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Environment and History

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Environment and History

Degrading Land: An Environmental History Perspective of the Cape Verde Islands

Per A. Lindskog and Benoit Delaite

Environment and History 2(1996): 271-90

This paper discusses changes in land and vegetation cover and natural resources of the Cape Verde Islands since their colonisation. This isolated group of islands in mid-Atlantic was first colonised by the Portuguese around 1460. The paper discusses both physical and human causes of land-cover changes, including changes in climate, land-use, land tenure, economic, political and social systems.

The actual consequences of the first centuries of European colonisation of the Cape Verde Islands were very different from the idealised view of tropical islands as Gardens of Eden that was current in Europe during the early colonial period. The sources discussed in this paper provide evidence of catastrophic degradation of the land and vegetation of these islands: from a dry but 'well-wooded' savanna with 'great quantity of grass', and 'streamlets of water' at the time of colonisation to a near desert landscape today, especially at the lower altitudes. A major cause of this degradation, perhaps indirect but still decisive, may have been a political and economic system that permitted an appallingly shortsighted exploitation of the land. The major direct mechanism of this process was probably overexploitation of the vegetation-cover by people and their goats.

Despite the evidence for human causes behind this ecological disaster, the possibility cannot be excluded that there has also been a change in climate purely due to physical causes. If, however, the first colonisers had been conscious of the fragility of the ecosystem they came to occupy, these islands could still have profited from the advantages of a dry savanna with trees and a continuous grass cover, as do the Bermudas, which have remained a 'terrestrial paradise' thanks to the protection of the cedar forests since their first settlement in 1622. The reason why the 'fortunate' islands of Cape Verde should be reafforested thus becomes evident.

Human beings frequently have a good perception of the symptoms of environmental degradation, but they rarely perceive the causes of such changes. In particular, they do not see themselves as agents in relation to nature. Instead they attribute environmental degradation either to God, destiny, etc., or to more earthly powers, which results in resignation relative to environmental problems.

Compared to the length of human life most environmental changes, e.g. land degradation and climatic changes, are slow processes, noticeable only over decades. This may explain why it is difficult for humans to comprehend the causal mechanisms behind such changes. It may be crucial to understand these human perceptual processes if the human causes of environmental degradation are to be countered.

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