I. Empire, science, society and development

The African environmental crisis—is it a myth?: An introduction

The motivation for writing this book was a need to understand the roles played by imperial science in the process of development in the former British colonies in East Africa over a period of nearly one-and-half centuries. Given that the origin of imperial science itself is from outside Africa— with different ecological, social and historical bearings—the imposition of foreign scientific knowledge and its impacts must not only be evaluated, but also understood in terms of how development processes were influenced by popular hypotheses, in particular the African environmental crisis. This hypothesis surmises that the African environmental crisis was induced mainly by indigenous systems of resource use—and that the purpose of imperial science was to rectify the situation. The intention was to provide alternative methods of resource use by introducing new technologies and scientific knowledge to expand economic production, while at the same time promoting environmental conservation. However, in the development process, while local African communities were the subject of research initiatives, they were not participants in the identification of environmental and developmental problems.1

If local communities took no part in problem identification, on what basis was imperial science used to link those societies to the presumed African environmental crisis? In order to answer this question, we need to conduct a historical analysis. For example, Kate Showers2 has argued that historical assessment methods should have the capacity to produce qualitative data that describes ‘processes of change, sequences of events and identification of relationships.’ Accordingly, imperial science research and development findings that failed to identify events but that scapegoated African land uses for environmental degradation will be contested.’ In sum, imperial science created a myth about adverse environmental changes—not only did they blame indigenous systems of land use, they also failed to acknowledge indigenous knowledge and the huge environmental damage caused by development programs or application of a faulty science.4

We will go even further by posing the same questions asked by Brian Goldstone and Juan Obarrio1 in their edited essays African Futures, on dimensions of African crisis. ‘How might we provincialize, cut down to size, the very concept of crisis? What functions does the term perform? Can we begin to imagine Africa beyond the pervasive sign of “crisis”?’ In unpacking the proposition and the questions, we examine if the opinions were persuaded by evidence provided by imperial science, or by the social and political prejudices of imperialism towards resource use by African societies.6

This book endeavors to synthesize imperial science and development literature spanning three historical periods: pre-colonial, colonial and post- independence (1848-1990). We discuss the origin, causes and processes of the presumed environmental crisis. We use the protectorates of Kenya, Uganda and the British Trust Territory of Tanganyika (a German colony until 1916) and their post-independence counterparts (Figure 1.1) as a template to provide common intellectual perspectives of the African environmental crisis.' We examine the scientific and social theories that might have contributed to misinterpretations of the African environmental crisis hypothesis. We do so in the context of roles played by peasant agriculture, pastoralism and soil conservation, large-scale agricultural and grazing schemes, control of disease vectors such as tsetse flies (that cause human sleeping sickness and trypanosomiasis in cattle), and locust plagues; each of which influenced the way the hypothesis was applied to development initiatives in East Africa.

The discussions fall under the following sections. The first section defines key terms—environmental crisis, imperial science and development—to understand how they are applied in the present work. The second section introduces the framework of environmental history to highlight processes of environmental and socio-economic changes. The third section highlights the relations between empires, science, colonized societies and development. We describe environmental causalities that linked the populations to the African environmental crisis hypothesis. In the context of the pre-colonial period, the work examines the late nineteenth- century European textual narratives on the conditions of the African environment. Additionally, the work examines the imperial research infrastructure and the mismatch between science and development. It scrutinizes the origin of the environmental crisis proposition. The fourth section examines how the experimental and social science research might be used to verify the environmental crisis hypothesis. It scrutinizes factors that influence African peoples’ responses to development and the roles played by administrative science in development dialogue among officials and with the African peasants and herders. The fifth section scrutinizes the roles played by disease vectors and agricultural pests in environmental change.

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