African Savannas: Global Narratives and Local Knowledge of Environmental Change

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Thomas J. Bassett and Donald Crummey, eds. African Savannas: Global Narratives and Local Knowledge of Environmental Change. Oxford: James Currey/Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2003. xvii + 270 pp. Photographs. Figures. Tables. Bibliography. Index. $27.95. Paper.

African Savannas is the result of a five-year collaborative project between researchers at the Center for African Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and researchers in Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, and Mozambique. Drawing on the perspectives of both scientific and social scientific disciplines, the project investigated environmental change in the savanna, an ecological zone covering about half of the continent. Following in the steps of recent scholarly work on African environments, the resulting research challenges the pervasive image of environmental degradation and devastation. The authors, however, have no interest in painting a rosy picture of environmental change in the twentieth century; stress and the struggles surrounding modifications in land usage are central to each of the cases examined, as is the knowledge of African herders and farmers and their management of the environment. The essays cover such key issues as the use of fire (Bassett, Bi, and Ouattara on northern Côte d'Ivoire), investment in soil quality (Gray on southwestern Burkina Faso), and tree planting (Crummey and Winter-Nelson on Wällo, Ethiopia, and Saul, Ouadba and Bognounou on western Burkina Faso). Each combines a historical perspective with careful analysis of more recent changes and considers the multiple factors affecting land usage: commercialization, migration, and government policies regarding land titling, hunting, or conservation, to name but a few.

Bassett and Crummey's excellent introduction offers an overview of current themes in studies of environmental change: the trend away from an equilibrium to a nonequilibrium model of environmental change; challenges to the master narratives of deforestation and desertification; and the increasing emphasis on nuanced studies of how farmers and herders understand, shape, and manage the landscape. A fuller understanding of environmental change, Bassett and Crummey argue, will only emerge if scholars adopt a wide variety of scientific and social-scientific methodologies that are able to assess landscape change from both quantitative and qualitative perspectives.

Distorted master narratives and poor environmental policy have resulted in part from inadequate information. The frequent lack of solid empirical data makes interdisciplinary methodologies all the more important. But as Little argues in a chapter on pastoralism in East Africa, interdisciplinarity can be hard to achieve. …