Misreading an African landscape

Kissidoudou prefecture is in the upper catchment of the Niger river. Its landscape is striking, with patches of dense, verdant, semi-deciduous rainforest towering over open expanses of grassy savannah. These forest islands, scattered over the gently rolling hills, are generally circular and about 1 to 2 km in diameter; most conceal one of the prefecture’s 800 or so villages.

Since French occupation in 1893, Guinea’s administrators were convinced that these forest patches were the last relics of a dense humid forest that once covered the landscape. They assumed that the area’s human inhabitants had progressively converted the forest into savannah, through shifting cultivation and fire setting, preserving only narrow belts around villages. This same assumption was still being made 100 years later by the European Union (EU)-funded “Programme d’Aménagement des Bassin Versantes de l’Haute Niger”.

Based on historical sources, ethnographic interviews and satellite images, James Fairhead and Melissa Leach discovered that the forest islands are not the relics of a destroyed forest. On the contrary, they were grown on savannah land by Kuranko and Kissi farmers for subsistence, social and ritual reasons. The geographical distribution of the forest islands reflects demographic dynamics over the century, which have caused the fission of Kuranko and Kissi villages and the creation of new settlements surrounded by human-made forest. A time-series of aerial photographs and satellite images of five major villages shows that forest areas increased in all locations between 1952 and 1992.

According to Fairhead and Leach, the false perceptions that drove colonial and post-colonial landscape policies in Kissidoudou demonstrate the power relations that these policies supported. By considering vegetation only in terms of degradation, the policies obscured and marginalized many of the methods that farmers had been using to enrich their landscapes. Policy-makers and environmental scientists recognize that people can improve forest-savannahs, but only when they do so through external programmes and projects. It seems that only outsiders’ technology and organizational impetus - such as community woodlots, agroforestry systems, the planting of seedlings from nurseries and State-assisted village planning - are considered adequate to the task. The degradation discourse tends to present inhabitants as incapable resource stewards, and to insist that external intervention is needed to improve the situation on their behalf.

Adapted from J. Fairhead and M. Leach. 1996. Misreading the African landscape. Society and ecology in a forest-savanna mosaic. Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press.

last updated:  Tuesday, March 27, 2007