African environmental crisis narratives: Schemes, technology and development, 1904-1960

This chapter examines the origin of African environmental crisis narratives and development solutions provided by imperial science approaches. These narratives inspired colonial development research activities.1 However, the accuracy of these narratives remain disputed.2 Chukwumah Ijomah’ warns that such narratives are the result of misinterpretation due to ‘faulty scientific [thinking].’ In the context of the crisis narrative, James C. McCann4 describes a strange ‘agreement’ in the form of preconceived ideas between researchers and policy makers on historical conditions of the African environment, which although not scientifically corroborated, has persisted. As Rocheau and co-workers’ suggest ‘[t]he variety of crisis narratives suggests something other than a single recurring crisis.’ The development agents in the African colonies did not consider their actions as contributing to environmental crisis; instead they continued to blame local African communities.6

An important question that needs posing is the origin of the crisis narrative. We have previously introduced the environmental desiccation hypothesis that was posed by nineteenth-century European explorers. Three events influenced discussions that had become popular by the 1930s. The first was a global debate that arose from an environmental crisis in the midwest United States that was believed to have had counterparts in other parts of the world. The second event was the global economic slump in the 1930s, followed by extended droughts that exacerbated existing environmental conditions. The third was local methods of agricultural practices and livestock grazing in East African colonies that prompted the colonial governments to embark on large-scale schemes in attempting to solve environmental and economic problems.

Various large-scale experimental developments were designed according to experiences gained from western models of development science.' Reliance on technology as an instrument of development concentrated projects in the hands of Europeans, since Africans were perceived to lack the required expertise.8 Contrasted against indigenous production systems that existed at the time, these schemes were expected to demonstrate development success and environmental conservation.9 The new development model was also intended to supply raw materials to expanding export markets. According to Commoner Barry,10 ‘decisions [i.e., on large-scale projects] have often been well meaning ... but catastrophic in the ultimate effect on the environment.’ Such ecological ‘engineering tests’ were grounds for disappointment in colonial development ventures, since they were implemented on scales that ignored the potential limitations of the environments and new economic technologies.11 It is important for the sources of environmental crisis narratives to be identified.

Colonial officials maintained that advancement of any society would be coupled with increased demands for manufactured goods, which in turn required increased agricultural production to meet market demands. They claimed that this would encourage the peasants to shift from subsistence agriculture to growing commercial crops.12 However, as Van Beusekom11 convincingly suggests, the discussions focused on changes in development paradigms instead of understanding what actually happened to development projects in the light of stated goals. Although the goals were to reverse anticipated environmental impacts, nothing was said about the effects of development projects on the environment.

In this chapter we first present a theoretical basis for the African environmental crisis. Second, we examine the origins of the environmental crisis hypothesis—in terms of both global and local causes. Third, we analyze how the colonial land-use policy transformed indigenous resource use and created conditions susceptible to land degradation. Fourth, we examine the contribution of development schemes that were viewed as solutions to the environmental crisis.

Theoretical basis for African environmental crisis narratives

We discuss two theories—the ‘nature-culture trap’ posited by Emmanuel Kreike, and the ‘environmental change and policy’ conundrum discussed by Melissa Leach and Robin Means—to investigate how environmental crisis narratives might have originated. Emmanuel Kreike14 proposes three hypotheses to explain changes in the physical environment, which he describes as: modernization, declinist and inclinist, each of which reflects how the physical environment changes and the directions this may take. The modernization hypothesis focuses on the rigorous use of science and the application of technology as a solution to manage natural resources and environmental problems. It accepts certain levels of environmental degradation ‘as a price of progress and economic growth.’ Conversely, the declinist hypothesis reasons that the application of modern science is a cause of environmental degradation and explains how human agencies degrade pristine nature. The declinist paradigm claims that the pre-colonial communities lived in harmony with their environment. That changed when colonial involvement led to clearing natural vegetation to provide space for large- scale agricultural and grazing schemes.

More fundamentally, the inclinist hypothesis advocates the use of indigenous knowledge to explain adaptations to changes in resource man- agement in order to combat environmental degradation. It rejects the alarmist thesis of extreme environmental degradation which it attributes to prejudice in depicting the African people as agents of environmental crisis. Further, Kreike argues that Africa presents natural and social footprints of human agencies from pre-colonial periods, thus rejecting the idea of ‘pristine nature.’ That is to say, the African environment has changed in the past and will change in the future. He highlights the varieties of scales at which environmental changes occur, for which the drivers are both natural and human induced. He suggests that dynamic changes in nature-human relations—including the exploitation of natural resources and impacts of natural variability—are likely to continue to control environmental changes.

Melissa Leach and Robin Means,1’ by comparison, are categorical in their opinion that colonial and contemporary environmental policies are the principal forces driving the narrative of environmental degradation. The narrative is a powerful tool that perpetuates the viewpoint that African peasants misused their environments. It was so entrenched and durable that colonial and post-independence administrations used it as a guiding principle in developing environmental policies. We now go on to examine the origin of the narrative.

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