The landscapes of the Middle East have captured our imaginations throughout history. Images of endless golden dunes, camel caravans, isolated desert oases, and rivers lined with palm trees have often framed written and visual representations of the region. Embedded in these portrayals is the common belief that the environment, in most places, has been deforested and desertified by centuries of misuse. It is precisely such orientalist environmental imaginaries, increasingly undermined by contemporary ecological data, that the eleven authors in this volume question. This is the first volume to critically examine culturally constructed views of the environmental history of the Middle East and suggest that they have often benefitted elites at the expense of the ecologies and the peoples of the region. The contributors expose many of the questionable policies and practices born of these environmental imaginaries and related histories that have been utilized in the region since the colonial period. They further reveal how power, in the form of development programs, notions of nationalism, and hydrological maps, for instance, relates to environmental knowledge production.
Contributors: Samer Alatout, Edmund Burke III, Shaul Cohen, Diana K. Davis, Jennifer L. Derr, Leila M. Harris, Alan Mikhail, Timothy Mitchell, Priya Satia, Jeannie Sowers, and George R. Trumbull IV
Winner of the George Perkins Marsh Prize for Best Book in Environmental History
Winner of the Meridian Book Award for Outstanding Work in Geography
Winner of the James Blaut Award in recognition of innovative scholarship in Cultural and Political Ecology
Tales of deforestation and desertification in North Africa have been told from the Roman period to the present. Such stories of environmental decline in the Maghreb are still recounted by experts and are widely accepted without question today. International organizations such as the United Nations frequently invoke these inaccurate stories to justify environmental conservation and development projects in the arid and semiarid lands in North Africa and around the Mediterranean basin. Recent research in arid lands ecology and new paleoecological evidence, however, do not support many claims of deforestation, overgrazing, and desertification in this region.
Diana K. Davis’s pioneering analysis reveals the critical influence of French scientists and administrators who established much of the purported scientific basis of these stories during the colonial period in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, illustrating the key role of environmental narratives in imperial expansion. The processes set in place by the use of this narrative not only systematically disadvantaged the majority of North Africans but also led to profound changes in the landscape, some of which produced the land degradation that continues to plague the Maghreb today.
Resurrecting the Granary of Rome exposes many of the political, economic, and ideological goals of the French colonial project in these arid lands and the resulting definition of desertification that continues to inform global environmental and development projects. The first book on the environmental history of the Maghreb, this volume reframes much conventional thinking about the North African environment. Davis’s book is essential reading for those interested in global environmental history.