The geopolitics of Madagascar’s environment

January 8, 2013

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.

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The Third Wattle War: environment versus development?

December 12, 2012

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 »


Children’s geographies: “which island are you from?”

October 29, 2012

world view of Pacific child

8 year old son’s visual depiction of the world view of his 5 year old brother

How do children perceive their place in the geography of the globe? Probably my earliest memory of some place outside my immediate region is of a place called Arabia that I imagined as an “island” somewhere “down there”. I can still see it like that in my head. I think it must have come from adults around me – in Switzerland – talking about the 1974 oil crisis and my misinterpreting the French word for peninsula, presqu’île (literally ‘almost-island’). Later I learned that geographers and psychologists have made considerable advances in studying the differentiated perspectives and experiences of place by children, Cindi Katz being the name I know the best. But my eight-year old son has been at it too: here is his spontaneous analysis of the “world view” of his 5 year old brother, showing places made familiar through family links. Towns, cities, and continents are all separate islands. Living in the Pacific has clearly influenced the little one’s insular world view, with him asking fantastic questions like “which island is Paris?”…


On French geography and political ecology

September 6, 2012

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 »


Do plants need passports?

August 7, 2012

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 [1][2].  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.

Picture 1: Do plants need passports? Who should control plant movements, and on what basis? Silver wattle (Acacia dealbata), native to Australia, invasive and assimilated as mimosa in the Côte d’Azur, France.

Picture 2: Do Australian acacias need passports? Australian passports specify “free passage without let or hindrance”…

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Against “the global south” and other development euphemisms

April 2, 2012

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 unexceptional fires in Madagascar’s grasslands

March 8, 2012

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).

8 years of African fire satellite fire data

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Science, sentiment and territorial chauvinism in the acacia name change debate

January 27, 2012

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


The introduced flora of Madagascar

November 8, 2011

It is usually the rich and unique endemic vegetation of Madagascar that gets all the attention from tourists, biologists, and conservationists.  Yet the species that humans brought to the island also deserve attention as plants emblematic of human history and as builders of societies and environments.  What would the island be without rice, litchi, and vanilla?  What would the highland landscape be like without eucalypts, apples, and jacaranda?  Some of the new plants cause problems by becoming too successful (the stories of prickly pear, water hyacinth, pine, or various crop field weeds are instructive), but many have contributed to the landscapes of the island – as the raw materials of peoples’ lives; as colours, fascinations, smells, and sights; as memories and emotions; and even as habitat, perches, and food for lemurs, bats, and endemic birds.  An article that I’ve just published together with several colleagues seeks to analyse this new flora, which we catalogue in a lengthy inventory – the first of its kind in 80 years.


Mozambique through Malagasy eyes

September 8, 2011

Mozambique rarely appears in the worldview of people in Madagascar, despite straddling the same latitudes just across the water from each other. Yet the two countries have much in common, as I discovered on a recent road trip with Priya Rangan to gather botanical samples and stories about baobabs.

A big baobab near the ruins at Sungo, downstream from Tete, Mozambique

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