Lunch & Learn: Beyond Words: Environmental History, Digitization, and GIS with Emmanuel Kreike

quickbird.jpgEmmanuel Kreike, Associate Professor of History at Princeton, combines models and methodologies from the humanities and social sciences with approaches from environmental science and forestry to analyze how ecological, political, social, cultural, and economic processes affect the use and management of natural resources in past and present southern Africa.
To study the past and the sweeps of environmental change, Africanists and indeed, many humanists and scientists have conventionally relied upon written archival records as well as oral histories, the individual perspectives of elders or oral traditions that have been handed down through the generations. The nature of the existing data made it difficult or impossible for researchers in any field to establish a link to the physical reality or even to draw meaningful conclusions about the complex processes of environmental change. Oral histories, for example, often tell us more about the present than the conditions in the past.

emmanuelkreike.jpgRecognizing that such written and spoken words are abstractions from the physical reality that frequently contain propaganda, exaggerations, and misstatements of fact, Kreike found a fascinating approach to complement and supplement traditional methods. He located boxfuls of aerial photographs from the 1943 and 1970 that cover broad landscapes. With encouragement and assistance from University faculty and staff, notably Professor Mike Mahoney, Bill Guthe, Wangyal Shawa, Ben Johnston, Kirk Alexander, Raf Alvarado, and Carla Zimowsk, Kreike found that he could place these images, as well as well as comparable satellite imagery from the modern era, within a Geographical Information System [GIS] framework. With its map-based focus, Kreike also uses GIS and digitization to tie together qualitative and quantitative information, notably individual old photographs, archival documents, household survey data, and even oral interviews to their geographic origin. In some instances, the finely detailed GIS images permitted Kreike to identify the exact location of old photographs. Far more than simply a geographic filing system, the result is an exciting new methodology that permits vivid and finely detailed comparisons through time for the whole Namibia-Angola border region.

With no rivers or mountains as a guide, the relatively flat terrain complicated the matching of the aerial photographs to the satellite data. Even modern roads did not exist in 1943. At the March 26 Lunch ‘n Learn seminar, Kreike demonstrated that many local patterns and features, notably seasonal water courses and large fruit-bearing trees survived the intervening years, provided useful geographical markers to align the maps. By comparing the 1943 and 1970 photographic data with 2006 satellite imagery, it’s possible to determine over time changes in the types of vegetation, the crops that were grown, the number of people and livestock, as well as extent of the forest cover. One surprising conclusion is that the area today has more and bigger trees than existed in the 1940s.
Kreike concludes that the integration of digital tools and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) has the potential to add dramatically to the capacity of the humanities to understand and explain more fully the dynamics of environmental change. Digital and GIS datasets and modeling not only add powerful new sources and tools, but also provide the means to more effectively link time (the domain of history as a discipline) and space (the environments people use and move through), qualitative and quantitative sources, as well as word and image, greatly enhancing the understanding of the processes involved as well as offering new visual ways of presenting the results of the research.
Kreike is author of Recreating Eden: Land Use, Environment, and Society in Southern Angola and Northern Namibia, 2004. He is now working on Paradigms and Paradoxes of Environmental Change: Deforestation and Reforestation in Namibia.
A podcast and the presentation are available.