A brief overview of this blog from 2016

It has been a very productive year for me, not only on the front that is this blog but on many other fronts, too. The summer hiatus gave me time to prepare some of the blog posts you’re now seeing, and also gave me the opportunity to relax and get out and look for fungi, which is my main hobby outside of work. 2017 will therefore see plenty of fungi-related posts (as well as a continuation of tree-related ones, of course!), and as I move into starting a two-year course in October of 2017 there will be a new influx of posts that students might find very useful for their learning – be it at the time, or as future reading material. My core aim with this blog is – after all – to share information and experiences that I think are really quite awesome, and whilst one can recognise that ‘awesome’ is based in subjectivity, compiling information on rather niche areas and sharing it with you all is something I greatly enjoy and think is a morally good thing to do. So much information is behind a paywall that providing individuals with free-to-access information (that is referenced) could not be more important – we aren’t all made of money, and as of yet it doesn’t grow on trees!

Anyway, what I wanted to do here was briefly run down the specs of this blog for this year – in case any of you were interested. If not, stop reading now. If interested, below are a few stats over the year of 2016.

Total blog views and visitors for 2016, as well as total likes and comments left by people.
Hits per month. Notice that the inactivity led to decreased traffic, which is to be expected!
The pages on this blog with the most hits during 2017. Hopefully you have read some of these!
Here is where traffic was directed from. As you can see, search engine results are by far the highest means of people finding this blog, though social media does rather well, too. Nice to see Moodle links getting a look-in, too!
This is where you are all going after reading some of my blog posts. Most clicks are to take readers to research articles or books. I am glad that people click these links where I provide them, and hopefully Summerfield Books and other sellers have had a little custom from this, too. Always support book sellers!
Finally, here are where IP addresses are registered to (in terms of countries). Hits have come from countries not on this list (as there are too many to show here!), though we can see the bulk come from the UK and USA. Hello to the Aussie arbs, by the way!

And I leave you with this, as the UK is shrouded in mist and we all lust for the warmth and sun once again. I wish you all a very fruitful 2017.


A brief overview of this blog from 2016

A history of state forestry in Zimbabwe

See part I of this series on state forestry in Burma here.

Focussing predominantly on the western region of Zimbabwe that is known as Matabeleland, where teak forests (otherwise known as gusu) – that were comprised of species such as African teak (Baikiaea plurijuga), African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon), African mahogany (Guibourtia coleosperma), wild teak (Pterocarpus angolensis), and mongongo (Schinziophyton rautanenii) – covered approximately 2,000,000 acres of land and were the home of 65,000 Africans before 1890, one can observe how the advent of colonial rule markedly altered the indigenous African’s relationship with the forest.

A map of Zimbabwe. Source: Off-2-Explore.

Prior to the era of British colonialism that began during the late 1880s to early 1890s (cemented by the coming-to-power of the British South Africa Company in 1890), indigenous Africans (including the Ndebele, Nyai, Shangwe, and Shora) had markedly close associations with their forests – notably the poor. Varying across different peoples, gusu was used for a variety of reasons, including for food (fruits and nuts, though also for sheltering game, grazing cattle, and enhancing soil fertility where shifting cultivation was routinely practiced), water, construction timber, firewood, medicine, and worship (through sacred groves, sanctuaries, and any shrines contained within). Such reliance upon the forest – which was communally-owned or privately-owned as a homestead, with vested interest from a king or chieftain – was not limited in any discernible manner, and communities were thus able to rely upon the forest to any potential degree.

With specific regards to shifting cultivation, this practice was a staple activity in many communities. Shifting cultivation would involve areas of gusu being cleared for agricultural purposes, for a period of only a few years, before the nutrient profile of the soil would deplete enough to demand land abandonment (alongside subsequent secondary woodland regeneration) and clearance elsewhere for the same reason. Oftentimes, forest areas adjacent to rivers were cleared on sporadic rotations, for such areas harboured enough soil nutrients to make such shifting cultivation feasible. In this sense, areas of gusu that were fertile supported indigenous Africans to a far greater extent that infertile areas of woodland away from sources of water.

Undoubtedly, this use – particularly as populations grew – though also the other demands upon the forest, led to some ‘core’ areas of fertile forest land becoming degraded, and thereby deforested. However, it must be noted that, on the whole, forest conservation was a mainstay of pre-colonial life for indigenous Africans. Ultimately, because they relied upon the forest – either partially or wholly – for their means of existence to be sustained, it was not in their interests to see the forest decline to a condition that would render its longevity infeasible. More broadly, a myriad of economic, ideological, and religious needs and views, dictated sustainable forest practices, and a pursuit of essential ‘harmony’ with nature was evident between man and the forest. Crucially, this highlighted that indigenous Africans had the ability to responsibly manage their forests, and with a logical rationale – a rationale that the colonial government would certainly come to completely ignore.

However, the rise of the BSAC in 1890, particularly after the victory of the British over the Ndebele in 1894 and then again in 1897, saw forest management practices change. Principally, the BSAC, who became the governing body of Zimbabwe, actively sought to segregate fertile land from indigenous Africans, for the economic benefit of white settlers who could then manage such fertile lands. In this sense, areas of gusu and fertile land were cut-off from the native communities, who were pushed into Reserves (including the Gwai Native Reserve and Shangani Native Reserve) of largely infertile land set-up by the BSAC to specifically house such communities. The state (or private organisation, including the BSAC, Rhodesia Railways, and Goldfields Company) would then assume ownership of forest land outside of such Reserves, as supported by the Private Land Ordinance of 1898. Such segregation also stood on the premise that the forests of Matabeleland were void of human activity prior to 1890, and that the native’s association with the forest was akin to Paganism – a religion much maligned by Christianity, which was the religion of Europe at the time. Unsurprisingly, some natives refused to leave their historical homes within the gusu, thereby rejecting the new imposition of Western state ideology on their manner ofexistence.

A photo of the British South Africa Company Police, who would have frequented the Matabeleland region following the emergence of the BSAC as state power. Source: Grunts & Co.

As natives were being excluded from their forests, the BSAC hurriedly began to assess the forests of Matabeleland for their commercial value. With the help of foresters from British-ruled South Africa, the BSAC initially identified four tree species that had the potential to be commercially profitable. However, the imperial wars of 1894 and 1897 hampered the ability of the foresters to determine the value of gusu, and therefore their reports fell foul to short-sightedness. However, from 1898, felling within these forests began, and up until 1908 the sole contractor responsible for legal felling operations was the Matabele Timber Trust. However, illegal felling was rife, and therefore, whilst legal felling was rather limited, when illegal felling was added into the equation the extent of deforestation became far more significant. During this period, much timber was used by the mining organisations within Matabeleland, who consumed timber at quite alarming rates to fuel their operations; much forest clearance was also undertaken for the purposes of agricultural expansion. At the beginning of 1909, the BSAC commissioned further reports into the economic state of the gusu. This time, reports came from the regional level, and were supplemented by a national report (The Sim Report) undertaken by Sim, a South African forester. This time, 24 species were recognised as possessing retail value, and this assessment subsequently became the crux of all future forestry developments in Matabeleland. The 1909 Private Location Ordinance also assisted with pushing natives into Reserves, such as the GNR, so that the state could harness the value of the gusu for its own ends.

This new perception of the gusu as being far more economically fruitful quickly led to the BSAC prohibiting shifting cultivation altogether, because of its observed destructive consequences with regards to forestry. Unfortunately, the state did not recognise the variety of ecological and cultural benefits of the practice, in making this decision, and it therefore was not surprising that the state also entertained prohibiting forest use by natives altogether. It was perhaps only a result of the protest, from the indigenous Africans and also some white settlers and state commissioners, that didn’t see such an extensive ban being enforced. Certain state commissioners and settlers even disagreed that shifting cultivation was a serious concern, remarking that mining operations were far more destructive, and some also attributed its prohibition to inciting unwanted unrest amongst the native communities. Additionally, this more preferable economic understanding of the gusu even led to native communities being driven out of areas of the Reserves they were pushed towards, which caused further tension between the state and indigenous Africans. In essence, natives were aghast at the glaring double-standards exercised by the state: the state had concerns over deforestation caused by shifting cultivation, to only then permit even greater deforestation for economic gain.

A logging train stocked with fresh timber in what was previously (and at the time of this photo being taken) known as Rhodesia. Source: Future WGworker.

The year after, in 1910, when state-permitted forestry operations began to gain serious momentum (of which much still went to the mining organisations), the Forest Branch was created within the Ministry of Agriculture. This new Forest Branch was tasked with the responsibility of dealing with forestry-related issues, and ensuring the gusu was managed with conservation in mind. Unfortunately, because the Forest Branch lacked any forest officer or other dedicated member of staff prior to 1920, and the fact that the state was eagerly pursuing short-term and quick-win strategies to forest management that involved massive amounts of felling, forest conservation was barely even practiced – if at all. During this ten year period, in 1917, the BSAC government also signed a deal with the Hepker brothers (Rhodesia Native Timber Concessionaires) that essentially monopolised the gusu. Initially an eight year agreement that would end in 1925, it was extended to 1935 two years into the contract, albeit with two other companies also gaining access to state forests. These organisations, particularly the RNTC, swiftly began recklessly felling high quality trees en masse. For example, stumps were left at 3-4ft in height, and as much as 50% of felled timber was left where it was cut.

Subsequently, when Henkel became the first part-time forest officer of the Forest Branch in 1920, he likened the situation to that of mining, and was quoted as exclaiming that the “forests [were] simply being mined”. Notably, Baikiaea plurijuga and Guibourtia coleosperma were “doomed to extinction”. However, with the Forest Branch only possessing Henkel and five other members of part-time staff, it was still unable to fulfil what it was tasked with fulfilling, and thus it was perhaps not unexpected that the BSAC government declined to increase its staffing levels after appeals in 1921 – it simply was not ‘in favour’. However, it did start to mark up protected forest areas, and by 1923 some 774,422 acres of forest in Matabeleland were classed as forest reserve. Many species of tree also became scheduled, and thereby were protected wherever they stood. These areas did not permit native access or utilisation whatsoever, thereby prohibiting any and all acts that were once seen as entirely acceptable. Ironically, such areas could still be felled for mining organisations, where there was a pressing need for accessible timber.

When the BSAC government ceased to hold power following national elections during 1923, and the Responsible Government took over rule of Zimbabwe, it assumed control of the state’s forests. In 1925, the Lands Commission advised the government on forest matters, and 90% of all gusu was marked as a forest reserve by 1930. Even the Reserves set up for the indigenous Africans suffered further erosion by the state, with up to 70% of their total extent being lost during this period. A tax of 10 shillings on all natives within the Reserves was also established in 1931, and all adult males also had to pay a 50 shilling tax, per month. As a consequence, natives were further excluded from their surrounding and already limited forests, and this led to many communities suffering from outward migration, as the quality of life dropped for many. Some forest tenants, as they were now known, were also evicted from the shrinking Reserves, for not paying their tax – some refused to leave, in protest. These migrants and evicted tenants would then pursue work elsewhere, even if it was for the RNTC or other forestry-associated organisation. However, such organisations favoured workers from other areas of Africa, as they were less prone to leaving to see family either temporarily or permanently. Therefore, only 20% of the total workforce was native to Matabeleland. Also in 1925, the RNTC signed a revised agreement to harvest the gusu with a near monopoly once again, which was granted. Protest by indigenous Africans meant that, in 1926, the RNTC was mandated by the state to gain permission from the native communities within the Reserves if they were to log within gusu found within those areas. Soon after, in 1927, after the RNTC ignored this rule, and through lobbying pressure, the state overturned such a requirement.; even in spite of protest internally, by the Forest Branch. Throughout, natives also ignored the state’s laws, and continued to use the forest as they historically had done, though for entirely different reasons to the RNTC.

It was only in 1934 when the Forest Branch was granted its first full-time officer, in John Wilkins. Subsequent to this, it was far more able to effectively promote forest conservation, thereby challenging the RNTC’s monopoly over the gusu, as well as helping restrict African access to the gusu. Such an appointment could not have come any later, in fact, for much of the gusu was so damaged by unrestrained logging that the volume of timber had fallen by as much as 80% within stands, and mature Baikiaea plurijuga had nigh disappeared altogether – even within the Reserves created for the indigenous Africans. Therefore, after Wilkins submitted his report to the government, the RNTC’s push to gain even more control over the gusu was rejected, and more strict measures on the felling of trees were enforced, with no trees below 12in in DBH being allowed to be felled legally, in addition to no felling of trees above this size leaving stumps higher than 15in. Within the Reserves, any trees felled were also to be taxed as they stood prior to felling, and any such proceeds would go towards improving the quality of life for natives living within the Reserves (notably the GNR and SNR), under the scheme known as the Native Reserve Trust.

Around this time, the Forest Branch also relied upon the help of indigenous Africans to help police the forests as forest rangers (otherwise dubbed Special Native Constables), though as the staff of the Forest Branch were seen as the flagbearers of state control against traditional relations with the gusu, natives were wary of assisting at all, and at times even committed acts of arson on state forest land in protest against such intervention measures. The poor wages, if the natives were even paid, probably contributed to this stance, also. Despite this, natives were also on hand to fight these fires, and protect forest from harm more generally – when they were willing to do so, of course. When such forest rangers did find individuals breaching forest regulations that included acts of arson, and who were usually natives (but not at all exclusively – white settlers also breached forest rules), then these natives would be prosecuted in response. However, a successful prosecution was not a given, and in one year alone 600 of the 804 natives pursued for forest offences were found innocent, in retrospect. Without doubt, this barrage of arrests and pursuits of prosecution led to a rather tumultuous relationship between the indigenous communities and the state.

A forest alight in Zimbabwe. Source: Rhodesian Heritage.

Inside the Reserves, the Forest Branch also began to create Native Forest Areas, during the 1930s and early 1940s. The GNR took centre stage in this regard, as the Forest Branch saw it as highly viable in the commercial sense, and its longevity to provide hardwood timber was critical for the state. Within the Reserves, land was segmented into fragments denoted as residential, farming, grazing, or forest land, and thus the use of the land within Reserves such as the GNR became markedly differentiated. However, as much of the forest land came at the expense of farming land, communities within the Reserves were left with progressively declining areas of land in which they could farm; all whilst supporting greater levels of population – which too was a problem, and this resulted in the Forest Branch evicting some people from the Reserves, in an attempt to keep population levels down.

Individuals were also barred from cutting native trees without a license granted by the Forest Branch, as were they mandated to aid in reforestation efforts of both native tree species and exotic ones. A quota system was also introduced, thereby limiting the amount of timber that could legally be extracted during a given period of time, and this affected natives, logging and milling companies, and any private land owner who wished to fell his or her trees. In many instances, native individuals thus resorted to illegally obtaining timber, at the risk of being imprisoned. For the large companies undertaking forestry operations, the Forest Branch also began attempting to rigorously monitor all operations, in addition to limiting the extent of forestry operations; as did the Forest Branch seek to limit cattle grazing by natives in Reserves, as such grazing endangered regeneration. In response to this measure, some natives chose not to comply, though in fact many were responsive to the demands, in spite of their increased precarious situation having lost potentially many heads of cattle.

Despite such progress towards the forest conservation ideal, on behalf of the Forest Branch, the Second World War acted as a significant dampener to these goals, and in many an aspect reversed all advancement towards this end. Simply put, output from forestry returned to the wildly unsustainable and un-regulatable levels that existed before the mid 1920s, in order to fund the war machine. The RNTC was a major player in this scenario – of course, there were many other organisations that also helped to create the revival of intense forestry (legally or illegally); as did indigenous Africans grasp at the opportunity, and partake in illegal felling. However, as the Second World War came to a close and logging levels remained high, the indigenous (and settler) outlook towards the forest changed somewhat. Instead of being averse to forest conservation, there was an increasing demand for its conservation – perhaps, because of the sobering situation the forests of Matabeleland were in, during this period. This led, therefore, to the first piece of governmental legislation relating exclusively to holistic forest management, and was entitled the Forest Act (1949). Within the Act, sections included forest demarcation, controls to timber rights, the practice of forest conservation, protection of forests from fires, and penalties for committing forestry offences. Evidently, the forests of Matabeleland, and those who used the forests, were now subject to a much more formalised level of scrutiny, and potentially subject to the greater wrath of the state.

Consequently, during the last few years of the 1940s and into the 1950s, the Forest Branch became more militant in its pursuance of protecting the gusu from fires by making them void of forest dwellers, who were considered a major risk against forest conservation. Even those who lived in the forests legally were becoming marginalised by the state, as the Forest Branch proceeded with its end game of total fire protection – much to the distaste of those living within the forest, who saw their value as being lesser than that of a tree. The situation was compounded by the strong lack of desire, on behalf of the Forest Branch, to allow for schools, trading stores, and other buildings to be built within the forests, because such community hubs might increase the risk of fire – even though there was a very evident native demand for such services, and notably schools. Similarly, road networks were few and far between, and the use of such roads was limited to those that were given permission to use them, by the Forest Branch; where buses could transport natives through the forest, rarely were bus stops found within the forest itself, for similar safeguarding reasons. However, because such residents of the forests of Matabeleland were generally the source of cheap forest labour, their presence was considered both positive and negative for the longevity of the gusu. This was a particularly pertinent point of consideration, given foreign labourers were distinctly lacking after the war, for reasons including that their native countries were retaining them for their own purposes.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Forest Branch, which became the Forestry Commission in 1954, after the Forest Amendment Act of 1953 came into force, further continued in its quest for absolute forest conservation and protection. Not only did the RNTC lose its essentially absolute control over the gusu of Matabeleland, with a further six logging contractors being introduced in a bid to help conserve forests and promote more responsible logging complete with reduced wastage, but it continued to evict native Africans from the gusu. The reason behind such eviction was, in part, due to growing population levels placing strain upon the gusu, as natives frequently obtained timber and other forest products illegally, though also to protect the forests from fire. Consequently, illegal settlements continued to remain rife, and ‘freedom farming’ (known locally as ‘madiro’), which involved clearing gusu along fertile river banks for cultivation, was practiced as an act of defiance against the state.

Other forest crimes that occurred during the 1950s were the ever-population acts of arson, trespass, illegal felling, the construction of trading stores, and the over-grazing of land with cattle. Such defiant acts were perhaps more abundant and – in the eyes of the state – ideologically venomous, due to the rising nationalistic outlook of Africans in Matabeleland. The Forestry Commission’s iron rule over the gusu, to the detriment of the natives, was a perfect embodiment of the natives’ struggle against colonial power, and therefore they ensured that they did their best to undermine its authority as an organisation.

Unsurprisingly, come 1960, the progressive alienation of natives from the gusu became a principal factor in why guerillas battled the state within the forests of Matabeleland. As political instability became ever more tumultuous, tensions further ignited and civil war broke out in 1966. The onset of the civil war meant that the Forestry Commission could not effectively enact its forest policy, which led to the gusu being utilised more liberally by natives. In essence, there was a temporary return to the times prior to forest regulations; albeit amongst a fiery climate where different organisations were wrestling for political power. However, after fourteen years, in 1980, when the British decided to grant Zimbabwe independence, the now native government did little to change forest policy. In fact, it very much continued in the footsteps of the British, and arguably even more eagerly pursued economic gain, in order to fund governmental projects. Therefore, in spite of achieving macrocosmic independence, at the more minute level indigenous Africans were still no more free than they were before independence – forests were still heavily regulated, and natives were excluded from the gusu.

Today, hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest across Zimbabwe are cleared for tobacco production. Source: Mail & Guardian.

Principal source

Kwashirai, V. (2009) Green Colonialism in Zimbabwe: 1890-1980. USA: Cambria Press.

Additional sources

Kwashirai, V. (2006) Dilemmas in Conservationism in Colonial Zimbabwe, 1890-1930. Conservation and Society. 4 (4). p541-561.

Kwashirai, V. (2008) Poverty in the Gwai Forest Reserve, Zimbabwe: 1880-1953. Global Environment. 1 (1). p146-175.

Musemwa, M. (2009) Contestation over Resources: the farmer-miner dispute in colonial Zimbabwe, 1903-1939. Environment and History. 15 (1). p79-107.

A history of state forestry in Zimbabwe

A history of state forestry in Burma

The politically-fuelled backlash against commercial forestry efforts by governments (often initiated in the past by Western colonial governments) is an interesting aspect of how trees can wander into the realm of politics. Traditionally, forests have been at the centre of many human civilisations over the millennia, enabling forward progression through the sustainable utilisation of forest resources (for construction, fire, husbandry, and so on) under the jurisdiction of the local community (or communities). In this sense, there is a marked link between traditional man and the forest. Subsequently, the intervention of governments in order to commercialise forest management practices so to increase state revenue – originating in Germany, when the University of Freiburg was the first university to offer a formalised education on forestry practice in 1787 – has routinely been met with backlash in many regions of the world, as this usurpatious shift in forest management directly challenges cultural identity. Over the next few blog posts, a few rather lengthy case studies (written over the past six months) will outline how state forestry has brilliantly collided with historic custom and agrarian lifestyles. I truly hope you enjoy them, and if you want a list of all state forestry books I know of (I have a good dozen, from memory) please just ask!

State forestry in Burma (Myanmar)

Prior to Burma becoming a British colony in 1824, the Burmese monarchy had – in spite of the portrayal by the British – a sound forest management regime in place. Principally, because of Burma’s desirable forests of teak (Tectona grandis), which is a timber that is well-suited for the construction of naval vessels, and also buildings, there had been both internal and external demand for such timber for centuries. As a consequence, there was much potential profit involved for the monarchy, and therefore the harvesting and transportation of felled teak was carefully regulated – particularly when such harvesting was for-profit purposes; for the rural forest peasant, regulations were not necessarily as applicable, because of the subsistence use of the timber and the isolation of rural settlements from the (literally) centralised governance of the monarchy. Additionally, in the uncommon instances where the monarchy did seek to enforce forest regulations upon the peasants, such enforcement was met with backlash. Therefore, before the entrance of the British, rural Burmese peasants suffered little intervention from any form of large governing body, and the teak forests were managed with – at least to a degree – their long-term conservation in mind.

Upon the arrival of British rule however, such state-peasant dynamics altered – albeit, not too drastically to begin with. When the British gained control of the region of Tenasserim in 1824, because of the large scale deforestation of Great Britain, the fact that teak was a better timber for naval uses than oak (Quercus robur), the waning importation of oak timber from the Balkans, and the concept of deforestation being synonymous with industrial progression, the British undertook – and also permitted – large-scale deforestation of Tenasserim’s teak forests. Dubbed laissez-faire forestry, felling operations were not at all rational and were in fact quite frenetic, and therefore by 1856 Tenasserim’s teak forests had been irreparably damaged; notably by private organisations who regularly escaped the ineffective enforcement of the basic forest regulations put in place by the British. Such a laissez-faire approach had little impact upon the native peasantry, as they were free to undertake their practices as they did under the rule of the monarchy. In fact, many peasants benefited from this approach economically, as locals were employed to harvest timber, transport it, and also enforce basic forest rules.

A British force arrives in Burma on 28th November 1885, following the third Anglo-Burmese War. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

However, in 1852, having learned from the grave mistake that now plagued the teak forests of Tenasserim, when the British secured the southern province of Pegu, they swiftly moved to enforce much stricter rules upon the management of forests. Spearheaded by Lord Dalhouise, in 1853 all teak forests were declared the property of the state, and extraction of teak was forbidden without explicit permission. Soon after, in 1855, Dalhouise wrote the document entitled Minute of Forest Policy of 1855, and appointed Dietrich Brandis as Forest Superintendent, who formed The Burma Forest Department one year later in 1856. At its core, this new organisation would oversee man’s interaction with Burma’s forests (a panoptic pursuit), and employ the more rational and scientific approach to forestry that had been developed in Germany and France some decades before, with the purpose of significant economic gain from harvesting teak and other tree species. Also at the core of this alteration in direction was the observed wastefulness of the peasantry, in the eyes of the British. Evidently, according to the British, Burmese peasants could not be responsible for managing their forests, as they openly used it inefficiently, or destroyed it unnecessarily.

Whilst the new Forest Department lacked much authority in the years immediately following its inception, by the mid 1860s it grew in potency and by 1885 had tripled in size from its size of 1861. During this development period, the department began to significantly erode the traditional rights of the Burmese peasantry, and from multiple angles. With regards to the practice of shifting cultivation, which saw a peasant farmer routinely clearing new patches of teak forest for cultivation and using the burned remains of the teak as fertiliser, because of its direct impact upon the efficacy of teak harvesting by the state, and its alleged antithetical positioning compared to scientific forestry, the practice was essentially outlawed from 1856 – it was seen as not being an intrinsic right, with only settled agricultural practices being a right as defined by the state.

Subsequently, peasants undertaking such a form of cultivation protested in two ways: through avoidance and resistance. For example, peasants would flee Pegu permanently, or only temporarily after clearing an area for cultivation and crossing the border to Siam when forest officials were in the area, as would they clear teak and entirely destroy evidence of teak ever being there. More boldly, they may simply plead ignorance to forest regulations, if questioned. Such a state of affairs led to, in 1869, the state adopting what was known as taungya forestry, which allowed peasants to clear land for cultivation and, upon such clearance, cultivate their crops within an area of teak that had been planted at the same time. Then, after a period of some years, as the teak regenerated, the cultivators would move on to another forest patch and undertake the same operations.

Modern-day shifting cultivation in Burma, showing how segments of forest have been cleared for agriculture. Source: Burmalink.

The peasants who did not practice shifting cultivation were also impacted by such state regulations in Pegu. Whilst such regulations did not initially impact the general populace, both because only teak extraction was regulated and the Forest Department lacked man power and expertise, by 1875 the state’s classification of other tree species (a total of 14 other species, including Dipterocarpus tuberculatus, Lagerstroemia speciosa, Pterocarpus macrocarpus, Senegalia catechu, and Xylia xylocarpa) as protected from unlicensed felling led to unrest amongst the peasantry.

In essence, not only did this now marked limitation on timber harvesting conflict with the traditional Buddhist way of life, which saw timber used for construction felled only under specific auspicious circumstances, but it also limited their ability to use the forest both as a source of income and for subsistence purposes. Granted, the state did permit peasants to use the forest for reasons to do with subsistence, but such an exclusion from the forests of Pegu at large resulted, unsurprisingly, in backlash. Forms of such backlash from the peasants included illicitly felling trees for their timber, harvesting trees and selling them on the black market to native timber traders, resorting to felling only those trees not protected by the state (which took place to quite significant levels, in some instances), and destroying the property of the Forest Department.

As the Forest Department grew, it also adopted an ever-increasing scientific approach to forestry; this translated over into those employed by the department. Originally, the aim had been for the department to employ local people, though the lack of expertise and associated shortcomings in forest enforcement led quickly to attention being diverted to Europe – notably Germany and France, where forestry was being taught quite rigorously. Therefore, as the department grew in size from 1861 to 1885, whilst local foresters were still locals employed by the state, the higher paid forest conservators and other officials were not native Burmese individuals, which led to unrest even within the Forest Department. In essence, the Burmese foresters were unhappy at the evident glass ceiling within the organisation, and this resulted in the foresters defrauding the Forest Department and falsifying reports.

Come 1881, the state had passed the Burma Forest Act. This new piece of legislation enabled the colonial government to more readily establish ownership of forest lands, and to denote forest reserves where it was deemed pertinent to do so – in essence, the Act allowed for a more extensive and effective state consolidation of Burma’s forests. In Pegu, this led to most of teak forest being classified as a reserve, by 1990. Further north in Upper Burma, which came under British rule following the 1884-86 Anglo-Burmese War, reserves were similarly established (in a bid to standardise forestry practice in Burma), and come 1900 a total of 51% of teak forest area was classed as reserve. Other species of tree, such as Senegalia catechu, which was harvested for its water exudes used for tanning and dyeing, were also protected through the designation of forest reserves.

Unquestionably, because these reserves prohibited traditional practice, such as grazing, shifting cultivation, burning, and the harvesting of timber and collection of firewood, this pursuit of forest brought with it civil unrest amongst the peasantry reliant upon the forest. By-and-large, both the intentional burning of reserves, and then subsequent refusal to co-operate with the extinguishing efforts, were the methods of protest adopted. Furthermore, because Upper Burma had already experienced forest management prior to British rule, the contractors and rulers undertaking forestry operations at the time of a change in the ruling elite – namely the powerful Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation Limited (BBTLC) – were uneasy at the desire for the British to remove their rights to harvest timber (notably teak), and therefore after much pressure it was decided that, at least for the BBTLC, private operations could continue under state supervision. Rulers, including the Sawbwas of the Shah region, were marginalised, and thus lost access to their extensive forests.

Cleared compartments like this would have become far less frequent across Burmese forests. Source: East by Southeast.

As the 19th century approached its close, the Forest Department had gained power over much of Burma’s forests – almost all forests had been inventoried. Therefore, when the Burma Forest Act of 1902 was passed, it came as little surprise that the state had begun to further pursue control over forests. Based heavily on the principles of scientific forestry being applied only in exiting forest reserves, allowing those non-reserved area to be maintain by the peasantry at their own discretion, the Forest Department opted to principally use five different European contractors – including BBTLC, though no longer with a monopoly – for forestry operations, on fifteen-year leases. In this sense, the Forest Department would oversee a return to privatisation of forestry, much how it had been prior to 1856.

Unfortunately, by 1909, native contractors accounted for only 23% of the total output from state forestry operations, because of the more favourable stance the European contractors were seen in when it came to issuing leases for forestry operations (mainly because they were larger companies, meaning the Forest Department didn’t need to oversee so many contractors), which led to much animosity between Burmese contractors and the state – this was further exacerbated by 1924, when native contractors were responsible for only 5% of output. Compiled with the almost entire outlawing on shifting cultivation by the 1920s, because of its perceived associations with soil erosion, flooding, and a poor teak crop, and the designation of lowland forests as reserves because of their declining extent within the plains of Burma (agricultural production had increased so markedly – from 800,000 acres in 1982 to 6,000,000 acres in 1906), the situation during the this period led to much protest – namely the illegal extraction of timber, and illegal grazing of cattle. In some cases, 90% of all recorded crime came from the lowlands, where the demands on what little forest remained conflicted with the state’s classification of these forests as protected reserves.

The plight of those in the plains was also picked up by nationalist political movement, such as the General Council of Sangha Sammeggi, who supported local nationalist organisations known as wunthanu athin. These local movements aired the grievances of the plains peasantry, with regards to their inaccessible forest reserves, and their affiliations with national movements gave local voices a national audience. In turn, by the 1920s, nationalist politicians and the middle class were in support of the peasantry in the plains.

In response to this demand for forests to provide the peasantry with what they require, the state came to recognise that commercial forestry operations in reserves could not constitute the exclusive use of the reserved forests of Burma – notably in the lowlands. Therefore, in 1923, after the British colonial government provided the Burmese with partial rule of their country during 1921 and the Whyte Committee subsequently assessed the situation with Burmese forests at length, the Forest Department was handed over to the Burmese, and by 1930 the post of Forest Secretary was filled by a native individual. Thus began the process of ‘Burmanisation’ within the Forestry Department.

However, the actual amount of influence the Burmese had on the Department was slim, at this time – decisions relating to leases to forestry contractors were made in London, and only British officials had the power of appointing new people to the Department. As a consequence, unrest persisted, and forest crimes peaked during the mid 1930s. Come 1937, at the enacting of the Government of Burma Act of 1935, the power of the Burmese to regulate the use of their own forests was accentuated however, though this did not curb protest completely and in 1940 the Forest Department even began a propaganda campaign detailing the benefits of forest conservation through reserves.

A few years later in 1942, such power granted in the 1935 Act was further augmented after the Japanese acquired Burma during World War II and aided with integrating Burmese individuals into the Forest Department under the absence of the British. Having granted them ‘independence’ soon after, upon the return of the British after the end of the war 1945, the state was unable to implement scientific forestry again because of the huge amount of ‘lawlessness’ (relating to what was deemed a forest crime under British rule) in the forests. Notably, many forest reserves in the planes were cleared to make way for agriculture, during this three year period, though more broadly enforcing forest law effectively was simply not feasible; in part, because the Japanese simply ‘looted’ the forests of their timber to fund the war effort – an act which the peasantry mirrored all too zealously, in some scenarios. Curiously, even the Burmese who worked in the Forest Department during this time tried to enforce forest laws, and even sought to ensure that forests were managed as they were prior to the war’s impact on Burma.

The Burmese forests being used as a battleground during World War II. Source: Ibiblio.

After 1948 independence, which marked the conclusion of the period of Burmanisation, forest protests continued; albeit under a different political catalyst. Initially, until 1953, because of significant civil unrest across Burma, the Forestry Department had no forests to maintain – all were in the hands of insurgent groups, and only under armed guard could forest officials practice even the most basic of forestry tasks. Therefore, during this period the Department sought to instead simply plan its approach of once again employing scientific forestry as the core means of forest management following the calming of unrest, after the now entirely Burmese Forestry Department determined the scientific approach introduced by the British was in fact highly beneficial for the state. Soon after in 1954, having witnessed the persistent deforestation of Burma’s forests during this period of unrest (and before), the government sought to – with help from the Forestry Department – reforest 200,000 acres of forest in the more politically stable plains of Pegu.

During the following years, plantations were therefore created with help from willing locals; of which 4,000 were full-time employees and 20,000 part-time employees. In this sense, state forestry provided many local peasants with employment, during a time of political tumult, though such employment was often both mandatory and unpaid. Furthermore, shifting cultivation was once again outlawed in Pegu, with fixed agricultural practices being promoted in its place. In remote hilly areas this enforcement was not successful however, as insurgents resisted the will of the Forestry Department. It wasn’t until 1975, when the Burmese army cleared these hills of insurgents, that the hill forests were regained by the Forest Department, and scientific forestry could once again be practiced and shifting cultivation more effectively prohibited.

Evidently, the hills of Burma were of a different political climate entirely. Owned by insurgent groups, these areas were largely off-limits to the Forest Department, and only at the hands of the army cold they be regained. Because forests were highly valuable assets, notably in terms of their consistent provision of revenue, they were fiercely protected by insurgent groups, and in some respects these groups acted akin to the Forest Department – peasants were taxed for using the forest, and timber was sold to sustain the existence of these groups. For instance, the Karen National Union of Kawthoolei used the forests within the region as their main source of income from the 1960s, and the Kawthoolei Forestry Department created by the Union rivalled the state’s Forest Department, who themselves expanded within the region from a mere handful of staff in the 1950s to 463 during the early 1990s. The battle in this case was for territory, and the territory was the forest.

Following the violent military coup of 1988, spearheaded by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), which overthrew the socialist government of the time, the forestry agenda again altered. The desire for short-term profit, because of Burma’s dire financial situation (which had largely persisted from 1948), meant that large-scale forestry operations were politically necessary for SLORC, who swiftly agreed a deal with neighbouring Thailand to log the Thai-Burmese border forests. For Thailand, this deal was also of marked benefit, because in 1988 the state banned all logging within the country after its forests had suffered massive losses at the hands of loggers over the preceding decades. The contractors for such logging activities were all Thai in origin, and therefore Burmese contractors lost out on any potential income from this venture. However, come the close of 1993, because of the sheer extent of illegal activities committed by the Thai loggers, the agreement was suspended and logging halted. Curiously, where Burmese loggers had been given contracts by SLORC and the Forest Department elsewhere in Burma around the same time, illegal logging was also an issue and this led to such agreements also being terminated by 1994. Compiled with the continued encroachment upon Burma’s forests by the peasantry who still sought to ignore forest law, Burma’s forests were still under threat.

At this time, the SLORC government also passed the Forest Law of 1992, which supported the incorporation of social issues into forest management, in addition to broader conversation aims – this new Law was supplemented with the National Forest Policy written by the Forest Department in 1994, which echoed the sentiments of the 1992 Law. However, forest conservation was still the prevailing issue, as was the need for the forest to provide revenue for the state, the Law thus allowed the state to begin doubling the number of forest reserves in the more remote regions of Burma, which had recently been relinquished of insurgent groups and their rule. This aim was supported through the state at the time signing Burma up to various organisations promoting forest conservation, including the International Tropical Timber Organisation. Subsequently, taungya forestry, and shifting cultivation in general, was once again to be outlawed, because it directly conflicted with the aims of rational and scientific forestry, thereby igniting peasant-state tensions for another time. Similarly, the use of forests beyond cultivation was to also be controlled, signalling to any outsider that state forestry and peasant use of the forest are at two ends of a political spectrum associated with resource access and control.

More recent years have in fact seen further bans of forestry within Burma, and to this date the state has banned logging in some areas for the benefit of the forests. In addition, the Burmese Army has set fire to plantations owned by small communities after the communities failed to provide forced labour. This details how the forest is still critical, to this day, and that an attack on the forest is an attack on the community.

This scene might not be so common in some areas of Burma, in 2016/17! Source: Environmental Investigation Agency.

Source: Bryant, R. (1997) The Political Ecology of Forestry in Burma. UK: Hurst & Company.

A history of state forestry in Burma

Cool fungal finds in the urban streets

Winter is getting on but fungi are still doing their thing, and below are two of the better ones I found this last week. The chances are that those of you reading this have seen these two fungi before, though what is curious about the below tree-fungi relationships is either the spectacular arrangement of the fungi on the host or the unusual host species.

Abortiporus biennis (blushing rosette) on Sorbus intermedia (Swedish whitebeam)

This association is posted as it’s just a really great example of what this fungus can achieve – with regards to sporophore (notably as a teleomorph, where a hymenium is present and there is sexual reproduction) production – with the right conditions. The poor Swedish whitebeam certainly has seen better days, and has evidently died either nearly or entirely. Thus, the mycelium of the blushing rosette is having a field day, and is devouring the principal roots, as we can clearly see from the below images.

Many sporophores of Abortiporus biennis encircle the stem, sitting at around 20-60cm out from the fulcrum.
And now we begin to circle the stem…
This one is certainly mature!
And this one is an anamorphic mess!
These are some of the teleomorphic sporophores, and thus produce spore via basidia.
And this one is the most photogenic of them all. It has awarded itself with a rosette and blushed accordingly. Yeah, bad joke…!

Ganoderma resinaceum on Crataegus persimilis ‘Prunifolia’

The lacquered bracket is supposedly rare, in the UK – nationwide, perhaps. However, in the south east of England, it’s actually rather frequent, and is usually found on oak and less so beech. However, there do spring up a few more obscure hosts, and beyond seeing it on willow and poplar, I have now also seen it on the broadleaved cockspur thorn. A search of records indicates no prior record of this association between fungus and tree, and therefore perhaps this is the first time it has been observed. Honestly, I doubt it, as people see things everyday and don’t inform the correct fungal authorities (namely Kew Gardens, for the Fungal Records Database), though it is nonetheless a really awesome find and it did make my afternoon!

Even the sun is illuminating this thorn!
Huzzah! Relative fungal devastation going on down there – plenty of brackets, and thus plenty of white rot. Not a good day to be a broadleaved cockspur thorn.
A little closer and we can see the lacquered upper surface being obscured slightly by the brown spore released by Ganoderma resinaceum.
And closer yet again, solely for good effect.
And a cross-section. Cutting into the brackets of Ganoderma resinaceum is not that easy, as they have quite a rubbery resistance to them. Use a very sharp blade for a clean cut!
Cool fungal finds in the urban streets

It pays to look up

When deciduous trees lose their foliage, somtimes it gives us the opportunity to spot defects and issues otherwise not at all discernible (by virtue of the foliage obscuring vision). In the case of the below hybrid black poplar, this was indeed the case, for atop the structure sat some blackened and weathered fruiting bodies (sporophores) of the common wood-decay fungus Cerioporus squamosus (formerly Polyporus squamosus).

Clearly, the heavy pruning the tree has suffered previously facilitated (one would expect) in the ingression of penetrative hyphae, following the germination of a spore upon the exposed sapwood, given this species’ typical colonisation strategy (sapwood exposed – unspecialised opportunism). To be honest, it’s in fact rather typical of poplars (and willows, as well as some maples) to have some quite awesome decay columns following heavy pruning, and thus this poplar fits the stereotype quite nicely.

What’s next for this poplar? One would at least propose a reduction, and potentially push a heavier one, though the sporophores are isolated to this one region and therefore perhaps the other limbs are not colonised. Granted, this is perhaps wishful thinking, as there is a good chance the entire upper crown is colonised, and either the colonies didn’t fruit or the fruiting bodies fell and were then moved (as there could be more than one secondary mycelium – where two separate and genetically-different hyphal structures meet and reproduce spore sexually via basidia).

It always pays to look up.

An urban poplar in a typical urban poplar condition – pruned!
Look closely and you’ll see it. Hint – top middle.
Peeka-boo! A nice little spot to set up shop, that is – nice and sheltered.
Too close for comfort? Not yet!
Okay now that’s too close! You can’t smell the cucumber aroma it has from that far away!
It pays to look up

Trees and religion: Worldwide indigenous religions

See Part VII of this series here.

Beyond European Paganism (which was covered recently here), there exist, as detailed by Hall (2011), many other indigenous animistic religions that share similar outlooks on trees, across the entire world. Much like with Paganism however, there is distinct variation between cultures within specific geographical regions, thereby meaning that specific tribes or peoples will hold differing views upon trees when compared to other tribes or peoples, in spite of both potentially even being from the same indigenous religion.


For example, Australian Aborigines view all autonomous life (‘Dreaming beings’) as coming from the earth (which is in itself, alive), and therefore all life shares identical ancestry or ontology (complete with their spirit ancestors) (Clarke, 2011). This means, for the Aborigines, that life is a series of heterarchical relationships, in place of a hierarchical system found in monotheistic religions. Trees are certainly within this belief framework, and are subsequently – alongside all other Dreaming beings – the kin of humans. Such an ancestral affinity with trees manifests itself in the religious mythology associated with certain Aboriginal peoples, with one such example being that of the Adnyamathanha of Southern Australia. In this tale, a man and woman, upon being startled by something in the wilderness, morphed into the wild orange (Capparis mitchellii). Tales from the Gunwinggu tribe echo such a metamorphosis, in which humans are also transformed into trees. For instance, a couple, upon leaving their camp after a quarrel with their families, turned into pandanus trees (Pandanus spp.). Similarly, whilst not associated directly with trees, an old man from South Goulburn Island was so immobile that he turned into a yam (Dioscorea spp.) (Hall, 2011).

The wild orange (or ‘native orange’). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

At a slight tangent, for the Yanyuwa people of Northern Australia, the spirit ancestor Tiger Shark scattered seeds of the cycad palm (including Cycas angulata) across their lands, again outlining a spiritual affinity between man and trees (David et al., 2006; Hall, 2011). In fact, the Yanyuwa people will assign a particular plant for each tribe (or clan), and such a plant signifies the clan’s ancestry (or kinship with nature) and thus becomes their totem. This ‘sacred’ plant, specific to each individual clan, is then not consumed by the clan, and in instead nurtured and allowed to flourish as a species (Spencer & Gillen, 1899). A notable example of this ancestral plant heritage is between the kurrajong tree (Brachychiton paradoxus) and the Yarralin clan, which sees the tree adopt a maternal position within the spiritual aspects of the clan’s existence. Peoples of the Yarralin also have connections to trees on the masculine level however, by where the birth of a son is mirrored with the birth of a tree, which signals the continuation of the patrilline (Rose, 1992). The Wuyaliya clan in Yanyuwa country also consider themselves to have descended from a tree: the grey mangrove (Avicennia marina). All such accounts detailed outline the close link between man and trees, and – on the broader scale – plant life. However, in spite of such a close bond, it is still accepted that trees must be used for the benefit of man, though in a respectful manner that means, if a tree is harvested for its materials, it is not unnecessarily killed (Hall, 2011).

Nearby in New Zealand, the religion of the Māori peoples can also be detailed in a similar vein, with regards to the kinship or ancestry (whakapapa) of man and plants. Notably, in the Māori creation tale, where a tree was said to have existed within the void of the coming cosmos (which was created from the energy of its ripening buds), Ranginui (the Sky Father) and Papatūānuku (the Earth Mother) had an abundance of children, which were the progenitors of most – if not all – things of the earth, including plants, humans, rocks, and the seas (Altman, 2000; Hall, 2011). In this sense, the Māori religion teaches that man operates within the bounds of nature; of which all belongs to the earth, and not man. Specifically, the god of the forests, known as Tāne, created all trees (which initially resembled humans, though later turned into actual trees – this relates to the kinship between man and trees), and therefore sacred groves for the Māori were dedicated to Tāne; of which the kauri (Agathis australis) would be particularly sacred (Altman, 2000). Within these groves, and perhaps beyond, the bones of the dead would be buried within tree hollows, so that the spirit of the deceased could occupy (haunt) the tree, which would then become sacred (Altman, 2000; Clark, 1896; Taylor, 1870).

This enormous Kauri tree is the embodiment of the forest god and is dubbed ‘Tane Mahuta’. Source: Foot Prints Waipoua.

North America

On the other side of the world, the religions of the indigenous peoples of North America are also worthy of note. In Alaska, for instance, the Koyukon people consider animals and plants to have formed from humans after a global flood, in the distant past. For the Koyukon, the god Raven was responsible for much a metamorphosis. Geographically nearby, the Tlingit people considered Raven to have formed people from leaves, again signifying the mortal kinship man has with the tree (Hall, 2011; Kan, 2016). This birth from trees can also be found in Tsimshian mythology, where it is understood that man was born from the elder (Sambucus spp.) (Hall, 2011). For the Koyukon, certain plants and trees were also seen to be possessed by spirits; albeit ‘lesser’ spirits, when compared to those of animals and humans, with humans actually possessing souls that are immortal. For trees, there is also the belief that they are aware of their surroundings, and thus a forest is rife with communication between the individual trees. Such a belief may indeed contribute to the Koyukon stance of yielding to nature and acting in a moral manner, in place of seeking to abuse and dominate nature for gain (Kuwabong, 2004; Looker, 2013).

Further inland in North America, the Ojibwa, who occupied what is generally now considered to be Canada, saw trees (and other parts of the natural world) as possessing personhood. Granted, such personhood does not equate them to humans, but instead means that they have a desire to continue living, and thus this desire must be respected through responsible interaction with nature (Haberman, 2013; Hall, 2011). Additionally, the Ojibwa had a close connection with the cedar (perhaps the Juniperus virginiana, Thuja occidentalis, or Thuja plicata), which was their axis mundi. Such an association meant that the cedar features on the ritual drums of many Ojibwa shamans, as it was believed that this would help channel the spirits (Pratt, 2007). Within Canada, the Nuxálk people also saw trees and having personhood, and in fact considered trees and humans to once have been able to communicate. In the present day, whilst humans have lost this ability to directly speak to trees (instead communication must come via prayer), the Nuxálk still view trees as being able to understand human speech and, in their own way (including through dreams), still communicate with humans (Hall, 2011).

The Oglála, who were one of the seven tribes of the Lakȟóta people, provide a further example of kinship between man and tree within the indigenous cultures of North America. Through the Sacred Hoop, all persons (possessing sentience) are connected, and these persons constitute the archetypal living organisms (humans, plants, animals, fungi, etc) and also the non-living aspects of nature (including the earth, sun, and sky – known as Wakan). For the Oglála, it is the Wakan that occupy the highest position within their world view, followed by non-human organisms. Therefore, humans actually rank last, and this is because humans are the least connected to the world around them – plants and animals hold a far more intricate relationship with the earth, sky, and sun, when compared to humans, who rely wholly on non-human persons for existence (Hall, 2011). Subsequently, the Oglála consider it mandatory to harmonise with the natural world, and thus their relationship with trees is one of co-existence.

Akin to many other indigenous religions, the Oglála will also use trees within sacred rituals associated, including those associated with death, protection, and gaining knowledge (Powers, 1975). The cottonwood (presumably Populus deltoides) was a notably important tree for the Oglála, for it was hunted, harvested, and then used as the centre point for the prayer ritual known as the (rather macabre) Sun Dance, which took place on the full moon during June or July (Cain, 2007; Powers, 1986; Steinmetz, 1990). In this respect, the cottonwood can be likened to the axis mundi, for it was considered the centre of the universe during the ritual (Brown, 1989). The cottonwood was also said to, in even the lightest of wind, be heard saying prayer to the Great Spirit (Langenberg, 2013). This association perhaps gives credence to its religious importance, for the Oglála, given that all beings are to pray to the Great Spirit.

A cottonwood selectively chosen for the Sun Dance. Source: Slate.

People from the tribes of the Iroquois, a further indigenous culture found in North America, the tree was also the axis mundi. Considered to have been either the balsam fir (Abies balsamea), the pine (Pinus spp. – potentially synonymous with the balsam fir) or the elm (Ulmus americana), this cosmic tree was located within the ‘sky dome‘ (akin to the firmament) and found at the centre of the world (Altman, 2000; Herrick, 1995). The tree’s roots penetrated into the shell of the Great Turtle, upon whose back the earth was supported, and its branches held up the sun and moon (Romain, 2009). This Great Turtle emerged from the primeval waters after being brought up by the Earth Diver toad (Werness, 2004), which again demonstrates the link between the axis mundi and primeval waters.


In the Mayan culture of Mesoamerica, which dates back to at least 2000 B.C., trees were certainly well-regarded – the ceiba (including Ceiba pentandra and Ceiba aesculifolia), in particular. The ceiba provided the Mayans with an array of products, including: (1) the wood that was harvested to construct canoes; (2) the fruit pods, when young, that could be consumed, and promoted weight gain; (3) the mature fruit pods, which contained a silk-like substance that could be spun into cloth; (4) the seeds, within the fruit pods, which could be used, after being boiled, for the oil they produced for both cooking and lighting; (5) the bark, which had medicinal values in treating ulcerations, haemorrhoids (piles), and gonorrhoea, and could help expel placentas; (6) the leaves that could be used to treat rashes, swellings, and burns, and; (7) the roots, which were utilised as a diuretic (Anderson, 2003; Leonti et al., 2003; Stuart, 1988; Zidar & Elisens, 2009). In drier regions, the ceiba was also found in locations where there was an underground (but near-surface) water supply, and therefore its presence could also aid with locating water sources. When ceibas were found in such locations, settlements were usually built around the ceibas, thereby meaning the ceibas occupied the centre point of the settlement (Anderson, 2003). This trend of ceibas being central, within the main plaza, still continues to this day (Christenson, 1997; Lara-Alecio et al., 2001).

A huge ceiba in Puerto Rico known as ‘La Gran Ceiba de Vieques‘. Source: Parque la Ceiba de Vieques.

For these reasons, the ceiba became sacred by 300-900 A.D., and was known by the Mayans as the ‘yaxché‘ (‘the first blue-green tree‘) – ‘blue-green‘, which translates from the Mayan word ‘yax‘, was the most important colour of the Mayans, and therefore it is of little surprise why the ceiba was known as the yaxché. For the Mayans, the tree therefore possessed many character traits, which had spiritual and iconic associations. For instance, ceibas, and particularly large ones, symbolised great power (political and religious, in particular), and therefore possessed a very distinct masculine energy. However, simultaneously, the ceibas had a maternal (feminine) aspect, because some Mayan tribes considered themselves descendants of the ceiba. Moreover, the ceiba was considered to be the tree that cared for deceased children, by providing them with milk from its fruits, which had similarities with female breasts (Altman, 2000; Anderson, 2003). The soul, known in the Mayan language as ‘sak nik’ nal‘, which translates to ‘white flower thing‘, relates to the ceiba’s flower, and is therefore another more feminine side that the ceiba possesses, within Mayan culture (Christenson, 1997). It was believed that, prior to birth, a human soul was borne upon the ceiba. More primordially, prior to the birth of the world, the Tz’utujil people (who were part of the Mayan civilisation) believed that there existed only a tree (god), from which all life sprang, after the tree became pregnant with potential life and set flower and – subsequently – fruit (Haberman, 2013).

Means of worship to the tree included the construction of ‘tree stones’ (known as steale), which represented the Mayan ‘world tree’, where central to four Bacabs that held up the sky from the four corners of the world, a ceiba tree (the axis mundi) was found (Mathews & Garbler, 2004). This ceiba’s branches supported the heavens (where human souls were borne), its trunk supported the terrestrial world, whilst its roots stretched down into Xibalba (the underworld) (Altman, 2000; Christenson, 1997; Haberman, 2013; Lara-Alecio et al., 2001; Nakabeppu, 2014; Zidar & Elisens, 2009). In some instances, a wooden cross, coloured blue-green, was also worshipped, as this blue-green cross represented the ceiba (yaxché). Interestingly, once the Spanish arrived in the early 1500s, the green cross’ similarities to the Catholic crucifix enabled for the easier conversion of Mayans to Catholicism (Anderson, 2003). For this reason, ceibas can oft be found situated with churchyards. The spined trunks of ceibas also featured upon burial urns and incense burners, which were constructed by the Mayans. The flower of the ceiba also frequented Mayan ceramics (Zidar & Elisens, 2009).

The ceiba cross. Source: Travelblog.

Similar to the Mayans, the Aztecs, during their 13th to 16th century existence, also held the ceiba in high regard. Known locally as ‘pochotl‘, the ceiba had strong associations with travelling Aztec traders (known as ‘pochteca‘), who journeyed across middle America to buy and sell goods. The linguistic similarities between the name for the ceiba tree and the traders is not surprising, as ceibas were found along most trade routes and in most trading centres: rivers (along the banks), roadways (adjacent to the highways, where tall ceibas would also act as landmarks), and marketplaces (where they would provide shade for the traders and public) (Anderson, 2003).

Another similarity, in the linguistic sense, is between the ceiba (‘pochotl‘) and the demi-god Pochuta. This demi-god, who was depicted as being rather bulky or “corpulent”, was responsible for leading people away, to safety, from the dangers of the gods of hurricanes and earthquakes, and therefore the ceiba may also have connections to being a protector of people (Anderson, 2003). Aztec shamans would also conduct their ceremonies and rituals under the shade of the ceiba tree. Akin to the Mayan axis mundi, the ceiba was likely to also have been the Aztec axis mundi. This central tree of their religion – the Tree of the Centre – supported the cosmos, and was connected to the kingdom of the fire deity Xiuhtecuhtli and also with the rain deity Tlaloc. The four other trees surrounding this core tree, found at all four corners of the world, further aided with the organisation of the cosmos (Altman, 2000). The deities Quetzalcoatl and Macuiltochtli also held associations with the axis mundi.

Both Mayans and Aztecs, as well as other Mesoamerican civilisations that existed prior to the 16th century, also had strong links with the Panamanian rubber tree (Castilla elastica). In order to make rubber (for producing bouncing rubber balls to be used in ceremonial games, hollow figurines, and other objects), these civilisations, as early as 2000 B.C., mixed latex harvested from the tree with juice of the morning glory vine (Ipomoea alba). Prior to this (and of course, after), latex would have been used as-harvested from the Panamanian rubber tree, for its adhesive properties (Backhaus, 1998; Hosler et al., 1999; Tarkanian & Hosler, 2011). The Aztecs also combined liquid from the bark of Castilla elastica with cacao (chocolate), as they considered it to be a drink that could cure infections (Dillinger et al., 2000). The copal tree (Protium copal, and more largely the genus Bursera) was also utilised by the Aztecs, as well as the Mayans and other Mesoamerican civilisations, for its resin. This resin could be used during ceremonies where it was burned as an incense, or alternatively used to make objects, such as knife handles and religious figurines (Lucero-Gómez et al., 2014; Vandenabeele et al., 2003).

Latex from the rubber tree. Source: La Selva.

South America

Further down towards and into South America, the indigenous Mapuche Pewenche people of Chile and Argentina hold the monkey puzzle (Araucaria araucana) as sacred, as a consequence of their sky deity being associated with the tree (Altman, 2000) and the tree providing them with protection (Redden, 2013) – notably women and children (Altman, 2000). Their view of the monkey puzzle as sacred is, in fact, so significant that their name literally translates to ‘people of the monkey puzzle tree‘ (Asselin, 2015). Subsequently, the tree is actively conserved by the Mapuche Pewenche, who hold a very detailed understanding of the ecology of the monkey puzzle.

A duo of monkey puzzles in the Patagonian mountains. Source: Land of Winds.

With regards to tree spirits, the Calchaquí people worshipped the spirits of local trees, whilst the Shipibo-Conibo people saw each individual tree as possessing a spirit. Therefore, if a tree was felled by human activity, it was seen as an offence against the tree spirit. Particular indigenous religions of South America also detail how man and woman were born from trees, thereby drawing in trees – and tree products – into creation myths. For example, the tribes of Guyana believe that, following a great flood, the last two human survivors (one man and one woman) re-populated the earth by throwing fruits of the moriche palm (Mauritia flexuosa) over their shoulders. Upon these fruits striking the ground, those thrown by the man became men, and those thrown by the woman became women (Altman, 2000).


Across Africa, indigenous religions can also be observed to associate quite intricately with trees. For instance, tribes throughout modern day Burkina Faso would have worshipped their gods within sacred groves 90-120 trees strong, which were comprised of the species known as the African teak (Milicia excelsa), bark cloth tree (Antiaris toxicaria), and silk cotton tree (Ceiba pentandra) (Altman, 2000). More expansively, remnants of once much greater forests in Burkina Faso were – and still are – considered sacred, perhaps in part because of their evident fragility in the wake of deforestation practices (Dudley et al., 2010).

A similar phenomenon was be observed in Ghana, where over 1,900 sacred groves and forest patches exist, and are sacred because of their cultural importance – in these locations, deities are revered and the dead are buried (Ormsby, 2012). Tribes in the region that is Kenya also considered forests sacred, and notably those found upon Mount Kenya, which was itself seen to be the abode of their deities. In these sacred forests, prayer and other religious rituals (such as sacrifice) would have been undertaken (Nyangila, 2012), to bring good fortunes and good health to the worshippers and their tribes. In arid desert regions of Africa, sacred trees may even have been those that provided shade for humans and their livestock – as was the case with the Nuer people. For the Nuer, the shade is in fact understood as the manifestation of a spirit being, and particularly so if the tree casting the shade was grown from a cutting taken from a sacred tree (Altman, 2000). The Gaanwar clan of the Nuer people also saw themselves as descending from heaven through the grey-leaved saucer berry (Cordia sinensis), which sat close by to a tamarind (Tamarindus indica).


Altman, N. (2000) Sacred Trees: Spirituality, Wisdom & Well-Being. USA: Sterling Publishing.

Anderson, K. (2003) Nature, culture, & big old trees: live oaks and ceibas in the landscapes of Louisiana and Guatemala. USA: University of Texas Press.

Asselin, H. (2015) Indigenous forest knowledge. In Peh, K., Corlett, R., & Bergeron, Y. (eds.) Routledge Handbook of Forest Ecology. UK: Routledge.

Backhaus, R. (1998) Natural rubber from plants. In Kaplan, D. (ed.) Biopolymers from Renewable Resources. Germany: Springer.

Cain, K. (2007) The Cottonwood Tree: An American Champion. USA: Johnson Books.

Christenson, A. (1997) The Sacred Tree of the Ancient Maya. Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture. 6 (1). p1-23.

Clark, K. (1896) Maori Tales And Legends. UK: D. Nutt.

Clarke, P. (2011) Aboriginal People and Their Plants. 2nd ed. Australia: Rosenberg Publishing.

David, B., Barker, B., & McNiven, J. (2006) The Social Archaeology of Australian Indigenous Societies. Australia: Aboriginal Studies Press.

Dillinger, T., Barriga, P., Escárcega, S., Jimenez, M., Lowe, D., & Grivetti, L. (2000) Food of the gods: cure for humanity? A cultural history of the medicinal and ritual use of chocolate. The Journal of Nutrition. 130 (8). p.2057-2072.

Dudley, N., Bhagwat, S., Higgins-Zogib, L., Lassen, B., Verschuuren, B., & Wild, R. (2010) Conservation of Biodiversity in Sacred Natural Sites in Asia and Africa: A Review of the Scientific Literature. In Veschuuren, B., McNeely, J., Oviedo, G., & Wild, R. (eds.) Sacred Natural Sites: Conserving Nature and Culture. UK: Earthscan.

Haberman, D. (2013) People Trees: Worship of Trees in Northern India. USA: Oxford University Press.

Hall, M. (2011) Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany. USA: Suny Press.

Herrick, J. (1995) Iroquois Medical Botany. USA: Syracuse University Press.

Hosler, D., Burkett, S., & Tarkanian, M. (1999) Prehistoric polymers: rubber processing in ancient Mesoamerica. Science. 284 (5422). p1988-1991.

Kan, S. (2016) Symbolic Immortality: The Tlingit Potlatch of the Nineteenth Century. 2nd ed. USA: University of Washington Press.

Kuwabong, D. (2004) Bagre: a Dagaaba celebration of environmental balance between humans and non-humans. Journal of Dagaare Studies. 4 (1). p1-13.

Langenberg, M. (2013) Quantum God: How Life Really Works. USA: Balboa Press.

Lara-Alecio, R., Bass, J., & Irby, B. (2001) Science of the Maya. The Science Teacher. 68 (3). p48-51.

Leonti, M., Sticher, O., & Heinrich, M. (2003) Antiquity of medicinal plant usage in two Macro-Mayan ethnic groups (Mexico). Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 88 (2). p119-124.

Looker, T. (2013) The Imagined Landscape: Language, Metaphor, and the environmental Movement. In Cadieux, K. & Taylor, L. (eds.) Landscape and the Ideology of Nature in Exurbia: Green Sprawl. USA: Routledge.

Lucero-Gómez, P., Mathe, C., Vieillescazes, C., Bucio, L., Belio, I., & Vega, R. (2014) Analysis of Mexican reference standards for Bursera spp. resins by gas chromatography–mass spectrometry and application to archaeological objects. Journal of Archaeological Science. 41 (1). pp.679-690.

Mathews, J. & Garber, J. (2004) Models of cosmic order: physical expression of sacred space among the ancient Maya. Ancient Mesoamerica. 15 (1). p49-59.

Nakabeppu, H. (2014) A study of Catholic culture integration of lowland Maya communities in Mexico – An introductory study of experimental methods for analysis of space perception at the individual level of a Mayayucatecan Catholic community, Mani. Bulletin of Miyazaki Municipal University Faculty of Humanities. 22 (1). p153-196.

Nyangila, J. (2012) Sacred species of Kenyan sacred sites. In Pungetti, G., Oviedo, G., & Hooke, D. (eds.) Sacred Species and Sites: Advances in Biocultural Conservation. UK: Cambridge University Press.

Ormsby, A. (2012) Cultural and conservation values of sacred forests in Ghana. In Pungetti, G., Oviedo, G., & Hooke, D. (eds.) Sacred Species and Sites: Advances in Biocultural Conservation. UK: Cambridge University Press.

Powers, M. (1986) Oglala Women: Myth, Ritual, and Reality. The University of Chicago Press.

Powers, W. (1975) Oglala Religion. USA: University of Nebraska Press.

Pratt, C. (2007) An Encyclopedia of Shamanism: Volume 2 – N-Z. China: The Rosen Publishing Group.

Redden, A. (2013) Dream-Visions and Divine Truth in Early Modern Hispanic America. In Plane, A. & Tuttle, L. (eds.) Dreams, Dreamers, and Visions: The Early Modern Atlantic World. USA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Romain, W. (2009) Shamans of the Lost World: A Cognitive Approach to the Prehistoric Religion of the Ohio Hopewell. USA: AltaMira Press.

Rose, D. (1992) Dingo Makes Us Human: Life and Land in an Australian Aboriginal Culture. China: Cambridge University Press.

Spencer, B. & Gillen, F. (1899) Native Tribes of Central Australia. USA: The Macmillan Company.

Steinmetz, P. (1990) Pipe, Bible, and Peyote Among the Oglala Lakota: A Study in Religious Identity. USA: University of Tennessee Press.

Stuart, D. (1988) The Rio Azul cacao pot: Epigraphic observations on the function of a Maya ceramic vessel. Antiquity. 62 (234). p153-157.

Tarkanian, M. & Hosler, D. (2011) America’s First Polymer Scientists: Rubber Processing, Use and Transport in Mesoamerica. Latin American Antiquity. 22 (4). p469-486.

Taylor, R. (1870) Te Ika a Maui: Or, New Zealand and Its Inhabitants. 2nd ed. UK: William Macintosh.

Vandenabeele, P., Grimaldi, D., Edwards, H., & Moens, L. (2003) Raman spectroscopy of different types of Mexican copal resins. Spectrochimica Acta Part A: Molecular and Biomolecular Spectroscopy. 59 (10). p2221-2229.

Werness, H. (2004) The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art. USA: Continuum.

Zidar, C. & Elisens, W. (2009) Sacred Giants: Depiction of Bombacoideae on Maya Ceramics in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. Economic Botany. 63 (2). p119-129.

Trees and religion: Worldwide indigenous religions

Rigidoporus ulmarius and the elder (Sambucus nigra)

Granted, an elder isn’t always a true ‘tree’, though it can and indeed will become one if allowed to. Unfortunately, as their presence is oft seen as a sign of a lack of management of a site (such as in unused brownfield sites), they are prone to being cleared when sites are re-designed. Of course, they can also be found developing in scrub (perhaps on old plotlands and within corners of allotment gardens), woodland edges and within established hedge lines – such old hedges may indeed be the last vestige of the elder in more urbanised and intensely-managed agricultural landscapes. Specimens within these hedges can therefore – by virtue of their age and size – sport some surprising fungal finds, as we can see below!

Another boring hedgerow elder….!
Wrong! Spot the fungal bracket. It is…
…the brown-rotter Rigidoporus ulmarius (the ‘giant elm bracket’). This is an association that does occur every so often, though is restricted to larger elders where there is enough substrate to enable the fungus to colonise and produce a sporophore.
And what a fine example it is! The characteristic and arguably unmistakeable algal greening atop and the orange-pink lip that details the most recent growth.
And for good measure a context reveals the just off-white trama and cinnamon-coloured tube layer.
Rigidoporus ulmarius and the elder (Sambucus nigra)