Program for the Study of the African Environment (PSAE)

MODIS 500m composite image GLCF. 2005225. Source: University of Maryland, Dept. of Geography

PSAE is a unit of Boston University’s African Studies Center that promotes interdisciplinary research in the environmental history and human ecology of Africa. Our goal is to develop a better understanding of the complexities of human interactions with the environment through the integration of research perspectives from the humanities, the social sciences, and the biological and earth sciences. The PSAE seeks to integrate the study of the African environment into research and training programs, and to develop cooperative programs with colleagues and students in Africa and at Boston University. This includes exploring environmental dynamics and human-environment interactions that illuminate issues of health, economic development, conservation and management of resources, cultural ecology, historical change, and aesthetic expression.

The PSAE draws on particular strengths in research and training in environmental studies at Boston University and among our international partners. These include, at Boston University, the Department of Geography & Environment, the Center for Remote Sensing (CRS), the Center for Ecology & Conservation Biology (CECB), the Boston University Marine Program (BUMP), and the School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health. International partners include Addis Ababa University, the International Centre for the Improvement of Wheat and Maize (Mexico City), the International Livestock Research Institute (Addis Ababa), and the International Water Management Institute.

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Related Courses and Programs

Graduate students may pursue disciplinary training via established degree programs and joint degree programs in the departments of anthropology, archaeology, biology, geography, earth sciences, and history as well as at the School of Public Health. Courses appear under the listings of those departments.

Publications: PSAE Research Series

Current and Planned Projects

Anopheles mosquito

(James McCann, PI; Asnakew Keloede, Alfredo Burlando, Michael DiBlasi)

This is a Rockefeller Foundation-funded research project to assess the role of maize cultivation in epidemic and endemic malaria in Ethiopia. Partners on this research project include the Harvard School of Public Health, Addis Ababa University, the International Centre for the Improvement of Wheat and Maize (Mexico City), the International Livestock Research Institute (Addis Ababa), and the International Water Management Institute.

(James McCann)

This is a book project that will distill evidence from agronomy, archaeology, anthropology, ethnobotany, linguistics, and cultural history into a narrative account of the history, geography, and consumption of food in Africa. While the book will acknowledge pre-modern African innovations in the production, processing, and presentation of food, it will emphasize the centrality of global contacts in framing Africa’s foodways in the last half millennium, from the influence of the Mediterranean basin, to importation of starches and flavors from the Indian Ocean, to the adoption of foods from the New World. Major sub-themes will include the seasonal nature of food and cooking; the historical geography of staples, oils, and spices; and the comparative ecology of food crops.

3-D model of Aksum region based on IKONOS image (M.Koch). Source: Boston University, Center for Remote Sensing

(Magaly Koch, PI; Michael DiBlasi, Co-PI; Sucharita Gopal, Co-PI).

This interdisciplinary project examines the evolution of Late Holocene landscapes and cultural ecology in the Aksum region of northern Ethiopia—the core area of the Aksumite state (ca. 150 BC–AD 850).

Using data derived from remote sensing techniques, geomorphological investigations, and archaeological fieldwork, the project will reconstruct the history of human-environment relationships and culture change for the period ca. 2000 BC to AD 1000. Current partners in the project include Naples Eastern University (Italy), Addis Ababa University and Mekelle University (Ethiopia), and the Geological Survey of Ethiopia. The project has been funded by the National Science Foundation (Grant #0554693), the National Geographic Society, and contributions from private donors. Project results.

(Leslie Kaufman, PI).

This cluster of projects investigates topics in ecology and sustainable development in East Africa’s Great Lakes region. Current work is focused on the food webs, fisheries, and conservation of endangered fishes of Lake Victoria, and on brain and behavior in the fishes of Lake Tanganyika. Our partners include the fisheries research institutes of Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania; the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology; and the New England Aquarium.


Superimposed Landsat and radar imagery revealing paleochannels below the surface, Western Desert, Egypt. Source: Boston University, Center for Remote Sensing

(Farouk El-Baz, PI)

This ongoing research program has focused on the location of potential sites of groundwater concentration in this hyper-arid region of North Africa. The eastern Sahara has experienced many humid phases throughout the past 300,000 years. Surface water was channeled by drainage patterns, some of which are now exposed, and others are covered by eolian sand. The mapping of these drainage patterns is essential to the evaluation of the groundwater potential of these regions. The research has been supported by grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the International Geological Correlations Program (IGCP) of UNESCO, and the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF).

3-D ASTER false color composite image, Red Sea Coast, Egypt (M. Koch). Source: Boston University, Center for Remote Sensing

(Magaly Koch, PI. Co-investigators Eman Ghoneim, BU-CRS; and Mohamed Gadel-Hak, Desert Research Institute, Cairo).

In this pilot study, satellite images (ASTER data) are used for natural-hazard assessment studies at selected wadis (dry river beds) in Egypt’s Red Sea coastal region. Urban development along the coast as well as periodical flash floods may cause severe damage to coastal ecosystems, as well as infrastructure and archaeological sites, if no protective measures are taken.

Therefore, ASTER satellite image data, including an ASTER DEM (digital elevation model), are being used to study the flash-flood generation potential of selected wadi systems along the Red Sea coast. Runoff generation and groundwater recharge rates will be predicted in order to assess the environmental hazard of these wadis and to characterize the paleoenvironment in which ancient settlements may have existed.

(Caroly Shumway).

This program is a collaboration with Conservation International that focuses on the effectiveness of marine conservation zoning in the near-shore tropics. Our partner in East Africa and the Malagasy Republic is the private nonprofit organization CORDIO.

Contact information

Program for the Study of the African Environment (PSAE)
African Studies Center
Boston University
232 Bay State Road
Boston, MA 02215

Dr. James C. McCann, Director, PSAE;
Dr. Michael DiBlasi, Associate Director, PSAE;

Tel: 617-353-3673; Fax: 617-353-4975