: Highland Sanctuary. Environmental History in Tanzania's Usambara Mountains. Athens 2004 : Ohio University Press, ISBN 0-8214-1554-9 256 S. € 21,27

: Eroding the Commons. The Politics of Ecology in Baringo, Kenya 1890s-1963. Athens 2002 : Ohio University Press, ISBN 0-8214-1480-1 336 S. £16.95

Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Rohland Schuknecht, Historisches Seminar, Universität Hamburg

It is a remarkable fact that in the third millennium Africa remains the last continent where a majority of the population lives in rural areas and relies on some form of agriculture or animal husbandry to maintain its existence. However, the situation is changing as cities are growing rapidly and natural resources are diminishing at an alarming rate. Who has access to these resources and how their use can be regulated is one of the most pressing problems of African states today. Too often the relationship between man and his environment is depicted in simplistic terms according to which continued unregulated use of natural resources leads to their depletion. ‘Development’ projects are introduced to protect the environment and to limit the allegedly destructive impact of human settlement and land use. The way in which rural communities use the resources at their disposal is rarely assessed in detail and not integrated to a sufficient extent into development schemes. As a result these communities have little incentive to conform to the rules dictated by (often foreign) development ‘experts’ and state officials, thus reproducing the process of resource depletion. It is regrettable that developers make little use of the growing body of literature on African environmental history which seeks to understand the dynamics of human interactions with the environment and explores, among other things, the historical roots of current problems of soil erosion, deforestation and desertification.1

Two books by David Anderson and Christopher Conte deal extensively with the history of natural resource use in two East African regions. Anderson’s book is concerned with the history of the Baringo District in Kenya, while Conte focuses on the Usambara Mountains in Tanzania. Both are primarily concerned with the colonial period, which is characterised by a process of fundamental transformation of African agricultural systems.

In Baringo the most profound change introduced by colonial rule was the establishment of European farms in the region. European settlement disrupted land-use patterns established by African pastoralists who had arrived in the area at the end of the 19th century as a result of the decline of Maasai power in the Rift Valley. The economic weakness of the European settlers and the limited control they could exert over their property at first limited the impact of their presence on African society and land use. However, the inter-war period witnessed increased conflicts between African pastoralists and European settlers over access to and use of resources, which were sharpened by economic and ecological crises. While Africans claimed that alienation of land for European settlement had a negative impact on their ability to manage their resources to the full extent, Europeans tried to convince the colonial administration that African land-use practices were destructive and the main cause of the perceived environmental decline of the Baringo district. The Kenya Land Commission of 1932-34, which was appointed to reconsider the division of land in the colony, is presented by Anderson as a major turning point in these conflicts. European settlers succeeded in convincing the commissioners that African land use was irresponsible and damaging to the environment. The international debate on soil erosion, which was at its height in the 1930s, lent further strength to the settlers’ argument.2 As a result, the colonial state introduced a number of ‘development’ schemes, which were intended to control and regulate African land use. These schemes were rejected by African pastoralists as they bore little resemblance to their economic realities and their own fundamentally different practices of land use. These conflicts became most marked after the Second World War, when the Kenya administration had considerable funds for ‘development’ at its disposal. The various ‘development’ projects introduced after 1945 did little to improve the situation. Conflicts over land and water even increased as old patterns of communal land use (the ‘commons’) eroded and claims to individual land ownership or usage rights were established and often tolerated or even promoted by the colonial administration.

Conte’s book starts with the assumption that until the mid-19th century a viable and fairly sustainable agricultural system existed in the Usambara Mountains. Farmers and herders managed the resources at their disposal – arable land in the highlands and in the plains as well as highland forests – without causing them too much damage. By the mid-19th century the area became severely affected by the slave trade, internecine warfare and a number of ecological disasters. The first European missionaries, explorers and the like witnessed the depopulation and devastation of large areas, the neglect of formerly productive lands and the increased pressure on lands not affected by the political and economic turmoil of the period. By the end of the 19th century local communities were in a process of slow recovery, reclaiming previously lost territory, re-establishing old agricultural patterns in the mountains and the lowlands. However, colonial conquest changed the situation profoundly. The alienation of land and the establishment of sisal, coffee and tea plantations cut into old patterns of land use. Forest reserves were established in the Western Usambaras and access was denied to the African pastoralists and farmers, who had previously made use of the forests. The need to pay taxes and the desire to earn cash led to the adoption of new cash crops like maize and potatoes, which were more vulnerable to disease and drought than the old staple crops and more liable to cause soil erosion and soil exhaustion. Finally, population numbers exploded due to immigration and natural growth. All these factors served to put an increased strain on the natural resources of the Usambaras. As in Kenya, the causes for the perceived environmental degradation of the area were defined as irresponsible land use by African cultivators. In assessing African agricultural systems in the Usambaras, colonial scientists and administrators (although there were a few exceptions to the rule) failed to recognise the internal dynamics of these systems, the way in which cultivators had adapted to changed circumstances and the local variations of environmental problems like soil erosion. The same pattern as in Baringo can be identified in Usambara: the interpretation of a complex process of agricultural change in simple terms of environmental degradation and the depletion of natural resources caused by an allegedly static system of ‘traditional’ or ‘primitive’ agriculture combined with a population increase. The cure was sought in soil conservation measures, which were applied indiscriminately over a wide area of great ecological diversity and failed to take into consideration the economic and social conditions of the local communities. Thus, as in Baringo, colonial ‘development’ schemes in Usambara were doomed to failure.

Both books highlight the inherently different notions of land and resource use employed by African communities and colonial intruders. Both authors stress that the interpretation of environmental degradation was determined by the structures of power and knowledge established by the colonial powers rather than the perception of objective realities. Both argue against simplistic ‘narratives’ of environmental decline and uniform solutions to these problems, which fail to take into consideration the wider social and economic realities of the communities which are too often simply depicted as ‘sinners’ against their environment. In doing so, they contribute to a revisionist line in African environmental history and the history of ‘development’, which arose partly out of the development critique of the 1970s and 1980s. Both, Anderson and Conte refer, if only briefly, to the continuity between colonial and postcolonial debates on ‘development’.3

While both books are valuable accounts of the way in which African societies attempted to come to terms with the colonial impact, Anderson is more authoritative on the issue of colonial development thought and practice. This is hardly surprising, as he is probably the most distinguished scholar on the history of ‘development’ in East Africa. His book is a real treasure of references and could serve as a good introduction both to environmental history and the history of ‘development’, using one particular region as a case study. Yet sometimes the reader is drowned in a sea of detail and it is hard to avoid the impression that Anderson attempted to fit the entire content of his personal archive on Baringo, which was the subject of his PhD thesis back in 1982, into this book.

Although less comprehensive on colonial ‘development’, Conte’s book contains valuable sections on colonial research, in which he stresses the contradiction between pure and applied science by using the Amani Research Institute in the East Usambaras as an example. Conte sometimes burdens his narrative with a tendency to over-interpret the facts and fit them into his argument instead of letting them speak for themselves. However, both books are remarkable for their deep insights into indigenous systems of land use, mainly achieved by the skilful use of an impressive collection of oral sources.

There can be no doubt that the depletion of natural resources mentioned at the beginning is a reality and that local communities continue to (over-)use them to the full extent in the face of rapid economic, demographic and social change. To explore the historical dimension of ‘environmental degradation’ is not going to provide any solution to these problems. Yet, Anderson’s and Conte’s books point to the fact that any solution has to account for a great variety of environmental, social and economic conditions and that ‘development’ is not going to work against, but only with, these communities. The future will show if this is illusionary or whether the often proclaimed ideal of ‘sustainability’ can be achieved.

1 For a good introduction to the subject see: Beinart, William, African History and Environmental History, in: African Affairs 99 (2000), pp. 269-302.
2 For the debate on soil erosion in the 1930s and its implications for East Africa see: Anderson, David, Depression, Dust Bowl, Demography, and Drought. The Colonial State and Soil Conservation in East Africa during the 1930s, in: African Affairs 83 (1984), pp. 321-343.
3 For an example of the development critique of the 1980s see: Hyden, Goran, No Shortcuts to Progress. African Development Management in Perspective, London, 1983; based on one particular region and very readable is: Brandström‚ Per, Do We Really Learn from Experience? Reflections on Development Efforts in Sukumaland, Tanzania, in: Hjort, Anders (ed.), Land Management and Survival, Uppsala 1985, pp. 41-56; for a detailed discussion of ‘development narratives’ see: Roe, Emery M.‚ Development Narratives, or Making the Best of Blueprint Development’, in: World Development, 19 (1991), pp. 287-300.

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