The pre-colonial European textual narratives

Our sources of knowledge for this period are European travel journals. The European pioneers described the environments in terms of images of ‘best- kept’ European landscapes, for example, parklands and beautiful scenery. Depending on the season of the year, the pre-colonial African environments were presented as ‘pristine,’ and the human-environmental relationship was described as ‘Arcadian’—referring to harmony between nature and people.46 The local societies had sufficient food and through networks of exchange between neighboring agricultural communities (via trade caravans), they had created an integrated economic and ecological system throughout the region. Some of these communities had developed sophisticated irrigation and farming systems that served as ‘food baskets’ for entire regions before the arrival of the nineteenth-century European travelers.47

Notably, a decade or two later (from the 1890s), the opinion of Arcadian nature had changed. This period coincided with long cycles of environmental disasters—a collapsed pastoral production system, tribal warfare, slavery, diseases, locust plagues, droughts and famine, and the expansion of tsetse flies—these disasters turned the environment into ‘wild’ nature (as opposed to Arcadian). The combined effects of these calamities were a decline in human demography and the breakdown of political systems.48 From the 1900s onwards there was a significant change in European perceptions of African environments towards an image of ‘apocalypse’—the so- called ‘African environmental crisis,’ for which African societies were blamed.49 The solution envisaged was building imperial scientific infrastructure to promote development and environmental conservation (Chapter 3).

Imperial scientific research infrastructure and development

At the core of colonial development initiatives was the transfer of technological expertise to the colonies in the hope that extraction of raw materials would become more efficient. In that scenario, development involved economic growth—it was ‘not merely an increase in national production,’ but also increases in ‘material goods,’ while at the same time ‘development’ was claimed to expand social services to the colonized populations.30 However, there is a catch here. Despite attempts to link science and development, in terms of the scientific research infrastructure, there was no obvious direct relationship, contrary to claims made by various stakeholders.31 It is from this perspective that one may justifiably question whether science drove development, or if the two subjects had no significant relationship.

Lynton Caldwell’2 presents six reasons for the mismatch between science and development, which we paraphrase here. First, development in the colonies—despite imperial desires—had little regard for scientific methods. Second, the optimism of science did not translate into successful develop* ment processes. Third, the reality was that there were no developmental institutions—even where such institutions were identified, they lacked the capacity to implement development programs. Fourth, development opportunism displayed in the colonies was driven more by political pro* cesses than by research questions. Fifth, discrepancies existed between scientific ideas and development processes. The sixth reason is that cultural, regional and inter-regional communication barriers undermined development processes.

Would the lack of link between science and development processes, and the scale of research initiatives account for the shifting narratives of ‘environmental apocalypse’?53 The question is justified in the light of the shifting nature of scientific ideas during the twentieth century. For example, by the 1920s, the British Empire referred to its colonies as ‘discoveries,’ with the empire shining light on underdevelopment in Africa. Later in the 1930s, development was understood as being ‘experimental,’ and in the 1950s it represented ‘expert knowledge,’ as applied to agricultural and grazing schemes. Yet, the latter period—although considered at the time as the ‘golden age of the developmentalist era’—was later described as ‘monstrous,’ because of the extent of damage caused to the environment.’4

Claude Alvares5’describes another aspect of mismatch between science and development emphasizing its ‘international dimensions, intimately secured and supported by international capital, conceived and executed in the interests of the designers of the project.’ Development assistance provided by international capital reflects what Keith Nurse and Daniel Wight’1' refer to as the ‘parachute model.’ This model of development comprises packages of technical assistance ‘parachuted in’ and run by technical experts and project managers with a predetermined global agenda. We may use an example here.

In the pastoral lands, experimentation neglected to include development planning based on the premises of ecological and social sciences.’' From the early twentieth century, researchers misjudged the situation; they assumed that the African peasants and pastoralists would accept development schemes because that would improve their economies and provide access to free services, which would in turn motivate them to increase production.

Rather than designing projects to implement gradual changes over time, projects had a short shelf-life, expecting quick economic returns that, in most cases, never materialized.

Additionally, although the post-independence period offered technical solutions, international development programs during that time failed to learn from past mistakes.” The expectations of different actors influenced project outcomes, and not in small part.’9 In particular, the expectations of administrative officials did not match those of African societies.60 Regarding research activities, colonial administrators were more concerned with practical solutions and less about ‘people working in laboratories’ whose findings did not immediately relate to field conditions.61 For development- oriented science, therefore, the main challenge was how to address the needs of different groups of actors: imperial scientists who were seeking long-term solutions to solve problems; colonial officials who were seeking practical actions; and African societies who were more anxious about their immediate survival needs.62

One would, therefore, be able to recognize the false assumptions of imperial science that might have been the cause of the misinterpretations of development outcomes.6’ The first false assumption was that the scientific theories and methods developed in Europe could be exported to the African colonies without modification. The second false assumption was that indigenous African knowledge systems—that for centuries had been responsible for management of the variable environments—could be ignored. Such false assumptions are clearly reflected in the failed agricultural and pastoral development programs that were attempted during those periods.64 This is the consequence of African environmental crisis hypothesis and its application.

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