Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are!
This widely known aphorism has its origin in the preamble of Brillat Savarin’s indispensable Physiologie du goût (Physiology of taste) that was firstly published in 1848. It is an excellent compendium of how anthropology of food has paved the way of my scientific career over the past three decades. I conducted collaborative research on biocultural interactions between forest dwelling societies and various humid forest zones of Africa and Southeast Asia. I have been guided by the constant concern of transcending disciplinary boundaries—of anthropology, botany, zoology, archaeology, pharmacology, geography, sociology, linguistics, and related fields—in order to assess the complex relationships that exist between human societies and their plant and animal environments. I have also taken care to carry out my research with the educated prior informed consent of my local informants and in an ethical manner that does not harm their biological and cultural integrity.
Food systems have always formed the epicenter of my research framework in order to catch the adaptive strategies elaborated locally as a response to a changing environment. What is at stake encompasses much more than just the absorption of nutrients in order to meet physiological needs. In essence, food is a total social fact as it allows to study tight interconnections between (i) health, (ii) nutritional status, (iii) biology ad ecology of resources, (iv) land use system and (v) cultural choices.
I have been conducting food surveys among rural ethnic groups that are no longer in a situation of pristine isolation and have become involved in a broader cash and market economy during the past half-century.
My first experience of anthropology of food took place in southern and coastal Cameroon where I carried out my graduate, postgraduate and doctoral research activities (from 1984 to 1993). This coastal evergreen forest hosts three societies, which have elaborated distinct subsistence economies: the Mvae are predominantly shifting cultivators and trappers; the Yasa are settled along the coast and give priority to marine fishing activities; the Kola Pygmies still valorize hunting and gathering and seasonally abandon their permanent camps along the road to move around and depend solely on forest resources.
After my recruitment at the French Research Institute for Development (IRD), I coordinated another research program located in the forest and savannah boundary of central Cameroon (1994 to 1998). This dynamic ecosystem—afforestation gains between 1 and 3 meters every year, so changes of ecosystem can be visible in less than two decades—is home to 4,500 Tikar people who live in close relationship with a small group of 350 Bedzan Pygmies. Three hundred years ago, the Tikar farmers moved further south from their native savannahs and came into contact with the Bedzan who taught them how to make a living in the forest. At first sight, the Bedzan seem subjugated by the Tikar, and are socially confined at the lowest layer of the stratified political system of their masters. But they are in fact in league with the supernatural forces that inhabit the forest. This connivance is a grant of symbolic power that counterbalances their misleading servility.
My third major fieldwork prominently based on food surveys took place in the Indonesian part of Borneo island after being seconded to the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Bogor, Indonesia (2001-2006). I conducted a collaborative research program on the nutritional ecology of the Punan former nomadic hunter-gatherers roaming the lowland forests of East Kalimantan. I compared two Punan communities of the same origin, language and culture—one still living in the deep forest, the other living in the mining and timber town of Malinau. The majority of Punan now live in such urban centres. Of the few thousands who still live in forested landscapes, most are small-scale farmers whose forays into the forest for herbal medicines, vegetables and wild boar and deer are more seasonal than daily.
My main conviction forged along the past 30 years is that the fate of the biological diversity of rainforests and that of the human societies depending on forests for their livelihoods are inseparable, and that good research on biodiversity requires to build upon this inextricable link. Since its emergence in the late 1980s, the paradigm of ‘biodiversity’ has significantly evolved up to the point of considering humans — and their extremely diverse cultural features — as consubstantial of biodiversity. Concerns about the preservation of biological diversity can no longer ignore the cultural diversity that goes along with, and sometimes safeguards, this biological diversity. There is urgent need to have indigenous peoples, traditional societies, and local communities tightly involved in all phases of research and related activities, as well as in the sustainable development and preservation of local biodiversity, in ways that acknowledge their empirical expertise. Nevertheless and besides any romantic consideration vis-à-vis local ecological knowledge, elaboration of a realistic and functional guidance on how to implement such partnership remains a real challenge.
- Cameroon, 1984-onward: Continued and regular research activities in the forested part of the country, among various groups of forest dwellers (hunter-gatherers, shifting cultivators, trappers, fishermen).
- Central African Republic, 1985: Ethnoecology of fishing among the Issongo freshwater fishermen.
- Democratic Republic of Congo, 2014-onward: teaching anthropology of food at the University of Kisangani, surveys on Oto and Twa dietary regimes in Lac Tumba region.
- Togo, 1983: Student study trip. Assessment of the ‘food selfsufficiency’ National Plan (1980-85) through the analysis of target development projects.
- Sumatra (Indonesia), 1988: Subsistence economy of the Kubu hunter-gatherers.
- Kalimantan (Indonesia), 2001-2010: Nutritional ecology of the Tubu Punan hunter-gatherers in Eastern Kalimantan. Position at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Bogor, among the ‘Forest and Livelihoods’ program; successively staff (2001-2006) and senior research associate (2006-onward).
- 2011-2017: Coordinator of Sentimiel, a research initiative dedicated to local knowledge regarding honey hunting and traditional beekeeping in the context of climate change.
- 2014-2017: French Research Group on Participatory Action Research & Citizen Science. PARCS is a research initiative coordinated by the Center for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology in Montpellier (France).
- Since 2013: Bushmeat Research Initiative within CIFOR.
- Since 2018: co-founder of HG-EDU, a research and advocacy group dedicated to hunter-gatherer education.
- Since 2019: Scientific Committee member of the ERC project Banturivers.
- Organizing and scientific committees of academic events and projects
- 1991, France: International symposium ‘Tropical forests, people and food: biocultural interactions and applications to development’
- 1993, Cameroon: International colloquium ‘Anthropology of food and development in intertropical Africa: from biologic to social’
- 2001, Cameroon: International conference ‘Human Ecology and resource management in the forest savannah ecotone of Central Africa’
- 2005, Indonesia: International travelling workshop ‘Reconciling conservation and development in the forests : Prospects, problems, and progress’
- 2005, Australia: Session at the 22nd IUFRO World Congress ‘Forests in the balance: Linking tradition and technology’ (as session convener)
- 2009, France: International Congress on Human Rights and Environment (France, 2009)
- 2009, France: 21st annual meeting of the French Society of Human Ecology ‘Transmissions between generations’ (as chair organizer)
- 2010, France: 22nd annual meeting of the French Society of Human Ecology ‘Homegardens: A place of life, knowledge, and biodiversity’
- 2010, France: International Conference on Congo Basin Hunter-Gatherers (as chair organizer)
- 2010, France: International conference ‘Taking stock of smallholder and community forestry’
- 2011, France: International forum of Paris on sustainable development (France, 2011) (as session convener)
- 2012, France: 13th International Congress of Ethnobiology (as chair organizer)
- 2013, UK: Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies (as session convener)
- 2014, France: Annual meeting of the Société d’Anthropologie de Paris (as chair organizer)
- 2014, Cameroon: International travelling workshop ‘Human ecology in forest and savannah boundaries: Twenty years of interdisciplinary research in Central Cameroon’ (as chair organizer)
- 2015, France: Session at the International Scientific Conference ‘Our Common Future under Climate Change’ (as session convener)
- 2015, Austria: Sessions at the 11th International Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies ‘Refocusing hunter-gatherer studies’ (as session convener)
- 2016, Uganda: Session at the 15th International Congress of Ethnobiology ‘Ethnobiological knowledge for improved human wellbeing and development’ (as session convener).
- 2018, Malaysia: 12th International Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies; Member of the scientific committee and convener of a pre-conference workshop, a side-event and a scientific session.
- 2019, Indonesia: International Conference on ecological intensification in aquaculture; Member of the organizing committee.
- 2019, France: International roundtable on participatory research (75th anniversary of IRD); Member of the organizing committee.
Contributions to films
- 1996. Scientific advisor and participant to the film: ‘The forest of the Baka Pygmies’ (in French).
- 2000. Scientific advisor on the BBC film ‘Wild Africa, Episode 5: Jungle’, showing honey harvesting, poison fishing and paracultivation of wild yams among the Babenzele hunter-gatherers of Bayanga.
- 2007. Producer of a thema of 3 videos introducing the changing livelihoods of the Punan hunter-gatherers in Borneo (Canal IRD). Vidéo 1 ‘Forest dwellers facing deforestation’ (3’08”); Video 2 ‘Marginalized peoples towards a new form of poverty’ (3’06”); Video 3 ‘Food and health: indicators of change’ (3’09”) (in French).
- 2008. Producer. Notre forêt, notre prospérité. Vivre en forêt de Bornéo. Film (20’21”) presented at the Musée de l’Homme (Paris, France), 4 April 2008, during the Sustainable Development week.
Contributions to online reports
- 2007. Scientific advisor in Woodman J. and Grig S. eds. Progress can kill. How imposed development destroys the health of tribal peoples.
- 2011. Co-author of an online report ‘Forest and peoples’ (Suds en Ligne, Les Dossiers Thématiques de l'IRD). Lead-author of chapters on subsistence strategies among forest hunter-gatherers, honey hunting, fresh water fishing, shifting cultivation, traditional ecological knowledge, diet-nutrition and health (in French).
Contributions to exhibitions and artistic events related to food systems and diets
- November 2007-April 2008. Co-commissioner with Hélène Pagezy of the exhibition and conference cycle ‘Living nature through children’s eyes’ (in French). This project was devoted to the collection of drawings portraying the way children see their societies and the relationship with the environment.
- June 2009-June 2010. Co-commissioner of the exhibition, conference cycle, and educational workshops ‘Diets and flavors of the world: the nourishing forest’ (Agropolis-Museum, Montpellier, France) (in French).
- June 2011-October 2012. Participant to ‘Binome #2: When art meets science’ (Les sens des mots, Universciences). An atypical two-person team composed of a scientist and a playwright. This initiative combines art and science through a tryptic ‘theatre play — audiovisual creation — interactive societal debate with the audience’. My experience of hunter-gatherer dietary regimes inspired the playwright Gérard Watkins. The piece ‘A condition d’avoir une table dans un jardin’ was played during several theatre festivals (in French). The text of the theatre play was published in 2011 by Voix Navigables.
- June 2011-September 2011. Contributor to the exhibition ‘Tropical rainforests, future of our planet’, Palais de la découverte, Paris, France (in French).
Teaching, Mentoring, Reviewing
- Mentoring of more than 70 master students.
- Supervisor for 9 doctoral theses (France, Cameroon, Indonesia, China).
- 30 hours of teaching annually; regular lectures at University of Montpellier 2, National Institute of Horticulture and Landscape in Angers, Faculty of Agronomy in Montpellier, Paris Institute of Technology for Life, Food and Environmental Sciences, National Museum of Natural History, Center for African Area Studies in Kyoto University, University of Kisangani.
- Member of the editorial board of Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedecine (2015-onward).
- Reviewer for international journals: Advances in Economic Botany, Anthropology of Food, Before Farming, Biodiversity and Conservation, Biological Conservation, Biodiversity and Conservation, Biotechnologie Agronomie Société Environnement, Bois et Forêts des Tropiques, Borneo Bulletin, Bulletins et Mémoires de la Société d’Anthropologie de Paris, Cahiers d’Agriculture, Conservation Biology, Conservation & Society, Current Anthropology, Earthscan books, Ecology & Society, Forests Trees and Livelihoods, Human Biology, Human Ecology, International Forestry Review, International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology, IRD éditions, Journal d’Agriculture Traditionnelle et de Botanique Appliquée, Journal of Ethnobiology, Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, Natures-Sciences-Sociétés, PLOS-One, Society and Natural Resources, Unasylva, VertigO.
- Bushmeat Research Initiative within CIFOR
- Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)
- Center for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology (Centre d’Écologie Fonctionnelle et Évolutive)
- Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS)
- CGIAR Consortium
- Climate Change anf Forests in the Congo Basin (COBAM)
- Cultural Survival
- Darrell Posey Fellowship for Ethnoecology and Traditional Resource Rights
- European Ecological Federation
- European Tropical Forest Research Network
- Extreme Citizen Science: ExCiteS
- Fondation Daniel & Nina Carasso
- Food Security Information Network
- Forest Peoples Programme
- French Association for the Progress of Science (Association Française pour l’Avancée de la Science, AFAS)
- French Research Group on Participatory Action Research & Citizen Science (Groupe de Recherche sur la Recherche Action Participative et les Sciences Citoyennes, PARCS)
- French Society of Ecology (Société Française d’Écologie, SFE)
- French Society of Human Ecology (Société d’Écologie Humaine, SEH)
- Guidelines for Considering Traditional Knowledges in Climate Change Initiatives
- Hunter-gatherers Resilience
- Help Doctors
- Indigenous Peoples and FAO
- Independent Science and Partnership Council (ISPC)
- International Association for Ecology (Intecol)
- International Commission on the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition (ICAF)
- International Society of Ethnobiology (ISE)
- International Society of Hunter Gatherer Research (CHaGS)
- International School for Agro-Development (ISTOM)
- French Research Institute for Development (Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, IRD)
- People and Plants International (PPI)
- Programme Pluridisciplinaire Régional Changements Globaux, Biodiversité et Santé en Zone Forestière d’Afrique Centrale (PPRFTH-AC)
- Research and Advocacy Group on Hunter-Gatherer education (HG-EDU)
- Sentimiel Initiative
- Society of Anthropology of Paris (Société d’Anthropologie de Paris, SAP)
- The Leakey Foundation
- Tikarology (archives on the Tikar of Cameroon)
- Tropical Rainforest: Future (Forêts Tropicales Humides : Avenir, FTHA)