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Symbols, not data: rare trees and vegetation history in Mali

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Historical analysis of botanical literature concerning the trees Gilletiodendron glandulosum and Guibourtia copallifera in Mali's Manding Plateau reveals that the dominant representation of these plants has helped to perpetuate colonial-era theories of vegetation history, African land management, and natural resource politics in West Africa. The French botanist Aubréville described these plants as proof of the theory of vegetation history that blamed poor land management by rural Africans for a steady and continuing destruction of vegetation from its presumed original forest climax. Although Aubréville's representation of these trees was justified within the 1930s scientific context he worked, subsequent researchers uncritically maintained his conclusions even though the changed scientific context in which they worked did not justify such representation. Subsequent ecological research also failed to substantiate Aubréville's representation of these trees, yet several influential modern botanical works have uncritically accepted colonial-era botanical literature founded on his ideas. Thus, modern botanical works have perpetuated a simplistic and inaccurate narrative of resource use under an appearance of objectivity. As a result, policy recommendations based on the modern botanical sources remain almost identical to colonial-era policies. Based on the similarity of colonial-era and modern portrayals of these trees, this paper argues that a regional discursive formation recently described by other authors may be expanded to include southern Mali, which carries negative implications for decentralization reform in Mali.

Keywords: Gilletiodendron glandulosum; Guibourtia copallifera; Mali; biogeography; botany; conservation; desertification

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin, 550 North Park Street, Madison, WI 53706, USA, Email:

Publication date: December 1, 2003


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