Geographies of fear: Exploring the transboundary nature of conservation and conflict among the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda

Lisa Trogisch

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


This thesis explores the role of fear in undermining efforts for an intended transboundary protected area (TBPA) straddling the Virunga volcanoes composed of Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda. Since the borderland – commonly referred to as ‘the Virungas’ – is world-renowned as the last habitat of endangered mountain gorillas as well as for longstanding intra- and interstate warfare, international organizations promoted a TBPA as a key strategy to simultaneously pursue and integrate nature conservation, economic development and regional peace. Based on fifteen months of fieldwork (2015-2018), this study examines the stark contrast between the compelling TBPA imaginary of a boundless nature overturning colonial borders and violent conflicts, on the one hand, and the complex local realities of fear in relation to persistent conflict informing all aspects of everyday life, on the other. Engaging with the diversity of fears points to the coalescence of conservation- and conflict-related threats, affecting how people perceive, perform, react, respond to and (re)create diverse – social, political and economic – geographies. To explore these multiple geographies of fear in the Virungas, this thesis starts from the premise of emotional human geography that the creation and organization of natural landscapes are both condition for and consequence of human agency shaping and shaped by emotions.

In order to study the paradox between peace-promoting TBPA efforts juxtaposed by different forms of fear in regards to ‘green’ violence (Büscher and Ramutsindela 2016) including ‘green’ militarisation (Lunstrum 2014), the thesis builds on the political ecology literature for conceptual and theoretical guidance. Throughout the iterative sensemaking process of empirical research and analysis, a conceptualisation of fear gradually developed to encompass the multitude of threats emanating from conservation and conflict dynamics. This focus informed the overarching research question of this thesis: how is fear employed, experienced, and responded to in the conservation-conflict dynamics of the intended Virunga Conservation Area among the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda?

Four sub-questions constitute the structure of the thesis along four chapters following a logic of scaling down the levels of analyses across the transnational, national, local to the individual level. To address these questions, a novel theoretical framework on geographies of fear brings critical geopolitics (Pain and Smith 2008) and emotional geographies (Bondi et al. 2005) into dialogue with critical conservation studies of political ecology. I hold that this framework provides an emotio-spatial hermeneutic to analyse the interdependencies of fear between transnational dynamics and everyday lives. The methodological choices and location-specific adaptations comprise elements of participatory and visual ethnography and developed into a practice of ‘emotional ethnography’.

The thesis makes three major theoretical contributions, namely i) advancing an emotional political ecology through an innovative conceptual framework on fear, ii) offering a novel research approach to violence, and iii) proposing a shift from an analytical focus on ‘resistance’ to ‘coping’. The synthesis underlines that engaging with fear – and other emotions – can open up new lines of inquiry, dialogues and understandings in wider human geography studies. Ultimately, grounding critical discussions of conservation practices in the emotional realities of those who experience and enact these practices in their everyday lives would aid to address the root causes of conservation (in) conflict borderlands. Finally, I advocate to institutionalize emotional awareness and engagement in universities to create a healthier academic culture for researchers and the people who work with us. This can advance critical reflections on the colonial legacies in foreign-led fieldwork practices and contribute to news pathways in the decolonialization of academic practices.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Büscher, Bram, Promotor
  • Fletcher, Robert, Co-promotor
  • de Vries, Lotje, Co-promotor
Award date4 Oct 2021
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789463959674
Publication statusPublished - 2021


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