‘In my first class at the University of Kentucky, my American Literature professor came in, and the first sentence out of his mouth was “The central theme of American Literature is an attempt to reconcile what we’ve done to the New World.”
I wrote that down in my notebook, and thought, “What is he talking about?”’
There is an interview on A Photo Editor with Sam Abell, the photographer whose work includes, but does not exclusively consist of, the Marlboro man advertising photo famously ‘appropriated’ by Richard Prince. He is thus a man who knows a thing or two about America’s troubled relationship with its own virgin pastures.
The interview continues:
‘But that’s what I think about now. The New World and what we’ve done to it.
I did a story for the Geographic on Lewis and Clark, and Stephen Ambrose was the writer. He said, “I’ve got the easiest job in the world. I just have to re-tell the story of the greatest fishing, camping, hunting, canoeing trip of all time. You, Sam, have the hardest job, which is, pretend like nothing has happened in the last 200 years.
That statement woke me up to the fact that the landscape that Lewis and Clark came across was greater than the Serengeti. And it’s gone. It’s been replaced by agribusiness and hydroelectric projects, and cities and towns, and networks of transportation.
If that happened to Africa, there would be a world-wide outcry.
But it happened here.’
But the truth is, it is happening to Africa, right now. And there is no outcry. Or at least, not one that anyone is listening to. There’s no real need for words when you have a map like the one below. But I have provided some any way.
Map showing areas of Africa vulnerable to desertification, found at the United States Department of Agriculture
Based on my somewhat sketchy geography of Africa, the areas in grey are already desert and the areas in green are not at any risk of desertification.
‘Desertification processes affect about 46% of Africa. The significance of this large area becomes evident when one considers that about 43% of the continent is (already) characterized as extreme deserts (the desert margins represent the areas with very high vulnerability). Only about 11% of the land mass is humid and by definition is excluded from desertification processes. There are about 2.5 million km2 of land under low risk, 3.6 million km2 under moderate risk, 4.6 million km2 under high risk, and 2.9 million km2 under very high risk. The region that has the highest propensity is located along the desert margins and occupies about 5% of the land mass. It is estimated that about 22 million people (2.9% of the total population) live in this area. The low, moderate, and high vulnerability classes occupy 14, 16, and 11% respectively and together impact about 485 million people.’
-P.F. Reich, S.T. Numbem, R.A. Almaraz and H. Eswaran. 2001. Land resource stresses and desertification in Africa. via USDA
‘Though degradation is largely man-made, and hence its pace is governed primarily by the speed at which population pressure mounts, irregular natural events, such as droughts, exacerbate the situation. The 1982/85 drought, for example, had a dramatic effect on the speed of land degradation and desertification. Essential though food aid is in such emergencies, it clearly does nothing to alleviate environmental damage.
Many African countries have already lost a significant quantity of their soils to various forms of degradation. Many areas in the continent are said to be loosing over 50 tones of soil per hectare per year. This is roughly equivalent to a loss of about 20 billion tones of Nitrogen, 2 billion tones of Phosphorus and 41 billion tones of potassium per year.
One of the causes of degradations is that population pressure is forcing farmers to cultivate increasingly marginal land. In Malawi for instance, escarpment land that has a slope of more than 12% – and that therefore should be forested- is being cultivated, causing erosion, the flooding of fertile crop land below and the situation of stream beds and irrigation canals. Thus erosion is threatening the future of one of the few countries in Africa that is successfully feeding itself.’
-from Land and environmental degradation and desertification in Africa by Prof S.C. Nana-Sinkam of the Joint ECA/FAO Agriculture division, February 1995