Reply To: April 28th Science, Society, and Power

Author Replies # Posted on April 29, 2014 at 13:02

One thing that I really found intriguing about Science, Society, and Power, but also reiterated during the seminar and lecture with Fairhead was how governments, policy makers, and academics are incessantly looking to identify the culprit of environmental degradation. While this seems logical, as in order to ‘conserve’ an environment you must determine what threatens it, Fairhead and Leach show that it is imperative to be critical about the validity of assessments of environmental degradation, and how such narratives arise.
In Misreading the African Landscape Fairhead and Leach expose that contrary to the popular opinion of scientists and policy makers in Guinea, forests were actually expanding due to population growth. During the afternoon seminar, Fairhead also detailed how agriculturalists in Guinea were creating and exploiting “black earths”, which are soils that are fertilely enhanced from the refuse of villages. Fairhead discussed this practice and compared it to the global warming driven business of biochar production. Biochar is a form of carbon offset; essentially it is taking agricultural waste or other flora, turning it into charcoal, and then burying it so it does not get released into the atmosphere during decomposition. Fairhead discussed how anthropogenic burning and burying of waste has been enhancing soils in forests throughout South America and sub-Saharan Africa for a very long time. By bringing attention to ‘anthropogenic dark soils’ Fairhead further asserts that ‘traditional lifeways’ of forest dwelling people in Guinea are creating conditions that benefit forests rather than destroy them, again deconstructing uncritical discourse centered around humans threatening nature.
Yesterday I was reminded of how archaeologists, ecologists, and conservationists in East Africa have published on how abandoned pastoralist settlements actually enhance the soil fertility on savannah landscapes. These publications also came about after decades of discourse regarding biodiversity loss and erosion due to cattle overstocking.
There is such elegance in Fairhead and Leach’s counter-narratives of human forest interactions in Guinea, it is enjoyable to read about how the misunderstood local heroes who conserve forests are finally being conceptualized as eco-friends rather than eco-foes. However, the really fascinating part about their work is that they do not stop at challenging assumptions of forest degradation, but they also investigate how these assumptions come into being, and how scientists, policy makers, governments, and media are implicit. By unpacking the process through which environmental threats and ‘indigenous people’ are conceptualized we learn so much more about the real impacts of our work as academics. In academic we are conditioned to authoritatively discuss things like landscapes, indigenous people, and environmental crises in a certain way and we must constantly be reflexive about our world-views. A tenant of historical ecology is that humans are neither implicitly helpful nor harmful to their environments and I’m grateful to Fairhead and Leach for pointing out the difficulties and value of overcoming these assumptions.