Empire, science and development

In Chapter 2 we used pre-colonial East Africa as a benchmark on which to re-appraise the environmental crisis hypothesis. We conducted a textual analysis of narratives written by European travelers who reported their observations of environmental conditions in the mid- and late nineteenth centuries. Some observers in Europe claimed that the observations and the texts were not scientific and therefore do not supply reliable information on pre-colonial environments in Africa. Others, however, were of the opinion that these textual narratives provide accurate representations, since the European travelers, missionaries and explorers were well educated in geographical sciences.

The texts provide a spatial analysis of the socio-ecological systems in Africa that comprised a diversity of cultural landscapes. Human settlement patterns not only portrayed the potential of the land for economic production, but also revealed limitations caused by disease vectors in humans and livestock. Based on their spatial analyses, some of the European travelers proposed environmental desiccation hypotheses, suggesting that the African environments were drying up. They cited evidence such as drying lakes, dry river courses that once carried water, African traditions of rainmakers and frequent droughts. However, such propositions ignored the fact that the climate in Africa is highly variable and characterized by cycles of droughts, famine and periods of heavy rainfall. Our textual analysis in Chapter 2 provides no evidence of environmental desiccation: later reconstruction of the events from missionary archives found no support for the hypothesis. On the contrary, the European textural narratives described diverse landscapes, including some with high soil fertility. In most cases, the African-managed landscapes were described using symbols and examples of European best-managed landscapes that would have been known to the travelers.

The narratives present evidence of sophisticated indigenous agricultural practices, in which soil conservation played an integral part. Various cultural landscapes were allocated to crop cultivation and animal husbandry. However, in the late nineteenth century, a train of disasters collapsed African systems of production.

In Chapter 3, we examined imperial scientific infrastructure from development perspectives. In a deterministic manner, the imperial scientific research infrastructure had promoted the African environmental crisis hypothesis, which influenced the thinking about agricultural and husbandry production and land use, as well as environmental conservation programs. In examining the ‘architecture’ of imperial science, we organized our review chronologically to provide a sense of time and events in the field of scientific research in East Africa. The pioneer years were crucial for planting the ‘seeds of science,’ and it was from this earlier period that the hypothesis of African environmental crisis emerged. The writings of the time placed the responsibility for reversing environmental problems with colonial scientists.

Scientific research during the pioneer years took the form of establishing research stations and research networks. Nevertheless, political, climatic and global economic events influenced investment in scientific research. The First World War years resulted in discontinuing many research programs, while the period of regional and global economic depression (the 1930s) was accompanied by further decline in investment in research activities. The scale of development had also shifted to large-scale schemes. Thus far, despite attempts to accelerate research on a variety of development problems, success had been limited. Rather than diminishing in influence, the African environmental crisis hypothesis gained popularity among colonial officials, who exaggerated the extent and rates of damage to the environment that they believed was caused by indigenous land use. Research was therefore considered as a tool for ‘testing’ various ideas, meaning that failures, too, would be part of the testing. During this period, the colonies had continued to rely on professionals from the metropole.

The Second World War and post-war years (1935—1950s) coincided with the application of social science research to development imperatives which merely investigated the behavioral responses of African peasants to development changes. A contradiction arose between social science researchers and colonial officials in that the researchers wished to proceed with empirical work, while the administrators preferred technical advice. It was not until the internationalization of research that better coherence between develop- ment and scientific research evolved—although, by that time, the focus had shifted from a local to a global development agenda. This required major changes in the relation between scientific application and the development agenda—for instance, it involved removing African peasants from their traditional lands, and using the land to establish large-scale agricultural schemes. By the time of independence in the 1960s, new problems had emerged. The expatriate scientific staff were leaving the colonies. Due to the lack of sufficiently trained indigenous scientists, the colonies were forced to rely on international organizations and the former colonial empire for financial and technical support.

In Chapter 4, we examined the global and local origins of the environmental crisis narratives. The colonial land-use policies that had associated indigenous land use with environmental degradation had themselves directly contributed to environmental problems. However, the officials did not report or acknowledge this fact. For example, the official policy of land alienation and displacement of populations created conditions that increased the risks of an environmental crisis. We presented case examples to show that the development projects that focused on soil conservation, agricultural and grazing schemes not only failed to reverse the conditions described as representing an ‘environmental crisis’ but triggered the very problems the officials had hoped to address. The colonial development policy was to shift from small-scale indigenous production systems to large- scale commercial ones, in order to capitalize on economies of scale.

Chapter 4 went on to show how the lack of scientific information for development planning contributed to project failures. Of the large-scale schemes into which much investment was sunk, none was successful, almost all for similar reasons—either neglect of indigenous systems of resource use or misreading of the African ecology. The groundnut scheme is a case in point—it resulted in removing the natural vegetation from many millions of hectares of African savannas and ploughing up the land; this accelerated soil erosion, thus producing a technical and ecological disaster.

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