Seminar: Monument of Nature? An Ethnography of the World Heritage of Mt. Kenya

Mount KenyaIn 1997 Mt. Kenya, a mountain region in Central Kenya, received World Heritage status. The designation of the area as a World Heritage Site rested entirely on natural scientific arguments. Among other things, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee lauded Mt. Kenya’s glacier-clad summits; it glorified its Afro-alpine moorlands and diverse forests; and it proclaimed the entire area as one of the most impressive landscapes of East Africa.

In her thesis Monument of Nature? An Ethnography of the World Heritage of Mt. Kenya, Marlous van den Akker disentangles a number of administrative, historical and national political conditions that complicate Mt. Kenya but that have no place in this typical nature conservation discourse. During the seminar she will focus on two such conditions. First, she will draw attention to a prolonged rivalry between the two government institutes that are jointly responsible for Mt. Kenya’s daily management. For several decades, these two institutes have been in competition and have tried to outsmart each other. Mt. Kenya’s World Heritage listing, she will demonstrate, was strongly grounded in these tussles and meant to reverse existing administrative arrangements. Secondly, she will discuss a set of modifications that were made to Mt. Kenya World Heritage Site in 2013. Like Mt. Kenya’s initial designation, these modifications were justified on the basis of biological and ecological arguments. However, she will show, what truly initiated these developments were white landowners’ anxieties over land expropriation, vested in land debates that continue to rake up colonial settlement histories; that articulate racial boundaries; and that incite colour bar politics.

Mt. Kenya’s ecological and geological qualities, as well as its extraordinary scenery, enabled World Heritage stakeholders to capitalize on a technical, depoliticized conservation discourse – however, she argues, rather than any inherent natural feature of the landscape it were conditions such as the above that truly shaped, and continue to shape, Mt. Kenya World Heritage Site.

Marlous van den AkkerMarlous van den Akker studied Cultural Anthropology at Leiden University. In 2016 she finished her PhD project on natural World Heritage, which was funded by the Leiden Global Interactions Research Profile. Recently, she lectured in environmental anthropology and completed a post-doc position at the Leiden Institute for Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology. She works on topics that relate to the history of African nature conservation; the politics of tribalism and ethnic identities; the current popularity of heritage; post-colonial nation building; colour bar politics; and the position of white citizens in present-day African societies.

Date, time and location

06 April 2017
15.30 - 17.00
Pieter de la Courtgebouw / Faculty of Social Sciences, Wassenaarseweg 52, 2333 AK Leiden
Room 5A29 (5th floor)


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