The End of Desertification? pp 203-223
Deserts and Drylands Before the Age of Desertification
This chapter analyses the deep and complex history of western thinking about deserts and desertification in the centuries before the word desertification was coined in 1927 by a French colonial forester. It shows that a relatively benign view of the drylands dominated in western thinking until the early colonial period when notions of deforestation causing desiccation began to take shape. During the period of 19th century colonialism, particularly British and French colonialism in Africa, deserts, drylands, and their degradation became a particular focus of colonial scientific research as well as practical policy formulation. It was during this period that indigenous peoples, primarily but not only nomads, were blamed most often for what later came to be called desertification. French colonial experiences, first in North Africa, and later in West Africa were especially influential in the formation of much of our contemporary mainstream understandings of desertification, and thus our management of the drylands, today. A great deal of our thinking about drylands, as well as many policies for developing them, derive from the colonial period and were carried into the contemporary mainstream in large part by several UN agencies. The chapter concludes by suggesting that desertification is a (neo)colonial concept that would benefit from careful reconsideration.