WESTERN predictions of environmental crises caused by the feckless management of natural resources in developing countries are often inaccurate and misleading, British and United States scientists told a Royal Geographical Society conference last week.
At the meeting on "environmental transformations in developing countries", researchers cast doubt on the seriousness of problems such as desertification, tropical rainforest destruction and soil erosion. They said many changes in the environment are the product of natural ecological processes and some man-made damage is short-lived.
Robin Mearns, fellow of the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University, was among the speakers who stressed that while environmental problems exist, the affluent West has a mistaken impression of their nature and causes, which is based more on ancient prejudices than local realities.
"Sometimes orthodoxies turn out to be misguided, exaggerated or just plain wrong," he said. "Much of the early work on environmental change in Africa, for example, was funded by colonial governments and done by scientists who were public servants. It was in the interest of those institutions to define problems in a way that they could provide solutions, portraying locals as victims rather than as potential partners to change. This has persevered after colonial rule."
After studying watershed development in India, forests in Ghana and nature reserves on the Eastern Cape of South Africa, Mr Mearns concludes that local use of the environment is governed by a blend of institutional land arrangements, gender divisions of labour and other customary law unique to each group. He supports local initiatives to "democratise expertise", with so-called environment experts taking a back seat.
Deborah Sporton, lecturer in geography at Sheffield University, presented her findings on Kalahari pastoral communities. These suggest that social hardship and environmental stress in the region is the result of uneven implementation of tribal grazing land policy in Botswana. "People used to worry about over-grazing and say human activity is destroying the environment, but research is showing that desertification is a myth and it [the land] regenerates."
Robin Pellew, UK director of the World Wide Fund for Nature, said: "We strongly endorse the view that people are part of the solution and not the problem, but dispute that we are hyping the environment crises. This is evident both from the accelerating rate of species extinction caused by human impact on habitats, especially in forested areas, and from the human impact on climate."