DPhil Social Anthropology
Thesis: Keystone Institutions: At the Intersection of Nature and Culture in the Borgou Region of West Africa
Keywords: Antisua Forest, Baatɔnu people, Baatɔnum language, Benin, biophilia, Borgou, collective action, community-based natural resource management, ethno-ecology, Fulani people, keystone institutions
Oxford Supervisors: Reverend Professor Andrew Gosler, Professor David Zeitlyn
Benin Advisor: Professor Brice Sinsin, University of Abomey-Calavi (Benin)
Oxford Research Group: Ethno-Ornithology World Atlas (EWA)
Ryan Smith’s DPhil project is in ethno-ecology. It focuses on Baatɔnu and allied Fulani communities surrounding the Antisua Forest, a nature reserve in the Borgou region of Benin. Antisua was founded in 2000 by local citizens as an attempt to protect remaining wildlands and restore sacred or otherwise special places while strengthening customary social ties.
Figuring into this project is keystone institutions, a concept created by Smith and defined as systemic human-to-human relationships within a given society which bond the members of that society together, provide identity, shared norms, rules and solidarity, and which are drawn directly from connections with surrounding non-human species, ecosystems and landscapes. Keystone institutions in the Borgou include hunting, cultivation of yams (Dioscorea spp.), harvesting Vitellaria paradoxa nuts and preparing butter from them, spiritual practice and veneration of sacred places, traditional authority, and the husbandry and herding of the Borgou race of cattle.
The goals of the project are to contribute socio-ecological, historical and ethnographic knowledge to the cannon of Borgou studies; provide a platform for cultural and other actors in the Borgou to share their expertise; develop the concept of keystone institutions; and add to the larger ideas of biophilia and human & natural ecology.
Additional Research Interest Themes:
African and other diasporas; Borgou history; evolution; Francophone Africa; Gaia theory; Georgia history; indigenous species; reforestation; remarkable trees; restoration ecology; wilderness and wildlife
Originally from Lithia Springs, Georgia, in the United States, Ryan Smith has lived in the Borgou region of Benin in West Africa since 1998. He is the coordinator of the Antisua Forest Regional Council (CRFA): the Beninese non-governmental, non-profit organization he co-founded which synchronizes community-based natural resource management and other sustainable development and cultural strategies among the 15 partner villages of the Antisua Forest nature reserve. He is an expert on Baatɔnu custom, speaks Baatɔnum and French fluently, and, most importantly, is a father, grandfather, and head of a large Baatɔnu family.
MScR: Natural Resource Sociology, University of Parakou (Benin), Highest Honors; 2020
BA: History and Human & Natural Ecology, Emory University (Georgia, USA); 1995
Selected Written Works and Publications:
Smith, Christopher Ryan. 2022. “The Borgou and Its Spirits: Nature and the Traditional Faith Practice of the Baatɔnu People of West Africa.” In Religion and Nature Conservation: Global Case Studies. Awoyemi, S. M., R. Borde, A. Gosler and A. Ormsby, Editors. Routledge/Taylor & Francis: UK.
Smith, Christopher Ryan. 2018. “The Volunteer Who Stayed: Twenty Years Creating Forest and Family in Benin.” Worldview, Winter 2018-2019: 27-29.
Smith, Christopher Ryan. 2003. Guide Préliminaire à la Forêt Communautaire Antisua. Parakou, Benin: Conseil Régional de la Forêt Antisua (CRFA).