Mr. Samimi, what is environmental change doing to Africa?

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Environmental change is having a particularly strong impact on the African continent. Its landscapes see both negative and positive processes. What is science's view of this? A conversation with Cyrus Samimi about mobility for livelihoods, urban gardening and dealing with nature.

Rwanda / Kigali, 2020: Participants of the IOT training at the Digital Transformation Center Kigali. c) Mali Lazell

Cyrus Samimi

Cyrus Samimi is Professor of Climatology at the University of Bayreuth, and is also Director of the Institute of African Studies (IAS) based there. His work focuses on climatology, vegetation geography, remote sensing and the effects of climate change.

Jan Rübel

Jan Rübel is author at Zeitenspiegel Reportagen, a columnist at Yahoo and writes for national newspapers and magazines. He studied History and Middle Eastern Studies.

Prof. Samimi, what distinguishes the environmental change over the past few years in sub-Saharan Africa?

Cyrus Samimi: Extreme heterogeneity, like all over the world. Not everything is changing for the worse. For instance, when I started studying in the 1980s, desertification in the Sahel was the big issue. It was predicted that we would see massive advances of the Sahara, which luckily did not happen; it was a fluctuation.

 

Were we wrong back then?

I wouldn’t say so. Back then, there was a huge climate impact, which led to social catastrophes, and large numbers of farm animals died. It was a time when climate dynamics were not yet understood. Science shows that certain phenomena are not immediately clear. At that time, we started with long-term data series, began using satellite data – and this climate system slowly revealed itself in all its complexity. Even today, we have not yet fully understood it.  

 

Chad / Koyom, 2012: unexpected, torrential rains flooded villages and agricultural land. (c) Christoph Püschner/Bread for the World

What is the difference between environmental change and climate change?

Environmental change in sub-Saharan Africa describes, for example, nature conservation measures, such as expanding national parks, urbanisation, banning disposable plastic or dam projects as are being carried out in Ethiopia – climate change happens in addition to this.

 

The processes are both negative and positive…

…so let’s look at them more closely. One of the worst effects of the environmental changes over the past few years was the impact on the fresh water ecosystems. Synthetic pesticides in agriculture and urbanisation meant that many harmful poisons were fed into Lake Victoria. This affects the entire chain of great lakes in Africa. Overfishing is also having a huge negative impact: Those of us from the Global North together with the big trawlers are partly responsible for this; most African countries do not have the capacity to monitor this and barely enforce their own rights of use.

 

Kenya / Machakos, 2011: A pressure sprayer is used to spray plantations of leguminous plants with pesticides. (c) Christoph Püschner/Bread for the World

So how does climate change come into play?

The rise in the global sea level puts the megacities on the east and west coast at risk due to flooding combined with extremely heavy rainfall at the start and the end of the rainy season. And climatic variability exacerbates the problems in agriculture and poses an increasing challenge to food security. Attempts are made to compensate for this by intensifying activities, while the densification of cities results in the disappearance of the original green space, which was also used for agriculture.

 

Urban Gardening?

This concept comes from Africa. When I came to Africa for the first time in 1984, I noticed how much was cultivated in urban areas. This inspired me to study geography. Urban gardening was a method already used in Africa.

 

And the positive processes of environmental change?

Attempts are often made to adapt to the new conditions. Nature conservation is becoming more frequently enshrined in laws, the understanding for environmental protection is strong and is continuing to grow. There are many local movements, such as “Fridays for Future” in Africa. And they try to use their traditional knowledge locally: Agroforestry systems are re-establishing and stabilising the ecosystems which, in turn, strengthens food security.

 

Senegal / Dakar, Plage de Yoff Tonghor, 2016: Day laborers carry the fish in stacking boxes to the ready refrigerated trucks of the wholesalers. (c) Christoph Püschner/Bread for the World

 

Does sub-Saharan Africa have a more understanding approach to nature than in Europe?

African philosophers are currently discussing this. People who are more connected to nature are more careful with it; this is more the case in Africa than in Europe. Those who live in Berlin, London, Lagos or in Nairobi have a more distanced understanding of nature. This has been going on for longer in the West than in Africa. Do you remember the “problem bear” that moved around southern Bavaria? In Berlin, there was a huge outcry about shooting it, people could sit in their apartments and be outraged by it, while farmers and shepherds in Upper Bavaria may have seen the situation differently. Similarly, Botswana has an elephant problem, it has a massive overpopulation. The animals go onto the fields, and are aggressive when they feel disturbed. It is strange when people in Europe are outraged because the Botswanan government says it must control the population by hunting - which is certainly managed sensibly with little corruption.

 

Niger / Goungo Bon, 2009: the allotment garden for vegetable cultivation is managed by the village community from Goungo Bon. (c) Christoph Püschner/Bread for the World

What do external interventions have to take into account?

They need to listen much more closely to the local people and take them seriously. At the local level, tried-and-tested strategies are often available to alleviate the negative environmental change, including adapting to climate variability.

 

What successful strategies do you mean?

Mobility, for example. Pastoralists use it to adapt: They migrate with their cattle so that they survive. This is hugely important, as it is not simply about subsistence or prestige, it is about supplying protein to the major cities. African communities are highly mobile, which is being restricted particularly by Europe. Now, migration is being controlled, however people are not migrating towards Europe but within Africa. And it is spreading: In southern Africa, South Africa, Namibia and Botswana are now protecting themselves from the north and restricting mobility.

 

Are there negative examples of conservation projects from the north?

When national parks are expanded, the focus is more on strengthening tourism rather than the social population or nature conservation. The initiatives to cultivate biofuels under the heading climate protection are also to be viewed critically, because in reality they are a catastrophe. The World Bank once conducted a study on supposedly unused land in Africa that was valued. But land is always used. A population also needs places to retreat in order to be mobile and flexible. If these are used for CO2 compensation plants, something is taken away from them. In some cases, monocultures are planted, or fast-growing trees that achieve nothing.

 

Kenya / Marsabit, 2011: After the deworming campaign in the village of Boruharo, the women drive their goats back to their home village. (c) Christoph Püschner/Bread for the World

 

What is wrong with a fast-growing tree?

The tree must be adapted to the ecological conditions, which is frequently not the case. And a monoculture has a negative impact on biodiversity.

 

And if small-scale farmers grow biofuels, they earn money. That is a good thing, right?

If they are small-scale farmers, then yes. But most are large investors. The small-scale farmers try to do two things at once, specifically provide their own food and then try to generate surpluses that will sell on the market. Biofuels are not included in this concept.

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