Review from ROAPE Volume 15 Number 42
Africa in Crisis: Environmental Bankruptcy (Timberlake)
Timberlake's dissection of the African environmental crisis takes as its starting point the continuing famine in the Sahel and Ethiopia, seen in the west as an act of malevolent nature, and demonstrates that it is an expression of a series of interlinked, cumulative and above all, man-made porblems. These problems are the effects of human mistakes and mismanagement both within and outside Africa, the unintended outcomes of the action of political, social and economic forces, rather than a series of physical mishaps. He shows that many of the phenomena we perceive to be causes of the crisis: desertification, accelerated soil erosion, overgrazing, deforestation, are symptoms of inappropriate political organisation and not simply expressions of unsuitable land use by an uninformed peasantry. Famine is shown to be the most immediate and pressing of linked problems. Indebtedness, high interest rates, and an inappropriate system of international aid and advice (80,000 foreign experts working for public agencies!) are background factors. The rural poor, largely peasant farmers, are shown to be the main sufferers; ‘the wealthy are never killed by drought’ . Timberlake investigates the phenomenon of desertification and associated issues of overgrazing, overcultivation, deforestation, soil erosion and their contribution to falling production of food, with particular attention being paid to fuel wood overuse and to misuse of water including the deleterious effects of big dams - so attractive to aid donors and central governments, so destructive of people's lives. Problems of disease and of wildlife conservation are considered and apartheid is interpreted as an institutionalisation of environmental degradation, with the associated flight of labour to the cities.