Richards, Paul. 1996. Fighting for the Rainforest: War, Youth and Resources in Sierra Leone. Oxford: James Currey.
Paul Richards main aim in Fighting for the Rain Forest is to argue against what he calls the “New Barbarism” thesis, which presents violent conflict in Africa as being driven Malthusian determinants and cheap weaponry or, as he puts it, “Malthus-with-guns” (xiii). Using ethnographic methods and looking into the political ecology and economy of conflict, Richards shows how war in Sierra Leon is “a drama of social exclusion” (xiv). And “although the local history of resource acquisition is relevant to understanding the war there is no run-away environmental crisis in Sierra Leone. Young people caught up in the dispute specifically point to political failures as a cause of the war, and deny the relevance of Malthusian factors” (xvi).
In the place of the New Barbarism, Richards conceives of the “rebel movement in Sierra Leone as a sectarian intellectual response to the perceived corruption of a metropolitan patrimonial elite” (xxv). The RUF leadership is seen as a group of “excluded intellectuals,” sandwiched out of between a “mass of egalitarianism and the top-down power of hierarchs” (xxv). Comparing the RUF to the Shining Path, Richards remarks, “Both movements are incorrigibly didactic. Far from barbarism, both movements are precisely what one might expect when a group of embittered pedagogues decides to go to war” (28).
He also points to the crisis of the patrimonial state as a major source of the political unrest, particularly for youths. The patrimonial state, through its scaled-up personalized and uneven redistribution, was increasingly unable to extend and maintain its patron-client relations into the far reaches of the countryside. For Richards, the war and state crisis are as importantly symbolic as they are material: “In practical terms, ‘state collapse’ means collapse of roads and other communications leading to these marginal regions. For regions ‘beyond the pale’ symbolic transactions assume larger than normal significance in the attempt to re-establish contact with the wider world” (xxiii). In much of the book, Richards shows the dramaturgy and performativity of the state and the wars many other actors.
The RUF is much more readily understandable, it is suggested, if the background of state recession is put in place. The movement is a creature of the unresolved contradictions of the post-colonial state. Cold War aid kept alive the façade of international respectability – the official state. Donor pressure in the post-Cold War period has demanded deep reforms – but the reforms are leaning not on a real set of institutions, but on a façade. The real state, much reduced but still fed in significant measure by diamond wealth, remains patrimonial in character. (60)
One aspect that New Barbarism usually ignores or obscures is the role of foreigners in constituting the violent conditions of many African conflicts. Richards situates Sierra Leone within the deep histories of the Black Atlantic. And rebels are equally conscious of today’s international setting: “The insurgents use the forest, then, as a stage on which to enact a drama of state recession. But with their stage opening directly onto the Atlantic world the rebels hoped that this might make the drama visible even to the international community” (32). The New Barbarism thesis also presents local beliefs as further evidence of the “natives” depravity. “To write off backwoods philosophy as a bizarre cultural essentialism is a neat trick, since it hides the role of outsiders in helping create the unstable conditions against which ‘world making’ has to work” (83).
Richards shows how young people’s relationship with media (global and local) is part of this everyday philosophizing. Under the New Barbarism thesis, the fact that youth’s watch Rambo movies almost obsessively could be exoticized and listed as further evidence of their bloodthirsty proclivities. But Richards shows how youth’s themselves fit such media within their social reality, their modernity, and how they read them against/with their daily life struggles. “Far from being brainwashed by global media, young people in Sierra Leone use video features as a constructive resource for thinking out aspects of their own problem-beset lives… Young video watchers in Sierra Leone are above all interested in comparing modern experiences across countries and environments; they look to a global, cross-cultural, future, not to a tribal past” (111).
Seeing war as a social process means that the basic “socio-logic of rural life in forested southern and eastern Sierra Leone is not destroyed, or even suspended, by the advent of war. Life goes on, and people adapt their cultural skills to higher norms of violence – transforming, unwittingly supporting, and in due time domesticating these patterns of violence” (24). This as true for social relationships as it is to people’s relationships to the forest. The social institutions and infrastructures of living in the forest become a principal conduit of how rebellion plays out.