What happens when you combine human labour, introduced plants, and particular societal histories and structures in a certain tropical landscape? You end up with anthropogenic or cultural landscapes – the “matrix” in current ecological jargon – such as the domesticated forests1 of southeast Asia, the tree gardens of Caribbean or Pacific islands, the shambas of Africa, the rice terraces of Madagascar. Despite their aesthetic and cultural attractions, these smallholder farming landscapes are directly or implicitly critiqued by many – for not being as productive as modern industrial agriculture, for trapping people in rural poverty, and for taking up space at the expense of natural habitats. In two recent papers with French collaborators, I argue instead that such landscapes can be sustainable sources of useful products, can facilitate vibrant and resilient rural communities, and can be resilient contributors to the functioning of local and global biophysical systems.
A few weeks ago I attended a workshop by this name in Wollongong, organized by Lesley Head, Jenny Atchison, and Nick Gill. With keynote papers by Richard Hobbs, known for the ‘novel ecosystems‘ concept, and by Brendon Larson, known for his book Metaphors for Environmental Sustainability, and with presentations by participants as diverse as uniformed state Noxious Weeds Inspectors, indigenous rangers, government scientists, and historians of science, we kicked off a fantastic conversation on how weeds in the landscape are already a ‘new normal’. The threat of invasion is old news; the challenge of living with invasives is the new. In this respect, managers of environmental weeds could learn from those who have focused on cropfield or pasture weeds – they have been ‘living with’ weeds for a long time, and don’t see the world in such black and white terms. For more information and comments, see this Blog by the workshop organisers.
Who controls Madagascar’s flora, fauna, and landscapes? How, and for whom, are its forests, grasslands, and waters governed? Over the past three decades, Madagascar’s local environments have become more and more internationalized – subjected to western worldviews and gazetted into protected areas with foreign funding.
Are Australian acacias planted overseas miracle plants for rural development, or are they the worst kind of environmental weeds? The battle lines appear rather stark at times. At least when one reads environmentalist Tim Low’s rebuttal to a critique that Jacques Tassin and I wrote of his views. We thought our statement to be tempered and tried to build a reasonable case for responsible use of exotic agroforestry trees (see also previous blog). But Low calls us “in denial about dangerous aid”, flogs a misplaced example about mesquite in an argument about acacia, all the time preaching his argument to the converted in the journal Biological Invasions. Read the rest of this entry »
During a live radio interview today on Radio France Culture (info / listen), the host Sylvain Kahn put me on the spot, asking whether, as an Australian geographer I thought that French geography was missing out on the environment question. I deflected the question, not feeling qualified to judge an entire disciplinary tradition I have only partial exposure to. But as far as I understand from my conversations with French geographers, his question was not innocent. Read the rest of this entry »
The landscapes that characterize different places on the earth, and from which many people earn their livelihoods and their sense of place, and which support diverse flora and fauna, are often built with a mix of local and introduced plants. Sometimes, introduced plants succeed so wildly in their new home that people come to see them as weeds or pests, crowding out crops or native species, changing soil conditions, altering fire regimes, or affecting the water table. The field of invasion biology emerged over the past few decades seeking to document, understand, and stop such “alien invasions”. But the fervour of this effort has at times crashed head-on with alternative worldviews. One of South Africa’s top weeds, for example, is the Australian native silver wattle, also naturalized in France where it is celebrated for its winter flowers and as an ingredient for Chanel No. 5 and other perfumes . Such conflicting outlooks were on stark display at a workshop I attended in October 2010 at Stellenbosch, South Africa, on Australian acacias as a global experiment in biogeography.
As a geographer, I feel obliged to register a complaint about the proliferating and geographically criminal use of “the Global South” to refer to what others call poor countries, the developing world, or the Third World. To any resident of Australia or New Zealand, the expression jars. It must do the same to those in Chile, Argentina, or South Africa who look north at relatively poorer places. And what about where poverty and deprivation are a northern phenomenon (politically-divided Korea, culturally-divided aboriginal Australia and Canada)? Read the rest of this entry »
The prehistoric dynamics of fire, vegetation, and humans in Madagascar are still not resolved, though one might get a different impression from the simplified narrative told to galvanise conservation action. Clearly, humans visited, hunted, and eventually settled the island over the last several thousand years, and lit the vegetation on fire throughout. But what kinds of fire, in what kind of vegetation, how often, and with what impact? Charcoal and pollen in lake sediment cores and archaeological digs have informed most of our recent scientific understandings of fire history on the island. Perhaps further answers and hypotheses can be found from innovative botanical, remote sensing, and modelling research being done in Africa. Most striking perhaps – in the face of all the alarmist discourse about the menace des feux de brousse in Madagascar – is how unimpressive Madagascar’s fires appear in any remote sensing image that includes neighbouring Africa (this one is taken from Archibald et al. 2010 in the International Journal of Wildland Fire).
Hot off the press: a paper that Priya Rangan and I wrote on the acrimonious battle over which continent’s trees should keep the latin name “Acacia“. It is a topic on which we wrote several blogs last year in the run-up to the Melbourne IBC conference (1, 2, 3). We review the acacia battles as a manifestation of long-standing struggles in science between between folk- or place-based classification systems and universal, scientific approaches. As a bonus, the paper quotes both Shakespeare (on names) and a rather politically incorrect Monty Python episode (on wattles as an Australian emblem)…
Kull, C.A. & H. Rangan (2012) Science, sentiment and territorial chauvinism in the acacia name change debate. 197-219 in S.G. Haberle & B.David (eds), Peopled Landscapes. Terra Australis 34. Canberra: ANU E-Press. pdf