Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Contesting African Landscapes: A Critical Reappraisal of Sierra Leone's Competing Forest Cover Histories

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Contesting African Landscapes: A Critical Reappraisal of Sierra Leone's Competing Forest Cover Histories

Article excerpt


In the late-1990s anthropologists James Fairhead and Melissa Leach declared in a series of seminal publications that mainstream understandings of Sierra Leonean forest cover history had greatly exaggerated its past extent and rate of conversion to other land uses. Using archival evidence, they recast the 'official' story as a product of antiquated European environmental philosophy rather than empirical data. Moreover, they found that it distorted environmental policy by perpetuating images of a mythological past in which once nearly universal forest cover had been (and continued to be) denuded and degraded by irrational, primitive rural agricultural practices. Building on this foundation, they developed a trenchant critique of the existing academic literature describing land cover change in Sierra Leone, discounting most findings on the grounds of the authors' uncritical engagement with the colonial-era narrative. In this article we present a re-evaluation of this influential thesis, arguing that while their broader critique is quite sound, historical deforestation in Sierra Leone has most certainly been considerably exaggerated, Fairhead and Leach overreached in their dismissal of prior works. Drawing upon new empirical data, we revisit these debates and develop a more nuanced critical platform from which to understand Sierra Leone's forest cover history.


Sierra Leone, forest, political ecology, environmental history, Africa, deforestation narratives


In the late-1990s, anthropologists James Fairhead and Melissa Leach produced two seminal texts that sent a theoretical wrecking ball through the body of received wisdom on coastal West Africa's environmental history (Fairhead and Leach, 1996b, 1998b). In these key books, and in the numerous additional journal articles (1) and book chapters (2) that followed them, they dismantled the contemporary discourse of progressive deforestation, exposing its origins in colonial era prejudices and spurious statistics 'verified' by decades of uncritical repetition in the absence of actual data. To fill this empirical void, they presented a compelling counter-narrative based on methodologically rich research employing archival analysis, oral history, landcover change analysis and archaeological investigation. From this detailed work, a rather different story emerged: not only did net forest cover loss appear to be negligible, but the same human actors long blamed for its destruction also appeared to be equally forest progenitors in a dynamic, patchy and constantly shifting mosaic of agricultural activity, (re)settlement and cyclical regrowth. Fairhead and Leach's work has been of considerable importance not only as an empirical contribution to the understanding of forest cover dynamics in West Africa, but also through its conceptual contributions to the fields of environmental anthropology, human geography and environmental history. In particular, it has often been identified as a formative example of 'post-structuralist political ecology' (e.g. Demeritt, 2001; Forsyth, 2003; Neumann, 2005; Peet and Watts, 2004; Robbins, 2012), demonstrating how the deconstruction of hegemonic environmental discourses opens up the necessary critical space for the emergence of new, more nuanced (and empirically based) understandings of socio-ecological dynamics and transformation. Furthermore, their work has provided an important contribution and platform for broader critical literature that has emerged over the past couple of decades that challenge deforestation narratives in Africa (cf. Davis, 2005; Kull, 2000; McCann, 1997; Ribot, 1999; Walker, 2004).

The richness and importance of their contribution notwithstanding, however, the broad, region-wide thesis developed by Fairhead and Leach is not comprehensive in its local-level detail, and there remains considerable room for refinement on a country-by-country basis. In this paper we argue that Fairhead and Leach overreached in their critiques of existing literature with respect to Sierra Leone's forest cover history. …

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