African History and Environmental History


African History and Environmental History

William Beinart, St Antony's College, University of Oxford

Introduction: Approaches to Environmental History 

Human beings are, before anything else, biological entities as Crosby reminds us.[1] Their interaction with other species and with the natural environment, and their appropriation of the natural resources without which life is impossible, must be a central element in history. Significant sorties have been made over this terrain in a variety of historical writing, and more so in other disciplines. With respect to Africa, environmental issues have been a perennial concern for historical and physical geographers, anthropologists, archaeologists and medical scientists. Historians and social scientists, however, have often been uneasy about incorporating environmental questions into their work, and not only because of disciplinary divisions and their lack of familiarity with the subject matter. Some earlier western intellectual traditions evinced a strong environmental determinism to explain different forms of society, racial characteristics and social division. [2] 

The legacy of French Annales historians, especially Lucien Febvre, did provide an alternative framework. While Febvre insisted upon studying human history within the totality of the natural environment, or upon ‘geography’ as an element of history, he energetically attacked environmental determinists who laid too much emphasis on climate, or soil, in shaping culture. Culture and politics, he argued, transcended specific environments. Natural influences were extraordinarly complex and mediated by cultural understandings: it was difficult even to make assumptions that islands produced particular cultures, or that littorals were more densely populated, or that towns developed especially on rivers, or that people living in deserts were isolated. Febvre’s warning that people with simple technologies were not necessarily more closely shaped by, or attuned to, their environments, was subconsciously echoed in later Africanist scholarship.

Nevertheless, Febvre and subsequent Annales historians did attempt to discuss in detail the way in which natural resources played a part in shaping particular societies. He did allow climate, at its extremes, a significant role and although he recognized that there were complex societies in the tropics, he succumbed to an older view of the influence of the tropical forest: ‘so overpowering that it stifles all life except its own’.[3] Braudel, who carried Febvre’s torch, developed a rich description of the Mediterranean environment as a foundation for his social and political history. But he tended to deploy environmental factors as a backdrop-a natural history ‘whose passage is almost imperceptible, ... a history in which all change is slow, a history of constant repetition, ever-recurring cycles’; this he contrasted with a political history ‘of brief, rapid, nervous fluctuations’.[4] He was less successful in linking these layers of his ‘total history’, in exploring reciprocal interactions between human and natural forces, or in examining the human impact on the natural world.

This latter concern about the destructiveness of human society has, however, been evident at least since the Enlightenment in Western thought.[5] Fuelled by an anxious environmentalism and by the reaction to concrete modernism, it has been a dominant strand in recent environmental history, especially in the United States since the 1970s. Crosby placed the earth-shattering environmental consequences of European expansion over the last 500 years at the heart of world history. Eurasian diseases and immunities, together with the technology gap and ruthless conquest, facilitated the devastating depopulation of the Americas, and their repopulation by invaders-human, animal and plant.[6] The taming of nature and indigenous peoples emerges as the central motif. [7] 

The new environmental history has in certain respects run in parallel with trends in African history because it shared many well-established Africanist moral concerns and perspectives: an essentially corrective and anti-colonial approach which emphasized African initiative in the face of European conquest and capitalist exploitation. It has been intellectually more congenial for Africanists to reintroduce environmental issues within this framework. At the same time, focus on environmental questions has extended the range of African studies, providing further scope for interdisciplinary interaction with geographers as well as natural and medical scientists. There are deep wells of accumulated research in such fields.

Environmental concerns have necessitated moving from well-thumbed administrative files to explore new archival sources. They have opened the way to consideration of fascinating non-human agents in history such as fire and water, animals, insects, and plant invaders. They have raised further questions for oral fieldwork which are strongly familiar to the great majority of Africans who, until recently, lived in rural settings. Both African people, and the settlers and colonists who came to the continent, debated environmental issues intensely; nature and landscape have also been evoked in many different modes of cultural expression. An environmental approach facilitates the mining of rich but still neglected seams of intellectual and cultural history-from African fables and eco-religions to colonial fascination with botany and wildlife.

Colonialism and the causes of environmental degradation

A number of interlinked lines of analysis in recent African environmental history bear considerable import for understanding the relationship between coloniser and colonized, white and black. Such approaches are beginning to assume the status of a new paradigm and have successfully inverted colonial stereotypes which celebrated Western knowledge and bemoaned Africans as environmentally profligate. 

Firstly historians have explored the environmental consequences of colonial incursions including appropriation of natural resources such as wildlife, forests, minerals, and land by companies and settlers. This process was at the heart of European expansion from its very inception: a core myth of the foundation of Madeira, one of the first extra-European islands colonized, was a seven year fire by which this densely wooded landscape was cleared for settlement.[8] Spanish conquistadores claimed tracts of the Americas, not only by reading proclamations and warfare, but by symbolically striking trees, or lopping branches with their swords.[9]

Some Africanist writing shared what John MacKenzie calls the apocalyptic vision of global environmental history based on the profoundly disruptive colonial encounters in the Americas and Australia. [10] Kjekshus’ Ecology Control and Economic Development in East Africa (1977) is a sombre account of early colonial rule in Tanzania, sketching the impact of war and diseases such as smallpox and jiggers. Critically, he argued that colonialism spread the endemic tsetse fly and trypanosomiasis, causing sleeping sickness among people and effectively excluding cattle from large areas.[11] Ecological catastrophe was reflected in a period of demographic halt or decline, perhaps comparable to the period of the slave trade in parts of West Africa. [12] Leroy Vail painted a similar picture of the colonial intrusion into eastern Zambia. [13] Colonial policies which curtailed hunting, encouraged concentrated village settlement and stimulated labour migration exacerbated the effects of the nineteenth century Ngoni invasion by expanding the area dominated by bush, wildlife and tsetse.

In the Empire of Nature, MacKenzie himself vividly illustrates the predatory character of settler and imperial hunting in southern Africa, which catastrophically reduced wildlife and was responsible for final extermination of a couple of mammal species, the quagga and blue antelope. [14] Had other key species such as the elephant and lion been limited to the present day boundaries of South Africa, they may have been lost. Even where African chiefs such as Khama in Botswana and Lobengula in Zimbabwe, who retained independence till the late nineteenth century, tried to limit and control the process, they had little success. Environmental decay is discussed in many studies of partial displacement, or compression, of African societies into smaller areas of land as a result of settler colonialism from the Cape to Kenya. Water, the staff of life in more arid zones, was also directly appropriated. In South Africa, settler farms were often named after the captured fountains-Grootfontein, Brakfontein, Modderfontein-which initially sustained them. By the mid-eighteenth century, as the trekboers moved into the dry interior of South Africa, nearly 50 per cent of new farm names were water-related.[15] 

Secondly, while colonial states in Africa facilitated appropriation of natural resources, some also became concerned about environmental regulation, including forest protection, game preservation, soil and water conservation.[16] They also attempted to eradicate, through environmental management, human and animal diseases, such as malaria, trypanosomiasis, and tick-borne maladies, whose complex ecological etiology was becoming apparent. 

Analysing colonial conservationism has in itself been a controversial issue. My own approach has been influenced by discussion of early twentieth century American ‘progressive’ conservationism which aimed to secure the wise usage of the natural resources in order to underpin long-term capitalist development.[17] Richard Grove provides a backdrop to these developments by richly illustrating the depth of similar conservationist thinking in the British and French empires from the eighteenth century.[18] Colonial officers advocating regulation deemed it essential for efficient and safe natural resource exploitation and ultimately the future of agriculture, whether by settlers or African peasants. Similarly, forest protection and afforestation were initially pursued largely to ensure that timber extraction could be sustained. Ideas and presciptions for environmental regulation which were applied to African areas had sometimes been forged previously in relation to settler-also perceived as wasteful and inefficient.[19] In both cases, environmental and social control were inextricably linked. 

Environmental regulation was certainly sometimes used to curtail African cash cropping but in general was not seen to undermine colonial development, but to facilitate it. Such analyses emphasize the broader context of international scientific developments, and the history of ideas, as well as the particular economic and political conjunctures which gave them salience and power. The discipline of Ecology, elaborated in the early twentieth century, which increasingly informed understandings of environmental change and intervention, owed a good deal to the global imperial context. [20] 

Some scholars have, however, emphasized policies and motives other than conservationism in explaining such far reaching interventions. Conservationist discourse, they suggest, could mask the real intent of colonial states, especially where settlers were present. Early interventions to protect wildlife were not least made to secure it for hunting by the colonial elite. Government and settlers in Kenya, David Anderson suggests, stirred up anxiety about the destructive capacity of African agricultural methods as part of their justification of land appropriation. [21] Attempts to control soil erosion in African reserved areas have been interpreted as largely a consequence of segregationist imperatives, so that agriculture would not collapse nor more Africans migrate to town. [22] The rise of concern by South African and Lesotho officials about overgrazing in the Lesotho mountain highlands between 1945 and 1952, Driver argues, ‘had little, or nothing, to do with the reality of pasture deterioration and everything to do with the issue of transferring the administration of the three High Commission Territories’ to South Africa.[23] 

These apparently divergent approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive: all of these factors could come into play in shaping the timing and pattern of particular interventions. The imperatives of economic development could often override conservation controls. Aesthetic and scientific concerns also played some part in colonial conservation strategies. Carruthers suggests that Stevenson-Hamilton, first warden of the Kruger National Park, quickly converted to a primarily scientific and preservationist agenda in the early twentieth century rather than trying to protect animals for elite hunting.[24] In the longer term, the potential of tourism provided a direct economic argument for wildlife conservation. 

Despite their sometimes divergent understandings of colonial conservationism, most scholars agree that it was highly instrusive. Approaches to forestry, it has been argued, were drawn from the scientific and commercial models of Europe and India which excluded rural people. [25] Purity in conceptions of wilderness resulted in the depopulation of national parks; wildlife conservation has been seen as exclusive, even authoritarian, in the colonial era and beyond.[26] 

Conservationist interventions, linked with other priorities of agricultural development, social control and segregation, also fed into wholesale attempts to change African patterns of land use. Such prescriptions, whether attempts to corral transhumant pastoralists into sedentary modes of life, or villagize societies with scattered settlement, have been seen in themselves as a major cause of rural degradation, both social and environmental.[27] Officials and scientists often misconstrued local systems of resource use in attempts to protect nature from people, and assumed that labour for major physical interventions such as ridging and terracing was freely available. [28] 

Such resettlement and engineering projects, rooted in a scientific and modernizing logic, have been subjected to particularly critical scrutiny because they outlived the colonial era and remained central in the development strategies of independent African states and international agencies. Scholars have pointed to continuities in justificatory discourse, and in the patterns of ‘purposive rationality’ espoused by bureaucrats in the post-colonial era.[29] While they may have proposed very different property regimes, socialist experiments such as Ujamaa villages in Tanzania could share a similar approach to physical planning. In drawing together such critiques of ‘authoritarian high-modernism’ on a global level, James Scott uses Ujamaa, alongside Soviet collectivization, colonial agricultural schemes, and the city of Brasilia, as key examples.[30] Displacement necessitated by major engineering projects such as big dams seemed to advertise the arrogant aspects of modernity.[31] 

Thirdly, the inadequacy of colonial and Western science has frequently been stressed, an argument strengthened by the failure of major schemes even after independence. While political resistance and bureaucratic incapacity played a part in the mishaps of planning, nevertheless lack of research, misunderstanding, scientific hubris and technical weakness have all been demonstrated by researchers. Interventions designed to control trypanosomiasis by the slaughter of game or removal of people in the early decades of this century may have facilitated its spread.[32] Kate Showers argues that faulty contour banks in lowland Lesotho, one of most eroded landscapes on the continent, caused more problems than they solved; storm water welled up behind them, broke through and caused new gullies. [33] Ridges, encouraged and enforced in fields in many parts of British central Africa, could collapse in sandy soil, or, as in the lower Tchiri valley of Malawi, provide a nesting ground for white ants.[34] The Nile perch, introduced into Lake Victoria in the 1950s to provide the basis for expanded commercial fisheries, ate indigenous cichlid fish which were not only at the heart of local supplies for consumption but ecologically unique on account of their diversity.[35] 

The devasating Sahel famines of the 1970s triggered renewed debates about the spreading Sahara in West Africa. French colonial scientists and their successors had linked deforestation caused by African agrarian and pastoral systems with desertification, drought and famine. In Adapting to Drought (1989), a microstudy of the Manga Grasslands in northern Nigeria, Mortimore, raised questions about the concept of desertification. He suggested that ecological change at a local level was still ill-understood, that African people were undeservedly characterized as misusing natural resources and were highly adaptive in their approach. The boundaries of the grasslands he examined were much the same as reported by the Anglo-French Forestry Commission of 1937; drought could be associated only in a limited sense with anthropogenic factors. Much of the emergency, he argued, was caused by changes in rainfall patterns: ‘any farmer or stockowner in the Grasslands would call the problem underprecipitation, not overexploitation’.[36] 

A further striking example, which has rapidly achieved paradigmatic status in the literature, is Leach and Fairhead’s West African research on Misreading the African Landscape. They illustrate how, over many years in Guinea, French colonial officials and subsequent experts interpreted the patches of forest to be found in the savannah zone as evidence of deforestation and framed their interventions with this in mind. By contrast, Leach and Fairhead found that ‘elders and others living behind the forest walls provide quite different readings of their landscape and its making. At their most contrasting, they bluntly reverse policy orthodoxy, representing their landscape as half- filled and filling with forest, not half-emptied and emptying of it. Forest islands, some villagers suggested, are not relics of destruction, but were formed by themselves or their ancestors in the savanna. And rather than disappearing under human pressure, forests, we were shown, are associated with settlement’. [37] Scientists, they argue, could not easily divest themselves of colonial assumptions about the destructiveness of African agricultural methods especially where land was perceived to be short. Outside experts drew on a long line of orthodoxies in which Africans were depicted as botanical ‘levellers’. [38] Such analyses have emphasized that scientific understanding has been embedded in broader political and cultural agendas and that interventions have seldom been socially neutral.

Fourthly, as a corollary, the validity and salience of local knowledge about the environment, and means of living in it, have become an increasingly rich area of research as well as a powerful ideological statement about the right to manage resources. It is a point made with equal force in respect of Australian aboriginal people or Native Americans, although, because so many of them were comprehensively dispossessed, the argument has potentially different and greater policy import in Africa and Asia.

Perhaps it is not coincidental that some of the most trenchant statements have come from West African contexts, in that this region was least affected by settler colonialism and maintained particularly innovative forms of African agricultural production. In his influential book Indigenous Agricultural Revolution (1985), Paul Richards explored the capacity of West African smallholders to make ‘the best of natural conditions’, ‘capitalizing on local diversity’. [39] ‘This ecological knowledge’ he argued, was ‘one of the most significant of rural Africa’s resources’ and was by no means simply a ‘hangover from the past’. He focused on food crop strategies, especially low-technology wetland rice cultivation in Sierra Leone, where ‘people’s science’ was at work in the deployment of locally evolved seed varieties to cater for small shadings in natural conditions.[40] Any outside aid, he argued, should work flexibly with local knowledge and techniques; oral and practical skills should not be shouldered aside simply because their practitioners were unqualified in science or had limited literacy. His research fed into concerns articulated by Calestous Juma in The Gene Hunters about the intellectual property rights of local people everywhere both over wild and cultivated species in the face of a new international ‘scramble for seeds’. [41]

Local knowledge has also been addressed in debates about the thorny question of the environmental vulnerability of common property regimes. These remain of central importance not only because so much of Africa, especially its pastureland, remains to some degree common, but also because a number of African governments are moving towards systematic policies of privatization; decisions in this sphere may have an impact on millions of people. In its older forms, the argument against commons was often a commentary on the ‘backwardness’ of Africans, their cattle complex, and the apparently irrational imperatives of pastoral activity in which accumulation was measured in animal numbers at the cost both of their quality and that of the pasture. In its modern form, captured in Hardin’s ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, actors are seen as rational individuals who maximize exploitation of a free common resource at the cost of the resource itself.[42] This analysis implied that African people overstocked not simply because of traditional attitudes but because individuals could accumulate without bearing the costs of maintaining the common pastures.


Africanists have tended to reject such simple renditions of the problems of common management. Counter-arguments have noted that private landholding has clearly been no guarantee against environmental degradation: there are many examples where freeholders or capitalists have mined the land and moved on.[43] White farmers in South Africa on privately owned land have certainly been subject of a powerful environmental critique for overstocking their pastures since the late nineteenth-century.[44] Borehole development and the government’s Tribal Grazing Land Policy implemented in Botswana from the 1970s resulted in partial privatization of grazing land, at the cost, Pauline Peters shows, of intensifying both inequality and degradation.[45] Moreover, people have gained access to commons as members of communities, with traditions of socially circumscribed usage; traditional authorities, customs and religious ideas often reinforced constraints on exploitation. Systems of dispersing herds over wide areas, or moving animals seasonally between pastures, were commonplace in Africa.

Nor was it clear that African pastures were, in general, degraded. In a key article on overgrazing controversies, Homewood and Rodgers argued that there was limited evidence of serious degradation in common management systems. They questioned calculations of fixed carrying capacities for East African pastures and suggested that overgrazing was frequently invoked but not botanically demonstrated. Referring to Baringo district in Kenya, they maintained that ‘the history of the area is more suggestive of a series of oscillations in stock numbers and vegetation conditions precipitated by . . . climatic fluctuations governing this semi-arid area, rather than a long-term trend of anthropogenic environmental destruction’.[46]

An avalanche of studies in range ecology has developed such findings.[47] At the heart of these new approaches is the idea of disequilibrium. Ecologists will search in vain, it is suggested, for a stable ecosystem with a predictable and optimum balance of ‘climax’ vegetation. Range management practised by African pastoralists allowed for high-risk accumulation and heavy stocking at favourable moments, and also rapid loss in times of drought. Attempts at controlled management or stock limitation were not only likely to be resisted or to backfire, but were ecologically unnecessary. Evidence suggested that pastures could recover during periods of lighter stocking. These were powerful arguments against interventionist strategies and in favour of close attention to local techniques of management.

With respect to communal areas of Kwazulu, South Africa, which had long been seen as highly degraded, Shackleton suggested that the particular type of grass cover established through long and heavy common usage, though different, was not less productive.[48] It apparently sustained consistently high stocking levels over a long period and local people had, by implication, found a way of maximizing pasture use with relative environmental safety. In Nigeria, Bourn and Wint found that much of the recent increase in livestock numbers was taking place not in semi-arid pastoral zones but in areas of population increase and agricultural intensification, as part of mixed farming regimes, and as a response to local tsetse clearance.[49] Livestock, Mearns noted, were often good for the environment. Not only could common grazing lands be more productive than private ranches, but domestic animals could enhance soil fertility through spreading dung, and control bush encroachment.[50] In sum: the economic and social benefits, especially for poor people, of access to commonage for their animals, vital for multiple uses such as draught, milk, meat as well as exchange, were not necessarily measured in environmental costs. [51] 

South Asian and Latin American literature about the ‘environmentalism of the poor’, which adds a directly economic interpretation to the celebration of local knowledge, provides a parallel.[52] In this argument, poor people, especially in rural areas, who are more immediately dependent on natural resources such as water, trees or soil for sustenance have an overwhelming interest in retaining them in usable form as well as maintaining equitable access. In Africa also, many examples could be found of ‘indigenous’ soil and water conservation.[53]

Ecofeminist perspectives have informed an increasing appreciation of women’s local knowledge about nature. Vandana Shiva elaborated gendered analyses of science as a patriarchal practice which facilitated projects of ‘domination and destruction, of violence and subjugation, of dispossession and the dispensibility of both women and nature’. [54] Women, by contrast, have been presented as more benign in working with nature, and their local knowledge more replete with organic metaphors. Anthropologists have long recognized African women’s role in the front line of managing nature, as the continent’s main cultivators, and the specific content of their ideas and practices is increasingly being explored.[55] Simultaneously, however, scholars are emphasizing that, in particular regions and societies, women’s ideas varied considerably. While ecofeminism might provide some framework for examining these, it has served as a rhetorical and mobilizing set of ideas, rather than a sharp analytical tool: ‘by essentializing the relationship between women and nature, [ecofeminism] has represented history in generalized ways which entrap women in static roles’. [56]

Fifthly, interpretations of the impact of demographic growth in Africa have changed significantly within this new environmental literature. Colonial ideas about population, especially up to the 1930s, were not uniform. While specific degraded reserve areas were judged overpopulated, Africa as a whole was sometimes conceived of as underpopulated. However, after the Second World War, colonial officials, and American foundations dispensing aid, increasing viewed population growth as a problem both for social and environmental reasons, because it would undermine development expenditure and exhaust natural resources.[57] William Allan, a Zambian official with a deep understanding of African agricultural systems, nevertheless thought that the system of citemene, in which trees were lopped and burnt to form a rich ashbed for millet production, had become unsustainable because of population increase.[58] Overpopulation ran in tandem with overstocking as an explanation of degradation.

These neo-Malthusian ideas have been challenged at many different levels: rich Western countries, it was argued, consumed more than even the most rapidly expanding populations of the South; a more equitable distribution of global wealth would in itself defuse the population explosion. Boserup made a positive correlation between population growth, agricultural intensification and innovation.[59] This has been extended and developed with respect to environmental impacts. Tiffen, Mortimore and Gichuki demonstrate in their book More People, Less Erosion that peasants greened their land in Machakos district, Kenya, over a period of fifty years from an environmental low-point in the 1930s, despite increases in population. [60] A key factor in their analysis is not only the significance of local knowledge in managing environments, and relatively cautious state policies, but the scale of investment and innovation in both intensified agriculture and conservation that accompanied denser settlement.

Sixthly, scholars have systematically illustrated the centrality of conflicts over environmental issues in rural anti-colonial movements and rebellions. These were often of great moment precisely because natural resources were so central to the lives of rural African people. In late nineteenth-century West Africa, chiefs resisted attempts by the colonial state to assert control over forests. Disputes over management prompted them to make common cause with coastal lawyers and proto-nationalists such as Casely-Heyford. [61] More robust colonial development and conservationist strategies, in both British colonial and settler territories following the Second World War, triggered widespread protests and helped to drive peasants into the arms of nationalists.

In Zimbabwe, conflicts over the threatened clearing of the Matopos National Park, near Bulawayo, and related interventions fed into the remarkable Sofasonke resistance movement in late 1940s. The National Democratic Party later found the neighbouring area a fertile ground for recruiting; tax collections were boycotted, dipping tanks destroyed and conservation regulations ignored. Joshua Nkomo addressed meetings in the park and Rhodes’s grave was attacked. [62] In the lower Tchiri district of Malawi, agricultural and conservationist planning was supported by the modernist chief Tengani, formerly an employee of the South African Railways, who tried to impose his own draconian discipline, time-keeping and agricultural rules on his people. This combination of colonial and local chiefly state, Elias Mandala demonstrates, fuelled widespread dissidence.[63] Nor have conservationist interventions been absent from analyses of the origins of Mau Mau in Kenya.[64] Chieftaincy was often a lightning rod for such conflicts both because of the intercalary role of traditional authorities and their responsibility for many aspects of environmental management. 

And lastly, the fortunes of African societies have long been enmeshed in wider economic and social forces; environmental degradation has been strongly linked with these processes which are also sometimes seen as intensifying African susceptibility to environmental calamity.[65] Mandala’s investigations of rural economy and ecological management in the Lower Tchiri valley in Malawi demonstrates how international and regional processes shaped its people’s options in responding to floods in the 1930s; many men were pushed into the sub-continental labour market. [66] Watts argues that the transformations wrought by colonialism and cash-cropping hamstrung established strategies to cope with famine in northern Nigeria. [67] Drawing on Amartya Sen’s idea of entitlements to food, rather than drought, as the major cause of famine, Megan Vaughan and others have explained the centrality of markets, and economic and gender differentiation, in mapping susceptibility to hunger.[68] Civil conflicts bred in the Cold War had far-reaching environmental repercussions: warring parties, linked to global markets, shot out elephants for their ivory in Angola and Mozambique.[69] Millions of refugees placed intense pressure on resources in receiving areas. Debt, structural adjustment, the collapse of civil authority and warlordism have prompted the stripping of natural resources for export and compounded environmental losses. 

African History and the issue of responsibility

In summarizing and juxtaposing a range of arguments, I have inevitably simplified individual studies and connections between them. This increasingly wide-ranging literature is now a very a valuable resource in a number of disciplines. It captures with a degree of accuracy not only the recent mood of Africanist scholarship, but also certain striking features both of the colonial relationship and postcolonial states. It may be well not to exaggerate the impact of academic research, by no means the only vehicle for such ideas. Nevertheless inverting colonial ideas about environmental degradation has been part of a far-reaching critique of asymmetrical power relations, both within particular countries and internationally between North and South. Fundamental assumptions about knowledge, rights to resources and consumption have been challenged. 

At least at the level of development rhetoric, if not always practice, sympathetic attention to local knowledge and participatory planning, rather than root and branch intervention, are widely advocated. Development strategies designed to be both pro-peasant and gender-sensitive, such as dispersed agroforestry, rather than afforestation in plantations, have reflected these new directions.[70] Similarly, community-based resource management has become a major area of research and policy development in fields such as wildlife, where CAMPFIRE (the Communal Areas Management Plan for Indigenous Resources) in Zimbabwe has been a continental flagship. CAMPFIRE was evolved in the 1980s to restore rights of management over wildlife and natural resources, restricted in colonial legislation, to local communities through their district councils. It also planned co-management strategies for sustainable exploitation of natural resources, notably by increasing the numbers of wildlife outside protected reserves.[71] 

While it is vital that these analytical and policy gains are not lost, they are now sufficiently robust and secure to withstand examination and extension. Arguments rooted in an anti-colonial and sometimes populist or anti-modernist discourse can present us with an analytical closure, too neat an inversion, which is not always appropriate in a post-colonial world where the sources of power have changed. Clearly, it is essential to keep issues of equity at the forefront of analysis, to combat racial assumptions in respect of resource use, and to understand past relationships between colonial authority and environmental regulation. But it is equally important that routes of research and analysis are not disguised by the strength of a new consensus.

There is guidance within other branches of African studies where analyses of power in Africa before and after colonialism, as well as the recent political travails of the continent, have helped to provoke reassessment. Historians of the slave trade and slavery, long a touchstone for developments in African history, have evolved a more complex sense of responsibility and morality. This recognises the slave trade not only as a European-controlled Atlantic system of exploitation, but a trade with African participation and with many complex outcomes.[72] The rise of great West African empires, notably Asante, Dahomey and Oyo, was intimately linked with slave capture, trade, militarization and intensified forms of internal slavery. Similarly, analysts of contemporary African governance and of the structural weaknesses of African states are forging a historically informed vision integrating the legacy of colonialism with a critique of African political practice, African modes of authority, patrimonialism and the scourge of corruption.[73] And as white domination has ebbed in South Africa, so the historiographical concerns of the apartheid era, with their focus not least on racial oppression and black resistance are being modified; there is less moral and theoretical certainty. The implications of these more complex analyses of historical responsibility and power should be applied also to environmental questions.

African power and environmental transformation

One route forward may be to turn to a longer history and introduce another rich body of writing on environmental change. Aside from sub-disciplines such as physical geography, archaeology and historical climatology, which address very long-term perspectives, some historical work also modifies understandings of the impact of colonialism. Certainly, important new human diseases were introduced during the early colonial period, as well as the cattle epizootic rinderpest in the 1890s, which swept down from East Africa to the Cape. Some African communities lost more than 80 per cent of their cattle. African societies, especially in southern Africa, found themselves with greatly diminished access to land following colonial conquest. But Africans in many regions had the immunities, and the demographic and political weight, to withstand disease and displacement. Overall, and in the longer term, the demographic explosion of the twentieth century, which began earlier in places, is far more notable than any temporary halt. It is now commonplace to argue that direct colonial control in much of Africa was a relatively brief episode; environmentally and demographically it was less cataclysmic than in North and South America, the Caribbean, Australia and New Zealand. 

African societies, especially in the north, west and east of the continent, had been to some degree interconnected with global interchanges of diseases and species well before the beginnings of European expansion and the transatlantic slave trade in the sixteenth century. This, Crosby argues, was one of their sources of strength.[74] Through exposure to diseases such as smallpox over a long period, they achieved greater immunity than ‘new world’ populations; at the same time, diseases endemic in Africa proved a major disincentive to European colonization. Africans became even more deeply bound up in the extraordinary spread of plants and techniques that has accompanied European expansion over the last half-millenium. For the purposes of this argument a key question arises: to what extent did they enter into such transactions voluntarily? 

One way of answering is to ask about the advantages that might have accrued from the adoption of new species. In an ambitious book, which errs on the side of environmental determinism, Diamond suggests that domestications of plants and animals took place in particular regions of the world very largely because the most suitable wild species for domestication were found there, and not because of the character, or stage of development, of any society.[75] Some crops, including species of palm, sorghum, millet, yam, rice, teff and coffee, were domesticated in Africa. These, with cattle and iron, opened the way to the extraordinary movement of Bantu-speaking peoples from West Africa, eastwards into the Great Lakes region and then south starting over three thousand years ago. Bananas, absorbed perhaps two thousand years ago from further east provided new momentum. ‘Banana farming’, Schoenbrun notes, ‘offered . . . a revolutionary tool to pry open the wet, dense rainforests to settlement’.[76] 

But Africa was perhaps not blessed with the most promising domesticable food plants or animals in global terms; relatively few species were exported from the continent. (In southern Africa, particularly, a very limited number of plants were found suitable for domestication as food sources, although the region added richly to the world’s range of cultivated flowers.) Africans, by contrast, absorbed many new species through the European maritime empires. A corollary of Diamond’s argument is that plants domesticated elsewhere offered enhanced food security, productivity, variety, labour saving or cash crop opportunities.

Notable in the growing crop repertoire were American domesticates such as maize, cassava or manioc, tomatoes, many beans, chili, potato, tobacco, cocoa, prickly pear, agave and avocado. There are examples of colonial powers pressing particular seeds or crops on to African communities. Moreover, these processes were by no means free of conflict; not all communities benefited equally. But by and large Africans adopted new species voluntarily, a testament to their agricultural innovation. Such plants have fundamentally altered the range and balance of species in the continent, helped to shape demography, farming systems and environmental impact over the long term. New crops gave people enhanced power to shape their environments. Just as it is increasingly difficult to conceptualize imperialism without understanding the opportunities and constraints inherent in the transfer of plant and animal species, so too with African history itself. 

In his overview book Africans, Iliffe places environmental issues centre-stage: ‘Africans have been and are the frontiersmen who have colonized an especially hostile region of the world on behalf of the entire human race. That has been their chief contribution to history. It is why they deserve admiration, support, and careful study’.[77] He quotes a Malawian proverb: ‘It is people who make the world; the bush has wounds and scars’. Some may be uneasy about according environmental control quite so central a role in the contribution of Africans to world history and clearly women, as well as men, were at the cutting edge of these frontiers. Iliffe qualifies this central contention in that he sees ‘the achievement of human coexistence with nature’ as equally significant to its control. Nevertheless, his focus is on demographic expansion, and on command by Africans of natural resources.

Some scholars argue that it may not be very useful to understand Bantu expansion as single historical phenomenon.[78] Tracing the spread of language, crops, iron and pottery styles does not always confirm physical movement. Bantu-speakers’ sensitivity to local ecologies may have been enhanced because they sometimes absorbed people, and modes of living, in the areas to which they expanded. Vansina, who does adhere to the idea of the spread of Bantu-speaking people through much of sub-saharan Africa, together with the techniques, livestock and crops which they were evolving, suggests that this did not result from ‘overpopulation’ but from ‘accident’ and ‘natural drift’. [79] He does not see Africans as subject to the forces of nature; echoing the Annales school, he recognises complex reciprocity ‘mediated by the cognitive reality of the habitats in the people’s minds’. [80] Yet we are left with an essentially benign picture, with people flowing gently over the continent, by way of its most productive and amenable niches. 

This seems an uneasy position. The scale and variety of movement, whoever was involved, over the long term makes it difficult to escape the conclusion that there was unsustainable demographic expansion, sometimes exhaustion of resources, in local areas. Major climatic events or natural disasters such as droughts could certainly reveal and intensify the consequences of population growth, but they could not alone have been the cause of population movements, changing strategies of resource use and settlement. [81] 

There are a number of examples in the literature of societies which probably did overtax their natural resources. Interpretations of the decline of Great Zimbabwe in the fifteenth century have invoked an element of environmental causation: ‘overcropped, overgrazed, overhunted, overexploited in every essential aspect of subsistence agriculture, it ceased to be able to carry the very concentration of people that it had given risen to’. ‘Without fundamental changes in technology and agricultural system’, Connah concludes, Great Zimbabwe ‘was fated to destroy itself’. [82] Sustained droughts and spreading tsetse belts, devastating for the cattle herds which seem to have been an essential element of subsistence, may have been contributory factors.[83] It is true that environmental explanations have been qualified: the core population of the Great Zimbabwean state probably drew tribute from a wide area, which may have diminished its dependence on cattle in the immediate surrounds; the site was abandoned during a warmer, wetter period which might be thought to have allowed increased production.[84] Tswana towns did later cater for significant concentrations of perhaps ten thousand people. But Tswana towns were moved regularly, more difficult in the case of stone-built Zimbabwe, and it seems clear from a comparative exploration of settlement patterns in the region that large concentrations of people could have a major impact in pre-colonial African contexts.

The centuries-old tradition of Haya iron-smelting, Schmidt argues, may have been terminated partly because of deforestation and exhaustion of the fuel supply in north-western Tanzania.[85] Harms compares the Nunu of the Congo basin to the New England settlers in North America at much the same time, concerned primarily with taming the land and maximizing their take of fish.[86] Perhaps he stretches this analogy too far, yet he demonstrates how even a relatively decentralized society adapted and improved their technology to the point where it threatened the resource itself, guided by an ideology of internal colonization. Sutton discusses sophisticated East African irrigation and terracing systems supporting dense settlement, which broke down before the nineteenth century, probably because of declining yields under intensive exploitation (although possibly also because of declining rainfall and denudation).[87] The populations involved seem then to have dispersed. The Bemba practice of citemene, or ashbed cultivation, which required extensive lopping and burning of tree branches, even if relatively containable in times of land plenty, helped transform this part of Zambia. [88] The Bemba symbol of masculinity was the axe.


All human survival disturbs nature, itself a dynamic set of forces; environmental transformation is a condition of development. Clearly, the impact of hunter-gatherers will be of a different order from industrial society, but, as now seems to be accepted, the earliest aboriginal settlers in the Americas and Australia, even without iron tools or livestock, were capable of contributing to the extermination of large mammal species. Critically, historians must allow for changes in modes of exploitation as particular societies engaged with markets and technological change, both international and local, which gave specific natural resources value as commodities. In North America, the long trade in beaver skins, where native Americans themselves systematically trapped and in places exhausted their supply, is a case in point. The ivory trade is a parallel example, and it is worth stressing that for agrarian African society elephants were amongst the most dangerous animals since they trampled and ate crops. Commercialization of palm oil in nineteeth-century coastal West Africa led to removal of some older forest cover and the establishment of new plantations. Everywhere, new techniques of hunting by firearms, fishing with nets, cultivating with ploughs, could alter relationships between people and nature. 

This is not an argument which suggests that the outcome of exploitation can be predicted in the exhaustion of resources and scattering of people. It should also be emphasized that by no means all environmental transformation is best conceived as degradation. It is not an argument which precludes periods of relative stability in particular locales over the long term, once local frontiers closed. Clearly, as the sources cited show, African societies developed deep and many-facetted bodies of knowledge about their local environments. Moreover, this approach certainly allows for a dynamic view of local knowledge; there is still a great deal to learn about the accommodations reached between people and nature, the way these were interpreted in different societies, and the way they were policed.

Nor did colonization necessarily or immediately bring about ideological transformations which lent themselves to a breakdown of constraints in the exploitation of nature. As Maxwell and Ranger have argued, the eco-religious elements in Zimbabwean territorial cults did not disappear in the twentieth century: their surviving authority must be analysed as part of a response to rapid environmental changes.[89] Maxwell takes issue with Van Binsbergen’s thesis that changes in economic and social scale were directly reflected in the demise of local cults and the rise of ideas about a high god and Christianity. He suggests that eco-religions may have been reinforced in the colonial period as an explanation of agro-ecological stress and a popular critique of state intervention. 

My argument is rather that we have to allow for variable outcomes. The same logic might apply to the management of common property resources. When control and accountability do break down, often under pressure from social change, population growth, markets, war or drought, then there is scope for degradation or ecological stress.[90] It is not necessary to subscribe to ‘tragedy of the commons’ arguments in order to recognize the ‘extreme precariousness’ of areas like the Sahel ‘to all impacts, whether natural or human-induced’.[91] Changes in forest cover can be conceived of as ‘forest conversion’ and can include ‘tree-farming’, but trees on common land can also, under particular conditions, be chopped more quickly than they are restored. In contexts where land boundaries are tightening, continued transhumance can be a recipe for conflict. 

In some peri-urban contexts with very rapid population growth, uncertainty over land rights has exacerbated difficulties in the provision of urban services and the development of urban environmental controls.[92] The breakdown of local political authority and an inability to maintain secure control over land, over wandering stock and theft can not only result in lack of protection of natural resources but can also contribute to the abandonment of crop production. There undoubtedly are some areas of communal and customary tenure in Africa, such as Lesotho and neighbouring Herschel district, which display ‘massive gully erosion, . . . a visible conjuncture of geology, political economy and agricultural history’, and where systems of tenure may hamper remedial action.[93] 

The argument that denser settlement can lead to less erosion, as outlined by Tiffen in respect of Machakos District in Kenya, in many respects echoes others in praise of local knowledge. But they also suggest that a key factor in the transition from ‘badlands to farmlands’ was the landholders’ ability to secure effectively private rights over, and invest in, both arable and grazing land. [94] There was a sixfold increase in the area of land cultivated between the 1930s and 1980s. Lack of opportunity and resources to invest and to improve and manage land closely has been a significant problem when extensive systems have been undermined by land scarcity. Investment in arable production, especially, can be more difficult under some forms of customary tenure where control of land and improvements are not assured. 

Although he is deeply aware of the complexities of environmental change, the social consequences of intervention and the need for participatory development, Mortimore argues for strategies of intensification which must involve the state.[95] Natural environments will inevitably be transformed and changed, but investment together with conservationist safeguards can bring increasing ‘bioproductivity’ and greening. Intensification, in his view, is more likely to produce environmentally safe outcomes. Reynaut supports this conclusion, but warns that Tiffen’s findings ‘must not be inappropriately generalized in order to sustain a new "dogma", inspired by evolutionist theories, which would then replace the "vicious circle" model within which, until now, the link between population growth and environmental degradation has been confined’. [96] Flexibility is essential in searching out models for environmental stability, he argues, which could include protectionist strategies and environmental planning by the state and local communities.

In this respect, it is important to emphasize that African ideas and practices in relation to common land and settlement can change. As illustrated above, during the late colonial period and afterwards in anglophone African countries as well as Zimbabwe and South Africa, land use planning schemes, accompanied by various forms of villagization, were one of the major triggers for rural resistance and resentment against the state. In some contexts, such as post-Ujamaa Tanzania, many people have drifted back to dispersed settlements. But one of the most striking points which I learnt when researching land reform in the Eastern Cape recently was that rural people did not necessarily wish to maintain their older forms of scattered settlement. In probably the single most important invasion of state-owned land in 1990, those involved chose close settlements or villages, along the lines of colonial and apartheid schemes. [97] Through much of southern and central Africa, informal self-settlement is taking place in villages along transport routes or close to urban centres.

People in the Eastern Cape certainly did not explain their strategies with reference to conservation (and many still wished to retain access to common grazing land). Their rationale mirrors a priority of planning officials of earlier years: dense settlements may facilitate the provision of services from the state, such as transport, schools, clinics, water and electricity. Women and young people especially favoured such settlement strategies. Critiques of CAMPFIRE in Zimbabwe have noted the rather limited economic gains it offers to local communities. In northern Matabeleland at least, some communities opposed it also because it conflicted with their ideas of modernity and their ‘desire to leave behind a life of suffering in the bush with animals’.[98]

Science, Ecology and History

More complex readings of the history of science and knowledge, an exciting area of academic enterprise, may also be valuable. Scientific developments, research agendas, and institutions, even when government-funded, have been rooted in far broader intellectual networks than could be shaped by any particular colonial state; the relative autonomy of scientific investigation, debates within disciplines and battles between scientists and officials are all evident. The dichotomy between western science and local knowledge also requires modification. While there were encounters characterized by mutual incomprehension, systems of knowledge have often been porous and plural over a long period of time. 

On the one hand, for example, Feierman argues that African medical ideas were open to many new influences.[99] On the other, even at the height of colonial control, there was a significant sprinkling of sensitive scientists, not least in ecological, agricultural and medical fields, such as Trapnell and Allen in Zambia. Colonial scientists were deeply divided in the 1930s as to whether and how fast desertification may have been taking place in the West African Sahel. Predictions about a spreading Sahara, although in the longer term widely accepted, were strongly contested at the time.[100] Ecology could be associated with ambitious global planning of natural resources, and even eugenicist and segregationist policies, but some of its protagonists saw themselves as radicals and free-thinkers, holding ‘progressive’ or even left wing social views.[101] During the interwar years especially, some scientific prescriptions developed in African contexts were less didactic and hubristic than in the period from the 1940s to the 1960s. 

A wide range of proposals were canvassed which still have salience today. One example could be the community forestry schemes pioneered in Malawi in the 1920s and 1930s by J.B. Clements. [102] Another was the recognition of partial immunity acquired by Africans against malaria; it provided an argument for caution in colonial schemes to eradicate the disease completely.[103] Innumerable anthropologists recorded local environmental knowledge and techniques; their work is now a valuable resource for historical research. Transmission of ideas and practices was clearly mediated by relationships of power, but that did not in itself halt the process. 

Moreover, scientific work, past and present, shapes our very capacity to think about environmental change, about the history of relevant disciplines which must be part of environmental history, and about ecological interactions which are beyond the powers of historians and social scientists to research. Richards, often cited as a key advocate of African knowledge, also insists that social scientists listen to natural scientists. He has celebrated John Ford’s analysis of the history of trypanosomiasis in Africa, precisely because it required the understandings of a natural scientist to unravel complex issues of habitat, vectors and immunities. Ford, as in the case of the malariologists, emphasized that Africans had lived for a long time with the disease, learned to mitigate its effects, and that their cattle may have acquired partial immunity.[104] Richards distances himself from those social scientists who wish ‘to mine the natural sciences’ very largely ‘for material that might lend itself to cultural critique’ and to examine only ‘cases, where the bioscientific problem was framed in an unprofitable way’, as in the ‘excesses of colonial agricultural planning’.[105] 

Failures in planning have perhaps been better rehearsed by historians than the rapidity with which scientists in Africa grappled with, and sometimes grasped, complex diseases, ecologies and natural phenomena. Historians must remain critical, and identify where the intersection of scientific practice and state power has disadvantaged poor people, or women, but also humble in recognition of the limits of our discipline. Our own methodologies, even when highly sympathetic to alternative visions, remain locked into rational processes essentially similar to modernist or scientific thought. Local knowledge, it should be added, also has its limitations, sometimes disastrously in respect of diseases such as HIV/AIDS. It is unclear whether this tragic epidemic may be in part another legacy of late colonial scientific endeavour-in this case polio vaccines; protagonists of this view are not in a majority.[106] Whatever the case, the lack of local understanding of its causes and transmission also contributed greatly to its spread. All knowledge is there to be tested, and improved.

Local taxonomies of animal and plant species, their characteristics and behaviour can be extraordinarily rich, but can also bundle together a variety of species and may lack categories by which to distinguish natural processes such as vegetation change and degradation. Local communities have limited capacity for many types of environmental and disease management. Both historically and currently, effective environmental regulation has usually depended upon a combination of institutions and different layers of authority. [107] Clearly, some African states themselves have, for various reasons, withdrawn from the overarching attempts at control which characterized the late colonial era. But to rail against a role for state institutions seems uneasily reminiscent of neo-conservative development doctrines. There must be an argument not only for understanding the complex histories of various sciences, but for bringing sensitive science back in.[108] Experts are not no longer predominantly outsiders and such debates are increasingly generated within African countries. A belief in participatory development demands a more sophisticated and multifaceted science, not a rejection of scientific methodologies.[109]

Scientific developments are in themselves unpredictable. Scientists can change their paradigms as quickly as those in any other discipline; range ecology is a remarkable example. For a century, experts on South Africa’s natural pastures argued for a controlled system of grazing, with fencing, rotation of camps or paddocks, and especially the abolition of kraaling. Nightly kraaling (bringing animals back to a central byre), they stridently believed, spread disease, starved the pastures of renewing dung, and led to the tramping out of vegetation through daily movements of millions of animals.[110] These no longer seem to be priorities in range ecology. Unfenced communal pastures are seen to be more productive than those which are fenced and rotated. Rainfall and climatic cycles are now argued to have far more impact than anthropogenic factors; the pastures can now apparently look after themselves. Kraaling is accepted as a necessity in view of the expense of fencing and the insecurity of animals left out in common pastures; it is even celebrated as a source of dung for the arable lands rather than the pastures. If the new non-interventionist ecological science can so quickly turn the old on its head, should we not also be sceptical about it?

Science and the state remain potentially powerful allies for poor people. Colson’s study of Kariba, built on the Zambezi in the late 1950s, helped initiate valuable anthropological research into the social and environmental costs of big dams.[111] The subsequent construction of the Cahora Bassa dam, downriver in Mozambique, illustrates an equal insensitivity to local communities, lack of compensation and failure to assess environmental impacts.[112] In the case of South Africa and Zimbabwe, unequal distribution of dammed water to commercial farms and white suburbs was a fundamental aspect of discrimination and apartheid. 

But not all big dams are bad dams. Leaving aside the vexed question of irrigation, it is essential to stress that African countries have been urbanizing rapidly and irrevocably for some decades. Social justice, urban health and environmental improvement demand that clean and adequate household and industrial water supplies be a priority. If the Hartebeestpoort, Vaal, even Lesotho Highlands and others dams had not been built, it may not have been possible to extend water supplies to the vast African population of Gauteng. There are differentiated costs and benefits to all major engineering projects. Dams, diversion of water, flooding of rural areas, and water processing may be a necessary consequence of providing water to cities. The environmentalism of the poor in urban areas increasingly focuses on the demand for such services as water at an affordable rate; in South Africa, at least, this is also the case in dense rural settlements. 

As has been powerfully emphasized in recent global environmental debates, per capita consumption of energy and resources by consumers in industrialized Western countries has been far higher than in poor third world rural communities and has contributed to key problems of atmospheric pollution and global warming. But concepts of degradation which focus only on such overarching issues may disguise other more mundane local environmental problems. Goudie suggests that environmental impacts-on animals and other species, on forests, on pastures, on soil, on climate and global warming, and on water supplies-should to some degree be differentiated and considered discretely.[113] While explaining and addressing global pollution is essential, it should not preclude emphasis on pasture degradation. It is also likely that some of the most serious impacts have been, historically, when natural and anthropogenic causes reinforce each other, and when elements of local practice are combined with new techniques and scientific advances. It may be a mistake to pose natural and anthropogenic factors, or global and local factors, as opposing influences in analyses of environmental degradation. 

Moreover, ecological outcomes, whether in zones managed by local communities or state bureaucracies are difficult to predict. Both history and the natural sciences tell us this. Those who introduced the Nile perch to Lake Victoria, for example, believed that they were likely to increase the fish yield quickly, as they did initially both for commercial purposes and local consumers. A Kenyan fisheries officer, who claims to have transferred perch from Lake Albert in 1954, noted that smaller species had survived alongside the perch elsewhere.[114] But ecologists, Goldschmidt notes, predicted that the perch would be a very temporary benefit, in that it would rapidly exhaust its prey, the cichlids or furu, and do profound ecological damage. ‘Every ecologist would panic if he saw vast herds of lions in the Serengeti running after the last existing antelope. This was exactly what was threatening to occur in Lake Victoria. The Nile perch population would collapse. . . . It was the essence of stupidity. This was the way we viewed the situation for many years, but in fact, it turned out quite differently’.[115] The demise of prawn-eating species of furu, attacked by the perch, led to a massive expansion in the number of prawns which were now consumed by the perch. Nile perch also fed on a type of sardine and cannibalized their own species. An introduced Nile tilapia survived alongside the perch; molluscs and some insects eaten by cichlids increased. The food chain was less deep and varied than it had been and by the early 1990s it was still far from clear that the system was sustainable. But it was also difficult to predict the demise of the fish stock. Goldschmidt found evidence that the cichlid population had stabilized, perhaps begun to cross-breed and develop new species again. Lake ecology had changed irreversibly, but the danger seemed increasingly to be from water hyacincth, and deoxygenation from fertilizer waste, rather than from the perch.

There are many examples where ecological change, destruction of a species and even conservationist interventions have produced unexpected consequences. Partial eradication of predators in early twentieth century South Africa was supported by veld conservationists who wished to stop the daily tramping of livestock to and from the kraals; farmers were reluctant to leave their sheep out overnight because jackals and caracals attacked the. But the success of predator control contributed to the rapid rise in the number of livestock and thus to South Africa’s equivalent of the Dust Bowl in the early 1930s.[116] 

Unpredictability can work in the opposite direction. From the vantage point of the late nineteenth century there seemed little future for wildlife in much of southern Africa. Commercial hunting continued well into the twentieth century in areas such as northern Botswana; wild animals were widely shot in Zimbabwean tsetse control programmes. [117] Wildlife was, however, protected in enclaves and the system of parks and reserves was gradually extended throughout the region. Some large farm-owners kept antelope and from the 1950s, reserved areas were supplemented by game farming on private land, partly as a source of venison and trophies, and partly due to the decline in returns from pastoral farming. Initiatives such as CAMPFIRE further extended wildlife holdings into communal areas. In the vast area that is South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia, wildlife numbers have probably increased in the last couple of decades to their highest level since the beginning of the twentieth century. The state, by reserving land, capitalist farmers, by switching land use rapidly, and science, in the shape of veterinary medicine and zoology, have contributed to this outcome. Even if there has been disproportionate build-up of large mammals in some areas, biodiversity has probably benefited. But the resurrection of wildlife has not yet produced a more equitable division of rural resources. 

Culture, Landscape and Environmental Narratives

Such outcomes are intimately linked to cultural as well as economic opportunities, in this case largely changing white and Western attitudes. The history of African ideas in relation to animals, which in many parts of the continent shaped the rhythms of everyday life, has been less well rehearsed. There is a rich base of anthropological material and it is patent that certain species, at least, could be protected. I suggested at the outset that one of the most exciting areas opened up by an environmental focus lies in cultural history-extensively discussed for example in British historiography of landscape and literature, attitudes and art but less so in African studies. [118] Ultimately, a history of environmental practices requires filtering through cultural prisms. Let me explore briefly just three of these possibilities. 

Firstly, much of the discussion of African landscape has focussed on European representations, often of Edenic, or wild, nature. In recent environmental history, this analysis of European ideas, the ‘effort to understand the wider psychological function of the African environment in the European mind’, has added fuel to the argument that colonizers appropriated African nature for their own purposes.[119] Romantic appreciation of African landscapes could include an imaginary depopulation of the land and a unilateral assumption of responsibility both for its celebration and protection. 

This may be too narrow and restricted an interpretation of a varied and complex heritage in European and settler natural sciences, literature and art. In southern Africa, at least, white views of nature became partially vernacularized and a significant element in their assertion of colonial identities distinct from Europe.[120] These could both influence and draw on African ideas: Afrikaner absorption of Khoisan and African animal fables is one case in point; the complex interactions between anglophone conservationists, Zulu rangers and Zulu nationalists in the recent history of the Natal Parks is another.[121]

In their collection on The Making of African Landscapes, von Oppen and Luig note an increasing academic interest in African constructions and perceptions of land and landscape. ‘As far as we know’, they claim, ‘African languages have no proper terms for "landscape" or "nature" in the abstract sense of the European equivalents. But the non-existence of such a term does not mean that there is no comparable expression for such a relationship’. [122] Although the many words describing land, types of environment, or peopled territories and neighbourhoods lack, they conjecture, an aesthetic reference point, this element is transmitted in other ways. Critically, Africans elaborated rich symbolic differentiations between settlement and wilderness, the wild and the tamed, and identified sacred land or land imbued with power. [123] Forests could be imbued with hostile meaning, Ikemefuna Okoye suggests, as a ‘public site of things abnormal and pathological’, even when they had been much reduced in size by dense settlement.[124] Areas of power or danger could be associated with other species, including animals, or spirits that manifested themselves as such. Understandings of such habitats were often mediated by experts with religious authority.[125] African explanations of social and racial characteristics may have something in common with older traditions of European environmental determinism. Academic discovery of the changing historical content of these ideas their expression in language and art is as yet limited and faltering. 

Secondly, fables were another important sphere of African culture which explored encounters with the natural world. Many fables illustrated perceived animal characteristics, abounded with metaphors and observations drawn from nature, but also offered a mirror to human society. They could be moral tales, explanatory myths or more open-ended narratives. They clearly changed through time and, like other local knowledge, incorporated new influences. In Khoisan and African stories of South Africa, for example, the jackal and hare usually played the role of tricksters. Khoisan jackal fables collected in the mid-nineteenth century weaved wagons, farmers and sheep into their narratives.[126] Settlers not only brought with them a parallel folklore, but recorded and reworked indigenous fables which had meaning for them. The imbrication of these traditions, reflecting also social and agrarian change, is a fascinating historical topic in itself. Can the study of such literary forms tell us indirectly about the way in which ideas about nature and environmental issues were taught to generations of children in changing vernacular traditions?

A third exciting field, well-explored by anthropologists but less so by historians, is the history of the built environment. As a route into popular African ideas about landscape and aesthetics, this may be of particular interest because relatively few structures were designed by specialists. Some anthropologists have focussed on symbolism and space: the way that inner worlds and social hierarchies are reflected in building and the layout of settlements.[127] For historians there may be an equal interest in material culture and the environmental influences on construction: the changing availability of natural resources, commoditization of building materials, as well as taste, style, and different concepts of modernity.

On the east coast of southern Africa, for example, there has not only been a partial transition from round huts to square houses. Building materials have changed: wicker and reed beehive huts predominated in the early nineteenth century; wattle and daub structures with thatched roofs replaced them; mud brick and, more recently, cement blocks and metal roofs have become ubiquitous. The variety of construction in the vast informal settlements of the subcontinent demand an equally varied research strategy. The history of photography and photographic representation might provide additional means of unlocking these questions.

An environmental element may also be profitably inserted into analyses of the social and economic history of African cities, and their relationship with their hinterlands. Cronon’s analysis of Chicago as a hub in the processing of natural resources and agricultural products drawn from a huge catchment is an instructive model.[128] In the African context, flows of resources such as firewood into, and dung out of, Kano have been innovatively explored.[129] Expanding such work might also assist in mapping the spatial dimensions of African cities. They hold a particular fascination because, having been amongst the most planned environments in the colonial era, regulation of settlement and environment has rapidly ebbed. The dynamics of their spread offers particular scope for examining the self-settlement strategies of the poor. As in the case of environmental history as a whole, the study of built environments demands a multifaceted, totalizing approach which draws on analysis of production, technology and scientific precepts, environmental change, and style.

I have sought to review contrasting narratives written about African environmental history: these views need not always be mutually exclusive, nor are they in a number of the texts discussed. Time-scales, disciplines, and ideological vantage points all inform the interpretations offered. Although I have emphasized human capacities to shape environments, other themes, notably vulnerability to natural disaster and environmental change deserve attention. We also need to find ways to return to older questions, raised by Annales historians and their predecessors, about the all-pervasive environmental constraints on human activity, as well as environmental influences on social identity-and to do so without succumbing to environmental determinism. 

It is striking how far a new paradigm has been established in recent historical and social science literature on environmental issues in Africa. This in itself requires contextualization in anti-colonial, sometimes post-modernist, thought which seeks to give voice to rural African perceptions and to take the part of the peasant, the poor and the powerless. [130] Many of the achievements and perspectives of this new literature result from listening to alternative voices in documents and in interviews. This review seeks to test some of these approaches, and to find ways of moving beyond ‘post-colonial’ inversions of what are seen as colonial or modernist or scientific positions. It also suggests ways in which perspectives from social and ecological studies, both to some degree open-ended disciplines, can be integrated. 

Mahmood Mamdani detects a primary divide in African studies between communitarians and modernists, and argues not only for an awareness of the roots of these positions, but for a synthesis. [131] It may not be easy. A profound ambivalence can be detected in recent Africanist writing, by scholars both in Africa and outside. Many still emphasize the asymmetry of global relations, and the history of racist assumptions, but increasingly struggle to free historiography and social studies from narratives of dependency, victimhood and romanticism. We should allow for analyses not only of African creativity and resistance, but also the shared human capacity to wield power for ill as well as good, over nature as well as people.


This is an extended version of the author's inaugural lecture; thanks to JoAnn McGregor for detailed comments. 

[1] Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Greenwood Press, Westport, 1972).

[2] Lucien Febvre with Lionel Bataillon, A Geographical Introduction to History (Routledge, London, 1926) for a review and critique.

[3] Febvre, Geographical Introduction, p.137.

[4] Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949; Fontana, London, 1975), p.20.

[5] Clarence J. Glacken, Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1967); Richard Grove, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1800 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995).

[6] Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: the Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986); William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (Hill and Wang, New York, 1983). 

[7] William Beinart and Peter Coates, Environment and History: the Taming of Nature in the USA and South Africa (Routledge, London, 1995). 

[8] Crosby, Ecological Imperialism, p.76.

[9] Stephen Greenblatt, Marvelous Possessions: the Wonder of the New World (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1991), p.56. 

[10] John MacKenzie, ‘Empire and the Ecological Apocalypse: the Historiography of the Imperial Environment’ in Tom Griffiths and Libby Robin (eds.), Ecology and Empire: Environmental History of Settler Societies (Keele University Press, Edinburgh, 1997), pp.215-28. 

[11] Helge Kjekshus, Ecology Control and Economic Development in East African History (Heinemann, London, 1977).

[12] Kjekshus, Ecology Control, p.25. He does note that this must be a speculative conclusion. For a discussion, Juhani Koponen, People and Production in Late Precolonial Tanzania: History and Structures (Finnish Society for Development Studies, Helsinki, 1988), pp.362ff. 

[13] Leroy Vail, ‘Ecology and History: the Example of Eastern Zambia’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 3 (1977), pp.129-55.

[14] John MacKenzie, The Empire of Nature: Hunting, Conservation and British Imperialism (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1988).

[15] Leonard Guelke and Robert Shell, ‘Landscapes of Conquest: Frontier Water Alienation and Khoikhoi Strategies of Survival, 1652-1780’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 18, 4 (1992), pp.803-24.

[16] William Beinart, ‘Soil Erosion, Conservationism and Ideas about Development: a Southern African Exploration, 1900-1960’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 11, 1 (1984), pp.52-83; David Anderson and Richard Grove (eds.), Conservation in Africa: People, Policies and Practice (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987).

[17] Beinart, ‘Soil Erosion, Conservationism’.

[18] Grove, Green Imperialism.

[19] William Beinart, ‘Vets, Viruses and Environmentalism: the Cape in the 1870s and 1880s’, Paideuma: Mitteilungen zur Kulturkunde, 43 (1997) and ‘The Night of the Jackal: Sheep, Pastures and Predators in the Cape’, Past and Present, 158 (1998), 172-206. 

[20] Libby Robin, ‘Ecology: a Science of Empire?’ in Griffiths and Robin, Ecology and Empire, 63-75; Peder Johan Anker, ‘The Ecology of Nations: British Imperial Sciences of Nature, 1895-1945’ Ph.D., Harvard University, 1999. 

[21] David M. Anderson, ‘Depression, Dust Bowl, Demography and Drought: the Colonial State and Soil Conservation in East Africa during the 1930s’, African Affairs, 83, 332, (1984), pp.321-43.

[22] A. Fiona D. Mackenzie, Land, Ecology and Resistance in Kenya, 1880-1952 (Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 1998) ably summarises the literature.

[23] Thackwray Driver, ‘Anti-Erosion Policies in the Mountain Areas of Lesotho: the South African Connection’, Environment and History, 5, 1 (1999), pp.1-25.

[24] Jane Carruthers, The Kruger National Park: a Social and Political History (Natal University Press, Pietermaritzburg, 1995).

[25] Ravi Rajan, ‘Imperial Environmentalism or Environmental Imperialism? European Forestry, Colonial Foresters and the Agendas of Forest Management in British India 1800-1900’ in Richard H. Grove, Vinita Damodaran and Satpal Sangwan (eds.), Nature and the Orient: the Environmental History of South and Southeast Asia (Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1998), 324-71.

[26] Carruthers, The Kruger National Park; Terence Ranger, ‘Whose Heritage? The Case of the Matobo National Park’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 15, 2 (1989), 217-49 and Voices from the Rocks: Nature, Culture and History in the Matopos Hills of Zimbabwe (James Currey, Oxford, 1999); Jonathan Adams and Thomas O. McShane, The Myth of Wild Africa: Conservation without Illusions (W.W. Norton, New York, 1992).

[27] Anderson and Grove (eds), Conservation in Africa; F. Wilson and M. Ramphele, Uprooting Poverty: the South African Challenge (Cape Town, David Philip, 1989); Pat McAllister, ‘Resistance to ‘betterment in the Transkei: a case study from Willowvale district’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 15, 2 (1989), pp.346-68.

[28] Gregory Maddox, James Giblin and Isaria N. Kimambo (eds.), Custodians of the Land: Ecology and Culture in the History of Tanzania (James Currey, London, 1996).

[29] Mike Drinkwater, ‘Technical Development and Peasant Impoverishment: Land Use Policy in Zimbabwe’s Midlands Province’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 15, 2 (1989), 288, drawing on Habermas, and The State and Agrarian Change in Zimbabwe’s Communal Areas (Macmillan, London, 1991). 

[30] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1998). 

[31] Patrick McCully, Silenced Rivers: the Ecology and Politics of Large Dams (Zed, London, 1998).

[32] John McCracken, ‘Colonialism, Capitalism and Ecological Crisis in Malawi: a reassessment’ in Anderson and Grove, Conservation in Africa, 63-77.

[33] Kate B. Showers, ‘Soil Erosion in the Kingdom of Lesotho: Origins and Colonial Response’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 15, 2 (1989), 263-86.

[34] W. Beinart, ‘Agricultural Planning and the Late Colonial Technical Imagination: the Lower Shire Valley in Malawi, 1940-1960’ in John McCracken (ed.), Malawi: an Alternative Pattern of Development, Centre of African Studies, Seminar Proceedings, no 25 (Edinburgh, 1985); Elias C. Mandala, Work and Control in a Peasant Economy: A History of the Lower Tchiri Valley in Malawi, 1859-1960 (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1990).

[35] Tijs Goldschmidt, Darwin’s Dreampond: Drama in Lake Victoria (MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1998).

[36] Michael Mortimore, Adapting to Drought: Farmers, Famines and Desertification in West Africa (Cambridge University Press, 1989), p.186; Jeremy Swift, ‘Desertification: Narratives, Winners and Losers’ in Melissa Leach and Robin Mearns (eds.), The Lie of the Land: Challenging Received Wisdom on the African Environment (James Currey, Oxford, 1996), 73-90.

[37] James Fairhead and Melissa Leach, Misreading the African Landscape: Society and Ecology in a Forest-savannah Mosaic (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996), pp.2-3 and Reframing Deforestation: Global Analysis and Local Realities: Studies in West Africa (Routledge, London, 1998).

[38] Leach and Mearns (eds.), The Lie of the Land. The term ‘levellers’ is from Richard Grove, ‘Scottish Missionaries, Evangelical Discourses and the Origins of Conservation Thinking in Southern Africa 1820-1900’, Journal of Southern African Studies 15, 2 (1989), quoting Robert Moffat, missionary amongst the southern Tswana, writing in 1842.

[39] Paul Richards, Indigenous Agricultural Revolution: Ecology and Food Production in West Africa (London, Unwin, 1985), p.41; Paul Richards, ‘Ecological Change and the Politics of African Land Use’, African Studies Review 26 (1983), pp.1-72.

[40] Richards, Indigenous Agricultural Revolution, p.142. MacKenzie, Land, Ecology and Resistance suggests, by contrast, the unsuitability of many seeds distributed energetically by the Kenyan colonial government.

[41] Calestous Juma, The Gene Hunters: Biotechnology and the Scramble for Seeds (Zed Books, London, 1989); Amos Kiriro and Calestous Juma (eds.), Gaining Ground: Institutional Innovations in Land-use Management in Kenya (Acts Press, Nairobi, 1989).

[42] G. Hardin, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, Science 162 (1968), pp.1243-8.

[43] Gavin Williams, ‘Introduction: Farmers, Herders and the State’, Rural Africana 25-6 (1986), pp.1-23.

[44] W. Beinart, ‘Soil Erosion, Animals and Pasture over the Longer Term: Environmental Destruction in Southern Africa’ in Leach and Mearns, The Lie of the Land, pp.54-72; Beinart, ‘Vets, Viruses’.

[45] Jack Parson, ‘Cattle, Class and the State in Rural Botswana’, Journal of Southern African Studies 7, 2 (1981), 236-55; Pauline E. Peters, Dividing the Commons: Politics, Policy, and Culture in Botswana (University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1994).

[46] Katherine Homewood and W.A. Rodgers, ‘Pastoralism, Conservation and the Overgrazing Controversy’ in Anderson and Grove (eds.), Conservation in Africa, p.123. 

[47] R. Behnke, I. Scoones and C. Kerven (eds.), Range Ecology at Disequilibrium (ODI, London, 1993); I. Scoones (ed.), Living with Uncertainty: New Directions in Pastoral Development in Africa (Intermediate Technology Publications, London, 1995).

[48] C.M. Shackleton, ‘Are the Communal Lands in Need of Saving’, Development Southern Africa 10, 1 (1993), pp.65-78..

[49] David Bourn and William Wint, ‘Livestock, Land Use and Agricultural Intensification in Sub-Saharan Africa’, Overseas Development Institute, Pastoral Development Network, Paper 37a (1994).

[50] Robin Mearns, When Livestock are Good for the Environment, IDS Working Paper 45 (1996); Scoones, Living with Uncertainty.

[51] Ben Cousins, ‘Livestock Production and Common Property Struggles in South Africa’s Agrarian Reform’, Journal of Peasant Studies 23, 2/3 (1996), special issue on The Agrarian Question in South Africa, ed. Henry Berstein, pp.166-208.

[52] Ramachandra Guha and J. Martinez Alier, Varieties of Environmentalism: Essays North and South (Earthscan, London, 1997).

[53] Chris Reij, Ian Scoones and Camilla Toulmin (eds.), Sustaining the Soil: Indigenous Soil and Water Conservation in Africa (Earthscan, London, 1996).

[54] Vandana Shiva, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development (Zed, London, 1988), p.14; Shiva and Maria Mies, Ecofeminism (Zed, London, 1993).

[55] Audrey Richards, Land, Labour and Diet in Northern Rhodesia: an Economic Study of the Bemba Tribe (International African Institute, London, 1939); Fiona MacKenzie, ‘Political Economy of the Environment, Gender and Resistance under Colonialism: Murang’a District, Kenya’, Canadian Journal of African Studies 25, 2 (1991) and Land, Ecology and Resistance; Henrietta L. Moore and Megan Vaughan, Cutting Down Trees: Gender, Nutrition, and Agricultural Change in the Northern Province of Zambia, 1890-1990 (James Currey, London, 1994). 

[56] Melissa Leach, Rainforest Relations: Gender and Resource Use among the Mende of Gola, Sierra Leone (Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 1994); Melissa Leach and Cathy Green, ‘Gender and Environmental History: from Representation of Women and Nature to Gender Analysis of Ecology and Politics’, Environment and History 3, 3 (1997), p.366.

[57] Tiffen,, More People, Less Erosion; John Sharpless, ‘Population Science, Private Foundations, and Development: the Transformation of Demographic Knowledge in the United States, 1945-1965’ in F. Cooper and R. Packard (eds.), International Development and the Social Sciences: Essays on the History and Politics of Knowledge (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997), pp.176-200; Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (Ballantines, New York, 1968).

[58] William Allan, The African Husbandman (Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh, 1965).

[59] Ester Boserup, The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: the Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure (Allen and Unwin, London, 1965).

[60] Mary Tiffen, Michael Mortimore and Francis Gichuki, More People, Less Erosion: Environmental Recovery in Kenya (John Wiley, Chichester, 1994).

[61] D. Kimble, A Political History of Ghana: the Rise of Gold Coast Nationalism (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1963); Richard Grove, Ecology, Climate and Empire: Colonialism and Global Environmental History, 1400-1940 (White Horse Press, Cambridge, 1997): essay on ‘Chiefs, Boundaries and Sacred Woodlands: Early Nationalism and the Defeat of Colonial Conservationism in the Gold Coast and Nigeria, 1870-1916’, pp. 147-178.

[62] Ranger, Voices from the Rocks and Peasant Consciousness and Guerilla War in Zimbabwe (James Currey, London, 1985).

[63] Mandala, Work and Control in a Peasant Economy.

[64] D.W. Throup, ‘The Origins of Mau Mau’, African Affairs, 84, 336 (1985),,pp.399-433 and Economic and Social Origins of Mau Mau, 1945-1953 (James Currey, London, 1987). 

[65] Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, Manufacturing African Studies and Crises (Codesria, Dakar, 1997): ‘Cultivating Hunger’, pp.241-74.

[66] Mandala, Work and Control in a Peasant Economy.

[67] Michael Watts, Silent Violence: Food, Famine and the Peasantry in Northern Nigeria (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1983).

[68] Megan Vaughan, The Story of an African Famine: Gender and Famine in Twentieth Century Malawi (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987); Alex de Waal, Famine That Kills: Darfur, Sudan, 1984-5 (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1989) and Famine Crimes: Poltics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa (James Currey, Oxford, 1997); Diana Wylie, ‘The Changing Face of Hunger in Southern Africa’, Past and Present, 122 (1989).

[69] Stephen Ellis, ‘Of Elephants and Men: Politics and Nature Conservation in South Africa’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 20, 1 (1994), pp.53-69.

[70] For southern Africa, Barry Munslow, The Fuelwood Trap: a Study of the SADCC Region (Earthscan, London, 1988) is an eloquent statement. 

[71] B. Child, The Practice and Principles of Community-based Wildlife Management in Zimbabwe: the CAMPFIRE program’, Biodiversity and Conservation, 5 (1996), 369-98. For community management more generally: Melissa Leach, Robin Mearns, Ian Scoones (eds.), ‘Community-based Sustainable Development: Consensus or Conflict?’ special issue of IDS Bulletin, 28, 4 (1997); D.R. Fraser Taylor and Fiona MacKenzie (eds.), Development from Within: Survival in Rural Africa (Routledge, London, 1992).

[72] Paul Lovejoy, Transformations in African Slavery: a History of Slavery in Africa (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1983); Patrick Manning, Slavery and African Life: Occidental, Oriental and African Slave Trades (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990).

[73] Jean-Francois Bayart, The State in Africa: the Politics of the Belly (Longman, London, 1993) and J-F. Bayart, Stephen Ellis and Beatrice Hibou, The Criminalization of the State in Africa (James Currey, Oxford, 1999); Patrick Chabal, Power in Africa: an Essay in Political Interpretation (Macmillan, Basingstoke, 1994); P. Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz, Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument (James Currey, Oxford, 1999); Mahmood Mamdani, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (James Currey, London, 1996); George B.N. Ayittey, Africa Betrayed (St Martin’s Press, New York, 1992). 

[74] Crosby, Ecological Imperialism.

[75] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: a Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years (Vintage, London. 1998).

[76] David Lee Schoenbrun, A Green Place, a Good Place: Agrarian Change, Gender, and Social Identity in the Great Lakes Region to the 15th Century (Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH, 1998), 80.

[77] John Iliffe, Africans; the History of a Continent (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995), p.1.

[78] Thurstan Shaw,, The Archaeology of Africa: Food, Metals and Towns (Routledge, London, 1993).

[79] Vansina, Paths in the Rainforests: Toward a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1990), p.55.

[80] Vansina, Paths in the Rainforests, p.255.

[81] Schoenbrun, A Green Place, p.228.

[82] Graham Connah, African Civilizations: Precolonial Cities and States in Tropical Africa, an Archaeological Perspective (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987), pp.209ff.

[83] James C. McCann, Green Land, Brown Land, Black Land: an Environmental History of Africa, 1800-1900 (James Currey, Oxford, 1999), p.35.

[84] Innocent Phikirayi, ‘Relating Environmental Data to Cultural Continuity and Change: the Landscape and Dynamics of the Zimbabwe State, 1200-1900 AD’, unpublished paper to the conference on African Environments: Past and Present, Oxford, July, 1999 quoting T.N. Huffman, ‘Archaeological Evidence for Climatic Change during the Last 2000 years in Southern Africa’, Quarternary International, 33 (1996), pp.53-60. 

[85] Peter R. Schmidt, ‘Historical Ecology and Landscape Transformation in Eastern Equatorial Africa’ in Carole L. Crumley (ed.), Historical Ecology: Cultural Knowledge and Changing Landscapes (School of American Research Press, Santa Fe, 1994).

[86] Robert Harms, Games against Nature: an Eco-cultural History of the Nunu of Equatorial Africa (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987), p.245.

[87] J.E.G. Sutton, ‘Irrigation and Soil-Conservation in African Agricultural History’, Journal of African History, 25, 1 (1984), pp.25-42.

[88] Richards, Land, Labour and Diet; Moore and Vaughan, Cutting Down Trees.

[89] Terence Ranger, ‘Religious Studies and Political Economy: the Mwari Cult and the Peasant Experience in Southern Rhodesia’ in W.M.J. van Binsbergen and M. Schoffeleers (eds.), Theoretical Explorations in African Religion, Politics and Patriarchy (Routledge, London, 1996); David Maxwell, Christian and Chiefs in Zimbabwe: a Social History of the Hwesa People c.1870s-1990s (Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 53ff.; Ranger, Voices from the Rocks; Wim van Binsbergen, Religious Change in Zambia: Exploratory Studies (Routledge, London, 1981).

[90] Claude Reynaut with Emmanuel Gregoire, Pierre Janin, Jean Koechlin, Philippe Lavigne Delville, Societies and Nature in the Sahel (Routledge, London, 1998); Trond Vedeld, ‘Local Institution-building and Resource Management in the West African Sahel’, Pastoral Development Network, ODI, Network paper 33c (1992) and Village Politics: Heterogeneity, Leadership, and Collective Action among Fulani of Mali (Agricultural University of Norway, As, 1997); Ton Dietz, Pastoralists in Dire Straits (Institute for Social Geography, University of Amsterdam, 1987); Cousins, ‘Livestock Production and Common Property Struggles’, p.171. For a discussion and defence of the concept of desertification, Daniel Stiles (ed.), Social Aspects of Sustainable Dryland Management (John Wiley, Chichester, 1995); Alan Grainger, The Threatening Desert: Controlling Desertification (Earthscan, London, 1990). 

[91] Jean Koechlin, ‘Ecological Conditions and Degradation Factors in the Sahel’ in Reynaut (ed.), p.36.

[92] Joseph K. Somevi, ‘The Evolution of Property Rights and its Effects on the Urban Environment: a Case Study of Accra, Ghana’, unpublished MSc. thesis, Environmental Change and Management, University of Oxford (1998).

[93] McCann, Green Land, 166. For a recent national survey of South Africa, Timm Hoffman, Simon Todd, Zolile Ntshona, Stephen Turner, Land Degradation in South Africa (National Botanical Institute for Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Cape Town, 1999); Hoffman and Todd, ‘A National Review of Land Degradation in South Africa: the Influence of Biophysical and Socio-Economic Factors’, forthcoming, Journal of Southern African Studies, 26, 4 (2000). 

[94] Tiffen, Mortimore and Gichuki, More People, Less Erosion, p.5.

[95] Michael Mortimore, Roots in the African Dust: Sustaining the Sub-Saharan Drylands (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998).

[96] Reynaut, Societies and Nature in the Sahel, 320.

[97] William Beinart, ‘Strategies of the Poor and Some Problems of Land Reform in the Eastern Cape, South Africa’, unpublished paper delivered to the African Studies Association of the United Kingdom conference, Bristol 1996.

[98] Jocelyn Alexander and JoAnn McGregor, ‘"Our Sons Didn’t Die for Animals" - Attitudes to Wildlife and the Politics of Development: CAMPFIRE in Nkayi and Lupane Districts, Zimbabwe’, paper presented to conference on African Environments, Past and Present, Oxford, July, 1999; D. Hulme and M. Murphree, ‘Communities, Wildlife and the "New Conservation" in Africa’, Journal of International Development, 11, 2, 277-286; K. Hill, ‘Zimbabwe’s Wildlife Utilization Programs: Grassroots Democracy or an Extension of State Power?’, African Studies Review, 39 (1), 103-119. 

[99] Steven Feierman, ‘Struggles for Control: the Social Roots of Health and Healing in Modern Africa’, African Studies Review, 28, 2/3 (1985), pp.73-145; Feierman and John M. Janzen (eds.), The Social Basis of Health and Healing in Africa (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992): ‘Introduction’, pp.14-15.

[100] Mortimore, Adapting to Drought, pp.12-15; Richards, Indigenous Agricultural Revolution, pp. 21ff.; Helen Denham, ‘Controlling Africa’s Changing Environments: Ecological Debates, Natural Resources, and Economic Development’, unpublished paper to the conference on African Environments: Past and Present, Oxford, July 1999.

[101] Anker, ‘The Ecology of Nations’, p.4 and passim.

[102] J.B. Clements, A Communal Forest Scheme in Nyasaland (Government Printer, Zomba, 1935).

[103] Mary Dobson and Maureen Malowany, ‘DDT and Malaria Control in East Africa, 1945-1960: Discoveries, Debates and Dilemmas’, unpublished paper, African Studies Seminar, St Antony’s college, University of Oxford (2000).

[104] John Ford, The Role of the Trypanosomiases in African Ecology: a Study of the Tsetse Fly Problem (Oxford University Press, London, 1971). 

[105] M. Priscilla Stone and Paul Richards, ‘The Integration of the Social and Natural Sciences: the View from the Program on African Studies’, unpublished paper, Social Science Research Council, New York, 1991.

[106] Edward Hooper, The River: a Journey Back to the Source of HIV and AIDS (Allen Lane, London, 1999).

[107] J.-M. Baland and J.-P. Platteau, Halting Degradation of Natural Resources: Is There a Role for Rural Communities? (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1996).

[108] The sentiment is derived from Ben Fine and Colin Stoneman, ‘Introduction: State and Development’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 22, 1 (1996), pp.5-26, quoting P. Evans,, Bringing the State Back In (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1985).

[109] Raynaut et al., Societies and Nature in the Sahel, p.6.

[110] Beinart, ‘Vets, Virusses’.

[111] Elizabeth Colson, The Social Consequences of Resettlement (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1971).

[112] Allen Isaacman and Chris Sneddon, ‘Toward a Social and Environmental History of the Building of the Cahora Bassa Dam’, Journal of Southern African Studies, forthcoming, 26, 4 (2000). 

[113] Andrew Goudie, The Human Impact on the Natural Environment (Blackwell, Oxford, 1986), p.295.

[114] Goldschmidt, Darwin’s Dreampond, p.196. 

[115] Goldschmidt, Darwin’s Dreampond, p.225.

[116] Beinart, ‘Night of the Jackal’.

[117] Roben Mutwira, ‘A Question of Condoning Game Slaughter: Southern Rhodesian Wild Life Policy (1890-1953)’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 15, 2 (1989), pp.250-62; Alexander and McGregor, ‘Our Sons Didn’t Die for Animals’.

[118] W. G. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape (1955; Penguin, London, 1985); Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800 (Penguin, London, 1984); Oliver Rackham, The History of the Countryside (Dent, London, 1986); Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory (Fontana Press, London, 1996).

[119] Anderson and Grove, ‘Introduction: the Scramble for Eden: Past, Present and Future in African Conservation’ in Anderson and Grove, Conservation in Africa, p.4; Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (Routledge, London, 1992); Adams and McShane, The Myth of Wild Africa; Kate Darian-Smith, Liz Gunner and Sarah Nuttall (eds.), Text, Theory and Space: Land, Literature and History in South Africa and Australia (Routledge, London, 1996); Richard Grove, ‘Scotland in South Africa: John Croumbie Brown and the Roots of Settler Environmentalism’ in Griffiths and Robin (eds.), Ecology and Empire, 139-153; William Beinart, ‘The Renaturing of African Animals: Film and Literature in the 1950s and 1960s’ in Paul Slack (ed.), Environments and Historical Change: The Linacre Lectures (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999). 

[120] Carruthers, The Kruger National Park and ‘Nationhood and National Parks: Comparative Examples from the Post-Imperial Experience’ in Griffiths and Robin (eds.), Ecology and Empire, 125-138. More generally, B. Bender (ed.), Landscape: Politics and Perspectives (Berg, Oxford, 1993); Schama, Landscape and Memory.

[121] Malcolm Draper, ‘Zen and the Art of Garden Province Maintenance: the Soft Intimacy of Hard Men in the Wilderness of Kwa-Zulu-Natal, South Africa, 1952-1997’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 24, 4 (1998), 801-28.

[122] Ute Luig and Achim von Oppen, ‘Landscape in Africa: process and Vision: An Introductory Essay’ in Luig and von Oppen (eds.), The Making of African Landscapes, special issue of Paideuma: Mitteilungen zur Kulturkunde, 43 (1997), p.21. 

[123] Elizabeth Colson, ‘Places of Power and Shrines of the Land’, and Terence Ranger, ‘Making Zimbabwean Landscapes: Painters, Projectors and Priests’ in Luig and von Oppen, ‘The Making of African Landscapes’; Terence Ranger, ‘New Approaches to African Landscape’, unpublished paper, St. Antony’s college, Oxford, 1996; Emmanuel Kreike, ‘Recreating Eden: Agro-Ecological Change and Environmental Diversity in Southern Angola and Northern Namibia, 1890-1960’, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Yale University (1996).

[124] Ikemefuna Stanley Okoye, ‘History, Aesthetics and the Political in Igbo Spatial Heterotopias’ in Luig and von Oppen, The Making of African Landscapes, 75-92. 

[125] Michele Wagner, ‘Environment, Community and History: "Nature in the Mind" in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century Buha, Western Tanzania’ in Maddox, Giblin and Kimambo (eds.), Custodians of the Land, pp.175-99.

[126] W.H.I. Bleek, Reynard the Fox in Africa: or, Hottentot Fables and Tales (London, 1864).

[127] Shirley Ardener (ed.), Women and Space. Ground Rules and Social Maps (Croom Helm, London, 1981); Henrietta Moore, Space, Text and Gender: an Anthropological Study of the Marakwet of Kenya (Cambridge University Press, 1986). 

[128] William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (W.W. Norton, New York, 1991).

[129] Mortimore, Adapting to Drought and Roots in the African Dust, 149ff.

[130] W.M Adams, Green Development: Environment and Sustainability in the Third World (Routledge, London, 1990) begins such an exercise for certain issues.

[131] Mamdani, Citizen and Subject.


"African History and Environmental History" first appeared in African Affairs 99 (2000): 269-302