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Reimagining the Desert

Posted On January 22, 2021 | 09:33 am | by mayw | Permalink
Danika Cooper confronts the consequences of perceiving arid lands as barren

Danika Cooper, assistant professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning at the University of California, Berkeley, was a Mellon fellow in Urban Landscape Studies in fall 2020. Her research report, “Strategic Invisibility: The Exploitative Histories of Desert Landscapes,” discussed the current consequences and manifestations of colonial perceptions of deserts.


Q&A with Danika Cooper

Describe what you call the “Euro-Western desert imaginary” and its significance. 

The Euro-Western desert imaginary addresses both the conceptual foundation of how cultures perceive landscapes and how these attitudes are manifested physically through transformations of place. These two aspects are deeply related to one another, especially in the colonial mindset, with its ambition to accumulate wealth and territory. For colonizers, the environment became entangled with the goal of imposing a particular worldview on an unfamiliar or foreign place. In the modern Euro-Western perspective, the desert is often perceived as a useless ecology; it’s considered less valuable or empty, devoid of human and economic potential as compared to a temperate or wetter location. You can see this mindset in cartographic representations of the desert in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for example, where maps made for colonial ambition depicted the desert spaces as if nothing existed there. There were seemingly no people, ecological conditions, or dynamic systems, leaving those places open for material transformations.


What do projects like the Great Green Wall tell us about the consequences of the desert imaginary? 

The Great Green Wall of the Sahara and the Sahel, the current iteration of which started in 2007, aims to combat so-called desertification through afforestation, which is the process of establishing a forest on previously unforested land. It is a complicated project with numerous actors—22 African nation-states, UNESCO, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), and the World Bank, to name a few—and is seen as a way of addressing significant challenges in food scarcity and unpredictable rain patterns, for example. But if we step back and examine the foundational assumption of the project—replacing the desert with forest—it actually follows a colonial line of thinking. The assumed efficacy of projects like these are rooted in colonial thinking about environments that establishes a hierarchy that favors forest over desert. The forest is associated with a utopic, Edenic idea of the world, and the desert is seen as a space where some sort of devastation occurred to produce its perceived barrenness. If you imagine the desert as empty and barren, it follows that transforming the space by constructing a forest or introducing water, for example, improves the landscape and benefits its inhabitants. But this process overlooks and erases Indigenous knowledge and culture of the desert.


Why is it important to understand the culture and history of deserts? 

The desert is a complex ecology essential to larger global systems, but misreadings of the desert and its natural processes often guide how it is managed and lived in. There are many reasons to expose these misunderstandings, but perhaps the two most important to me are legitimizing Indigenous desert knowledge and culture and recognizing the ecological and biological importance of deserts.

Many sophisticated and complex societies have lived with desert dynamics and conditions for a long time, and the insidious myth of the desert as a place without value is almost a way of saying the people who live there don’t have value. This mindset is important to recognize in the context of climate change, where, by thinking of deserts and their populations as without value, we justify sacrificing these landscapes for more “productive” ones. But these places matter a great deal because of their cultural import and the people who live there. 

It is also essential for us to overturn our normalized understandings of deserts because we depend on the geochemical and ecological process of deserts for our global health. For example, seasonal dust storms called haboobs are a common desert occurrence, where dry winds from oceanic currents move loose, nutrient-rich particles from deserts to ecosystems around the globe, nourishing phytoplankton in the ocean and soil in the Amazon rainforest. Increases in agricultural production and mining in the Amazon have been really detrimental to the soil health, but we’ve actually not experienced the full devastation of these practices because dust storms have somewhat compensated for the phosphorus that has been depleted from the soil. If we don’t recognize the desert, especially the Sahara, as an intrinsically valuable place, it will be much easier to undermine natural processes like these and in turn undermine our own cultural and global health. 

In giving my research report, I experienced the incredible resource of the fellows at Dumbarton Oaks. Stefanos Alexopoulos, for example, asked a question about how the Eastern Christian perspective of the desert relates to the Euro-Western desert imaginary, which will add nuance to my cultural reading of the desert. The Garden and Landscape Studies fellows cohort, along with Thaïsa Way and [Curator of Rare Books] Anatole Tchikine, have also been so valuable for having in-depth conversations.


May Wang is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Richard Tong, postgraduate digital media fellow.