In ‘The Invention of Green Colonialism’, Guillaume Blanc has laid bare the colonial roots of the West’s drive to ‘save’ African wildlife and landscapes from the people of Africa. Such policies today often come in the guise of ‘sustainable development’ and the like. The bottom line, in Blanc’s view, is that as the West often lays waste to its own environment it imagines an ‘African Eden’ that never existed. The rural poor bear the brunt of this fantasy, which often seems to place the welfare of animals above the people of Africa.
This absorbing book was first published in French in 2020 and the forthcoming release of the English translation is welcome. It brings insights and debates that need to be taken to a wider audience amid perceptions that the welfare of Africa’s animals is often placed above that of its people among conservation NGOs. The focus is refreshingly on Ethiopia, a country that unlike, say, South Africa or Kenya, is not widely known for its wildlife. But the wider African prism has left some conservationists seeing red.
Blanc’s book has the advantage of being relatively short, concise and readable, while drawing on a wide range of academic historians and theorists such as Richard Grove and Edward Said.
Referring to Grove, he notes: “The more Europeans cultivated, exploited and damaged the soil and the wildlife of the tropics, the more determined they were to protect the environment from this destruction… in order to do so, they restricted the rights of ‘local indigenous people’, accused of destroying nature and therefore needing to be removed. And since that time, this dual concept of predation/protection has continued to shape the global policies of Africa in nature.”
This has set the stage for what Blanc sees as the “dehumanisation” of Africa through the process of “naturalisation” pursued by Unesco, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It is a “process which involves turning territories into national parks, banning agriculture in these areas, evicting people from their homes and getting rid of their fields and grazing land in order to create a supposedly natural world, in which people are absent”.
Tarzan and Disney
This Westernised version of Africa, which takes some of its cues from old Tarzan films and Disney’s romantic rendering of the continent’s wildlife, has, Blanc maintains, been catastrophic for the African peasantry while doing nothing to advance the cause of protecting biodiversity.
“In order to save nature, international experts insist that African states must evict those living within the national parks. In concrete terms, they want them to prevent agro-pastoralists from eroding the strips of land they cultivate and from stripping bare the plateaux where they allow their cattle to graze. But the argument is a nonsense… Accusing peasants, like those from Gich (in Ethiopia), of destroying nature fails to acknowledge that these people are in fact producing their own food. Like those evicted from the African national parks, they move around essentially on foot. They eat very little meat or fish. They rarely buy new clothes. And, unlike two billion individuals, they own neither computers or smartphones. In short, if we want to save the planet, we should live as they do. Yet, Unesco, the WWF and the IUCN nevertheless view their eviction as ethical and necessary.”
Blanc offers a striking juxtaposition in how Unesco treats the Cévennes National Park in France — a World Heritage Site since 2011 — and the Simien National Park in Ethiopia. Unesco proclaims Cévennes to be an area of “universal human value” because of “landscapes… shaped by agro-pastoralism over three millennia”.
In the Simien National Park, agro-pastoralists and their shaping of the landscapes they inhabit are cast in a far more menacing light.
Blanc offers up this quote from Unesco’s website: “Agricultural and pastoral activities… have severely affected the natural values of the property… Threats to the integrity of the park include human settlement, cultivation and soil erosion.”
I checked the website and it does indeed say this, under the subheading “INTEGRITY”.
“The property was established in an area inhabited by humans and, at the time of inscription, 80% of the park was under human use of one form or another. Threats to the integrity [my emphasis] of the park include human settlement, cultivation and soil erosion, particularly around the village of Gich; frequent fires in the tree heather forest; and excessive numbers of domestic stock. Agricultural and pastoral activities, including both cultivation of a significant area of the property and grazing of a large population of animals in particular, have severely affected the natural values of the property, including the critical habitats of the walia ibex and Ethiopian wolf,” it says.
Blanc does not dwell on this point, but what ground this reviewer’s gears was the use of the term “integrity”. The implication is clear: these undignified peasants and their bloody cattle were causing an intolerable affront to the landscape. But can a landscape have “integrity?”
I also checked the website for its depiction of Cévennes, and it is indeed billed as an “agro-pastoral cultural landscape”, in which peasant methods of livestock husbandry are celebrated and still practised in some idyllic rural settings.
“The first one is European and depicts humankind’s adaptation to nature. The second is African and recounts the damage inflicted on nature by humankind,” Blanc acidly notes.
This merely set the stage. Blanc has come, as we say in some parts of Canada, loaded for bear.
The 19th-century scramble for Africa and Asia by European powers triggered deforestation on a mammoth scale in sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia — an estimated 94 million hectares lost between 1850 and 1920 — to make way for mostly commercial agriculture.
“As had been the case in tropical islands in the 18th century, Europeans failed to recognise the fact that it was their presence which was causing the ecological devastation they were witnessing. On the contrary, as far as they were concerned, the blame lay with the Africans,” Blanc writes.
Myth of the lost primary forest
From this soil, the myth of the lost primary forest would emerge, branching out into a canopy of misconception that would inform much of the conservation discourse in Africa.
Blanc informs us that French botanists working in West Africa at the start of the 20th century came across villages enclosed by a narrow belt of forest with “savanna extending between them on all sides”.
The forest strips were taken to be the smoking gun in the hand of the African peasant. The myth went like this: virgin forest was cleared by African farmers, then villages were erected amid the trees spared in the carnage. This narrative would subsequently be applied across the continent.
“… the botanists had read history backwards,” Blanc writes. “In semi-arid environments, tree belts are the vestiges of a primary forest which humans have hacked back… in the majority of cases, these are the result of human activity: first there is the soil stripped almost bare, then farming is introduced to fertilise the soil and create low-lying shrubs and, finally, the savanna fires result in a forest cover which, though never abundant, is rarely exhausted.”
The same misconception would drive the desertification narrative, which this reviewer was surprised to learn had taken hold a century ago.
Moving to fauna, Blanc notes how Africans would also shoulder the blame for destroying nature more widely, setting in motion the rise of protected reserves and national parks. Along with this came the anthropomorphising of Africa’s big-game animals, with European writers giving such species “a more human face than they gave its inhabitants”.
Examples include Joy Adamson’s famous account of the lioness Elsa and her (alleged) desire to be “free”. Adamson, as the environmental commentator and writer George Monbiot and others have noted, was a despicable racist whose affection for big cats did not extend to Africans.
This legacy lives on in the form of narratives like the one constructed around “Cecil the lion”, a 21st-century martyr to Western animal welfare NGOs whose demise was viewed rather differently by Africans, who unlike US talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, don’t cry for lions.
Blanc goes on to note how the Western narrative would somehow create an Africa that was “tamed but still wild, spoiled but still unspoiled”. It could not be both, of course, but this was the myth that persists to this day.
And the nonsense of the “lost forest” would persist. There is still a view that Ethiopia’s forest cover has declined from 40% in 1900 to 4% “today”. But that figure, first cited in 1961 — more than 60 years ago — still has currency today apparently, though without proper sourcing. Which, of course, is the tell-tale sign of a myth.
A common thread throughout this book is the trampling of human rights to advance animal welfare. Take the case of the Simien region in Ethiopia. Blanc notes that in 1963, experts from Unesco, the IUCN and the WWF pushed to have the area transformed into a national park, and requested that to do so Ethiopia must “extinguish all individual or all other human rights”.
“The same request led to Ethiopia evicting the inhabitants of Gich in 2016. In Africa, a national park must be empty,” Blanc writes.
It is small wonder that conservation NGOs, especially those focused on wildlife in the region, remain accused of an astonishing indifference to human welfare as the new scramble in Africa seeks to (allegedly) address animal welfare. The optics are truly disturbing in places such as Rwanda, where recently translocated rhinos are safer than the human dissidents who dare to raise a voice against an iron-fisted regime.
It is also understandable that a Gich villager would tell a journalist, according to Blanc, that: “It’s a strange government that cares more about walia than people.”
Walia is an endangered species of alpine ibex and Blanc notes that over 50 years, from the early 1960s, experts sounded the alarm over the species’ fate and the threat posed by peasant encroachment. Yet, estimates of the species population rose fourfold over that period, mirroring the rise in the human population.
Myths will endure in the face of evidence.
And human rights are still being gored in the name of conservation. Rights NGO Survival International posted a video on 10 June of Tanzanian soldiers firing live ammunition at Maasai people protesting against their removal to make way for trophy hunting and conservation.
Areas that Blanc does not explore in any detail include human-wildlife conflict and doing so may have taken the book in interesting directions. This is more a quibble than a criticism — this is the kind of thoughtful work that raises angles that others can pursue. It is true, as Blanc notes, that the removal of people from African landscapes to “protect nature” has been a grave social injustice, and that mythical “African Edens” are an invention of the colonial mindset.
It is also the case that the best way to prevent the horror of human-wildlife conflict is to keep people and big, dangerous animals separate through initiatives such as fencing. In fact, Africans and dangerous wildlife have historically tended to avoid each other, with exceptions such as rivers, where poor Africans still share space with crocodiles and hippos. In the 21st century, this is a function of poverty and inequity — what this reviewer has dubbed elsewhere the “faunal poverty line”.
And Africa does have many environmental problems, and some are indeed linked to peasant agriculture, with impacts compounded by other forces. Critics might accuse Blanc of at times romanticising the African peasantry, but I don’t think that’s the intention.
Blanc’s net could also perhaps have been cast wider to include, for example, the prehistoric extinctions outside of Africa which many scientists link to “overkill” by the ancient humans who migrated from the Mother Continent, marking the start of the Anthropocene. But his net is wide enough to serve his purpose.
And this book has prompted a rethink of this correspondent’s own reporting in the past on issues related to deforestation in countries such as Malawi. This reviewer has, with the benefit of hindsight and the insights provided here, had a hand in perpetuating some of the myths exposed in Blanc’s book. That is testimony to the iconoclastic thrust of this engaging piece of reportage and scholarship, which challenges the Tarzan- and Disney-inspired views that many in the West have of Africa, its people and its wildlife.