UCL African Studies Research Centre


AFRIG004 - African Historical Ecologies c. AD 1800 - Present

Value: 15 credits
Tutor: Dr Matthew Davies
Assessment: 1 x 1,500 word essay; 1 x 2,500 word project paper


We often view Africa as on the cusp of change, whether that be the ‘modernisation’ of economies and infrastructure, or ‘impending crises’ of degradation, conflict and climate change. Emphasising both hope and doom, these polarised perspectives are not new, nor do they do justice to the long history of human-environment relations in Africa. This course seeks to explore the complexity of African human-environment relationsa across time and in a range of overlapping spheres (climate change, development, conservation, farming). It draws on the interdisciplinary approach of Historical Ecology which views contemporary environments and contemporary environmental concerns as the product of historical entanglements which must be studied from a range of biophysical and humanistic perspectives across temporal, spatial and social scales.

The course explicitly challenges dualisms such as nature/culture, tradition/modernity, local/global instead focussing on the networks which construct and link such ideals and how these recursively inform contemporary environmental discourse and practice. Key ideas are explored including ‘the Anthropocene’, ‘sustainability’, ‘resilience’, ‘modernisation’ and ‘development’. The course explicitly draws on and integrates a wide range of sources from climate and environmental science, history, archaeology, social anthropology, human geography and political ecology. The final two seminars will explore major current/topical issues and will vary from year to year.

The course is taught through ten two-hour lecture/seminars on a range of thematic topics. The seminars will begin with a c. 45 minute lecture summarising the topic by the chair, followed by discussion and short case-study presentations prepared in rotation by two students each week.

Course outline:

1. Challenging the received wisdom: An introduction to Historical Ecology in Africa
2. Landscape, time, and practice: Approaches to Historical Ecology in Africa
3. Predicting the unpredictable: Climate, ecology and crisis
4. Finding a niche: Ecological strategies and managing change
5. ‘Modernising’ African Environments: Legacies of colonial land-management
6. Enacting change: Political ecology and development narratives
7. Making nature pay: Historical Ecology and conservation
8. Cultivating success: Historical Ecologies of African farming
9. Current Topic 1. Dammed if you do: Infrastructural development and environmental change
10. Current Topic 2. Relationships to nature: Indigeneity, ontology and conflicts of interest.

Key texts:

  • Adams, W. M. 2003. Green development: Environment and sustainability in the Third World. London, Routledge.
  • Anderson, D.M. 2002. Eroding the commons: the politics of ecology in Baringo, Kenya 1890s-1963. Oxford, James Currey.
  • Balée, William. 2006. The research program of historical ecology. Annual Review of Anthropology 35: 75-98.
  • Beinart, W. 2000. African history and environmental history. African Affairs 99: 269-302
  • Bosco, F. J. 2006. Actor-network theory, networks, and relational approaches in human geography. pp. 136-148. In Aitken, S. and Valentine, G. (eds) Approaches to human geography. London, Sage.
  • Brockington, D. 2002. Fortress conservation: the preservation of the Mkomazi Game Reserve, Tanzania. Indiana University Press.
  • Davies, M.I.J. and M’Mbogori, F.N. (eds). 2013. Humans and the environment: new archaeological perspectives for the 21st century. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • De Waal, A. 2004. Famine that Kills: Darfur, Sudan. Oxford University Press.
  • Ferguson, J. 1990. The anti-politics machine: Development, depoliticization, and bureaucratic power in Lesotho. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Ingold, T. 2000. The perception of the environment: essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill. London, Routledge.
  • Johnson, D. H. and Anderson, M. (eds). 1988. The ecology of survival: case studies from Northeast African history. London, Lester Crook Academic Publishing.
  • Leach, M., and Mearns, R. (eds) 1996. The lie of the land: Challenging received wisdom on the African environment. Oxford: James Currey.
  • Marchant, R. and Lane, P. 2014. Past perspectives for the future: foundations for sustainable development in East Africa. Journal of Archaeological Science 51, 12-21.
  • Niang, I., O.C. Ruppel, M.A. Abdrabo, A. Essel, C. Lennard, J. Padgham, and P. Urquhart, 2014: Africa. In: Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part B: Regional Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press. pp. 1199-1265. Download PDF
  • Redman, C. L., and Kinzig, A. P. 2003. Resilience of past landscapes: resilience theory, society, and the longue durée. Conservation ecology 7: 14.
  • Scheiter, S. and Higgins, S.I. 2009. Impacts of climate change on the vegetation of Africa: an adaptive dynamic vegetation modelling approach. Global Change Biology 15: 2224-2246.
  • Sillitoe, P. (ed) 2007. Local science versus global science: approaches to indigenous knowledge in international development. Oxford, Berghahn.
  • Srinivasan, S. and Watson E.E. 2013. Climate Change and Human Security in Africa. pp 305-333. In M.R. Redclift and M. Grasso (eds). Handbook on Climate Change and Human Security. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
  • Tomlinson, I. 2013. Doubling food production to feed the 9 billion: a critical perspective on a key discourse of food security in the UK. Journal of Rural Studies 29:81-90.
  • Toulmin, C. 2009. Climate change in Africa. London, Zed Books.
  • Widgren, M. and Sutton, J.E.G. (eds) 2004. Islands of intensive agriculture in Eastern Africa. Oxford, James Currey.