African Environmental History

Course Description:

When most Americans think of the words “African environment,” they either conjure up images of a diverse wilderness with lush and exotic nature, large animals, endless savannahs, powerful rivers, dense rainforests, and hostile deserts, or they think of poverty, of parched sands, of environmental degradation, of overpopulation.  These two distinctly oppositional images are the products of historical processes and have deep historical roots.  In this class, we will investigate which image has been closer to the truth across time and space and why Americans and other Westerners might think one way or another.

Tales of African environmental degradation are as old as the colonial project itself.  They were a favorite trope of European colonizers in the nineteenth century, but as we shall see in this class, those colonizers held a perspective that often kept them from understanding the complex system of interactions that Africans had developed with nature over the course of millennia.  Holding firm goals of economic and political conquest, colonial governments attempted to enforce ‘conservation measures’ that had a disastrous effect on local populations.

The primary goal of this course is to reveal how the interactions of Africans, Westerners, and the environment have changed over time and how those changes have altered the landscape.  This course combines an introduction to environmental history with an introduction to African history.  While prior courses in both subjects would be helpful, this course is designed for students with little or no experience with either.

This syllabus is the guide for this class.  As a student, you are responsible for everything that is in here, so read it carefully. This syllabus is subject to change.

Course Objectives

              Content goals: Students will learn:

  • How Africans have interacted with their environment over time.
  • That Europeans and Africans held distinctly different perspectives on the role of nature in human life.
  • That conservation measures often restrict rural peoples’ ability to survive on the land.
  • That societies and states have struggled continuously and often unsuccessfully to mitigate environmental damage, although they have done so in different ways.

Methodological goals: Students will learn how to:

  • Interpret, analyze, and evaluate primary sources
  • Analyze scholarly arguments

Required texts:

  • Gregory Maddox, Sub-Saharan Africa: An Environmental History (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2006).
  • Cristopher Conte, Highland Sanctuary: Environmental History in Tanzania’s Usambara Mountains (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004).
  • James C. McCann, Green Land, Brown Land, Black Land: An Environmental History of Africa, 1880-1990 (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1999).
  • Various articles and book excerpts on eLC.


Your grade in this course will be determined by the following formula:

  • 50% exams
    • 10% – Exam 1
    • 15% – Exam 2
    • 25% Final Exam
  • 15% Formal Paper
  • 20% Reading Responses
    • Five times during the semester, you will be responsible for bringing to class response papers on the readings that address the questions posed in this syllabus. These papers, should be between one and two pages in length, typed, double-spaced (400-600 words).
  • 15% Participation in Discussions


This class requires careful and engaged reading of assigned sources.  This class does require a lot of thinking, and I will require you to organize and express your thoughts in writing.  If you come to lectures ready to learn and to discussions prepared and ready to participate, you can do well in this class.  However, that is no guarantee that you will get the grade you want.   I encourage you to come talk to me in office hours if you are struggling or you are unsure of how to improve.

Lectures and Discussions:

This class is divided into lectures and discussions.  You will need to come to lectures having done the assigned readings and ready to learn and take careful notes.   In discussions, you will need to come to class prepared to participate, using your notes on lectures and the assigned readings to help you engage in the discussions.  Your participation is required.

Make-up Policy:

Do not miss a test.  I will not administer a make-up exam unless your absence is due to extraordinary circumstances.  This means that you are either violently ill, on a prior approved school function, or at a funeral of a loved one.  You will need to provide documentation for any of these absences.

Classroom behavior:

Scientific studies have shown that students retain more information from lectures when they take notes on actual paper, rather than on a computer.  Studies have also shown that students are typically not as good at multitasking as they think they are.  Therefore, there will be no laptops allowed in the classroom.  Sorry.  Excessive talking, texting, eating, or anything else that, in my judgment, disrupts the learning environment, will not be tolerated.

Academic Honesty:

The University of Georgia, as well as the rest of academe, takes academic honesty very seriously.  Upon entrance to UGA, you pledged your commitment to perform “all academic work without plagiarism, cheating, lying, tampering, stealing, giving or receiving unauthorized assistance from any other person, or using any source of information that is not common knowledge without properly acknowledging the source.”  You will face severe penalties, including failure in the course and possible expulsion from the university, if you violate this oath.  For more information, see the school’s policy at

Writing Assignments

     Reading Responses – On each class period designated for discussion, you will prepare a 2-3 page “response paper” based on the readings assigned for the previous unit.  These assignments, each worth 2 percent of your final grade, are designed both to introduce you to the exciting art of historical interpretation and help prepare you for a lively discussion at the end of each week.

  Formal PaperDUE April 22. Your reading response papers will prepare you for one final paper worth 15% of your grade.  It will follow the same instructions as the reading response papers, EXCEPT this paper will be 5-7 pages long and will be cumulative.  Instructions for this assignment will be handed out at the beginning of the semester.


Jan. 5 – Introductions

Lecture 2: Introductions to Environmental History.

  • What is environmental history? What is nature? How do humans interact with their environment over time?  Why is the issue of ecological change problematic?  What political ends does it serve?
  • This lecture will lay out the basic premises of environmental history: to learn how human and nature interactions changed over time. It will also introduce the basic problems in environmental history.
  • Readings:
    • Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, Chapters 5, 9.
    • William Cronon, “The Uses of Environmental History,” Environmental History Review, 17, 3 (Autumn 1993), 1-22.
    • Donald Worster, “Doing Environmental History,” in Appendix, The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History (1988).

Lecture 3: Why African Environmental History?

  • What can Africa tell us about the history of humans and nature? Why should we pay attention to Africa?
  • This lecture will introduce African environmental history, the major themes and problems, and the framework that we will be using to discuss African environmental history.
  • Readings:
    • William Beinart, “African History and Environmental History,” African Affairs, 99 (2000), 269-302.
    • H. V. Bell, “Conservation with a human face: conflict and reconciliation in African land use planning,” in Anderson and Grove, eds., Conservation in Africa: People, Policies and Practice, 63-78
    • Christopher Conte, “Forming the Highland Sanctuary: Natural and Human History in the Eastern Arc Mountains,” Ch. 1 in Highland Sanctuary: Environmental History in Tanzania’s Usambara Mountains, 1-16.

Africans and their Environments

Lecture 4: The African Environment

  • What does the African environment look like today? What has the African environment looked like in the past? How can we know what the African environment looked like in the past?
  • Readings:
    • James McCann, “Africa’s Physical World,” Ch. 2 in Green Land, Brown Land, Black Land, 9-22.

Lecture 5: East African Usambara Mountains: a Case Study

  • What characterizes the Usambara’s ecology? How have East Africans interacted with their environment, and how have those interactions changed over time?
  • Readings
    • Christopher Conte, “Humanity’s Imprint: Mountain Forest, Garden, and Pasture,” 2 in Highland Sanctuary: Environmental History in Tanzania’s Usambara Mountains, 17-40.


Lecture 6: African Kingdoms and Environmental Change

  • How have the development of West African states influenced Africans’ interactions with the environment? How has the environment influenced relationships between African kingdoms?
  • Readings:
    • James McCann, “Environment and History in Africa,” Ch. 3 in Green Land, Brown Land, Black Land, 23-53.
    • Gregory Maddox, “African Environments and the Development of Complex Societies,” Ch. 3 in Sub-Saharan Africa: an Environmental History, 49-74.

Uncovering an African Environmental Identity

Lecture 7: Nature and Culture in Africa

  • How have the people living along the Zambezi and Sangha Rivers conceptualized nature and their role in it? How do they perceive of environmental change?
  • Readings:
    • Joan McGregor, “Living with the River: Landscape and Memory in the Zambezi Valley, Northwest Zimbabwe,” in Beinart and McGregor, Social History and African Environments, 87-106.
    • Tamara Giles-Vernick, “Doli: Translating an African Environmental History of Loss in the Sangha River Basin of Equatorial Africa,” The Journal of African History, 41, 3 (200), 373-394.
    • Michele Wagner, “Environment, Community, & History: ‘Nature in the Mind’ in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Buha, Tanzania,” in Custodians of the Land, 175-199.


Lecture 8: Nature in African Religions

  • What role does nature play in African religious beliefs? How does religion work to control environmental change?
  • Readings:
    • David M. Gordon, “Indigenous Spirits: Ancestral Power in a South-Central African Kingdom,” in Gordon and Krech, eds., Indigenous Knowledge and the Environment in Africa and North America, 196-215.
    • Terence Ranger, “Women & Environment in African Religion: the Case of Zimbabwe,” in Social History and African Environments, 72-86.


Lecture 9: African Environmental Adaptation

  • How have Africans balanced cultivation and pastoralism to adapt to environmental change?
  • Readings:
    • Ladislav Holy, “Cultivation as a long-term strategy of survival: the Berti of Darfur,” in Johnson and Anderson, eds., The Ecology of Survival: Case Studies from Northeast African History, 135-154.
    • Cristopher Conte, “Nature Reorganized: Ecological History in the Plateau of the West Usambara Mountains, 1850-1935,” in Custodians of the Land: Ecology and Culture in the History of Tanzania, 96-122.


Lecture 10: Shaping the African Landscape

  • How have Africans consciously shaped the landscape in order to improve its productivity and strengthen their own security?
  • Readings:
    • Emmanuel Kreike, “Hidden Fruits: A Social Ecology of Fruit Trees in Namibia and Angola, 1880s-1990s,” in Beinart and McGregor, eds., Social History and African Environments, 27-42.
    • Christopher Conte, “Humanity’s Imprint: Mountain Forest, Garden, and Pasture,” in Highland Sanctuary, 17-24.
    • James McCann, “Food in the Forest: Biodiversity, Food Systems, and Human Settlement in Ghana’s Upper Guinea Forest, 1000-1990,” Ch. 6 in Green Land, Brown Land, Black Land, 109-140.

Colonialism and the Environment

Lecture 11: Colonizing the African Continent

  • How and why was Africa colonized by Europeans?
  • This lecture will simply provide an overview of African colonization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to lay a historical foundation for the coming lectures/discussions.
  • Readings:
    • John Iliffe, Africa: History of a Continent.

Lecture 12: Ecological Imperialism

  • How did ecology aid in the conquest of Africa? How did the introduction of non-native species alter African life?
  • Readings
    • Alfred Crosby, “Pangea Revisited: the Neolithic Reconsidered,” Ch. 2 in Ecological Imperialism: the biological expansion of Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
    • Karen Middleton, “The Ironies of Plant Transfer: the Case of Prickly Pear in Madagascar,” in Beinart and McGregor, eds., Social History and African Environments, 43-59.
    • Gregory Maddox, “African Environments and the Era of the Columbian Exchange,” Ch. 4 in Sub-Saharan Africa: an Environmental History, 75-101.

Lecture 13: Reading the landscape backwards: Clashing perspectives on nature

  • How did European colonizers view the landscape differently than Africans?
  • Readings
    • James McCann, “Desert Lands, Human Hands,” Ch. 4 in Green Land, Brown Land, Black Land, 55-78.
    • James McCann, “A Tale of Two Forests: Narratives of Deforestation in Ethiopia, 1840-1996,” Ch. 5 in Green Land, Brown Land, Black Land, 79-108.
    • James Fairhead and Melissa Leach, “Reading Forest History Backwards: the Interaction of Policy and Local Land Use in Guinea’s Forest-Savanna Mosaic, 1893-1993,” Environment and History, 1, No. 1 (Feb. 1995), 55-91.

Lecture 14: Colonization and Commodity Production

  • How did the colonial emphasis on commodity production reorganize nature and change social relationships in Africa?
  • Readings
    • Gregory Maddox, “African Environments and the Reorganization of Space Under Colonial Rule,” Ch. 5 in Sub-Saharan Africa: an Environmental History, 103-135.

Lecture 15: Transforming the Agricultural Landscape of the Usambara Mountains

  • How did state emphasis on commodity production undermine subsistence patterns and lead to food insecurity?
  • Readings:
    • Cristopher Conte, “Transforming the Agricultural Landscape,” Ch. 5 in Highland Sanctuary, 96-125.

Lecture 16: Soil Erosion and the State

  • What is the relationship between colonization and soil degradation?
  • Readings:
    • James McCann, “Soil Matters: Erosion and Empire in Greater Lesotho, 1830-1990,” Ch. 7 in Green Land, Brown Land, Black Land, 141-173.

Conservation in Africa

Lecture 17: Origins of Conservation in Africa: the Case of South Africa

  • What is conservation? How and why did ideas of conservation emerge in Africa? How and why were American ideas of conservation imported into South Africa?
  • Readings:
    • Richard Grove, “Early Themes in African Conservation: the Cape in the Nineteenth Century,” in Grove, ed, Conservation in Africa: People, policies, and practice, 21-40.
    • James Scott, “Nature and Space,” Ch. 1 in Seeing Like a State, 11-52.

Lecture 18: Colonial Science in Africa

  • Why is the scientific study of African nature problematic? What political ends did it serve?
  • Readings:
    • Christopher Conte, “Colonial Science and Agricultural Development at Kwai and Amani,” in Highland Sanctuary: Environmental History in Tanzania’s Usambara Mountains, 41-67.
    • Libby Robin, “Ecology: a Science of Empire?” Cha. 4 in Ecology and Empire: Environmental History of Settler Societies (Edinburgh: Keele University Press, 1997), 63-75.
    • Helen Tilley, “African Environments and Environmental Sciences: the African Research Survey, Ecological Paradigms and British Colonial Development, 1920-1940,” in Beinart and McGregor, eds., Social History and African Environments, 109-130.

Lecture 19: Wildlife Conservation

  • How did colonial conservation policies redefine interactions between humans and wildlife? What were the social, ecological, and demographic impacts?
  • Readings:
    • John M. MacKenzie, “Chivalry, Social Darwinism, and Ritualised Killing: The Hunting Ethos in Central Africa up to 1914,” 2 in Grove, ed., Conservation in Africa: People, Policies, and Practice, 41-61.
    • David Collett, “Pastoralists and Wildlife: Image and Reality in Kenya Massailand,” Ch. 6 in Grove, ed., Conservation in Africa, 129-148.

Lecture 20: National Parks

  • Why were national parks created in Africa? What impacts did they have on local populations?
  • Readings:
    • Diana K. Davis, “Enclosing Nature in North Africa: National Parks and the Politics of Environmental History,” Ch. 7 in Water on Sand: Environmental Histories of the Middle East and North Africa, 159-179.
    • Jane Carruthers, “Creating a National Park, 1910-1926,” Journal of Southern African Studies, 15, 2 (Jan. 1989), 188-216.
    • David Bunn, “An Unnatural State: Tourism, Water, and Wildlife Photography in the Early Kruger National Park,” Ch. 10 in Social History and African Environments, 199-220.

Lecture 20: Forest Conservation in Colonial East Africa

  • How did colonial conservation efforts impact social relations, environmental relationships, and subsistence activities in local communities?
  • Readings
    • Christopher Conte, “Seeking the Good Forest,” Ch. 4 in Highland Sanctuary: Environmental History in Tanzania’s Usambara Mountains, 68-95.
    • Jamie Monson, “Canoe-Building under Colonialism: Forestry and Food Policies in the Inner Kilombero Valley, 1920-40,” in Maddox, Giblin, and Kimambo, eds., Custodians of the Land: Ecology and Culture in the History of Tanzania, 200-212.

Lecture 21: Soil Conservation: Successes and Failures

  • Why were soil conservation efforts in some countries a success, while in others’ an abject failure? What accounts for violent resistance in some areas?
  • Readings:
    • Grace Carswell, “Soil Conservation Policies in Colonial Kigezi, Uganda: Successful Implementation and an Absence of Resistance,” in Beinart and McGregor, Social History and African Environments, 131-154
    • John McCracken, “Conservation and Resistance in Colonial Malawi: the ‘Dead North’ Revisited,” in Beinart and McGregor, Social History and African Environments, 155-174.

Lecture 22: The Grazing Controversy: Pastoralism, Conservation, and the Tragedy of the Commons.

  • How were conflicts over grazing in East Africa emblematic of the larger debate over conservation? What does it suggest about the exportability of the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ thesis?
  • Readings:
    • Katherine Homewood and W.A. Rodgers, “Pastoralism, Conservation, and the Overgrazing Controversy,” Ch. 5 in Grove, ed., Conservation in Africa, 111-128.

Lecture  23: Colonialism and Food Insecurity

  • What role did colonial governments play in creating food insecurity in Africa?
  • Readings:
    • Isaria N. Kimambo, “Environmental Control & Hunger in the Mountains & Plains of Nineteenth-Century Northeastern Tanzania,” Ch. 3 in Custodians of the Land: Ecology and Culture in the History of Tanzania,71-95.
    • Maknun Gameledinn, “State policy and famine in the Awash Valley of Ethiopia: the lessons for conservation,” in Anderson and Grove, eds., Conservation in Africa: people, policies, and practice, 327-344.

The African Environment in the Postcolonial Era

Lecture 24: Intensification and Decolonization

  • How did African economies change after World War II? How and why was Africa decolonized in the second half of the twentieth century?
  • This lecture will provide a general political overview of the postwar integration of African economies into the global market and the transition from colonial rule to independence and briefly discuss the issues at stake.
  • Readings:
    • John Iliffe, Africa: History of a Continent.
    • Gregory Maddox, “African Environments in the Age of Conservation and Development,” Ch. 6 in Sub-Saharan Africa: an Environmental History, 137-168.


Lecture 25: Agrarian Reform in Post-WWII Tanzania

  • How did British efforts to make agriculture more efficient in Tanganyika create more problems for local residents?
    • Christopher Conte, “Agriculture and the State: Imposing a Landscape Makeover in Insecure Times, 1946-1961,” Highland Sanctuary: Environmental History in Tanzania’s Usambara Mountains, 126-147.


Lecture 26: National Parks and Tourism in Postcolonial Africa

  • How have independent African governments work to integrate local populations in plans for national parks and conservation efforts?
  • Readings:
    • K. Lindsay, “Integrating Parks and Pastoralists: Some Lessons from Amboseli,” Ch. 7 in Grove, ed., Conservation in Africa, 149-167.
    • Fronde Dundness, “Scrubs and Squatters: the coming of the Dukuduku forest, an indigenous forest in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa,” Environmental History, 18, 2 (2013), 277-308.
    • DavidTurton, “The Mursi and National Park Development in the Lower Omo Valley,” Ch. 8 in Conservation in Africa.


Lecture 28: The Postcolonial Environmental Dilemma

  • How successful have efforts to reinstate communal forms of land tenure been in postcolonial Africa?
  • Readings:
    • James C. Scott, “Compulsory Villagization in Tanzania: Aesthetics and Miniaturization,” Ch. 7 in Seeing Like a State, 223-261.

Lecture 29: The Postcolonial Environmental Dillemma – Part II.

  • How successful have efforts to reinstate communal forms of land tenure been in postcolonial Africa?
  • Readings:
    • Derick Fay, “Dilemmas of ‘Indigenous Tenure’ in South Africa: Traditional Authorities and the Constitutional Challenge to the 2004 Communal Land Rights Act,” Ch. 13 in Indigenous Knowledge and the Environment in Africa and North America, 287-306.