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

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