Academic journal article The Geographical Review

West African Environmental Narratives and Development-Volunteer Praxis

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

West African Environmental Narratives and Development-Volunteer Praxis

Article excerpt

Since the mid-1990s environmental narratives have been discussed in a spate of publications (for example, Fairhead and Leach 1996; Swift 1996; McCann 1999; Bassett and Koli Bi 2000). Often inspired by poststructural critiques, these works have aimed to overturn long-established environmental explanations through critical analysis of discourse and science in combination with detailed local studies of environmental change that drew on local experiences. Scholars working in this arena have often concluded that colonial interpretations of environmental degradation were frequently based on little to no systematic investigation, that these interpretations persisted over time primarily for political reasons, and that, in some cases, evidence suggests that actual trends may be quite different.

Furthermore, numerous scholars have made calls to challenge orthodox nature-society views and to explain the reasons for their persistence (M. Leach and R. Mearns 1996b; Batterbury, Forsyth, and Thomson 1997; Forsyth 2003). Others writers have suggested that a fundamental objective for scholars is to develop "counternarratives" that will foster better decision making than do the currently popular scenarios (for example, Roe 1995). Counternarratives typically build an explanation of environmental change--or stability--from the ground up by beginning with the perspective of a local, usually rural, population or marginalized group.

In addition to conducting careful analyses that challenge these narratives, a variety of academics have examined the groups that support, promote, and perpetuate environmental narratives, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. These scholars have argued that researchers should contextualize environmental evidence according to the agendas of the regimes that establish them. In the African context, the origins of several narratives date back to the colonial era. In many instances researchers demonstrated that environmental narratives were less the product of systematic, scientific investigation than of conjecture. Scholars argued that colonial foresters and administrators had an incentive to support a story of widespread degradation at the hands of local people because this allowed for the transfer of resource control from local people to colonial authorities or to white settlers in East and southern Africa (M. Leach and R. Mearns 1996b; Moore 1996).

This is not to argue that some colonial-era scientists did not attempt to rigorously apply scientific methods to understanding African environments (Tilley 2003). For example, colonial scientists carried out a range of applied and basic research projects in the process of developing an ecology model for the savanna region (Laris and Wardell 2006). But colonial science suffered from a number of significant shortcomings, including: the inappropriate transposition of ecological models derived from temperate climates to the tropical savanna; a deep, underlying belief that Africans were careless and were destroying their environment through the "evil" practices of slash-and-burn agriculture, bush fires, and intensive grazing; a spatial and temporal bias, seen in findings that were often extrapolated from very localized and short-term studies to the larger region in order to explain broad-scale environmental changes; and a near-complete failure to incorporate local understanding of environmental processes into research and policy agendas (M. Leach and R. Mearns 1996b; McCann 1999; Turner 2003).

Scholars further suggested that a number of contemporary actors contributed to the persistence and promotion of these narratives. In commenting on the role of expatriate scientists in this process, Melissa Leach and Robin Mearns noted that, "by comparison with the colonial period, some notable similarities can be observed in the relationship of the contemporary expatriate scientists and academic advisers to the process of public policy formation in Africa. …

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