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date: 25 April 2019

Environmental History

Summary and Keywords

Environmental history highlights the dynamic interaction between the physical environment and human society, respectively framed as nature and culture. Attributing agency to the environment is perhaps the most distinguishing attribute of environmental history as an approach while human society’s struggle to overcome environmental challenges is a major focus of environmental historians. Generally, students of the African past have tended to emphasize that Africa and Africans were more dependent on nature (including climate, geography, natural resources, “natural” population dynamics, disease) than societies elsewhere, especially those in the modern West. Thus, colonial and postcolonial analysts ascribe Africa’s past as the cradle of the human species, its present lack of political and economic development, and its bleak future in an age of climate change not to any African (or human) genius but to the caprices of an undomesticated environment and interventions by outside actors that disturb an environment-people balance. Historians emphasized that political subjugation, agricultural development, and conservation increased African societies’ vulnerability (to malnutrition, drought, and indigenous and exotic diseases, for example) in the face of environmental change because it enclosed and alienated such key natural resources as land, woodlands, wildlife, and water. More recently, historians of Africa have highlighted a more dynamic and interactive relationship between society and environment in Africa beyond the analytical and nested dichotomies of Nature-Culture, Indigenous-Invasive, and Victim/Subaltern-Perpetrator/Ruler. The perspective opens space for considering how societies perceived and shaped their environments physically and mentally in conjunction with other ideas and forces, including a variety of human and non-human agents, further enriching the study of environmental history.

Keywords: environmental history, environment, nature, ecosystems, biodiversity, climate

Environment and History

Environmental history highlights the dynamic interaction between the physical environment and human society, respectively framed as nature and culture.1 Environmental change is depicted as occurring along the axis of a (pristine or state of) nature to culture continuum through physical and mental domestication and conquest, in the process transforming nature into artifice.2 Although Africa has the longest human history and therefore has witnessed the most intense nature-culture interaction, the continent continues to be cast as the last wilderness.

Although the nature-culture dichotomy has been criticized, and the notion of wild Africa has been rejected as a myth, environmental change in Africa is overwhelmingly represented as occurring along a nature-to-culture trajectory.3 Assessments of the nature-to-culture trajectory have varied. During the height of the 1950s to 1970s, an era of development and modernization, historians construed the conquest of nature and its transformation into culture as progress that facilitated improving the human condition and civilization. A declinist (or declentionist) perspective, which gained increasing strength during the 1980s, judged the price of pollution, environmental destruction, and the loss of nature, ecosystems, and biodiversity as too high. Concern mounted that modernization would lead inexorably to the death of nature, and left unchecked, it would also result in the collapse of ecosystem earth and the destruction of culture and humanity. Small-scale alternative development plus indigenous knowledge and traditional natural resource management emerged as strategies in the 1980s and 1990s, for the sustainable use of the environment (the so-called “inclinist” perspective).4

Theories abounded as to the main causes of environmental change. Before the onset of science and technology-driven beliefs in the 20th century, nature itself was identified as a major, if not the main agent of change. As far back as antiquity, intellectuals saw climate as determining the vitality and culture of human societies. The concept of environmental (or climate) determinism held that premodern populations lived by and at the mercy of nature.5 In early modern Europe, Christianity and science sought to dominate and harness Nature, a goal that seemed within reach by the 1950s and 1960s, culminating in an unbridled cultural determinism, rejecting the preeminence of environmental agency. Modernization theorists posited that scientific knowledge provided a built-in dynamic for conquering and replacing nature with human-made artifice in terms of a techno-scientific determinism. Marxists and other economic thinkers highlighted the commodification of nature with the introduction of market-mechanism-based ideas, practices, and theories as another major force of change (through a market or economic determinism), with capitalist market mechanics obliterating moral economies and moral ecologies. Population bomb declinism was a combination of technological determinism and nature’s agency: science and technology reduced mortality, resulting in explosive population growth. Political ecology stressed politics and power struggles between humans as the main drivers of environmental change, although the approach often considered the environment merely as the theater for, or the passive object of, the contestations, rather than a force in its own right. The focus on anthropogenic (human) causes of environmental change has culminated in the introduction of the term Anthropocene to emphasize the key role of humans in the last 10,000 years or so.6

The 1990s saw the rejection of the nature-culture dichotomy with the introduction of the idea of a hybridity between nature and culture. Richard White, for example, labeled the Columbia River as neither pristine nature nor human artifact, despite the many dams that inhibited its flow and harvested its energy. Rather, argued White, the river had been rendered an organic machine. Human geographers and anthropologists, working on the pre-Columbian Americas, introduced the concept of cultivated landscapes: environments that were deeply transformed by Amerindian land use, including the use of fire.7 Similarly, such Africanists as Kjekhus, Harms, Fairhead, and Leach emphasized that indigenous land use had deeply shaped African landscapes. Through the use of fire, Africans created and maintained open savanna landscapes favorable to wild and domesticated grazers and managed such disease vectors as malaria mosquitos and tsetse fly. In West Africa and elsewhere, the actions of African farmers fostered tree vegetation as opposed to being solely deforesters.8


Attributing agency to the environment, in a systemic form as nature or climate, is perhaps the most distinguishing attribute of environmental history and consequently is discussed first. Climate and disease are next, followed by population dynamics and the environment. Climatic conditions deeply shaped environments by favoring certain species over others; humidity and temperature, for example, modulated by altitude, greatly impact the growth, reproduction, and distribution of animals, plants, and microbes that can be key resources or threats to human societies. Climates with high temperatures and high humidity typically harbor more pests, plagues, and parasites. Hot and dry climates are generally less favorable to disease carriers, but heat and drought pose their own challenges to human health. Heavy disease loads limit the health and size of human (and non-human) populations in tropical climates. Population pressure is a major concern in environment-society interaction given the limited carrying capacity of ecosystem Earth. Presently, Africa is the continent with the fastest population growth, but until the mid-19th century, Africa was considered dangerously under-populated.

A focus on development and domestication follows, along with the past and present of African agriculture. In the second half of the 20th century, politicians and technocrats promoted development and modernization through the introduction of (Western) science and technology as the remedy to the limitations imposed on Africa’s societies by a hostile climate that slowed down agricultural development. To western observers, Africa on the eve of colonial occupation counted a variety of societies that had hardly domesticated their environments at all or had entirely failed to do so. Ethnographers held that such hunters and gatherers as the San of southern Africa lived in and by Nature. But “stone age” San groups depended on and owned water holes, some San communities lived in villages, and others were involved in metallurgy (copper and iron).9 Development experts considered even sub-Saharan Africa’s agricultural societies as having incompletely harnessed the continent’s natural resources. They often dismissed African farmers as primitive and nomadic shifting cultivators that moved their fields and farms as the natural bounty of their environment declined.

They also hailed Western science and technology as the catalysts to modernize Africa, which would allow its societies to escape the clutches of Nature and harness its resources for the future. The jumpstarting of development and modernization in Africa by simply importing ideas, technologies, species, people, and practices from outside of Africa, however, raised ethical, equity, and social justice issues and had mixed results—from staggering successes to disastrous failures. External imports always come at a price, and their impact is often assessed in terms of invasions and biological or green imperialism. Ultimately, the discussion about exchanges and invasions is about agency and legitimacy: who or what is a historical agent, who is the victim, and who or what is authentic/indigenous or the invader/exotic.

The next section focuses on political ecology as a key approach to environmental history. Political ecology approaches tend to play down environmental agency. But domestication and development are also fundamentally about control over resources—that is, the exercise of power, the use of force, violence, and subjugation. The struggles not only pitted humans against nature, but also humans against one another and non-humans against non-humans, concerning the distribution of and access to resources. The last section is a reflection on the relevance of environmental history to the current debate on climate change. It is followed by a brief and selective discussion of the main trends in the environmental history of the continent.

Environmental and Climate Agency

The African environment was crucial to the birth and development of the hominids, from Australopithecus to Homo sapiens. Africa was not only the cradle of humankind as a biological species, but also the place where human culture and history evolved for millions of years (as reckoned by Australopithecus) or hundreds of thousands of years (as reckoned by Homo sapiens)—earlier than on any other continent. Because it was centered on tropical latitudes, Africa was much less affected by the Ice Ages, and its extensive savannas facilitated the establishment and reproduction of human life and livelihoods. The coastal region of southeastern Africa provided a sanctuary for human communities during the massive eruption of Mount Toba on Sumatra 74,000 years, which caused the near extinction of human life. The descendants of these isolated southern African survivors of the natural disaster colonized the rest of the world.10 Thus, in the context of the origins of humanity, Africa’s climate and environment were hospitable and nurturing, which is in marked contrast with the depiction of the African environment in the 18th to 20st centuries. Moreover, despite the acknowledgment of Africa as the birthplace of the human species and an implicit but hesitant acceptance that human culture and history thus originated in Africa as well, the unparalleled depth of the continent’s history has largely been ignored. Instead, it is presumed that African culture stalled or developed at a much slower pace than elsewhere. At best, Africa is portrayed as the first victim of the Great Divergence.11 The Great Divergence debate seeks to identify critical moments in history when today’s leading regions started to diverge in terms of levels of economic and political development as a means of explaining why and how the West colonized the rest of the world during the 20th century. Despite its enormous head start as the continent where humans and human history developed, by the early 20th century, Africa succumbed to European conquest and colonization; today it is considered the poorest and most troubled continent by far. Yet, it remains unclear why and how an environment that for so long fostered human culture subsequently turned against it and became debilitating. Did the African environment radically change in the last 10,000 years or so? Did the end of the Ice Ages make Africa a more hostile environment and/or transform the temperate latitudes into a much more favorable environment? Was the desiccation of the Sahara transformative?12 Or did the 17th to mid-19th century little Ice Age, which caused droughts, famines, war, and displacement in West Africa, fatally affect the continent?13 The hostility of the climate and its tropical fertility in many ways are two sides of the same coin. Compared to temperate environments, observers often imagined tropical environments as abundant and rich in moral and physical resources, both evil and good. High temperatures coupled with high humidity foster the reproduction and growth of food and pests.14

To what degree is the hostile environment image a product of the failures of the colonial and postcolonial developmentalist and modernization projects? Colonial and postcolonial elites alike hoped civilization and development through the introduction of western science and technology would unlock Africa’s edenic potential. With high expectations marooned in the 1980s and 1990s quagmire of genocidal war and economic and environmental decline, Africa’s hostile (physical and cultural) environment reemerged as an obstacle to progress by the late 20th century.15 Despite rapid economic and population growth in the early 21st century, analysts describe the African continent as mired in poverty, famine, disease, and political and social chaos, woefully vulnerable to and hostage to the forces of nature, and especially vulnerable to the impact of global climate change.

The advent of declinism and a mounting concern that not only the underdeveloped non-West but also the developed West remain highly vulnerable to natural and human-made disasters, changed the perspective. Severe droughts and famines, El Nino, floods, tropical storms, earthquakes, and the threat of ABC warfare, have culminated in fears, first about a new ice age (nuclear winter), then global warming, and finally global climate change, with the prospect of more frequent and increasingly extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and epidemics, all of which demonstrate that humanity has not defeated Nature. Environmentalists have identified human-caused pollution, in particular greenhouse gas emissions, as the main cause of a process that is rapidly spinning out of control. Subsequently, environmental activists perceived the global climate as increasingly hostile. Africa is one of the most vulnerable continents to the fall-out of climate change because of poverty, the limited capacity of its state structures, and the perception that Africans are more dependent on natural resources and Nature, which makes their societies less resilient.16 Researchers have often directly attributed famines in Africa to the climate and underdevelopment, working from the premise that Africans have not fully domesticated their environment. Unbridled and “barbaric” (resource) wars, and droughts and famines in the Sahel, from the 1970s onward stimulated research about the origins and impact of drought and famine. HIV AIDS, the resurgence of TB in Africa, foot and mouth, and Ebola only seem to confirm the idea that Africa is the last wilderness continent, hiding in its vast expanses the seeds of humanity’s destruction. Declared dead a quarter century ago, Nature now strikes back with a vengeance. Perhaps it is not entirely a coincidence that killer diseases, irradiated monsters, mega storms and earthquakes, walking dead and undead, and vampires dominate today’s popular imaginations, while academia is preoccupied with decline, collapse, and resilience.

Development experts consider the inhabitants of the last wilderness continent to be marginal subsistence producers at best. In this context, it is interesting to note that the literature on agricultural development describes Western monoculture agriculture as being more vulnerable to droughts and disease, although Western infrastructure and economy ostensibly provide a measure of resilience against the impact of natural disasters. Non-western land use, including Africa’s smallholder agriculture, however, is more diversified, with multi- and inter-cropping and other risk-evasive practices to deal with common droughts and floods, and consequently in principle is more resilient.17 Western extension officers and Aid workers identified the same resilience, embedded in tradition and a moral economy, as hindering agricultural modernization as it made farmers reluctant to adopt agricultural innovations in colonial and post-colonial Africa. Overall, analysts today depict Africa’s climate and environment as hostile and a dire example of how the world will be affected if climate change is not reversed or at the very least mitigated.

The current global climate change theory attributes climate change to human pollution, in particular the release of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse” gases that drive up the average global temperature, affecting the atmospheric and ocean dynamics that shape the global climate. Climate modeling projects an increase in extreme weather events and, depending on the scenario, once a temperature threshold has been passed, the possibility of a radical systemic shift in global weather patterns, resulting in an environmental doomsday. Although the systemic shifts are attributed to human agency, most models assume that natural dynamics subsequently drive the process of change and set it on a path to environmental and societal collapse beyond the control of humans. In this respect, global climate change reprises the hybridity idea with human agency initiating a process of decline that involves natural dynamics. But, instead of the simultaneous process of interactions that characterize the hybridity model, the model identifies climate change as a hierarchical and sequential process that reifies the nature-culture dichotomy. Climate change sees human mismanagement as the catalyst for an unavoidable and apocalyptical natural process that might result in ecocide and genocide. There is little room for ambiguity, resilience, or flexibility in the prevailing model, which, moreover, glosses over the differentiated impact of global climate change.18 The reality of global climate change will have significant impacts on Africa and Africans because margins are already very narrow in the semi-arid regions where the populations are concentrated. Droughts and floods are worsening. Rain-fed agriculture and cattle raising are the most vulnerable sectors. By far, most producers in Africa are dependent on rain-fed crops. Increased average temperatures may actually have a positive impact on irrigated agriculture because it is mostly practiced during the colder season, but water scarcity in most of the continent offers little scope for its expansion. Affected farmers throughout Africa are substituting small stock (goats and sheep) for cattle in response to climate change.19

Climate science is critically important to understanding Africa’s environmental future, present, and past. In turn, Africa’s environmental history may provide important insights to climate science and how people, flora, fauna, and landscapes have adapted in the past and may adapt in the future. The continent and its human and non-human populations have a deep experience with climate change and climate-induced disasters.20 Our African ancestors thrived during the Ice Ages, when climatic conditions were detrimental to humanoid and human survival. By far the longest history of human societies interacting with environmental and climate change has been recorded in Africa. Unlocking that deep historical record through such paleoclimatic methodologies as pollen data and cave mineral deposits analysis and 14C tree dating are key to the future of humanity and ecosystem earth.21 African societies’ valuable experience is not limited to deep history predating written records. The Sahel region of Africa suffered from severe droughts in the 1970s. In late 19th century Southern Africa, climate change in the Orange River Basin and adjacent areas arose as a major issue, especially the drying up of Lake Ngami in Botswana. The late 1920s droughts, across Africa and globally, caused the reification and expansion of the desertification debate in southern Africa.22 Inspired by conservation measures in the United States, and determined to prevent the desertification that they attributed to ignorant farmers, colonial officials initiated ambitious conservation projects.

Climate, Environment, and Disease

The image of Africa’s climate as hostile goes back to the 18th and 19th centuries, when the continent gained a reputation as the White Man’s Grave because of the high mortality among European traders, soldiers, and sailors.23 During the era of European colonization, in the 19th and first half of the 20th century, white settlement was limited to the highland plateaus of southern and eastern Africa that were cooler and free of debilitating tropical diseases. Humid conditions, even where limited to a short wet season and a long dry season limited indigenous development because of endemic diseases. Mosquito-borne malaria was rampant across tropical Africa, and the occurrence of tsetse fly belts and horse-sickness limited the spread and use of livestock in large swaths of the continent. Disease environments were highly dynamic; tsetse fly and malaria belts expanded and contracted with fluctuations in weather, climate, and migrations of people, animals, and plants. Disease environments shaped agriculture and livestock keeping, but larger agricultural settlements also facilitated the spread of diseases.24

Colonial attempts to combat diseases through vaccination, quarantine, and environmental management had limited success. During the period between the First and Second World Wars, massive interventions to combat sleeping sickness in central, eastern, and southern Africa involved forced removals and resettlement, interventionist bodily medical procedures, quarantine, the creation of buffer zones, and large scale game slaughter in an attempt to eradicate animal reservoirs of the disease.25 Veterinary authorities created barriers to separate indigenous human and animal populations from the European settler populations to protect the white settlers and their cattle from infection by such devastating epizootics as rinderpest (which had decimated wild and domestic animals populations throughout the continent in the late 1890s), lungsickness, and foot and mouth, Social and political segregation and apartheid, which confined indigenous Africans to remote reservations and created “sanitized” white areas of settlement in the early 20th century also served to quarantine Africans populations as disease reservoirs. On the eve of and following the Second World War, veterinary barriers and fences, livestock vaccination and dipping, confining indigenous livestock to Native Reserves, and isolating game in Nature Reserves served equally to protect settler and non-settler commercial ranching (the perceived engines for development) from disease-ridden African animals, despite the irony that the feared livestock diseases were all non-indigenous in origins and colonial-era invaders.

Early in the 20th century, colonial officials, worried about low fertility levels, expressed concerns about what they saw as the threat of African extinctions of not only animals but also the continent’s peoples. They feared that indigenous African populations might degenerate and die out in the face of old plagues and new diseases brought by civilization, as had occurred with the American Indians and the Australian aboriginals.26 But colonial health policies seemed to have an impact: during the late 1940s and 1950s, African populations grew very rapidly, leading to fears about a population explosion.27

By the late 20th century, Africa became known as the “last wilderness continent.” Botanists and bio-prospectors roamed forest trails and queried traditional healers in a search for miracle plants. Nineteenth and 20th-century descriptions of dense tropical forests, expansive savannas teeming with game, and expeditions to discover “missing link” populations of pristine Stone Age hunter/gatherers fed the image of Africa as wild and unspoiled.28 In the late 20th century and early 21st century, Africa’s disease environment remerged spectacularly as a threat to global health, with the persistence of malaria, the HIV-AIDS pandemic (traced back to African origins), and the resurgence of cholera, tuberculosis, and Ebola.29 Although Ebola infection was limited to the African continent and highly localized, the 2014–2015 epidemics in West Africa triggered a global mass hysteria and only seemed to reaffirm the idea of Africa as a wilderness continent harboring and generating deadly germs that could cause an avalanche of global pandemics. Moreover, analysts depicted the “New Barbarism” wars and violence in Africa in terms of pathologies resulting from a primitive physical and mental state.30

The emphasis in terms of the study of disease and climate has been on colonial health policies and projects, the development of a colonial health infrastructure, the production of knowledge about diseases, cures, and preventions (with increased attention to the role of indigenous and vernacular knowledge production), and the origins and spread of diseases. More research is needed in these fields where the emphasis has been on contagion and the spread of diseases, with less attention to the environmental conditions (including climate change) that facilitated the spread of diseases.31

Population and Environment

Today much of Africa’s environmental woes are ascribed to overpopulation, which causes overexploitation of the environment and strife over increasingly scarce resources. Yet, until the mid-20th century, the continent was underpopulated.32 Underpopulation meant little incentive for African societies to employ technological innovations to intensify their exploitation of the environment or to enclose and accumulate land and other resources, which in turn led to social and political stagnation. Power and wealth in Africa allegedly concerned the control over people, not land.33 The abundance of land allowed people to simply leave communities and states if and when elites tightened political and economic control, through enclosure or by imposing labor demands, conscription, and taxes. Thus, economically and politically, Africa was not subject to the competitive pressure that led to the same degree of domestication of nature that supported the economic and political development of the West. The economic and political consequences of underpopulation in pre-colonial Africa facilitated European imperialism, colonialism, and neo-colonialism with its attendant environmental challenges.

The underpopulation argument, however, is ahistorical. There are no reliable population figures for Africa before the 20th century. In addition, the argument presumes that Africa’s huge landmass is undifferentiated.34 Moreover, even if low population estimates for pre-colonial Africa are accurate, citing the underused land masses of the African continent is misleading. Large tracts of Africa are desert. Even more of the continent is semi-arid grass- or tree savanna. Two of the greatest challenges in a semi-arid environment were and are the acute shortage of water with the resulting absence of plant and animal production during the dry season, and flooding and hypergrowth of plants, animals, and microbes during the wet season. Permanent human settlement and population concentrations were only possible by constructing and maintaining environmental infrastructure to accumulate and store water and food during the dry season and to maintain human shelter and mitigate flooding and the growth of weeds and microbes during the wet season.35 Founding myths and oral traditions typically juxtapose the security towns and villages offered versus a challenging and dangerous wilderness beyond, populated by dangerous creatures and spirits. The dangerous wilderness could only be traversed by those who held special powers: hunters, priests, prophets, warriors, or traders. Mbegha, the mythical first king of Shambaa in Tanzania, was a hunter from the wilderness who brought security and order by killing wild animals that threatened lives and livelihoods.36

People who migrated or fled from existing societies faced severe obstacles: they had to locate or create permanent sources of water, clear lands for fields, construct homes and villages, and protect themselves against wild animals that preyed on their livestock and crops. They also encountered a punishing disease environment rife with malaria, sleeping sickness, and bilharzia. Founding and migration myths reflect the demands of colonizing new lands: many founding heroes were great hunters like Mbegha who wielded magical powers to overcome spiritual and material threats. Myths of conquests often stress that victorious invaders were required to appease indigenous spirits and ally with their human autochthonous intermediaries. Resident communities acknowledged conquering leaders as the new kings, but old leaders retained a measure of real and symbolic power as “chiefs of the land” who interceded with the spirits to maintain environmental health (for example, rain spirits), highlighting the critical importance of the mental and physical infrastructure controlled by the firstcomers.37 For the East African Great Lakes region, Schoenbrun argues that, by 1500ce, the land frontier closed as control over land rather than people had become dominant. A new vocabulary conveyed ideas that leaders controlled land, that land rights could be transferred, and that a fee could be exacted in return for using land.38 The land involved, however, was not just any (wilderness) land, but land that had been cleared and settled, that is, environmental infrastructure.

The argument for overpopulation is no less mechanistic, linear, and fraught. In conjunction with the introduction of modern Western medicine and public health policies, mortality in Africa fell dramatically while fertility remained high, resulting in explosive population growth. The demographic transition that had accompanied development and modernization in the west, culminating in reduced family size, however, did not materialize in Africa. The burgeoning population consequently jeopardized existing resources and the African environment, resulting in catastrophic deforestation, desertification, and starvation. Population pressure should not be seen in terms of a direct linear relationship but in terms of a “population conjuncture,” that is, the environmental impact of a population is related to the size of the population at a specific time and place and is as dependent on migration as it is on fertility.39

The shift from a state of underpopulation that characterized precolonial Africa to explosive overpopulation after half a century of colonialism, development, and modernization is so dramatic that it raises further doubt about the extent of the pre-1900 state of underpopulation. It also highlights the ahistorical nature of the underpopulation argument. By presenting underpopulation as a constant for pre-colonial Africa, the argument fails to acknowledge the impact of the serious depopulation and population displacement caused by the slave trade and the violent colonial conquest (including the First World War) and attendant epidemics and famines. Using the most conservative figures, the Atlantic slave trade alone carried over ten million Africans to the Americas, largely during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.40 For each African slave who reached the Americas alive, numerous others died on slave ships, in the slave stockades on the African coast, during slave raids, and en route to the coast.41 The numbers also do not take into account those who were captured or killed in the Saharan or Indian Ocean slave trades. The impact of the slave trade on the population dynamics of the continent is immeasurable, not only because it decimated the ranks of the economically active young men and women whose labor was lost to their communities’ production and reproduction, but also because the slave trade redistributed the population within the continent. The argument that the Atlantic slave trade exported more men than women and that women’s fertility and reproduction were therefore retained to the continent is too mechanistic. Violence and trauma dramatically reduces fertility: people choose to have fewer children in times of insecurity. Also suggestive is that birth rates among slaves in the Americas were very low, and slave populations were only maintained by new imports.

Rodney argues that the forced removal of a large segment of the most productive part of the population is a defining factor in the underdevelopment of Africa: the ten million plus souls constituted Africa’s loss and the West’s economic gain. Rodney thus makes a strong argument about the economic underpinnings of why Africa lost out in the Great Divergence. The ramifications of Rodney’s argument, however, have not been fully assessed. It was not just the numbers of productive and reproductive Africans who were lost to African communities. Enslavement itself was a violent process that employed war, raids, and kidnapping. The violence of enslavement killed, wounded, and traumatized millions beyond the ten million plus slaves who landed in the Americas. For each African slave who reached the Americas, 5, 10, or 20 other individuals were directly affected by the violence. The slave trade displaced millions within Africa, including refugees from the accompanying violence. The refugees abandoned their destroyed homes, fields, pastures, villages, and towns, to hide in swamps, deserts, forests, and mountains, surviving like maroons. Many people abandoned settled agriculture or pastoralism and resorted to furtive agriculture. It was not a coincidence that manioc was rapidly adopted in west and west-central Africa, regions that were deeply affected by the slave trade. Manioc and other root crops required less cultivation and land clearing; they could be stored in the ground; and they were less conspicuous to grow. Displaced from their homes and environmental infrastructure, refugees turned to hunting and gathering or resorted to becoming slave and cattle raiders themselves. Of course, the impact of the slave trade was far from uniform. Based on the numbers of slaves exported, the 18th century saw the most severe impact. Some regions were much more affected than others. Overall, however, the wild Africa that 19th-century European travelers described was not merely an imaginative fiction meant to legitimize Western colonialism but was also a physical landscape that had been abandoned and overgrown as a result of the destruction and displacement of the slave trade. The violence of the slave trade transformed once fertile village-dotted landscapes into wilderness, allowing wild animal populations to recover. Wild Africa therefore was not just myth, but also a post-slave-trade apocalyptic reality. Africa had barely begun to rebuild communities and workable environments following the slow demise of the slave trade when the violence of colonial conquest, intertwined with the First World War, engulfed the continent, causing a renewed round of destruction of and displacement from environmental infrastructure, and resulting in widespread famine, epidemics and epizootics, and death. Thus, Africa may indeed have been underpopulated by the early 1900s; this was not a structural condition, but rather the product of a conjuncture of violence and displacement. Hard figures are hard to come by. The invaluable slave trade database only has figures on the enslaved transported in the Atlantic trade. To date, studies that have attempted to reconstruct population dynamics in Africa drawing on missionaries’ baptism, marriage, and death records are few.42

Development and Domestication

Iliffe’s path-breaking synthesis of African history outlines how Africans colonized and domesticated the continent’s “hostile” environment, beginning with the migrations of people, knowledge, and practices. Developing and borrowing new technology from one another, including pottery, ironworking, and animal and plant domesticates, Africans scattered across the continent, using their new practices and tools to shape the environment around them.43 Iliffe’s premise is that new ideas and practices were required to render a hostile environment hospitable. Diamond argues that, whereas in Eurasia the lack of major environmental boundaries facilitated the east-west dissemination of people, ideas, and technology in Africa, the climate boundaries that dissect Africa from east to west inhibited north-south migrations of people, animals, plants, and ideas. The Sahara desert inhibited the spread of people and technology from north to south. Steep mountain ranges, tropical forests, and malaria and tse tse belts also hindered communications. In addition, Diamond emphasizes that Africa “naturally and geographically” had few domesticates, arguing in that sense too, that Africa’s climate and environment were hostile.44

Whereas Africa during the Ice Ages was a haven for humans and humanoids, post-glacial Africa hindered human development.45 The hostile environment thesis explains why Africa fell behind in terms of development. Basically, it defines development as the domestication of Nature and environmental resources. It also depicts the domestication of Africa’s environment along an evolutionary-inflected progression from hunting and gathering to pastoralism, to sedentary agriculture, with industrialization and urbanization as the highest stages. In this framework, hunting and gathering largely consisted of managing or exploiting Nature’s bounty, whereas pastoralism relies on domesticated animals, and sedentary agriculture incorporates domesticated plants. Although historians criticized the model as linear, simplistic, and ahistorical, its terminology and categories are still widely used.46

Hunting and gathering and pastoralism sustained only small itinerant communities that migrated to exploit seasonal and annual fluctuations in the natural resource availability. Much of the pre-colonial (and colonial) agriculture of the continent was defined as traditional shifting cultivation with subsistence production.47 That is, agriculture was unproductive and unable to sustain significant populations, economic specialization, or permanent settlement in the form of towns and cities.48 Exceptions are few and mainly limited to the large river valleys in West Africa (including the empires along the Niger River and Lake Chad), the Nile Valley, and the valleys and plains of Northeastern Africa. Relatively advanced agriculture with surpluses to sustain towns, cities, armies, and elites, and empires marks these exceptions. Long-distance trade (including in gold, ivory, slaves, salt, and kola nuts) was an additional factor that allowed societies and communities to partly detach themselves from the limitations imposed by a hostile environment.49 The Swahili towns along the Indian Ocean partly overcame the limitations of a hostile African environment through long-distance trade that introduced new technology and ideas (Islam) as well as food and other resources. More recent histories emphasized that the towns were intimately connected to and in many ways a product of their hinterlands.50 The implication is that the towns had at least partially domesticated their rural environments.

Beyond these enclaves of domestication and development, surplus-production agriculture and urbanization appeared to be colonial and postcolonial phenomena. Labeling African agriculture as subsistence and inefficient legitimized repeated and massive development interventions by colonial and postcolonial national and international regimes alike, ranging from the introduction of cash crops (cocoa, cotton) and plantation agriculture (sugar cane, tobacco) to commercial, state, or communal irrigation agriculture and more recently, farm forestry, agroforestry, and bio-fuel plantations. Yet, despite the introduction of improved cultivars (including hybrids and GMOs) and other inputs and services (mechanization, fertilizers, credit, land titling), most experts continue to see African agriculture and resource management as woefully inadequate to sustain the continent’s rapidly growing population.51

Diamond measured development using the yardstick of the most important domesticates of the late 20th century. The selection was presentist (for the late 20th century) and Eurasian-centric. Africa, he argued contributed relatively little to modern agriculture. In doing so, Diamond ignored many of the domesticates that were key resources in Africa’s past and that may constitute some of the cultivars of the future, including highly drought resistant and nutritionally superior small grains such as millets, sorghums and teff. Diamond also excluded many semi-domesticates, including many of Africa’s economic and nutritiously important cultivated trees and bushes.52

The tools for the African colonization of the environment included domesticating fire (for iron, pottery, heating, light, cooking, and forest-, field-, and landscape burning), water (dams, reservoirs, water holes, wells, drains, and irrigation), plants, animals, and landscapes.53 Not European Prometheus but African Australopithecus introduced the management of fire in Africa millions of years ago, and African blacksmiths deployed fire to smelt iron 3,000 years ago developing a process unique to Africa, which produced high carbon steel.54 Wild fires on the Cape Peninsula and elsewhere in Africa throughout the colonial and postcolonial eras demonstrate that fire was never fully domesticated. The annual scorch of wild fires in California, Australia, and southern Europe, as well as fire escaping from hearths, engines, and nuclear plants across the globe, however, demonstrates that the human failure to fully domesticate fire is not confined to Africa.55 As the story of fire suggests, domestication is neither permanent, nor total.

Historical linguistics and archaeology in combination suggest that the intense management of plants and animals in Africa goes back perhaps 9,000–10,000 years ago for cattle and crop cultivation, with new words emerging for milking, watering cattle, cattle pens (cattle kraals), clearing land, weeding, and cultivating in the eastern Sahara/Sahel. Domestic cattle and caprines (goats and/or sheep) were common in the area by 4,000 years, as the region was desiccating. Significantly, this evolving nomenclature pre-dates when the Sahara dried up, meaning the desert was not yet an obstacle to the movement of people and domesticates. Moreover, domestication occurred outside the Nile Valley.56 The new vocabulary suggests domestication or incipient domestication of cattle and crops. Yet it does not prove control over the reproduction of cattle and plants, which is often considered the key requirement of domestication. The vocabulary does indicate a close mutual interdependence between communities of people, animals, and plants: the people provided water and protection to the cattle and favorable microenvironments to preferred (food) plants. In return, the animals and plants sustained the humans, without either being necessarily in full control of the other. Archaeological methods on their own make the identification of African domesticated plants difficult. The pollens of African domesticated cereals are virtually undistinguishable in size from the indigenous wild grasses. Non-cereal crops, including roots and bulbs, leave no archaeological record.57

Western travelers and colonial officers, missionaries, and scientists used a very narrow definition of domestication. To civilize or modernize required the domestication not only of Africa’s environmental resources, but equally of its indigenous populations. Classifying and knowing African environments and societies through European science constituted cognitive domestication. Colonial officers and anthropologists considered education in general and literacy in particular as a tool for domesticating the “native mind.”58

Employing domestication to measure development is problematic, given the Euro-centric scientific-evolutionary way in which it is defined; the word suggests total control by humans and considers domestication to be a one-way final and permanent linear process. Domestication also privileges sexual reproduction because it involves “improvement” through selective breeding.59 But many domesticates are far from totally controlled by humans, and domestication is often a collaborative or competitive interaction between humans and non-humans. Domestication is also neither finite nor permanent, as evidenced by such escaped domesticates as weeds and feral animals. Botanists and ecologists label many plants, animals, and even entire landscapes as cultivated, managed, or semi-domesticated. Many species of trees and other plants reproduce vegetatively through suckers, roots, and coppice, facilitated by varied levels of human management ranging from planting to protection. Vegetative reproduction results in clones of the parent material without conventional breeding intervention, even though people often selected or even grafted the parent material.60 Therefore, vegetative reproduction is rarely seen in terms of a Lockean, Marxist, evolutionary, or developmentalist “improvement” of a “wild” thing that signals its transfer from the primitive Natural commons to the Cultural private or public property regime that marks civilization.61

The concept of environmental infrastructure, building on such hybrid concepts as organic machines, cultivated species and landscapes, and built environments, offers a way to analyze and describe the dynamic interaction between human society and environment and climate beyond the teleological linearity of such Nature-Culture derived static notions as domestication. The concept of environmental infrastructure highlights that both pre-modern/non-western and modern/western societies create, maintain and depend on an infrastructure of environmental resources co-shaped by human and non-human actors and forces. Modern/western and pre-modern/non-western societies’ environments alike constitute infrastructure in which humans are co-producers, intentionally or unconsciously making use of and cooperating with biological, physical, and chemical agents to create environments that sustain human and non-human communities. Rural Africans often source wood for fuel, construction, and tools from managed coppice vegetation stands. Coppice management makes use of the coppice vigor of selected tree and bush species that are cut at specific times of the year and at certain intervals to ensure regrowth from trunks, stems and roots.62

Environmental infrastructure includes sheltering environments (from huts and homesteads to villages, towns, and cities), communications (trails, paths, highways, canals, phone, the internet), energy (for heating, cooking, crafts, and industry), fields, forests, coppice bush, pastures, savannas, food processing and storage (including silos and granaries, reservoirs, wells, water holes), irrigation, drainages, canals, sewerage, dams, and sluices, managed plants and animals (including domestic and wild animals). Permanent human settlement in semi-arid environments that lack year-round natural sources of water cannot be sustained without dry season stores of water and food, recycling waste water, or importing water. Moreover, intense rainfall events make drainage critical to prevent flooding of homes, food stores, and fields.63 Long-thriving Axum, for example, relied on water harvesting based on an infrastructure of ponds and cisterns to sustain its population through the dry season, and Axum farmers deployed raised cultivation beds to drain excess water during the rainy season.64

The concept of environmental infrastructure bridges the gap between Nature and natural resources on the one hand and Culture and technology on the other. Pre-modern African societies shaped their environments throughout human (and hominid) history, using fire, the axe, and their livestock to create savanna landscapes, harvesting wood, creating farms and fields, villages and towns, and by maintaining water, food, and seed stores. Most larger-scale states and societies in Africa were located in semi-arid environments that were highly prone to debilitating drought and severe flooding. Water harvesting and storage, water drainage, and food storage were critical in semi-arid environments because neither water nor food could be harvested during the dry season. Food stores needed to be protected from the elements, pests, plagues, and raiders, especially in times of scarcity, requiring heavy investment in such protective measures as granaries, palisades, and fences.

Environmental infrastructure is not the static outcome of a one-off human intervention that results in permanent and revolutionary transformation, as per the conventional developmentalist and evolutionary framework of domestication and technology. To the contrary, making environmental infrastructure is a highly dynamic interactive and continuous process and, as such, is better captured through the use of a verb: environing. Environing emphasizes that infrastructure needs to be constantly repaired and maintained and remade and re-imagined in the face of internal and external dynamics and forces, including erosion, evolution, history, and cultural and climate change. Decreased attention to environing may lead to the deterioration of the infrastructure and its eventual collapse, exposing interdependent networks of human and non-human communities to disease, decline, and destruction.

Human-created infrastructure is as fickle and temporary in modern industrial societies as it was in pre-modern societies; labor investment continues to be key to create, repair, maintain, and reproduce environmental infrastructure. Depopulation, flight, and forced migrations deeply affected environing capabilities. Regions of Africa that were depleted by war and slave raiding would have seen a shrinking of environmental infrastructure (or its collapse), with farms and villages that were abandoned quickly gobbled up by bush and forest. But the impact of the violence and displacement caused by the slave trade varied by time and place, and the slave trade and migrations and flight also introduced people to new species and resources through the Columbian Exchange. Some societies thrived because of the slave trade; for example, the Asante people reinvented themselves from exporters of gold and ivory into suppliers of slaves in the Atlantic trade in the early 18th century. The Balanta of the Guinea Bissau coast equally proved very resilient in the face of the slave trade violence.65 Retaining slaves from the interior in the coastal regions of East, Central, and West Africa provided the labor for the expansion of environmental infrastructure for old and new crops, including cocoa in West Africa, cloves on Zanzibar, and grain on the East African coast. With the decline of the Atlantic slave trade, African and European entrepreneurs simply transferred much of the plantation economy of the Americas to Africa to draw on its unfree labor at the source.66 The process facilitated the creation of an environmental infrastructure in Africa to produce plantation crops that sustained the industrial revolution in Western Europe and North America. In the colonial era, farming communities lost male labor as a result of circular migrations, which was partly compensated for by increasing the labor input from women and children and by investing wages in animals, plows, early-maturing crops, and other technology. As a result, agriculture and environmental infrastructure changed with direct and indirect environmental impacts. For example, animal draught plowing allowed for larger fields, with fewer trees-in-fields, resulting in more erosion and more weeds and contestation over the control of the labor of women and children.67

The human and humanoid role in environing predates the Holocene-era domestication of plants and animals. Australopithecus already used fire, a most powerful shaper of environments and climates. The creation of shelters and camps (microenvironments) and water harvesting further contributed to the environmental infrastructure. Moreover, even before the advent of domestication, humans managed and cultivated plants and manipulated microbes (for fermentation) and animals. Environing is not equal to “greening,” in the sense that it is per definition good for the environment or sustainable. Neither is it per definition environmentally destructive even though it involves people selecting and favoring certain species over others and may involve species’ overexploitation, and even extermination and ecocide. Southern Africa saw Australopithecus master and use fire to shape the environment, and it offered a safe haven for humans 70,000 years ago, when a volcanic eruption nearly wiped out human life. Africa uninterruptedly sustained human life when other continents saw massive extinctions, and humans helped transform “virtually every ecosystem in southern Africa.” Yet its vegetation counts the highest species richness of any floral region in the world.68 The region’s biodiversity is the product of a deep history of environing, of the co-shaping of environments by humans and non-humans rather than some miraculous resilience of a natural biodiversity predating humans. The same paradox pertains to East Africa, which has a history of two million years of humans shaping its environment, and yet the region overall witnessed “[human’s] least destructive effect on nature.” East Africa is the last refuge of the great animal herds on earth and is highly biodiverse.69 There is no doubt that Africa’s environment is currently under severe stress. But, the significance of the paradox that Africa combines the longest human history with a rich environment is that preservation and excluding people from environments is not the only or most successful road to biodiversity and conservation.

Exchanges, Invaders, and Indigenes

The introduction of aliens and alien species, ideas, institutions, and practices that disturb indigenous societies and their ecosystems conceptually combines the political ecology framework approach (the emphasis on power struggles and politics) with the notion of environmental agency (which is secondary in the political ecology framework). Often, especially in the context of the European conquest of the Americas, the introduction of new species and goods is couched in terms of (environmental) decline. Alien invaders with their technology, ideas, practices, and institutions conquer and replace or subjugate indigenous populations, institutions, practices, and species. Virgin soil epidemics of smallpox and other Old World diseases caused the Amerindian demographic collapse, facilitating the transformation of large parts of the New World into a Neo-Europe. Societal and environmental decline and collapse also opened up space for newcomers. In environmental, economic, and cultural history, as well as in the history of science and technology, considerable explanatory traction is given to new tools, plant and animal species, practices, ideas, and institutions. Until recently, the introduction and dispersal of exotic innovations in regions that were considered underdeveloped was celebrated as progress. Cassava, cowpeas, and maize supported the growth of larger and denser populations in the forest environments of West Africa after their introduction from the 16th century onwards.70

The exchanges are increasingly seen as a two-way street. Hominids from Africa repeatedly colonized the rest of the world, carrying practices, culture, language, and tools (including fire) with them that revolutionized human history and transformed the global environment. African slaves played a key role as laborers and soldiers in antiquity, prominently in North Africa, ancient Rome, and Mesopotamia. Africans and African plants, microbes, and practices spread to the rest of the world, in particular the Americas and Asia. Through the Monsoon Exchange between Africa and the Near East and South Asia, Africans adapted livestock and bananas while African millets and sorghums found their way to the Near East and South Asia respectively.71 The forced migration of millions of Africans to the Americas, North Africa, the Middle East, and (South) Asia had a massive impact on populations and environments. African forced migrants created neo-Africas and neo-Europes, especially in the Americas, by converting swamps and forests into plantations. The plantations were gateways for the introduction of further new species and practices. The repercussions have best been studied in the Americas: slave ships also carried African domesticated and wild plants and diseases including malaria, yellow fever, and Chaga’s disease (sleeping sickness) across the Atlantic.72

Imported domesticates made crucial contributions to Africa’s development.73 The introduction of bananas from Asia during the first millennium of the Common Era and maize and cassava from the Americas during the second millennium supplemented African diets, although the crops were nutrient poor.74 Moreover, maize imposed a heavy burden on African soils, in addition to creating more favorable habitat for malaria-bearing mosquitos. Horses and firearms enhanced the military prowess and facilitated hunting, but the innovations came at a high price. Paid for in slaves, the demand for replacement horses and increasingly modern firearms resulted in an escalating arms race that intensified violent raids and destruction, disease, and displacement.75

With the decline of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the plantation production of coffee, cocoa, and cotton simply relocated to Africa around the turn of the 19th century. The process of establishing plantations led to deforestation and the conversion of arable land from food to plantation mono-crops that were vulnerable to pests. At the same time, colonial conquest facilitated the spread of cattle plague, which decimated African cattle herds and wildlife in the 1890s. Roads and railways improved communications but also enhanced colonial control and exploitation as well as the spread of invasive species and practices. Moreover, officials used forced labor for infrastructure construction and maintenance, thereby diverting labor from household production. Colonial medicine, with its vaccination and other public health campaigns, reduced mortality, creating the conditions for rapid population growth in the second half of the 20th century. Although smallpox epidemics, for example, impacted Africa (as they did Europe), in contrast to the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas, Africans proved less vulnerable to human diseases introduced from Europe.

Not all invasions were successful, highlighting the limitations of a (technological/knowledge) deterministic framework. The animal-drawn plow had been used throughout the Ethiopian Highlands since the Middle Ages. Introduced in southern Africa well before the First World War, however, it was not widely adopted by African farmers until after the Second World War. In the shallow soils of Africa, the animal-drawn plow eased field preparation, but it increased the weeding burden as well as vulnerability to erosion because of the required removal of trees and stumps that stabilized the soil. Similarly, European traders introduced industrially-produced iron in Africa in the 18th century, but European iron imports did not replace African artisanal-produced iron until well into the 20th century. African farmers quickly adapted maize in West Africa, but more slowly elsewhere on the continent. In Ethiopia, maize did not become a staple until well into the 20th century.76

The three major Abrahamic religions, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity fostered utilitarian views about the environment as a resource provided by God for humans to exploit at will. The views frequently are depicted in terms of the introduction of alien and therefore destructive ideas that laid the groundwork for the commodification of Nature. Yet Africa and Africans figure prominently amongst the first practitioners and proselytizers of both Christianity and Islam, and Judaism predated both in Africa, which calls into question the extent to which the religions can be considered alien and invasive. Christianity is as old in North Africa and North East Africa as it is in Western Europe. Indigenous African religious beliefs, including the widespread rain cults, tended to view the environment in less exploitative terms, as illustrated by the veneration of spirits of the land and other resources and the systems of environmental management practices that are referred to as “guardians of the land.” It is clear, however, that because of the deep history of Abrahamic religions in much of Africa, persistent pre-Abrahamic and Abrahamic belief systems have interacted with one another for centuries.

Commodification, capitalism, and the belief in “the market” propagated under colonialism also affected the environment. Placing a monetary value on animals, plants, and people (slave prices, labor wages) and other resources, which transformed how people perceived them, was not a colonial innovation. Slaves, animals, and other African goods made their way to ancient Egypt, North Africa, Mesopotamia, India, China, and Rome. Historians not uncommonly cast commodification in terms of a change from a pre-existing moral economy (and moral ecology), in which living beings and things were valued in their social and spiritual context, to a market economy, where they were exclusively valued in economic terms. The distinction is, of course, overdrawn and psychology, power, culture and social meanings shape modern consumer culture. Moreover, it is ahistorical and reductionist to claim that production and consumption in precolonial Africa were merely subsistence-oriented and shaped by a moral economy. Agricultural surpluses and trade in agricultural products were common, and African slave raiders and traders commodified fellow Africans. Moreover, frustrated European traders repeatedly noted their African counterparts were only too aware of the value of the goods they offered as well as the goods they purchased. Contrary to lore, a few glass beads did not buy a slave. Rather, traders expressed slave prices in gold or monetary terms, which were paid in a package consisting of a variety of trade goods, including valuable textiles, firearms, and horses.77

A final system of knowledge that had a major impact on Africa is science, particularly in the field of conservation. Historians emphasize that colonial conservation frequently was concerned more about power and control than environmental outcomes. In addition, the practices applied by colonial experts emanated from a radically different non-tropical environment. Alien and entirely inappropriate in the African context, colonial science projects by definition were environmentally destructive.78 An alternative argument, however, postulates that Western science was predicated on knowledge that was produced by Western scientists in a non-western imperial and colonial context. Moreover, African research and lab assistants, vaccinators, inoculators, nurses, orderlies, interpreters, guides, and administrative staff played a key role in the production of colonial knowledge.79 Given that western scientists borrowed widely from non-western experts and African intermediaries, Western science is thus not as alien to African environments as the sharp conventional dichotomy between the Western scientific knowledge system and African traditional knowledge systems might suggest.

Political Economies and Ecologies: Colonialism, Conservation, and Commodification

A political ecology framework offers an important tool for understanding society-environment dynamics. The exercise of power to establish or maintain control over space, resources, and communities has often led to mass violence: slave and cattle raiding, war, imperialism, colonialism, the Cold War, decolonization, as well as resource and civil wars.80

The destructive impact of violence on society and environment emanated in particular from population flight or forced migrations, which displaced people from their home environments and their environmental infrastructure, directly exposing them to drought, disease, and death. The wells, dams, dwellings, fields, and pastures that sustain human societies and that provide resilience to, mitigate, or facilitate adaptation to such seasonal, cyclical, or structural environmental challenges as monsoons, El Nino, and climate change, were often the intended or unintended target of war. Scorched earth by burning homes and villages, crops, and fields was as typical of slave raids as it was of colonial conquest and modern counterinsurgency operations. Bush and weeds quickly invaded abandoned farms, fields, pasturelands, villages, and towns, while silt and debris filled wells, drainages, and reservoirs. Even when refugees returned, the challenges to reconstructing environmental infrastructure were enormous, often amounting to pioneering a wilderness. Yet, post-conflict reconstruction in rural and pre-modern Africa has received very little attention. Having largely overlooked the enormous and constant investment of labor, knowledge, and other resources in creating and maintaining the environmental infrastructure that sustained lives and livelihoods in Africa, observers believed that Africa’s rural infrastructure of huts, farms, fields, water sources, orchards, pasturelands, and villages could be as easily rebuilt as burned down.

Colonial policies, practices, and institutions including conservation, plantation agriculture, forced and circular labor, and land alienation transformed access to land, water, flora, and fauna.81 Colonial conservation initiatives severely limited African hunting and the gathering of forest products.82 Damming rivers throughout Africa and redirecting river waters to (post)colonial irrigation projects (often aimed at sustaining settler or large scale plantation production) limited water availability downstream. Upstream, large dams flooded fertile valley lands, causing population displacement. The irrigation schemes proved vulnerable to destructive flooding, as in the case of the Limpopo and Zambezi Rivers.83 Settler agriculture and plantation agriculture led to large-scale alienation of farmlands and forced resettlement and reduced independent peasants and farmers to squatters, sharecroppers, labor tenants, or agricultural workers. The reserves and homelands created for the masses of the dispossessed were prone to droughts and floods, in addition to being overpopulated. Massive public health projects to combat diseases such as sleeping sickness and malaria led to large scale population removals, particularly in Central and East Africa.

During the early phase of colonialism, land and resource alienation was typically de jure and not de facto, mitigating the direct socio-environmental impact. African households whose lands had been allocated to white settlers (as in Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique, and Namibia) or to large plantation companies (for example, across West Africa and in Mozambique and Angola) remained on the land but as laborers or labor tenants. During the 1920s and 1930s, colonial states lacked the means to enforce hunting regulations and conservation and reserve boundaries.84 After the Second World War, however, a highly developmentalist colonialism directly intervened in how Africans managed and used their lands and other resources. Inspired by droughts in Africa and elsewhere (including the Dust Bowl in the United States) and by mounting concerns about deforestation, desertification, and overpopulation, colonial officers widely enforced soil conservation, animal disease control measures, and bans on burning practices. Often, the introduction of colonial soil conservation measures made erosion worse, as it did for example in 20th-century Lesotho.85 In addition, state-financed capitalization of settler farmers progressively reduced their dependence on African labor tenants and their draught animals, leading to a new round of forced removals. The removal of African tenants and their livestock, in particular browsing goats, combined with the suppression of burning, was a critical factor in the increasing incidence of bush encroachment across southern and eastern Africa. Today, bush encroachment in the commercial farming regions of South Africa and Namibia is one of the most severe environmental challenges.86

The colonial authorities also strongly propagated the commodification of environmental and other resources, including labor and land. Based on the argument that household reproduction was confined to African villages outside of the urban-based colonial economy, colonial authorities and private companies paid their African workers below-subsistence wages. When Africans declined to engage in wage labor, colonial governments turned to direct force (forced labor and forced recruitment) or indirect measures (taxation). Colonial authorities also pressured African smallholders to produce globally marketable commodities including cocoa, coffee, and cotton, offering producers fixed prices below open market levels. The results for cotton were mixed, and incentives deteriorated into overt forced cultivation that directly competed with the production of food and other crops. The result was declining investments in environmental infrastructure on household farms and in food production as farmers favored (or were forced to favor) commodity production, which required costly inputs.87

Postcolonial African governments typically sustained and even expanded state intervention in their subject populations’ environmental resources use and management through conservation measures, agricultural extension, health programs, and resettlement and infrastructure projects. In Tanzania, Namibia, and South Africa, for example, post-independence governments intensified conservation policies, even though the colonial-era introduction of national parks and reserves had been a major cause of land alienation and forced removals. The introduction by African governments of structural readjustment policies sponsored by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in the 1980s, however, led to the end of subsidies on fertilizers, improved seeds, and other inputs for commodity farming, and thus prompted its decline. A new round of land alienation for large-scale biofuel plantation agriculture in the early 2000s precipitated another shock for agriculture on a continent that was reeling from Cold War and post-Cold War violence that caused massive displacement throughout the continent as rural populations abandoned their farms and fled to the cities, accelerating urbanization. Indeed, perhaps more than population or economic growth, rural-urban flight contributed to urbanization. Rural migrants and refugees settled in suburban or rural slums that contributed to environmental degradation and exposed the inhabitants to pollution and disease.88 Post-conflict rural recovery has been slow because the enormous challenges of rebuilding rural environmental infrastructure are not prioritized in post-conflict reconstruction programs. As a result, most African countries today are mired in environmental challenges, including low agricultural production, in both town and country. Thus, it is not only environmental factors and population pressure that make much of Africa ill-prepared to face the impact of climate change and old and new diseases, but also a history of power struggles, violence, and displacement.

Environment and Climate in the Present and Future

The manifestations of climate change can only be ignored at the peril of the future of humanity and its earthly abode. As environmental history as an approach has spread through different fields, and as it has been applied to different regions throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the approach paradoxically slowly shed its emphasis on the agency of the physical environment, including climate agency. For example, historians critiqued environmental histories by Brooks and Webb that highlighted how climate shifts shaped human history and studies that identified (natural) droughts as the cause of famines in the 1970s and 1980s as being too environmental deterministic. The social and political causes of famines were emphasized instead.89 By the turn of this century, the study of environmental history, significantly, had shifted to the study of how individuals, communities, cultures, and societies imagined their physical environment. Increasingly, the genealogy of environmental ideas, concepts, movements, and institutions—the cultural and intellectual history about how perceptions about the environment changed—became the object of environmental history studies. One reason for this shift was the awareness that studying environmental change over time was extremely complicated because it involves deeply inter- and transdisciplinary methods. Another factor was the cultural turn in the field of history, with renewed attention to the history of ideas, intellectual history, and a strong self-critical focus on the creation of knowledge itself, for example, through the history of the book.

With a turn-of-the-century awareness that Nature is not dead, and with rising concerns about climate change, however, the materiality of environmental change and the attention to environmental/climate agency is making a come-back. This important shift strengthens the environmental history approach. But there is a danger that environmental history may slide too far down the slippery slope of environmental/climate determinism. Here, the environmental history of Africa and Africans can make critical contributions. Africa has by far—by tens and even hundreds of thousands of years—the deepest record of human-environment interaction. Unraveling that record through reading its geological, chemical, biological, genetic, and physical record through scientific methods and studying its human history through archaeology, anthropology, history, historical linguistics, and other approaches, will be revealing. Studies of the recent “historical” past and the deeper “geological” past can be used to refine the analysis. Because of the methods and available sources, studies of the recent past are more likely to highlight the processes that effect change and how human communities shape and experience change. Studies of the deeper past reflect more systematically on the material outcomes of changes. A single study, even of mammoth proportions with interdisciplinary teams, is not going to provide the answer; only a body of studies, including inter-, multi-, and transdisciplinary and a variety of disciplinary approaches in conjunction are going to enable us to begin to formulate the right and wrong questions and answers that will provide a better understanding of the past in the service of the present and the future.

The uniquely long and deep record of human experience with environmental change in Africa provides an invaluable record that when deciphered may offer a critical guide to the future of our planet. The mind-boggling diversity of modern Africa, which in the late 20th century was identified as the continent’s greatest obstacle to development and modernization (too many languages, too many ethnic identities, too much diversity) becomes an immeasurable source of resilience in the face of climate and environmental change; within this diversity lies the promise of a wealth of potential strategies to adapt to and mitigate the impact of climate change. The search for strategies to combat climate change and other threats has focused on single solution, a cure for all ills, but this is a chimera. Diversity and diversification, the synergistic deployment of a multitude of strategies is likely to be a more successful approach to the challenges we face now and in the future. For example, African communities, often simultaneously, have exploited different microenvironments to make optimal use of the available resources thereby minimizing risk. Many of the settlement sites linked to the Medieval Great Zimbabwe culture are located on the edge of the Southern African high plateau, which provides access to the coastal plain. The lowland coastal plain provides abundant humidity and rainfall, and it is dissected by fertile alluvial valleys, but the area also harbors tsetse flies and malaria mosquitos, and the valleys are prone to flooding. The high plateau’s drought-prone environment offers protection for man and beast against the debilitating diseases of the lowlands.90 In the semi-arid environment of the Ovambo floodplain of southern Angola and northern Namibia, villagers moved their cattle herds to remote cattle posts during the dry season to save precious farm water resources.91 Seasonal cattle transhumance was ubiquitous throughout semi-arid Africa: the mobility helped to mitigate the effects of disease and drought.

In terms of bio-, genetic-, environmental, and cultural diversity, Africa in many ways is an Eldorado, a legendary comparison that raises ethical questions as well as issues of (environmental) justice. Africans and Africa should not be exploited as passive subjects and mere resource, as too frequently has occurred in the past. Knowledge production about Africa’s past and present biological, genetic, geological, environmental, and other wealth should also not lead to a replay of Lockean or Marxist formula for appropriation, privatization, and commodification, which forces African societies to purchase back at usurious prices the products of their own history. The attribution of human agency through linear and unilateral domestication claims should be tempered by acknowledging the role of non-human agents, forces, and processes in the making of the deep human-environment interactive history that resulted in Africa’s (and therefore the globe’s) rich bio-cultural diversity and broad range of hospitable and less hospitable environments. The living and non-living entities and things that populate our planet are co-travelers, not raw material to be used and disposed of at whim.

Discussion of the Literature

Although, the impact of conventional environmental history, as pioneered in the United States and Europe, came late to the field of African history, attention to environmental factors featured prominently from the early days of the field’s development in the 1960s and 1970s due to the influence of the Annales school and Marxist approaches.92 The history of specific ethnic groups often included a first chapter that sketched out the environment to emphasize the close relationship between a society and its physical surroundings. In early studies, historians employed rather static descriptions based on present-day conditions, which they projected back in time justified by the idea posited by the Annales school—that physical environments changed at a different and slower pace than human history.93 Harms’ seminal Games against Nature built on this tradition but emphasized the dynamic and mutual interaction between human society and their environment.94 Geography and climate featured prominently, and the tradition received new impetus from the severe droughts that plagued Africa during the 1970s through1990s, and yet again in the 2000s, with the rise of the global climate change paradigm. Indeed, the 1970s and 1980s Sahel droughts highlighted the limitations imposed on African societies by climate.95 The climate impetus waned, however, with the rejection of environmental determinism and the emphasis on political and social-cultural factors (with famines formulated as a product not of climate but of social-political entitlement).96 The global climate change debate in the 2000s reintroduced the physical environment as a key factor.97

The historical materialism of Marxist analysis, with its attendant focus on land and other means of production, represents a second pathway that has spurred attention to environmental resources. Land and land alienation especially have featured in the study of African societies, in particular as a result of the encounters with capitalism and colonialism: colonial regimes appropriated large tracts of land for distribution to European settlers and capitalist plantations, dispossessing Africans of their agricultural, pastoral, and hunting land.98 In this framework, colonialism’s capture of African’s labor in this framework had environmental repercussions because it diverted the labor of especially African men from food production to commercial agriculture.99 The result was rural impoverishment, malnutrition, famine, disease, and general environmental degradation.

Wildlife, watershed, forest, and soil conservation studies often built on the Marxist-inspired ideas. Here, too, the emphasis primarily has been on the loss of formal and informal control and access by Africans to such environmental resources as land, water, and forest.100 In general, the conservation approach emphasizes the enclosure of communal resources to prevent access by indigenous peoples and power struggles over environmental resources between colonial regimes and colonial subjects. Historians of Africa initially regarded environmental dynamics as secondary to the power dynamics. Under the influence of environmental history, however, the scope of these approaches increasingly has expanded to include, for example, the dynamics of specific climatic, soil, hydraulic, geographic, and other conditions and forces.101 Moreover, whereas the conservation studies heavily emphasized colonial ideas and agency as emanating from the imperial core, later studies paid heightened attention to the ideas and agency of colonial subjects (and intermediaries) and the impact of colonial overreach. Although environmental factors played a role in the increasing attention to disease in Africa (inspired by such historical and modern-day disease outbreaks as sleeping sickness, malaria, HIV-AIDS, and Ebola), the emphasis concerned contagion and the political and social cost of containment; the colonial subjects thus figuratively, and in some cases even physically, lost control even of their own bodies.102

The postmodern moment of the turn of the 20th century deeply shaped the field of environmental history in Africa because it encouraged a cultural turn, fostering the study of perceptions of the environment both by the colonizer and the colonized. It facilitated a new focus on the production of environmental knowledge, an environmental intellectual history. In doing so, it built on the earlier ethno-history approach and the literature on indigenous traditional knowledge (ITK), which highlighted spiritual beliefs and environmental practices, with practices serving as a proxy for conceptualizations.103 Feierman’s Peasant Intellectuals conceptually brought these literatures together, resulting in a range of studies about the interactions between African societies and their environment that frequently have encompassed and shaped colonial policies and knowledge production.104

Further Reading

Berry, Sara. No Condition Is Permanent: The Social Dynamics of Agrarian Change in Sub-Saharan Africa. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.Find this resource:

de Luna, Kathryn M. Collecting Food, Cultivating People: Subsistence and Society in Central Africa. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Dovers, Stephen, Ruth Edgecombe, and Bill Guest, eds. South Africa’s Environmental History: Cases & Comparisons. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Fairhead, James, and Melissa Leach. Misreading the African Landscape: Society and Ecology in A Forest-Savanna Mosaic. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Feierman, Steven. Peasant Intellectuals: Anthropology and History in Tanzania. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Giles-Vernick, Tamara, and James L. A. Webb Jr., eds. Global Health in Africa: Historical Perspectives on Disease Control. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Harms, Robert. Games against Nature: An Eco-Cultural History of the Nunu of Equatorial Africa. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.Find this resource:

Hoag, Heather J. Developing the Rivers of East and West Africa: An Environmental History. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.Find this resource:

Jacobs, Nancy J. Birders of Africa: History of a Network. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Kreike, Emmanuel. Environmental Infrastructure in African History: Examining the Myth of Natural Resource Management in Namibia. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Maddox, Gregory. Sub-Saharan Africa: An Environmental History. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2006.Find this resource:

McCann, James. Green Land, Brown Land, Black Land: An Environmental History of Africa, 1800–1990. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1999.Find this resource:

McCann, James. Maize and Grace: Africa’s Encounter with a New World Crop, 1500–2000. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

McGregor, JoAnn, and William Beinart, eds. Social History and African Environments. London: James Currey, 2003.Find this resource:

Richards, Paul. Indigenous Agricultural Revolution: Ecology and Food Production in West Africa. London, Hutchinson, 1985.Find this resource:

Tilley, Helen. Africa as a Living Laboratory: Empire, Development, and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, 1870–1950. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Webb, James L. The Long Struggle against Malaria in Africa. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016.Find this resource:


(2.) On Western culture and the domination of Nature, see Carolyn Merchant, Reinventing Eden: The Fate of Nature in Western Culture (New York: Routledge, 2003).

(3.) For the rejection of the Nature-Culture dichotomy, see, for example, Merchant, Reinventing Eden; William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991); Tamara Giles-Vernick, Cutting the Vines of the Past: Environmental Histories of the Central African Rain Forest (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2002); Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004); and Richard B. Norgaard, Development Betrayed: The End of Progress and a Coevolutionary Revisioning of the Future (London: Routledge, 1994). On the myth of wild Africa, see Jonathan S. Adams and Thomas O. McShane, The Myth of Wild Africa: Conservation without Illusion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996); and Roderick P. Neumann, Imposing Wilderness: Struggles over Livelihood and Nature Preservation in Africa (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000).

(4.) For a brief overview of the different perspectives, see Emmanuel Kreike, Deforestation and Reforestation in Namibia: The Global Consequences of Local Contradictions (Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2010), 8–16.

(5.) In the 1970s and 1980s, most monographs on African societies would start with a chapter to lay out the environment that shaped the society, and (ethnic) identity and local environment were seen as closely interrelated through centuries of interaction. Many African societies, however, were displaced by the slave trade and colonial wars and reconstituted themselves in different environments. For an example of a society moving from the West African interior to the coast and reinventing itself as a “waterworld” culture, see Emmanuel Kwaku Akyeampong, Between the Sea and the Lagoon: An Eco-Social History of the Anlo of Southeastern Ghana, c. 1850 to Recent Times (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2001). See also Thomas Spear, Mountain Farmers: Moral Economies of Land and Agricultural Development in Arusha and Mweru (Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: Mkuki na Nyota, 1997). Moreover, in the environmental determinism approach, “tropical” environments could also cause the degeneration of European settlers, for example the Dutch Boers on South Africa. See Lance van Sittert, “The Ornithorhynchus of the Western World: Environmental Determinism in Eric Anderson Walker’s South African History, 1911–1936,” South African Historical Journal 60, no. 1 (2018): 7–40.

(7.) See, for example, William M. Denevan, Cultivated Landscapes of Native Amazonia and the Andes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

(8.) Helge Kjekhus, Ecology Control and Economic Development in East African History: The Case of Tanganyika, 1850–1950 (London: Heinemann, 1977); Robert W. Harms, Games against Nature: An Eco-Cultural History of the Nunu of Equatorial Africa (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987); James Fairhead and Melissa Leach, Misreading the African Landscape; and James Fairhead and Melissa Leach, Deforestation: Global Analysis and Local Realities. Studies in West Africa (London: Routledge, 1998).

(9.) See Tore Sætersdal, “Rain, Snakes and Sex: Making Rain: Rock Art and Rain-Making in Africa and America,” in A History of Water, Series II, Vol. 1: Ideas of Water from Ancient Societies to the Modern World, ed. Terje Tvedt and Terje Oestigaard (London: I. B. Tauris, 2010), 378–404, especially p. 382 (San-owned waterholes); Emmanuel Kreike, “The Palenque Paradox: Bush Cities, Bushmen, and the Bush,” in The Nature of Cities: Culture, Landscape, and Urban Space, ed. Andrew Isenberg (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2006). San living in a state of nature, see Richard B. Lee, “What Hunters Do for a Living; or How to Make Out on Scarce Resources,” in Man the Hunter, ed. Richard B. Lee and Irven Devore (Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1968), 30–43; and Richard B. Lee, San: Men, Women, and Work in a Foraging Society (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1979). Gordon and Wilmsen exposed as a myth that the 20th century San communities of southern Africa were “traditional” hunter gatherers; rather, they depicted them as impoverished refugees. See Edwin N. Wilmsen, Land Filled with Flies: A Political Economy of the Kalahari (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989); and Robert J. Gordon, The Bushman Myth: The Making of a Namibian Underclass (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992).

(10.) Eugene I. Smith et al., “Humans Thrived in South Africa through the Toba Eruption about 74,000 Year Ago,” Research Letter, Nature 555, no. 7697 (2018): 511–515; and Maddox, Sub-Saharan Africa, 19–20.

(11.) Coined by Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton: Princeton University press, 2011). The term refers to how and why Western Europe overtook China politically and economically in the early modern era, although by 1500 in many ways China seemed to be ahead of Europe.

(12.) Maddox identifies climate change occurring 8,000 years ago as critical, desiccating the Sahara; see Maddox, Sub-Saharan Africa, 39–40.

(13.) Maddox points out that the African climate has been relatively stable during the last 10,000 years or so, yet also highlights big changes, including the desiccation of the Sahara and global climate change since the 19th century, for which see Maddox, Sub-Saharan Africa, 10–13. On the impact of the “Little Ice Age” see George E. Brooks, Landlords and Strangers: Ecology, Society, and Trade in West Africa, 1000–1630 (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993); and James L. Webb, Desert Frontier: Ecological and Economic Change along the Western Sahel, 1600–1850 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995).

(14.) McCann highlights the images of Africa as hostile and as what he states is an older image, of a rich tropical cornucopia, in McCann, Green Land, Brown Land, 9.

(15.) McCann argues that the European narratives of decline and desertification in Africa are partly rooted in frustrated expectations about Africa’s edenic potential that was not realized. See McCann, Green Land, Brown Land, 175–180.

(16.) On the vulnerability of Africa to global climate change, see Camilla Toulmin, Climate Change in Africa (London: Zed Books, 2010); and Gufu Oba, Climate Change Adaptation in Africa: A Historical Ecology (London: Routledge, 2014). On famines, see Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the making of the Third World (London: Verso, 2001).

(17.) In the climate change adaptation literature, it is exactly the experiences with past cyclical and conjunctural “climatic” events and historical and actual practices to cushion their impact, including crop diversity, intercropping, minimal tillage, water harvesting, and the use of quick-ripening cultivars that are identified as key strategies for African farmers in the context of climate change. See Ariel Dinar et al., eds., Climate Change and Agriculture in Africa: Impact Assessment and Adaptation Strategies (London: Earthscan, 2008); and Walter Leal Filho et al., eds., Climate Change Adaptation in Africa: Fostering Resilience and Capacity to Adapt (Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2017). On intercropping and other techniques as “traditional” practices, see Wilhelm Oestberg, Land Is Coming Up: The Burunge of Central Tanzania and their Environment (Stockholm: Stockholm Studies in Social Anthropology, 1995). On the African resilience to famines, see Bill Rau, From Feast to Famine: Official Cures and Grassroots Remedies to Africa’s Food Crisis (London: Zed, 1993). Rau argues highly adapted agricultural systems evolved over centuries; one of the adaptations to famine was food storage.

(18.) Maddox emphasizes the “extreme variability” of African environments; see Maddox, Sub-Saharan Africa, 3.

(19.) See Dinar et al., Climate Change and Agriculture in Africa and Filho, Climate Change Adaptation in Africa. Filho emphasizes that African farmers seem aware of climate change and can be expected, to a significant degree, to adapt to climate change by themselves; see Walter Leal Filho, ed., Experiences of Climate Change Adaptation in Africa (Berlin: Springer Verlag, 2010). On Central African consciousness about environmental change, see T. Giles-Vernick, Cutting the Vines of the Past.

(20.) McCann points to the history of African animals adapting to geological cycles in Africa; for example, monkeys descending from the tree canopies to shift to terrestrial life when forests retreated in dry era. See McCann, Green Land, Brown Land, 16.

(21.) On the importance of the study of paleoenvironments, see Sacha C. Jones and Brian A. Stewart, eds., Africa from MIS 6-2: Population Dynamics and Paleoenvironments (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2016). On cave deposits and climate, see Asfawossen Asrat et al., “Environmental Monitoring in the Mechara caves, Southeastern Ethiopia: Implications for Speleothem Palaeoclimate Studies,” International Journal of Speleology 37, no. 3 (2008): 207–220. On 14C dating of tropical trees, which often do not show reliable seasonal growth rings, see, for example, Gidske L. Andersen and Knut Krzywinski, “Longevity and Growth of Acacia Tortilis; Insights from 14C Content and Anatomy of WoodBMC Ecology 7, no. 1 (2007): 4; and J. B. Tandoh et al., “Biomass Growth Rate of Trees from Cameroon Based on 14C Analysis and Growth Models,” UAir Radiocarbon 55, no. 2 (2013): 885–893.

(22.) On droughts, desertification, and climate, see McCann, Green Land, Brown Land, 55–78.

(23.) Philip D. Curtin, The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex: Essays in Atlantic History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 38–40.

(24.) For a brief overview of different eco-zones, see Maddox, Sub-Saharan Africa, 6–9. On disease environments, see Maddox, Sub-Saharan Africa, 40–42.

(25.) See, for example, Nancy Rose Hunt, A Colonial Lexico: Of Birth Ritual, Medicalization, and Mobility in The Congo (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999); and Maryinez Lyons, The Colonial Disease: A Social History of Sleeping Sickness in Northern Zaire, 1900–1940 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992). For the eradication of game, see Roben Mutwira, “A Question of Condoning Game Slaughter: Southern Rhodesia Wildlife Policy, 1890–1953, Journal of Southern African Studies 15, no. 2 (1989): 250–262.

(26.) On African extinction, see, for example, Patrick Harries, Butterflies and Barbarians: Swiss Missionaries and Systems of Knowledge in South-East Africa (Oxford: James Curry, 2007), 143–145, and 236; and Veronica Berry, ed., The Culwick Papers, 1934–1944: Population, Food, and Health in Colonial Tanganyika (London: Academy Books, 1994).

(27.) Dennis D. Cordell and Joel W. Gregory, ed., African Population and Capitalism: Historical perspectives (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1987); Juhani Koponen, “Population: A Dependent Variable,” in Custodians of the Land: Ecology and Culture in the History of Tanzania, eds. Gregory Maddox, James Giblin, and Isaria N. Kimambo (London: James Currey, 1996), 19–42; Gregory Maddox, “Environment and Population Growth in Ugogo, Central Tanzania,” in Custodians of the Land, ed. Maddox, Giblin, and Kimambo, 43–65; and Veijo Notkola and HarriSiiskonen, Fertility, Mortality and Migration in Sub-Saharan Africa: The Case of Ovamboland in North Namibia, 1925–90 (Houndsmills, UK: Macmillan, 2000).

(28.) Robert J. Gordon, Picturing Bushmen: The Denver Africa Expedition of 1925 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997). On bio-prospecting, see Abena Dove Asseo-Osare, Bitter Roots: The Search for Healing Plants in Africa (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

(29.) HIV-AIDS in Africa is often attributed to Africans’ “primitivepromiscuity.” See Marc Epprecht, Heterosexual Africa? The History of an Idea from the Age of Exploration to the Age of Aids (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008). On cholera, Myron Echenberg, Africa in the Time of Cholera: A History of Pandemics from 1817 to the Present (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011). On HIV-AIDS, see J. Iliffe, The African Aids Epidemic: A History (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2006).

(30.) Paul Richards, Fighting for the Rainforest: War, Youth & Resources in Sierra Leone (Oxford: International African Institute and Heinemann, 1998).

(31.) David Patterson, Health in Colonial Ghana: Disease, Medicine, and Socio-Economic Change, 1900–1955 (Waltham, MA: Crossroads Press, 1981); Rita Headrick, Colonialism, Health and Illness in French Equatorial Africa, 1885–1935 (Atlanta: African Studies Association Press, 1994); John Farley, Bilharzia: A History of Imperial Tropical Medicine (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991); and Tamara Giles-Vernick and James L. Webb, eds., Global Health in Africa: Historical Perspectives on Disease Control (Ohio University Press, 2013).

(32.) On the importance of demography for African environmental history, see McCann, Green Land, Brown Land. Scoones rejects linear causalities between soil erosion and population pressure, see Ian Scoones, ed., Dynamics & Diversity: Soil Fertility and Farming Livelihoods in Africa: Case Studies from Ethiopia, Mali and Zimbabwe (London: Earthscan, 2001).

(33.) John K. Thornton, Warfare in Atlantic Africa, 1500–1800 (London: Routledge, 2003), 16–17. Maddox points out that Thornton used this to explain why African elites so readily sold slaves: they already were used to accumulating people as wives, dependents, and slaves; see Maddox, Sub-Saharan Africa, 90–91. Population pressure has been identified as both a negative factor (causing environmental overexploitation and decline) and a positive factor, leading to innovation and more intensive use of the environment. For the former Malthusian perspective, see Paul R. Ehrlich, Population Bomb (Cutchogue, NY: Buccaneer, 2007); and Kevin M. Cleaver and Götz A. Schreiber, Reversing the Spiral: The Population, Agriculture, and Environmental Nexus in Sub-Saharan Africa (Washington DC: World Bank, 1994). For the latter Boserupian perspective; see for example, Mary Tiffen, Michael Mortimore, and Francis Gikuchi, More People, Less Erosion: Environmental Recovery in Kenya (Chichester, UK: John Wiley, 1994).

(34.) McCann emphasizes the enormous diversity of Africa’s environments; see McCann, Green Land, Brown Land, 5. See also Maddox, Sub-Saharan Africa, 2–3.

(36.) Steven Feierman, The Shambaa Kingdom: A History (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1974), 41–64. Evangelist hunters played a key role in settling the wilderness east of the Ovambo floodplain in north central Namibia; see Emmanuel Kreike, Re-creating Eden: Land Use, Environment, and Society in Southern Angola and Northern Namibia (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004), 129–154. Mouride sheikhs led the colonization of the peanut-basin in Senegal; see Donal B. Cruise O’Brien, The Mourides of Senegal: The Political and Economic Organisation of an Islamic Brotherhood (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971).

(37.) See Maddox, Giblin, Kimambo, Custodians of the Land; Kairn A. Klieman, “The Pygmies Were Our Compass”: Bantu and Batwa in the History of West Central Africa, Early Times to c. 1900 ce (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003); and D. Gordon, “From Sacred Ownership to Colonial Commons: Water Tenure Systems in Central Africa,” in A History of Water, vol. 3, The World of Water, ed. Terje Tvedt and Terje Oestigaard (London: I. B. Taurus, 2006), 18–37.

(38.) David L. Schoenbrun, A Green Place, a Good Place: Agrarian Change, Gender, and Social Identity in the Great Lakes Region to the 15th century (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998). Schoenbrun attributes the land scarcity to population increase.

(39.) On population conjuncture, see McCann, Green Land, Brown Land, 19–22.

(40.) An immensely valuable and interactive source is The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.

(41.) Paul Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995), set the 1600–1800 export from Africa at 10 million, with 7.85 million in the Atlantic system. But he estimated a 20 percent loss from deaths in Africa at the point of departure and en route to point of departure. Lovejoy also emphasized displacement caused by the slave trade with 19th century slave trade extending deeper into interior Africa than ever before. Curtin estimated earlier, with 9.5 million plus 5 percent to 25 percent deaths en route Middle Passage. Not included are losses in Africa. See Philip D. Curtin, The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1969). Curtin later stressed that the numbers killed in the process of enslavement were much higher than those captured, but he asserted that there was great variation in the destructive impact per region and that the slave trade caused less loss of life than natural disasters such as famines; see Curtin, The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex, 126–128. Miller estimated the losses before boarding the slave ships as much higher: 40 percent (Curtin, 2010, 60–62), with many slaves retained in Africa: Manning estimated up to 8 million and, using his figures, 18 million had to be enslaved to export 8 million (Curtin, 63–64); it seems mostly women were retained in Africa (Curtin, 64–65). See J. Miller, Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730–1830 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996). Manning stressed the impact of the slave trade on the population varied from region to region, but overall it resulted in population stagnation, except in southern Africa, and grand total export of 18 million. The greatest impact was on western Africa. Without losses to the slave trade, Africa would have counted a population of 100 million by 1850 instead of estimated 50 million. See Patrick Manning, Slavery and African Life: Occidental, Oriental, and African Slave Trades (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

(42.) A pioneering study using missionary records is Notkola and Siiskonen, Fertility, Mortality and Migration in Sub-Saharan Africa.

(43.) John Iliffe, Africans: The History of a Continent (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

(44.) Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999). Cattle were domesticated independently in Africa, and other possible domestication “events” in Africa may have been: guinea fowl, donkey, cat, dog, sheep, pig, and camel. See M. B. Roger and Kevin C. MacDonald, eds., The Origins and Development of African Livestock: Archaeology, Genetics, Linguistics and Ethnography (London: University College London Press, 2000), 2–17, 38–60, 191–221. Maddox depicts the Sub-Saharan African environment as challenging also because of its enormous diversity, but he emphasizes that the Sahara was less a barrier than a filter; see Maddox, Sub-Saharan Africa, 4–5.

(45.) On the view of Africa as lagging in development, see Maddox, Sub-Saharan Africa, 21. Even by conventional standards, Diamond’s assessment that Africa had few domesticates is erroneous. On a list based on Zeven and Zhukovsky, Africa is third with 276 species after Indochina/Indonesia (303) and China/Japan (284), but before South America (250) and Europe including Siberia (229). Diamond’s use of Eurasia as a category of course changes the equation. See Anton C. Zeven and P. M. Zhukovsky, Dictionary of Cultivated Plants and their Centres of Diversity Excluding Ornamentals, Forest Trees and Lower Plants (Wageningen, The Netherlands: Centre for Agricultural Publishing and Documentation, 1975).

(46.) On a critique of conventional ideas about pastoralism in Africa, see Thomas Spear and Richard Waller, Being Maasai: Ethnicity and Identity in East Africa (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1993); Ian Scoones, ed., Living with Uncertainty: New Directions in Pastoral Development in Africa (London: Intermediate Technology Publications, 1994); and Dorothy L. Hodgson, ed., Rethinking Pastoralism in Africa: Gender, Culture & the Myth of the Patriarchal Pastoralist (Oxford: James Currey, 2000). On the importance of African domesticates, including livestock, see, for example, Maddox, Sub-Saharan Africa, 23–47. On evolutionary, linear pathways of domestication, see David R. Harris, ed., The Origins and Spread of Agriculture and Pastoralism in Eurasia (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996).

(47.) On shifting cultivation, McCann, Green Land, Brown Land, 17–18.

(48.) Moore and Vaughan discuss how colonial myths of primitive slash-and-burn agriculture were constructed, see Henrietta L. Moore and Megan Vaughan, Cutting Down Trees: Gender, Nutrition, and Agricultural Change in the Northern Province of Zambia, 1890–1990 (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1993). See also Bruce Campbell, ed., The Miombo in Transition: Woodlands and Welfare in Africa (Bogor, Indonesia: Center for International Forestry Research, 1996); and Thomas J. Bassett and Donald Crummey, ed., African Savannas: Global Narratives and Local Knowledge of Environmental Change (Oxford: James Currey, 2003).

(49.) Maddox, Sub-Saharan Africa, 23–74. For arguments against the static view of African agriculture, see Paul Richards, Indigenous Agricultural Revolution: Ecology and Food Production in West Africa (London, Hutchinson, 1985); David W. Cohen and E. S. Odhiambo, Siaya: The Historical Anthropology of an African Landscape (London: Ohio University Press, 1989); Sara Berry, No Condition is Permanent: The Social Dynamics of Agrarian Change in Sub-Saharan Africa (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993); and McCann, People of the Plow: An Agricultural History of Ethiopia, 1800–1990 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995)

(50.) Derek Nurse and Thomas Spear, The Swahili: Reconstructing the History and Language of an African Society, 800–1500 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985)

(51.) For continuity in the fixation of colonial and postcolonial with (agricultural) development, see for example Moore and Vaughan, Cutting Down Trees. For agroforestry and farm forestry, see Agnes R. Quisumbing, Keijiro Otsuka, et al., Land, Trees and Women: Evolution of Land Tenure Institutions in Western Ghana and Sumatra (Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute, 2001); and Steven Franzel and Sara J. Scherr, eds., Trees on the Farm: Assessing the Adoption Potential of Agroforestry Practices in Africa (Wallingford, UK: CABI, 2002).

(52.) Harlan at al clearly struggle with the limitations of the rigid domestication definition to discuss a large array of plants and trees in Africa as cultivated, domesticated or wild. See Jack R. Harlan, Jan M. J. de Wet, Ann B. Stemler, eds., Origins of African Plant Domestication (The Hague: Mouton, 1976); and Steven A. Brandt and J. Desmond Clark, eds., From Hunters to Farmers: The Causes and Consequences of Food Production in Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984). For a critique of Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” thesis as he applied it to Africa, see Kreike, Deforestation and Reforestation in Namibia, 83–138.

(53.) On fire as a tool to shape the environment, see Kjekhus, Ecology Control and Economic Development; Robert J. Scholes and Brian H. Walker, An African Savanna: Synthesis of the Nylsvley Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Christian A. Kull, Isle of Fire: The Political Ecology of Landscape Burning in Madagascar (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); and Simon Pooley, Burning Table Mountain: An Environmental History of Fire on the Cape Peninsula (Houndsmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). Maddox emphasizes that humans manipulated landscapes with fire as far back as 1 million years ago, and fire was certainly established when Homo sapiens appeared see Maddox, Sub-Saharan Africa, 18. It is disputed whether iron working was independently invented in Africa or not. See Maddox, Sub-Saharan Africa, 53–54, on a claim that iron smelting was invented in the region between Nigeria and Lake Victoria 3,000 bp (before present).

(54.) On the importance of the domestication of fire, see Johan Goudsblom, Fire and Civilization (New York: Penguin, 1994); Carl O. Sauer, Seeds, Spades, Hearths, and Herds: The Domestication of Animals and Foodstuffs (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1972). On African production of steel, see Gordon C. Thomasson, “Kpelle Steelmaking: An Indigenous High Technology in Liberia,” in The Cultural Dimension of Development: Indigenous Knowledge Systems, eds. D. Michael Warren, L. Jan Slikkerveer, and David Brokensha (London: Intermediate Technologies, 1995), 396–406; and Paul T. Craddock, Early Metal Mining and Production (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995). On the preference for African-made iron over imported European iron, see Peter R. Schmidt, ed., The Culture and Technology of African Iron Production (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996)

(55.) On wildfires in South Africa, see Pooley, Burning Table Mountain. On the failure to fully domesticate nuclear energy, see, for example, Kate Brown, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

(56.) Christopher Ehret, History and the Testimony of Language (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 42–47. On Nabta (eastern Sahara): wild or domesticated sorghum in eastern Sahara (Nabta) and domesticated cattle, in 9200 bp, suggesting independent domestication cattle in Africa. See Fekri A. Hassan, ed., Droughts, Food, and Culture: Ecological Change and Food Security in Africa’s Later Prehistory (New York: Kluwer Academic, 2002), 123–155, and 195–207 respectively. The pollen of African domesticated cereals and wild grasses are of the same size, making the distinction between Africa’s cereal grains and its wild grasses impossible, whereas wheat and barley cereal pollen are in Europe are significantly larger than European indigenous grasses. See Daniel Livingstone, “Interaction of Food Production and Changing Vegetation in Africa,” in From Hunters to Farmers, J. Desmond Clark and S. A. Brandt (eds.), From Hunters to Farmers: The Causes and Consequences of Food Production in Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 22–25. DNA research in 1994 demonstrated that African humpback cattle were domesticated independently; see R. M. Blench and K. C. MacDonald, eds., The Origins and Development of African Livestock: Archaeology, Genetics, Linguistics and Ethnography (London: University College London Press, 2000). For cattle and caprine, see Joséphine J. Lésur et al., “Domesticates and Wild Game in the Egyptian Western Desert at the End of the 5th Millennium BC: The Fauna from KS 43, Kharga Oasis,” in People and Animals in Holocene Africa: Recent Advances in Archaeozoology, ed. Hélène Jousse and Joséphine Lesur (Frankfurt am Main: Africa Magna Verlag, 2011), pp. 59–74.

(57.) On pollen analysis, see Daniel Livingstone, “Interaction of Food Production and Changing Vegetation in Africa,” in From Hunters to Farmers, ed. Brandt and Clark, 22–25; Steven Brandt, “New Perspectives on the Origins of Food Production in Ethiopia,” in From Hunters to Farmers, ed. Brandt and Clark, 173–190. For the non-visibility of root and other non-cereal crops, see Merrick Posnansky, “Early Agricultural Societies in Ghana” in Nigeria,” in From Hunters to Farmers, ed. Brandt and Clark, 147–151; and Thurston Shaw, “Archaeological Evidence and Effects of Food Producing in Nigeria,” in From Hunters to Farmers, ed. Brandt and Clark, 152–157.

(58.) Harries, Butterflies and Barbarians, 97–115, 188. Maddox argued that Africa’s environmental history is unique because of the enormous environmental diversity and highlights that Africans “developed their own means . . . for survival and for creating complex societies.” That is, he posited that they created their own paths to a type of development distinct from the “western way.” See Maddox, Sub-Saharan Africa, 21–74.

(59.) Domestication involves genetic change, i.e., improvement through control over reproduction. See Andrew Goudie, The Human Impact on the Natural Environment: Past, Present, and Future (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006); and Juliet Clutton-Brock, A Natural History of Domesticated Mammals (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 32. For a critical discussion of domestication, see Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987).

(60.) On domestication as favoring sexual reproduction, and the underplaying of vegetative reproduction, see Sauer, Seeds, Spades, Hearths, and Herds. For a critical discussion of the limits of evolutionary models and domestication, see Harris, The Origins and Spread of Agriculture and Pastoralism. On domestication of plants and animals in Africa, see Hassan, Drought, Food and Culture; Brandt and Clark, From Hunters to Farmers; Harlan, de West, and Stemler, Origins of African Plant Domestication; Catherine Baroin and Jean Boutrais, ed., L’Homme et l’Animal dans le Bassin du Lac Tchad (Paris: IRD, 1999); and Blench and MacDonald, The Origins and Development of African Livestock. On domesticates turning “wild,” see A. Gautier, “The Evidence for the Earliest Livestock in North Africa in Hassan, Drought, Food and Culture, 195–207; and on cultivated plants becoming weeds, see Zeven and Zhukovsky, Dictionary of Cultivated Plants, 28–40. Many trees in Africa are cultivated or managed in some form. See, for example, Terry Sunderland and Ousseynou Ndoye, ed., Forest Products, Livelihoods and Conservation: Case Studies of Non-Timber Forest Product Systems, vol. 2, Africa (Jakarta, Indonesia: CIFOR, 2004).

(61.) On improvement and property, see Nicole Graham, Lawscape: Property, Environment, Law (Abington, UK: Routledge, 2011). Gordon points out that the dichotomy of “precolonial” communal ownership of water resources and “colonial” private ownership/commodity is a fallacy. Resources like water were controlled by territorial cults; see D. Gordon, “From Sacred Ownership to Colonial Commons: Water Tenure Systems in Central Africa,” Tvedt and Oestigaard, A History of Water, Vol. 3, 18–37.

(62.) Kreike, Environmental Infrastructure in African History, 117–135.

(63.) On the concept of environmental infrastructure, see Kreike, Environmental Infrastructure in African History.

(64.) McCann, Green Land, Brown Land, 44–47.

(65.) Walther Hawthorne, Planting Rice and Harvesting Slaves: Transformations along the Guinea-Bissau Coast, 1400–1900 (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003).

(66.) See, for example, Sara Berry, Cocoa, Custom, and Socio-Economic Change in Rural Western Nigeria (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975) on slave plantations in East Africa and cloves on Zanzibar.

(67.) On circular labor migration, see David Rain, Eaters of the Dry Season: Circular Labor in the West African Sahel (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999). For the impact of the plow, see, for example McCann, People of the Plow; and Kate B. Showers, Imperial Gullies: Soil Conservation in Lesotho (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005), 20–21. On the delayed introduction and impact of plowing, see Kreike, Deforestation and Reforestation in Namibia, 127–136.

(68.) For transformation ecosystems in southern Africa, see I.A.W. Macdonald, “Man’s Role in Changing the Face of Southern Africa,” in Biotic Diversity in Southern Africa: Concepts and Conservation, ed. B.J. Huntley (Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1989), 51–77; for biodiversity in southern Africa, see N. M. Taitou, P. J. K. Zacharias, M. B. Hardy, “The Contribution of Veld Diversity to the Agricultural Economy,” in Biotic Diversity in Southern Africa, ed. Huntley, 107–120.

(69.) Timothy R. McClanahan and Timothy Peter Young, ed., East African Ecosystems and their Conservation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), v–vii; and David A. Burney, “Paleoecology of Humans and their Ancestors,” in East African Ecosystems, ed. McClanahan and Young, 19–36.

(70.) McCann acknowledges that new introductions may have negative impacts, but overall, he hails the positive impact of innovations introduced from within Africa as well as those introduced from beyond the continent, including providing new foods that allow larger human populations and add to biodiversity. See McCann, Green Land, Brown Land, 110–136. On maize, see J. McCann, Maize and Grace: Africa’s Encounter with a New World Crop, 1500–2000 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University press, 2005).

(71.) On the Monsoon Exchange, see Maddox, Sub-Saharan Africa, 43–47.

(72.) For trypanosomiasis in the Americas, see the Pan American Health Organization, Chagas’ Disease and the Nervous System (Washington, DC: WHO, 1994); and Judith A. Carney, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).

(73.) McCann accepts that endemic biodiversity may be lower in Africa than in regions like the Amazon but emphasizes that Africa’s adaptation of domesticates was more critical, see McCann, Green Land, Brown Land, 13–16. Maddox points put that the Monsoon Exchange predated the Columbian Exchange and was as important if not more; see Maddox, Sub-Saharan Africa, 75–101; 13 million slaves in Atlantic trade, but with deaths from violence, the slave trade probably lost twice as many. Maddox stresses that more women were retained and thence more births occurred than if they’d been exported.

(74.) On Cassava, see for example, Moore and Vaughan, Cutting Down Trees, 79–108.

(75.) On the horse, see Jack Goody, Technology, Tradition, and the State in Africa (London: Oxford University Press, 1971); Robin Law, The Horse in West African History: The Role of the Horse in the Societies of Pre-colonial West Africa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980); and Sandra Swart, Riding High: Horses, Humans, and History in South Africa (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2010).

(76.) On maize, McCann, Maize and Grace.

(77.) Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery.

(78.) On conservation and the environment, see, David Anderson and Richard Grove, ed., Conservation in Africa: People, Policies, and Practice (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989); Cohen and Atieno Odhiambo, Siaya: The Historical Anthropology; Fiona Mackenzie, Land, Ecology, and Resistance in Kenya, 1880–1952 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998); Neumann, Imposing Wilderness; David Anderson, Eroding the Commons: The Politics of Ecology in Baringo, Kenya 1890–1963 (Oxford: James Currey, 2002); Showers, Imperial Gullies; and Jacob A. Tropp, Natures of Colonial Change: Environmental Relations in the Making of the Transkei (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2006). Indigenous knowledge was long seen as separate from and antithesis of scientific knowledge, see Warren, Slikkerveer, and Brokensha, The Cultural Dimension of Development. On indigenous knowledge, see also, Chris Reij, Ian Scoones and Camilla Toulmin, eds., Sustaining the Soil: Indigenous Soil and Water Conservation in Africa (London: Earthscan, 1996). Indigenous knowledge has been recently making a comeback as metis or vernacular knowledge; see for example, Alan Mikhail, Nature and Empire in Ottoman Egypt: An Environmental History (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

(79.) William Beinart, The Rise of Conservation in South Africa: Settlers, Livestock, and the Environment, 1770–1950 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). Van Sittert points out that, even within western production of knowledge, science borrowed heavily from bodies of non-scientific knowledge, see L. van Sittert, “The Supernatural State: Water Divining and the Cape Underground Water Rush, 1891–1910,” Journal of Social History 27, no. 4 (2004), 915–937; Helen Tilley, Africa as a Living Laboratory: Empire, Development, and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, 1870–1950 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011); and Harries, Butterflies and Barbarians.

(80.) In late 1990s, the emerging field of environmental security emphasized how resource scarcity and environmental decline would cause conflict over natural resource in Africa, in particular “water wars” and refugee movements. See Daniel Tevera and Sam Moyo, eds., Environmental Security in Southern Africa (Harare, Zimbabwe: Southern African Regional Institute for Policy Studies, 2000).

(81.) See, for example, William Beinart and Peter Coates, Environment and History: The Taming of Nature in the USA and South Africa (London: Routledge, 1995); Nancy J. Jacobs, Environment, Power, and Injustice: A South African History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003); and Diana K. Davis, Resurrecting the Granary of Rome: Environmental History and French Colonial Expansion in North Africa (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007).

(82.) Anderson and Grove, Conservation in Africa; Jane Carruthers, The Kruger National Park: A Social and Political History (Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: University of Natal Press, 1995); Neumann, Imposing Wilderness; and Thaddeus Sunseri, Wielding the Ax: State Forestry and Social Conflict in Tanzania, 1820–2000 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2009).

(83.) On colonial projects and the domestication of water and their impact, see, for example, Johann W. N. Tempelhoff, eds., African Water Histories: Transdisciplinary Discourses (Vanderbijlpark, South Africa: Vaal Triangle Faculty, North-West University, 2005); Paul P. Howell and J. Anthony Allan, eds., The Nile: Sharing a Resource: An Historical and Technical Review of Water Management and the Economic and Legal Issues (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Monica van Beusekom, Negotiating Development: African Farmers and Colonial Experts at the Office du Niger, 1920–1960 (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2001); Allen F. Isaacman and Barbara S. Isaacman, Dams, Displacement, and the Delusion of Development: Cahora Bassa and its Legacies in Mozambique, 1965–2007 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2013); and Heather J. Hoag, Developing the Rivers of East and West Africa: An Environmental History (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).

(84.) C. Bundy, The Rise and Fall of the South African Peasantry (London: Heinemann, 1979); W. Beinart and C. Bundy, Hidden Struggles in Rural South Africa: Politics and Popular Movements in the Transkei and Eastern Cape, 1850–1930 (London: James Currey, 1987); William Beinart, Peter Delius, and Stanley Trapido, eds., Putting a Plough to the Ground: Accumulation and Dispossession in Rural South Africa, 1850–1930 (Johannesburg, South Africa: Ravan Press, 1986); James L. Giblin, The Politics of Environmental Control in Northeastern Tanzania, 1840–1940 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992); and Leory Vail and Landeg White, Capitalism and Colonialism in Mozambique: A Study of Quelimane District (London: University of Minnesota Press, 1980). On squatting on alienated land, see Timothy J. Keegan, Rural Transformations in Industrializing South Africa: The Southern Highveld to 1914 (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 1986); and Charles van Onselen, The Seed Is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, a South African Sharecropper, 1894–1985 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1996).

(85.) On soil conservation projects that started as early as the 1920s, see Anderson, Eroding the Commons; and J. McCann, Green Land, Brown Land, 12. The South African Drought Commission of 1922 far predated the concerns about the Dust Bowl in the United States, see Beinart and Coates, Environment and History, 51. Kate Showers attributes the soil erosion crisis in Lesotho entirely to the colonial misreading of its landscape and the subsequent misguided soil erosion projects the authorities imposed, see Showers, Imperial Gullies. McCann argues, however that the colonial rule and policies were not the only critical factor and he also highlights the local soil conditions and the kingdom’s agricultural history, McCann, Green Land, Brown Land, 143–170 (the population also moved from the mountains to the lowlands during the 19th century and the lowlands were a new environment for its farmers and in the early decades of the 20th century they shifted increasingly to producing maize for the growing markets of white settler towns until they were hit by droughts, falling prices and floods during the early 1930s leading to increased soil erosion). Resistance by women against colonial conservation projects in central Kenya; see MacKenzie, Land, Ecology, and Resistance.

(86.) In later 1980s, a total of 405,000 square km in South Africa and Namibia (total combined land surface 2 million square km) was considered bush encroached, see Macdonald, “Man’s Role in Changing the Face of Southern Africa,” in Biodiversity in Southern Africa, ed. Huntley, 51–77, especially 68. For bush encroachment in eastern Africa, see D. M. Swift, M. B. Conghenour and M. Atsedu, “Arid and Semi-Arid Ecosystems,” in East African Ecosystems and their Conservation, ed. Timothy R. McClanahan and Timothy P. Young (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 243–272.

(87.) A. Isaacman, Cotton Is the Mother of Poverty: Peasants, Work, and Struggle in Colonial Mozambique, 19381961 (Heinemann, 1995); and A. Isaacman and R. Roberts, eds., Cotton, Colonialism, and Social History in Sub-Saharan Africa (Heinemann, 1995).

(88.) On the post-independence surge in urbanization and slums, see McCann, Green Land, Brown Land, 178–179. For rural re-settlement in Tanzania, see G. Hyden, Beyond Ujaama in Tanzania: Underdevelopment and an Uncaptured Peasantry (London: Heinemann, 1980).

(89.) Linear environmental/climate determinism contributed to this decline. For example, deforestation was “measured” by comparing the land area currently under forest cover with a theoretical past climax vegetation cover based on the climate potential of a region measured by rainfall. See McCann, Green Land, Brown Land, 79–19. See J. McCann, “Climate and Causation in African History,” Journal of African Historical Studies 32 (1999): 2–3, 261–280; Brooks, Landlords and Strangers; and Webb, Desert Frontier. On famines, see A. de Waal, Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa (London, 1977).

(90.) On the use of different environments and Great Zimbabwe, see McCann, Green Land, Brown Land, 34.

(91.) On Ovambo transhumance, see E. Kreike, Re-Creating Eden.

(92.) For general environmental histories of Africa, see McCann, Green Land, Brown Land and Maddox, Sub-Saharan Africa: An Environmental History. For overviews of African environmental history, see W. Beinart, “African History and Environmental History,” African Affairs 99, no. 395 (2000), 269–302; G. Maddox, “Africa and Environmental History,” Environmental History 4, no. 2 (1999), 162–167; J. Carruthers, “Toward an Environmental History of Southern Africa: Some Perspectives,” South African Historical Journal 23, no. 1 (1990), 184–195. See also S. Dovers and R. Edgecombe, and B. Guest, eds., South Africa’s Environmental History: Cases & Comparisons (Ohio University Press, 2003); and J. McGregor and W. Beinart, eds., Social History and African Environments (London: James Currey, 2003).

(93.) F. Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996). See for example G. Prins, The Hidden Hippotamus. Reappraisal in African History: The Early Colonial Experience of Colonialism in Western Zambia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).

(94.) Harms, Games against Nature.

(95.) Brooks, Landlords and Strangers; Webb, Desert Frontier. See also J.R. Dias, “Famine and disease in the history of Angola c. 1830–1930,” The Journal of African History 22, no. 3 (1981), 349–378; and J. Miller, “The Significance of Drought, Disease and Famine in the Agriculturally Marginal Zones of West-Central Africa,” The Journal of African History 23, no. 1 (1982), 17–61.

(96.) A. Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Oxford: Oxford University press, 1983). For examples focusing on Africa, see A. de Waal, Famine that Kills: Darfur, Sudan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

(97.) The study of ENSO kept attention to the environment/climate alive, see, for example, Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts.

(98.) L. Vail and L. White, Capitalism and Colonialism in Mozambique: A Study of Quelimane District (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980); C. Bundy, The Rise and Fall of the South African Peasantry (London: Heinemann, 1979); R. Palmer and N. Parsons, eds., The Roots of Rural Poverty in Central and Southern Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977); Beinart, Delius, and Trapido, Putting a Plough to the Ground; T. Keegan, Rural Transformation in Industrializing South Africa: The Southern Highveld to 1914 (Braamfontein, South Africa: Ravan Press, 1986); E. C. Mandala, Work and Control in a Peasant Economy: A History of the Lower Tchiri Valley in Malawi, 1859–1960 (Madison: University of Wisconsin University Press, 1990); and Sunseri, Wielding the Ax; van Beusekom, Negotiating Development; and Isaacman, Dams, Displacement.

(99.) Diversion of African labor from food production; for example, see Isaacman, Cotton Is the Mother of Poverty; and Isaacman and Roberts, eds., Cotton, Colonialism and Social History.

(100.) Anderson and Grove, ed., Conservation in Africa; Carruthers, The Kruger National Park; and John Mackenzie, ed., Imperialism and the Natural World (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1990);

(101.) Spear, Mountain Farmers; Anderson, Eroding The Commons; Kreike, Re-creating Eden; and Tropp, Natures of Colonial Change.

(102.) Randall M. Packard, White Plague, Black Labor: Tuberculosis and the Political Economy of Health and Disease in South Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989); M. Vaughn, Curing their Ills: Colonial Power and African Illness (Stanford University Press, 1991); Iliffe, African Aids Epidemic; Lyons, The Colonial Disease; Lynn Thomas, Politics of the Womb: Women, Reproduction, and the State in Kenya (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003); Hunt, A Colonial Lexicon; Giles-Vernick and Webb, Global Health in Africa; and James L. Webb, The Long Struggle against Malaria in Africa (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

(103.) Kjekhus, Ecology Control and Economic Development; John Ford, The Role of Trypanosomiases in African Ecology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971); J. Matthew Schoffeleers, ed., Guardians of the Land: Essays on Central African Territorial Cults (Gwelo: Mambo Press, 1979); Richards, Indigenous Agricultural Revolution; Gregory Maddox, James Giblin, and Isaria N. Kimambo, eds., Custodians of the Land; Jocelyn Alexander, JoAnn McGregor, and Terence Ranger, V : One Hundred Years in the “Dark Forests” of Matableland (Oxford: James Currey, 2000); David M. Gordon, Nachituti’s Gift: Economy, Society, and Environment in Central Africa (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006); David M. Gordon and Shepard Krech III, eds., Indigenous Knowledge and the Environment in Africa and North America (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2012); and Asseo-Osare, Bitter Roots.

(104.) Steven Feierman, Peasant Intellectuals: Anthropology and History in Tanzania (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990); John M. Janzen, Ngoma: Discourses of Healing in Central and Southern Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992); Steven Feierman and John M. Janzen, eds., The Social Basis of Health and Healing in Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992); Fairhead and Leach, Misreading the African Landscape; Moore and Vaughan, Cutting Down Trees; James McCann, Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2009); Tilley, Africa as a Living Laboratory; T. Giles-Vernick, Cutting the Vines of the Past; Swart, Riding High: Horses, Humans and History; Kreike, Environmental Infrastructure in African History; Nancy J. Jacobs, Birders of Africa: History of a Network (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016); Nancy Rose Hunt, A Nervous State: Violence, Remedies, and Reverie in Colonial Congo (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016); and Kathyrn M. de Luna, Collecting Food, Cultivating People: Subsistence and Society in Central Africa (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016).