Unit G2 - The Environment in the Past


Unit G2


The environment was not always the way it is now. It has a history. You can learn a lot about your local environment by studying what it was like in the past and what has happened to make it the way it is today.

Some changes in the environment have been caused by natural events; many more are the result of things that people have done. It is useful to know what the environment was like in its natural state before man made any changes. It may also be interesting to know how people used the land or other resources in the past.

Knowing what used to be there is one way of knowing what the potential of the resource really is. If the land used to be covered by forest, you know that it is capable of supporting forest, even if it looks barren today. If a reef area was once a major fishing ground, it should be possible with careful management to make it so again unless people have so totally changed the area that conditions are now very different. If on the other hand an area has never had much vegetation, it is probable that some factor (irregular rainfall, poor soil type, etc.) has prevented a forest from growing, and agriculture or forestry will probably fail unless the limiting factor can be overcome, such as by irrigation.

Sources of information

Information about the environment in the past can be obtained from many different sources.

Old people may remember changes that have taken place in their lifetime, or that their parents or grandparents talked about.

Legends may make reference to fishing areas, to forests that were crossed, or to other resources or features now gone or disturbed.

Old photographs, etchings or paintings may show what an area looked like long ago.

Old aerial photographs taken during the war or used for map-making 20 or 30 years ago can provide valuable information on land use changes and wartime damage to the environment.

Early missionary diaries or traveler's narratives often include descriptions of the areas visited.

The reports of early scientific expeditions are now important as historical documents on the environment as well as for their scientific information.

Archaeological studies can reveal former village sites and agricultural areas, and often what were the predominant foods in local diets. Accumulations of seashells and fish and animal bones may show what occurred commonly in the past.

The land itself may show traces of its history, such as old tree stumps or the occasional banyan that could not be cut down when the forest was cleared. There may be occasional remnants of the former vegetation cover, or dead coral still in place on the reef.

Deposits of rocks, gravel, silt or coral rubble may show areas affected by floods, landslides or hurricane damage. What has happened once can happen again.

The nature of the forest or vegetation itself may tell what has happened to the land. Certain trees only regenerate very slowly in a forest; their presence shows that the forest has not been seriously disturbed for a long time. Other trees or plants grow very quickly after a disturbance; if they predominate the vegetation has regrown relatively recently.

There may also be signs showing how the resources were used or misused.

Terraces or mounds may show former sites of agricultural development.

Traces of irrigation or flood control works may show the need for water management.

Black scars on tree trunks or layers of charcoal or ashes in the soil may show where fires have destroyed the vegetation.

Patches of dead and broken coral may suggest that explosives have often been used for fishing.

Signs of erosion on the land such as washouts and gullies are signs of unwise clearing or overuse of the land.

The age of trees growing on a site may show approximately when the land was cleared or exposed, or when a former village site was abandoned.

Interpreting information on the past

If you learn to observe all these signs carefully, and perhaps to add others from your own experience, you will then be able to "read" the land and to understand something of its history. It may then be easier to decide how it can be used or developed, or what perhaps should be avoided because of the risks involved.

If the land shows signs of previous burning, then replanting trees may be unwise without firebreaks to prevent the spread of fires. If there is a ridge of storm-tossed rubble along the coast, then it would be better to build your house inland away from the reach of storm waves. Land that was cultivated traditionally may still have good agricultural potential.

Knowing the origin of certain present problems may also help in deciding how to correct them. If the water supply now runs short in dry periods, but the streams used to flow all year round when the hills were forested, then controlling land clearing and fires, and replanting the hillsides with trees may help to solve the water problem in the longer term. If abandoned terraces show that irrigation was necessary for successful traditional agriculture, then irrigation may also be needed for some modern crops to be successfully grown every year if the rainfall is variable.


Why is it useful to know the past history of the environment?

What can the past tell about the potential of environmental resources?

Have you heard old people talk about the environment in the past?

Do you know of old descriptions or pictures of your area?

Are there traces on the land that tell something about its past?

Does the land in your area show signs of damage?

Can you think of ways that former conditions can be restored to improve the environment where you live?

Instructions for trainers in the use of this unit

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Last updated 21 June 2008