Centre for African Studies (LUCAS)

Centre for African Studies
University of Leeds
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LUCAS Schools Project coordinator

Richard Borowski

African Savannas: Global Narratives and Local Knowledge of Environmental Change

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African Savannas: Global Narratives and Local Knowledge of Environmental Change eds. Thomas J. Bassett & Donald Crummey. James Currey, Oxford, 2003.  270pp. ISBN 0-85255-424-9 (pb). £16.95

Environmental discourses for African savannas have been dominated by images of crisis and extensive degradation throughout the development literature and policy spheres for many years.  Gradually, negative environmental portrayals (for example of desertification and deforestation) have been questioned in academic literature in a varied array of journal, textbook and policy discussion papers.  What has been lacking however, and what this text aims to provide, is a coherent critique based on detailed case study interdisciplinary research from across Africa.   Based largely on the findings of a collaborative research project co-ordinated by the editors from the University of Illinois (but including impressive cross-disciplinary research teams in Burkina Faso, Côte D’Ivoire, Ethiopia and Mozambique) this text offers an excellent synthesis of field research in some of Africa’s sub-humid savannas.  It offers a balanced, positive portrayal of the complexities of the interactions between environmental changes and their social, cultural and political causes and implications.  The case study chapters portray an image of African farmers and herders as knowledgeable and responsible environmental managers who are actors in people-environment relations, rather than victims of widespread degradation.

As the editors rightly point out, better understanding of environmental change requires case study research involving intensive field study and innovative hybrid research methodologies that seek to establish and measure real environmental changes.  Important methodological issues are apparent here, especially in the use of participatory research methodologies (e.g. participant observation, key informant interviews, group discussions, landscape walks) for environmental research.  Such a move to include local people in environmental change research is a radical, but much needed, departure from traditional soils and ecological studies of African savannas.  This is especially true given the inherent dynamism of the environment (as recognised in non-equilibrium theories that are reviewed in Chapters 1 and 7) that implies that any single snapshot of African environments will tell only a limited picture of environmental condition and value.

Five critical themes run through the book’s case study chapters concerning environmental and social change interactions.  These are:

  1. Environmental data gaps – for both vegetation- and soil-based studies.
  2. Challenging dominant narratives – such as set carrying capacities on rangelands and the need for secure land tenure to ensure sustainable resource management.
  3. Local knowledge – as the key to an informed realistic understanding of the African landscape.
  4. Political ecological analysis – notably the need to include an element of ecological analysis in participatory studies to bridge the social and natural sciences divide.
  5. Environmental change and policy relations – a timely discussion as most African nations are in the process of preparing National Sustainable Development Strategies as part of their commitments to international development agendas.

It is useful that these key take-home messages are discussed in Chapter 1, as many of these issues are lost in the case study detail provided in subsequent chapters.  Despite this inevitable problem for an edited volume, the text is an extremely valuable addition to the growing environment and development literature on African savannas and their farming systems.

Each case study chapter offers different important details to illustrate general debates.  Chapter 2, by Williams, extends discussions to North African savannas and highlights the need to learn environmental lessons (notably on water resource management) from the past to avoid repetition of such mistakes.  Chapter 3, by Bassett et al., uses oral histories to illustrate the inaccuracies in the perception of widespread fire-induced desertification in Côte D’Ivoire, arguing that such views have simply been a pretext for outside intervention.  In contrast, they clearly illustrate the vital role regular burning plays in preventing the main environmental threat of bush encroachment, a problem that is much more prevalent than apocalyptic images of deforestation and soil erosion for African savannas more widely.  Chapter 4, by Gray, details the complex land tenure and environmental change links in three cotton-growing villages in South West Burkina Faso.  This case study shows that counter to popular perceptions, uncertainty about land rights and problems of land scarcity are causing farmers to invest in soil quality as part of an active strategy to secure control of land.  This as with arguments for communal rangelands (in Chapters 3 and 7) is a powerful argument against the need for further land privatisation, as so widely supported by external policies. The failing of policies are further discussed in Chapter 5, by Crummey and Winter-Nelson, who explain how Ethiopian Government policies in the 1980s and 1990s including state control of natural resources (notably forests) were based on serious misconceptions of farming systems, and were counter-productive. Finally, the ‘Land Users and Landscapes’ section, Chapter 6 by Saul et al., provides a lengthy review of ecological changes affecting Western Burkina Faso again portraying a region of successful agricultural development driven by farmer innovations to meet growing urban and export market demands.

The ‘Pastoral Ecologies’ section contains a range of interesting case study material discussing the dynamism of rangeland ecosystems and how livestock farmers adapt in these environments in the face of environmental, social and political changes.  Chapter 7, by Little, details case studies from Northern Kenya and Southern Somalia displaying how sustainable land management has been hindered by Government policies in Kenya, and yet retained with customary flexible land management in conflict-ridden Somalia. Little also usefully discusses the methodological basis of political ecology studies and shows well (from his Somalian work as well as the wider literature review) that integrated political ecology is possible.  The key to this is maintaining the emphasis on thorough ecological studies that recognise the inherent dynamism of the savanna environment.  Chapter 8, by Munro, extends these debates into Zimbabwe’s communal rangelands reviewing debates that have highlighted the inadequacy of livestock management systems based on a fixed ‘carrying capacity’.   The final sections attempts to link ‘Policy, Producers and Resources’ to provide the integrated view the text aims to achieve.  Chapter 9, by Rahmato, returns to the failings of Ethiopian Government soil conservation policies highlighting the active, even violent, resistance by indigenous farmers of these imposed measures.  Finally Chapter 10, by Bowen et al., offers insights into the problems caused to small-scale farmers in Mozambique by recent Government policies that have favoured larger-scale enterprises.

The wealth of people-environment focused case material is the clear strength of this text.  It offers an invaluable insight to the intricacies of complex interactions that regulate rural livelihoods for all African farmers.  The focus on regions with a mean annual rainfall of 1000 mm or above, implies that discussions are particular to the wetter end of any definition of savanna.  As such, the title is a little misleading as the more dynamic, and therefore complex, issues faced in semi-arid savannas are not addressed.  However, overall this text offers very useful insights for all interested in African farming issues and policy development.  The case study chapters provide a depth of insight and methodological invention, that will make interesting reading for practitioners and academics alike, whilst the introductory chapter offers an accessible introduction for all.

Reviewed by: Andrew Dougill

University of Leeds

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin, 66 (2004), pp. 69-72]


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