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Review of The Southern African Environment


By John Soussan

The Southern African Environment.  By Sam Moyo, Phil O’Keefe & Michael Sill.  London: Earthscan, 1993, pp. 354, £35.

This book provides a comprehensive overview of environmental conditions and issues in the 10 SADC member states of Southern Africa (Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe).  The book has a very brief introduction and then runs through 10 chapters; one for each country.  It is based on a series of reports for each country each of which was originally produced by different authors from that country.  Each chapter follows broadly the same structure (though some have sections missing, which is a bit disconcerting), with an introduction followed by a review of the country’s environmental problems, natural resource base, legal ‘underpinnings’ and ‘strategies and solutions for environmental sustainability’.  This uniform structure is, inevitably, both a strength and a weakness.

The book sets out to provide a broad-brush overview of the different issues rather than a detailed analysis which reflects all the multitude of on-the-ground realities.  The focus is on environmental issues as a matter of sustainable development rather than ‘objective’ scientific description, which is welcome.  There is also a clear emphasis on policy-level analysis, which is vital.  In this, the various authors give some level of prioritisation to the key environmental challenges for their countries, again something which is to be appreciated.

The common structure does have limitations, however.  It provides some basis for comparison between the countries but there are also times when one gets the impression that the authors would have approached their particular chapter differently if they had had the freedom.  It also makes repetitive reading if one attempts to go through chapter by chapter and there are elements of superficiality to the statements made.  Some chapters have a confusing mix of environmental problems, such as urban pollution, and resource opportunities, such as mineral deposits.  Some of the chapters have too many ‘bullet point’ lists to make easy reading.

Despite these caveats, the 10 different national case studies provide a comprehensive and effective collection which is best seen as a reference text which can be ‘dipped into’ by anyone interested in the specific countries concerned.  What the book does not provide is any synthesis of these disparate national experiences.  All there is is an introduction of just over 3 pages which is superficial in the extreme.  It does no more than skim over general issues about environment and development.  The book has neither an analytical framework for the consideration of the 10 case studies nor any attempt at conclusions which seek to draw out common experiences and processes or, in contrast, aspects of the issues which are unique. This comparative element would have made a good resource book something special: a structured analysis of resource-development relationships across half a continent and in different legal, economic and environmental contexts. That this synthesis has not been produced should be seen as a lost opportunity.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin, 60 (1995), pp. 56-57]

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