HEAD FOR THE HILLS
February 11, 2008
Good fences make good neighbors, but the best fences make predatory neighbors stay away. In the case of Africa, two economists argue in a recent paper, the fences are natural, and historically their presence may have done the continent more good than harm.
According to Nathan Nunn and Diego Puga:
- Rugged terrain -- cliffs, gullies, caves -- generally tends to hinder the development of trade and agriculture, and Africa's uneven geography has often been cited to explain the continent's economic struggles.
- But Africa's terrain limited the economic damage done by five centuries of slave-trading, because the landscape made many areas relatively easy to defend against European and Arab slave-traders who prowled the west coast.
- In less defensible regions, the economic impact of the slave trade's relentless raids remains measurable even today.
- The defensive advantage of hills and crags appears to have been great enough to offset the economic disadvantages of living on uneven land.
But though retreating to higher, rougher ground probably improved African fortunes in the past, it may be creating a less prosperous present -- because Africans tend to be concentrated in rugged areas even now, Nunn and Puga note, rather than in economically more-promising territory.
Source: "Head for the Hills," The Atlantic, March 2008; based upon: Nathan Nunn and Diego Puga, "Ruggedness: The Blessing of Bad Geography in Africa," University of British Columbia/Universitat Pompeu Fabra, March 2007.
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