Mourning The Trees

Johann Hari reviews V. S. Naipaul's new book on Africa:

Almost all homegrown African belief systems are, or were, based on a reverence for local ecosystemsa belief that the forests and rivers are sacredand this helped persuade people to preserve them, alive and intact. But when the colonialists arrived, they dismissed such notions as mumbo-jumbo and forcibly imposed religions that originated in the desert and had nothing to say about the African environment. The old taboos were stamped out, and before long the forests began to be systematically destroyed.

It's an eco-catastrophe from which Africa has never recovered, and which many Africans have picked up and are continuing to perpetrate today. Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, offered a personal example when I interviewed her, speaking about one particular tree near her village that she loved: "That tree inspired awe," she told me. "It was protected. It was the place of God. But in the '60s, after I had gone far away, I went back to where I grew up, and I found God had been relocated to a little stone building called a church. The tree was no longer sacred. It had been cut down. I mourned for that tree."

Graeme Wood ponders the same title.