he found the DRC to be full of rubber trees. To produce as much rubber as possible, he ordered citizens of the DRC to extract a fixed amount of rubber from the forest per week and pay this to the State. In the beginning this was easy, since the forest was packed with rubber trees. People could tend to their daily activities, such as managing their agricultural fields, while providing the demanded amount of rubber to the State. But this did not last long. With rubber prices continuing to rise, king Leopold II became greedier and rose rubber taxes further and further, demanding bigger and bigger efforts from the citizens of the DRC. At the same time, the rubber trees in the neighbourhood of villages became completely exhausted, forcing people to walk further and further to gather the demanded amount of rubber. Finally, king Leopold II’s rubber regime resulted in one of the greatest common pool resource tragedies to date. Due to the increased demands and decreased rubber stocks in their vicinities, people did not have time to tend to their daily activities to provide food for their family, and eventually did not even have time to collect the amount of rubber that was required by the government. They were enslaved by the system, resulting in famine, disease and exhaustion, which ultimately caused the death of 7 million people and an almost complete loss of rubber profits.

What can we learn from this story? The rubber story of the DRC shows that humans are strongly connected to nature because nature produces resources (e.g. rubber) that we desire or depend upon. It, furthermore, describes the enormous effects that a single management regime (set of rules and regulations) can have on both natural resources and the people using them. To make his dream of a great Belgium State a reality, king Leopold II governed the DRC as a factory, imposing rules and regulations on the people living in the DRC. In doing so, he focused only on the profit he wished to obtain and, therefore, did not respect nature, nor did he respect the lives of the people from whom he demanded continuous rubber collection. Ultimately, his greed resulted in an almost complete collapse of the system at a major price. 

The story of the Democratic Republic of Congo is just one story that shows the connection between nature and humans. Ultimately, the connection between humans and nature is at the basis of all societies worldwide. Therefore, stories like this can be found everywhere around the world, and they are certainly not all negative! Think of timber production in Sweden, local fresh water management systems in Asia, and fisheries systems in Iceland for example. We are becoming more aware that we depend on natural resources and that we need to give nature the time to grow and renew itself. Fortunately, stories of extreme depletion and slavery become less common in the world. However, there is still a lot of work to do before we can realize worldwide sustainable management of resources. 

One of the major difficulties we face is that we do not understand the effect that different management regimes have on nature and how we can make sure that certain rules and regulations are accepted by society. To better understand this, scientists around the world study the connection between nature and society, as well as how different management regimes influence this connection. 

Scientists are studying the connection between nature and society worldwide using: (1) models, (2) remote sensing, (3) qualitative research, and (4) games.