Landscape and tyranny

Misreading the African Landscape
May 1, 1998

Geography used to be a discipline that concerned itself with such things as landscape, region, place, human-land relationships, mapping, and intensive field investigation. Today, the reality is very often different, and one needs only to skim the titles of papers in the journal Area to see what a strange discipline it has become. Recent papers have included ones on "Gender relations in Plymouth's Devonport Dockyard", "Privatisation and the windfall tax", the "Development of dry ski-slopes", "Turkish restaurants in Brussels", "Racialised representations in British and American advertising", "Sleaze in the House of Commons", and "Female street prostitution in England and Wales".

Increasingly, geography is what geographers do not do. Much of the best geography is done by non-geographers, and as David Stoddart remarked over a decade ago, there is a danger of the discipline abandoning the high ground and descending into a morass of trivia.

These disloyal and intemperate thoughts came to me when I read Misreading the African Landscape, for it is splendid geography (in the old fogey sense) but written by social anthropologists. Why is it splendid? First, it is firmly rooted in a region - the Kissidougou prefecture of the Republic of Guinea. Second, it is based on a lengthy period of field work and original data collection that involved total immersion in the community and its language. Third, it involves extensive use of mapping to identify landscape change. Fourth, it successfully links landscape, ecology and society. Last, it has a series of clear messages that have fundamental implications for land management and development in Africa.

The story that the book tells is fascinating. For over a century, politicians, colonialists, civil servants and aid agencies have seen patches of forest as evidence that the landscape has degraded and that they are relicts, in a sea of savanna, of a formerly extensive forest cover. As a consequence, outsiders have sought to take resource control away from local inhabitants, have imposed repressive policies and even criminalised certain forms of land use. In the 1970s the setting of bush fires carried the death penalty. James Fairhead and Melissa Leach argue that this is all wrong and that the Kissidougou landscape is one that is filling with, not emptying of, forests. They present irrefutable evidence of forest gain, and demonstrate why and how the local inhabitants have developed forest patches in association with their settlements. They illustrate how everyday activities - cattle keeping, thatch collection, gardening, defecation, burning, and the like - contribute to forest island development, and they demonstrate how important these islands are in everyday life - for construction, fuel wood, food, and medicine. The system has been compromised by inappropriate outside interventions. Most worrying of all they see sinister reasons behind such interventions. "Considering the environment as degrading is crucial to the solvency of state environmental institutionsI Making the case for pressing environmental degradation helps to justify state budgetary allocation."

The mistaken idea that the landscape has been degraded has had a series of detrimental effects on many aspects of Kissidougou's life. As Fairhead and Leach relate in their conclusion: "Meanwhile, it is hard to underestimate the importance of the degradation discourse's instrumental effects on many aspects of Kissidougou's life. These have impoverished people through taxes and fines, reduced people's ability to benefit from their resources, and diverted funds from more pressing needs. They have accused people of wanton destruction, criminalised many of their everyday activities, denied the technical validity of their ecological knowledge and research into developing it, denied value and credibility to their cultural forms, expressions, and basis of morality, and at times even denied people's consciousness and intelligence. The discourse has been instrumental in accentuating a gulf in perspectives between urban and rural; in undermining the credibility of outside experts in villager's eyes; in provoking mutual disdain between villagers and authority, and in imposing on the former images of social malaise and incapacity to respond to modernity. In rewriting people's history, the degradation discourse has constructed alien ideas of tradition and community, reinforced ethnic stereotypes and differentiation, and denied people their own history with all its significance for their social and political relations and capacity to live on their own terms."

This is all strong stuff, but it is wonderful to have a book that has such a message, and one that is based on substantive, original field investigation.

Andrew Goudie is professor of geography, University of Oxford.

Misreading the African Landscape: Society and Ecology in a Forest-Savanna Mosiac

Author - James Fairhead and Melissa Leach
ISBN - 0 521 56353 4 and 56499 9
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £16.95
Pages - 354

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