Origins of the environmental crisis hypothesis

By 1935, E. Stebbing,16 the professor of forestry at the University of Edinburgh, was advancing a hypothesis that due to the misuse of natural resources, the Sahara Desert was expanding southwards and threatening the West African colonies. Was it a global view of environmental changes, or local land-use events, or both that popularized these African environmental crisis narratives? The origin of the African environmental crisis might be considered as being both global and local, in each case, producing varied narratives. A historical overview has recently been published.1' We examine the global origin first, followed by local perspectives.

Global environmental narratives

The global environmental discourse has its origin in the US Great Plains during the late nineteenth century and early 1930s. Overgrazing aggravated by extended droughts, overexposed soils blown by winds created the problem referred to as the ‘dust bowl,’ during the period more colloquially referred to as the ‘dirty thirties.’18 The American Government responded by implementing massive land rehabilitation programs, as well as research to investigate the socio-ecological triggers of the dust bowl. The turning point was the merging of restoration work and increased interest in ecological research.19 The realization emerged that the problem was prompted by human activities—such as breaking up the soils of the Great Plains and allowing heavy livestock grazing in the rangelands—while ultimate causes were found elsewhere. According to Donald Worster,20 although the dust bowl appeared in the 1930s, the processes had begun some 50 years earlier. Accordingly, the close link between the dust bowl and the economic reces- sions of the 1930s might be merely coincidental.

Because of its global implications, the problems related to the dust bowl were considered as ‘cascading events’ that might have been initiated in small areas but spread to affect larger areas.21 There was a perception that conditions associated with the ‘dust bowl’ existed in the newly formed African colonies,22 thus suggesting that the risk of the global dust bowl that ruined the economies of the American Great Plains was also a possibility in African environments.23 An important question posed by David Anderson24 is ‘how ... the global science of economic depression, dust bowl and droughts in the USA influenced environmental and development policies’ in Africa.

Among extreme ideas that influenced colonial development policy were those of Elspeth Huxley2’ (mentioned earlier in Chapter 1) who called for the deliberate reduction of livestock in the African reserves. We pay attention to her arguments because they were both radical and representative of colonial thinking at the time. In her view, the colonial government should take far-reaching decisions if the grazing lands were to be saved from permanent damage caused by livestock overgrazing. She stated: ‘[i]f nothing is done—it is certain that within ten years, large areas of pastureland will have been turned into desert, water supplies will have been seriously depleted, and the affected areas will suffer from frequent droughts.’ Colonial experts, including Huxley, discounted the possibility that excess stock could be sent to other grazing lands. She added: ‘in the first place there is not always suitable land available, and in the second place, the new land would soon be eaten to death like the old.’ In her opinion, colonial actions against the problem of livestock overstocking should be resolute, including the use of force where necessary, even if that meant ‘calling in the army.’ Another of her suggestions was that all the male animals should be castrated for ‘the breed [to] die out.’ The other equally implausible proposal was ‘compulsory culling,’ which she argued would somehow raise the living standards of the African peoples. Such proposals appealed to colonial officials who linked land degradation with poor land use by African peasants.

Local environmental crisis narratives

We break down our presentation of local perspectives of African environmental crisis narratives into ecological and development/management and political perspectives. According to the ecological perspective, indigenous land use removed vegetation—through deforestation, use of fire, overgrazing

or overcultivation—which created gullies across landscapes. This view went even further, claiming that under the combined consequences of these factors, formerly productive lands would potentially be converted into ‘deserts’ if interventions failed.'6 A reference point used was the widespread environmental degradation of the 1930s.

In Africa, during the 1930s, the ‘dustbowl’ was described using different terminology such as ‘desertification’—a process linked to human actions that convert productive land into sterile environments.2, It was suggested28 that the arid and semi-arid regions inhabited by millions of African herders were prone to the problem of desertification: first, because the regions were overstocked, and second, because the climatic conditions behind the dust bowl were active. In official reports, desertification was used as a proximate cause of land degradation—associated with livestock grazing and indigenous crop cultivation methods.29

During this period, there was a major policy focus on African peasant agriculture and livestock husbandry across the East African colonies. There were two reasons for this. First, there was a general perception that the population numbers in African reserves (areas allocated to Africans) were growing rapidly, with the likelihood that land degradation on the scale of the American Great Plains was a potential risk. Second, the European settlers—who were also being criticized for their systems of agriculture— were determined to deflect attention from themselves by campaigning to place African areas under soil conservation programs. This tactic appears to have convinced colonial officials who ‘acknowledged the need to impose greater controls on the methods of African husbandry.’30 Consequently, while previously the practice had been merely to relocate African populations from their lands, the new approach was to encourage African farmers to produce more food and cash crops on the reserves. This was one side of the plan; the other side (from the perspective of the European settlers) was that allowing Africans to expand cultivation would accelerate soil erosion. It was for this contradictory reason that soil conservation developed political significance and it was in this respect that the links with the US experience were made.51

Indeed, among the colonial officials, some believed that the links between the US experience and African environmental conditions were definitive. Elspeth Huxley32 was one such example, as mentioned before. She stated, ‘Dust storms in America have provided the most specular example of contemporary wind erosion ... a situation ‘exactly similar [to the] ... affairs’ in Africa. Another European presumption was that land degradation in the African reserves was attributable to resources held as a common pool, while the herds were privately owned. This problem— which in later decades came to be known as the ‘tragedy of the commons’— underscored the perceived causal relations between land degradation and individual livestock holdings.35 The presupposition is that individuals will continue to overharvest resources held in common for personal benefits.

Hence, the suggested solution was to control the use of common resources.’4

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