BS 5837:2012 – is it fit to protect trees in the current legal context?

The views below and mine and mine alone. I am a professional within the industry of arboriculture and I do not pretend to know everything or even close. Therefore, please do not take my words as if they are fact. You’re entitled to disagree, to any degree – insofar as the disagreement is reasonable. The hyperlinks are for ease to you the reader (please click them). You may find a previous blog post or two of mine useful, as context, before reading this. I have kept the below as brief as I consider possible that will still provide the necessary degree of context and explanation to demonstrate my opinions.

Scope of this post

This post does not dissect or scrutinise the technical elements of BS 5837:2012 Trees in relation to design, demolition and construction – Recommendations. This post does analyse whether this standard is fit for purpose, in the current legal context.

A background to British Standards

British Standards (hereafter ‘standards’) are published by the BSI Group, an organisation that operates under Royal Charter with the defined purpose of producing and publishing standards and providing related services for the ultimate betterment of industry – specifically, “to provide a reliable basis on which common expectations can be shared regarding specific characteristics of a product, service or process“. The key is therefore in the name: standardisation (which facilitates replicability). Adherence to a standard is voluntary.

Focussing on standards, the Royal Charter permits the BSI Group to “set up, sell and distribute standards of quality for goods, services, and management systems and prepare and promote the general adoption of British and international standards and schedules“. Periodically, published standards must be revised, altered, and amended “as experience and circumstances may require“.

BSI Group royal charter snip
The header and introduction of the Royal Charter for the BSI Group.

How standards are made

Standards are developed in collaboration between representatives of the relevant organisations associated with the scope and objective of the standard, adhering to – and being the only standard that must be adhered to (i.e. adherence is not voluntary) – the standard for producing new standards (BS 0:2016 A standard for standards – Principles of standardization).

Development is the responsibility of the relevant technical committee (e.g. B/213 for trees), which will normally oversee more than one standard. The technical committee is comprised of relevant organisations, companies, and individuals that fairly represent the range of professions affected by the standards it oversees. Within the technical committee, there are working groups that will focus on more detailed elements (e.g. the development of a single standard or aspects of it). The technical committee will therefore develop a draft standard that they will then publish for public consultation (a ‘draft for public comment’ or ‘DPC’), which will last for a minimum of 60 days.

BS 5837 Technical committee trees B213 construction
The B/213 technical committee page on the BSI Group website.

Following consultation, the feedback will be collated, analysed by the technical committee, and modifications made to the standard so that it is then published – or, in some cases, work is halted, due to significant concerns over the contents of the draft standard. The decision is down to the consensus of the technical committee

Typically, the production of a standard takes 18 months. Throughout, the operations of the technical committee must be transparent and defensible. The result should be a standard that is desirable, practical, and authoritative, provides no exclusive benefit to any party, serves the needs of the relevant community, and is consistent with regulations and legal principles established at the time of publication.

How standards are reviewed

Published standards must be maintained, in order to remain relevant (and for the BSI Group to adhere to its responsibilities as provided by Royal Charter). Therefore, all standards must be reviewed at least every five years, which can be initiated by the BSI Group or the technical committee. The review is undertaken by the technical committee responsible for the standard. Public consultation remains necessary, for the review of a standard. In some cases, the review may result in the standard being withdrawn.

Trees and construction – the standard

The standard for trees in the context of construction (encompassing all RIBA stages) is BS 5837:2012 Trees in relation to design, demolition and construction – Recommendations (hereafter ‘BS 5837’). This standard replaced the 2005 version. Its purpose is to provide “recommendations relating to tree care, with a view to achieving a harmonious and sustainable relationship between new construction/existing structures and their surrounding trees“. To this end, it sets out the recommended process through which trees should be managed in the context of construction, which includes outside of the planning process (e.g. if building something under permitted development). However, it is principally used as part of the planning process where trees are being managed on or adjacent to construction sites where planning permission is required.

bs58372012 front page
The front cover of BS 5837.

BS 5837 – legal developments since its publication

Since the time of the publication of BS 5837 in April 2012, there have been many important legal developments. These include but may not be limited to:

Implications for BS 5837 relevancy

Of these three legal developments, the NPPF is the crucial development, because it states at paragraph 47 that planning applications must (in 99% of cases) be determined in accordance with the relevant planning policies, which includes at national, regional, and neighbourhood level, in addition to the core that is determining applications against local planning policies.

BS 5837, in its role within the planning process (excluding permitted developments) as a standard document, does not make reference to this crucial element (e.g. there is no reference in the Figure 1 flowchart to consulting planning policy). The first major pit-stop for managing trees in the context of development is relevant planning policy that will give a valuable indication of what is and is not acceptable, in planning terms. Therefore, BS 5837 is not fully fit for purpose, in this regard.

The NPPF also states at paragraph 54 that “local planning authorities should consider whether otherwise unacceptable development could be made acceptable through the use of conditions or planning obligations“, and at paragraph 55 “should be kept to a minimum and only imposed where they are necessary, relevant to planning and to the development to be permitted, enforceable, precise and reasonable in all other respects“. For this reason, the Town and Country Planning (Pre-commencement Conditions) Regulations 2018 refined the approach to conditions insofar as local planning authorities must confirm the details of pre-commencement conditions with the applicant prior to imposing the conditions upon them. Specifically, the manner in which Arboricultural Impact Assessments and Arboricultural Method Statements apply within the current framework of BS 5837 now may routinely differ in practice from what is recommended in theory.

These reasons collectively have a significant material effect upon the manner in which trees should be managed and considered, as part of the planning process. BS 5837 in its current form does not consider these effects and therefore it does not “provide a reliable basis on which common expectations can be shared regarding specific characteristics of a product, service or process“.

local plan policy trees excerpt redbridge
An excerpt of a local planning policy that requires trees to be protected should they be retained.

So what?

BS 5837 was reviewed in 2017, according to the BSI Group. In this context, it is not now until 2022 that it must be reviewed. Indeed, it can be reviewed before then though this will arise probably only following concern being raised over an insufficient scope.

My opinion is that BS 5837 cannot ‘wait’ another five years before being reviewed, becuase assuming it takes 18 months to produce a new version of BS 5837 then it will not be until 2023/4 that BS 5837 accounts for the significant changes in the planning process. In this context, BS 5837 will not “provide a reliable basis” for over half a decade from now during which time development is still ongoing and ideally should be speeding up to meet government housing targets.

BS 5837:2012 – is it fit to protect trees in the current legal context?

Trees in the conflict of Israel and Palestine

Everything written here is supported by sources I have referenced (check for yourself), as always, so do not treat this as an assault on either side and / or their respective religions. This post is through the lens of the tree, so treat it as such. Moreover, the entire topic is very interesting.

As Israel collides with Palestine, trees are – and always have – been caught up in the melee. Principally, olive and citrus groves, some of which may have been tended to for many centuries by the Palestinians (Temper, 2009), are bulldozed or otherwise uprooted, with little respect for their cultural and historical importance (Allen, 2008; Graham, 2002). As an example, in 1986, when the Israeli military seized Midya, over 3,300 olive trees were uprooted, and a further 2,000 olives were bulldozed in Qattana (Bardenstein, 1999). Some of the trees removed from Qattana were later re-planted within the Jewish sector of West Jerusalem (Lentin, 2000), though by that point the damage (in many an aspect) had certainly been done. Some Israeli residents did protest their planting (out of anger towards the state), by tying ribbons to the trees that contained messages such as “Take me back to Qattana!” (Bardenstein, 1999), whilst others, across the entire conflict, have chained themselves to the olive trees in order to stop the bulldozers from uprooting them (Sfard, 2009), supported Palestinian farmers by helping them harvest from their olive trees and, at times, defending them in the process (Stephan, 2003), provided replacement olive tree for those uprooted (usually by settlers), or helped to retain olive trees within occupied territories for their symbolic meaning of peace (Braverman, 2009) – “extending the olive branch“, per se.

AN olive grove being bulldozed. Source: The Independent.

Below the surface level of removing ‘enemy’ trees, the removal of olive trees has a very political undertone. Olive trees have been held in very high regard by Palestinians for generations (and are regarded by some as holy trees), where they were farmed and thus supported viable economies (Braverman, 2009; Cohen, 1993), and their removal (or ‘capture’, by where groves were encompassed into the territory of Israel) by Israeli forces therefore can also be interpreted as an attack on Palestinian culture and custom (Bardenstein, 1999; Bowman, 2007; Braverman, 2009; Kershner, 2005) – notably when such acts are supported by the Court (Sfard, 2009). In some cases, it may even be Jewish settlers who vandalise or cut down the olive trees (Kershner, 2005), and even when the Israeli army have allowed the Palestinians to harvest their olive crops. In such instances, the Israeli army will generally not intervene (Pigni, 2010).

Such a political (and, to a marked degree, religious) act may be most pertinently discerned when the olive groves (or individual trees) are captured or destroyed during harvesting season, which has indeed occurred in some instances (Batniji et al., 2009). Moreover, the fact that many olive groves have been uprooted (comprising of tens of thousands of individual olive trees – in Qafeen alone, 12,600 olives were uprooted for this reason) for the construction of the Separation Barrier in the West Bank was also a cause of huge upset, for the Palestinians; particularly when their uprooting was coupled with justifications including to construct watchtowers, roads, checkpoints, and other security fences (all of which further hamper daily life and privacy), in addition to the use of the groves for sheltering armed Palestinians (Braverman, 2009). For those groves not uprooted, the Separation Barrier may instead have isolated Palestinian farmers from their olive trees, for much of the year. In Qafeen, over 100,000 olive trees suffered this isolated fate.

Olive trees are removed to facilitate the construction of the Separation Barrier. Source: Haaretz.

Whilst the capture and removal of Palestinian groves has been ongoing, Israel has also been afforesting barren regions of its territory – and for many decades. Spearheaded largely by the Jewish National Fund that was established in 1901 (and since 1961 has been Israel’s exclusive forestry agency), the afforestation program was, at its core, a religious, ecological, and territorial pursuit (Amir & Rechtman, 2006; Bardenstein, 1999; Braverman, 2009; De-Shalit, 1995; Ginsberg, 2000; Stemple, 1998; Tal, 2013), with pine species (including Pinus halepensis) being particular favourites (Osem et al., 2008; Weinstein-Evron & Galili, 1985). In recent decades, the emergence of numerous pests associated with the pine (such as Matsucoccus josephi) has however led to more diverse plantations, with other pine species (including Pinus brutia) and deciduous tree species being selected for use (Braverman, 2009).

In essence, a core reason for this afforestation is because Israel, in the ages gone by, was considered to be covered with forests (even up to the 11th century A.D., in places), though it is suggested that when the Jewish people were in exile those who occupied Israel (from around 722 B.C. – 1948 A.D.) destroyed many of these forests (due to arson, harvesting for fuel, overgrazing, sabotage, and warfare) and thus, upon the return of the Jewish people to Israel, in order to bring Israel back to its former character, forests were (and still are) planted upon the barren slopes (Stemple, 1998; Tal, 2012; Tal, 2013). Braverman (2009) states that the Jewish National Fund has planted over 200,000,000 trees across more than 225,000 acres of claimed land, since its inception. However, according to the Old Testament, in the book of Joshua, even Jewish peoples have been responsible for some of this historic clearance in their Promised Land (Tal, 2013), and for this reason the Jewish National Fund is seeking to restore Israel’s forests of ten thousand years ago – soon after the last glacial ice age. In fact, a great deal of planting, each year, is undertaken in the leading up to – and on the day of – Tu B’shvat (Bardstein, 1999; Zerubavel, 2000).

israel afforestation time contrast
Hiran Forest in 1998 (left) and 2008 (right). Source: KKL-JNF.

After the creation of the Jewish National Fund, though prior to its major afforestation practices towards the middle of the century, the British had, since 1918 (after they had seized southern Palestine), planted up many hundreds of thousands (if not many millions) of saplings (comprising of species including stone pine, tamarisk, terebinth, and oaks) on the hills of Israel (Tal, 2013), and before this (from 1860 onwards) the Turkish Ottoman Empire and settling German Templars had done much the same (Ginsberg, 2006; Liphschitz & Biger, 2004).

In this afforestation project, such planted areas are also oft designated as forest reserves and thereby protected by Israeli law, which Braverman (2009) dubs as “lawfare” against the Palestinians, whose land may have been afforested following seizure. This planting up of forest on occupied lands, of which a sizeable portion was planted over destroyed Palestinian villages in the years after 1948 (an act of camouflage, and for some allegedly the camouflage of war crimes), also makes the land very difficult to reclaim, as the reclaimers must first remove all of the trees (after gaining the permission to clear the perhaps protected forest); in this sense, Palestinians may never be able to occupy such land again, be it for living within or for cultivation. In some cases, Braverman (2009) writes, Palestinians have even retaliated against this afforestation by firing rockets into the planted pine forests or burning the pine forests through arson, with a desire much aligned to Israel’s uprooting of the olive trees (in a sense, a ‘tree for a tree’). In this respect the tree, and specifically the pine, is a tool of war, and thus represents the enemy as a solider would (Boerner, 2011; Braverman, 2008).

On a more philosophical level, the fact that the Jewish National Fund would plant a tree for each newborn from Jerusalem in Jerusalem’s artificially-borne Peace Forest, dedicate the specific tree to the child, and provide the individual with a certificate (including a photo of the tree) that remarks on how it is hoped the tree and child grow together, outlines the innate affinity (or interchangeability) man has with trees (Braverman, 2009); as is detailed before this blog post on earlier ones associated with trees and religion.

Furthermore, the populist and globally crowd-funded nature of a fair portion of the tree planting, supported via financial gifts (complete with material rewards, such as memorial stones) and the use of the ‘Blue Box’ (located in households, schools, and offices), sewed into the fabric of the afforestation project a very emotionally evocative and inclusive aspect to both children and adults of the Jewish faith, even if the donator was geographically separated from Israel (Bar-Gal, 2003; Braverman, 2009; Zerubavel, 2000). Perhaps, this ability for a Jewish person to fund the planting of a tree may dampen their feeling of loss for not living within the Promised Land; in place of their presence, they can fund the planting of a tree, which can be considered a “proxy immigrant” (Braverman, 2009). At a tangent, the returning of the landscape to forest is also important on a cultural level, because the forests were incredibly important for the Jewish peoples’ ancestors; often would children be named after trees, and even Israel itself was sometimes compared to a tree (Zerubavel, 2000; Zerubavel, 2005).


Allen, L. (2008) Getting by the occupation: How violence became normal during the Second Palestinian Intifada. Cultural Anthropology. 23 (3). p453-487.

Amir, S. & Rechtman, O. (2006) The development of forest policy in Israel in the 20th century: implications for the future. Forest Policy and Economics. 8 (1). p35-51.

Bar-Gal, Y. (2003) Propaganda and Zionist Education: The Jewish National Fund, 1924-1947. USA: University of Rochester Press.

Bardenstein, C. (1999) Trees, forests, and the shaping of Palestinian and Israeli collective memory. In Bal, M., Crewe, J., & Spitzer, L. (eds.) Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present. USA: University Press of New England.

Batniji, R., Rabaia, Y., Nguyen–Gillham, V., Giacaman, R., Sarraj, E., Punamaki, R., Saab, H., & Boyce, W. (2009) Health as human security in the occupied Palestinian territory. The Lancet. 373 (9669). p1133-1143.

Boerner, R. (2011) Trees as soldiers in a landscape war. Landscape Ecology. 26 (6). p893-894.

Bowman, G. (2007) Israel’s wall and the logic of encystation: Sovereign exception or wild sovereignty?. Focaal. 50 (1). p127-135.

Braverman, I. (2008) “The Tree Is the Enemy Soldier”: A Sociolegal Making of War Landscapes in the Occupied West Bank. Law & Society Review. 42 (3). p449-482.

Braverman, I. (2009) Planted Flags: Trees, Land, and Law in Israel/Palestine. USA: Cambridge University Press.

Cohen, S. (1993) The politics of planting: Israeli-Palestinian competition for control of land in the Jerusalem periphery. USA: University of Chicago Press.

De‐Shalit, A. (1995) From the political to the objective: the dialectics of Zionism and the environment. Environmental Politics. 4 (1). p70-87.

Ginsberg, P. (2000) Afforestation in Israel: a source of social goods and services. Journal of Forestry. 98 (3). p32-36.

Ginsberg, P. (2006) Restoring biodiversity to pine afforestations in Israel. Journal for Nature Conservation. 14 (3). p207-216.

Graham, S. (2002) Bulldozers and bombs: the latest Palestinian–Israeli conflict as asymmetric urbicide. Antipode. 34 (4). p642-649.

Kershner, I. (2005) Barrier: the seam of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. USA: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lentin, R. (2000) Israel and the Daughters of the Shoah: Reoccupying the Territories of Silence. USA: Berghahn Books.

Liphschitz, N. & Biger, G. (2004) Green Dress for a Country – Afforestation in Eretz Israel: The first hundred years 1850-1950. Israel: KKL.

Osem, Y., Ginsberg, P., Tauber, I., Atzmon, N., & Perevolotsky, A. (2008) Sustainable management of Mediterranean planted coniferous forests: an Israeli definition. Journal of Forestry. 106 (1). p38-46.

Pigni, A. (2010) A first-person account of using mindfulness as a therapeutic tool in the Palestinian Territories. Journal of Child and Family Studies. 19 (2). p152-156.

Sfard, M. (2009) The Price of Internal Legal Opposition to Human Rights Abuses. Journal of Human Rights Practice. 1 (1). p37-50.

Stemple, J. (1998) Viewpoint: a brief review of afforestation efforts in Israel. Rangelands. 20 (2). p15-18.

Stephan, M. (2003) People power in the Holy Land: How popular nonviolent struggle can transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Journal of Public and International Affairs. 14 (Spring). p164-183.

Tal, A. (2012) Israel’s New Bible of Forestry and the Pursuit of Sustainable Dryland Afforestation. Geography Research Forum. 32 (1). p149-167.

Tal, A. (2013) All the Trees of the Forest: Israel’s Woodlands from the Bible to the Present. USA: Yale University Press.

Temper, L. (2009) Creating facts on the ground: Agriculture in Israel and Palestine (1882-2000). Historia Agraria. 48 (1). p75-110.

Weinstein-Evron, M. & Galili, E. (1985) Prehistory and paleoenvironments of submerged sites along the Carmel coast of Israel. Paleorient. 11 (1). p37-52.

Zerubavel, Y. (2000) The Forests as a National Icon: Literature, Politics, and the Archeology of Memory. In Elon, A., Hyman, N., & Waskow, A. (eds.) Trees, Earth, and Torah: A Tu B’Shvat Anthology. USA: The Jewish Publication Society.

Zerubavel, Y. (2005) The forest as a national icon: literature, politics, and the archaeology of memory. Israel Studies. 1 (1). p60-99.

Trees in the conflict of Israel and Palestine

Trees, forests and warfare

As has been highlighted previously in this blog (the series on state forestry, for example), trees have been used to fund the gluttonous cogs of the war machine, across both time and space. Usually, this timber consumption has manifested from the progressive land acclamation and legislatory enforcement by the state, until large tracts of forest are state-owned; or private forests can be utilised by the state in times of political emergency. This post therefore focusses not on repeating what has previously been discussed, and instead investigates how the forests themselves have been used for the arts of war – as in, the forest as a site of battle, or for the preparation of one; not that the forest as a site of battle is to be desired, for any attacking force must expect the unexpected, and typical formations and approaches to warfare cannot be applied in the enclosed forest setting (Clayton, 2012). Of course, the prior blog posts I did on state forestry highlight how armed guerrillas in Indonesia and Zimbabwe used the forests for cover and ambush, though this aspect of forest use extends far beyond just these two examples.

Beginning somewhat close to home (for the author), it can be recognised how the New Forest, in the county of Hampshire, UK, was used by the British and American armies, during the Second World War (Leete, 2014). Because of its strategic location relative to the coast of continental Europe, residing along the south coast of England, and complete with nearby ports in Southampton and Poole, the New Forest was used as the first line of defence against any invading Germans coming over from France. For this reason, the forest was used by both the Intelligence Service, and also by thousands of troops who would constitute the defending force if enemy ground invasion did occur. Furthermore, the extensive forest cover provided camouflage for over 30,000 troops in the moths before D-Day (Operation Neptune) in 1944, and the surrounding heathlands acted as airfields and storage areas of military vehicles. In total, 20,000 acres of the New Forest were utilised by the resident forces, during the war, though much like how the forest suddenly filled with troops it also quickly emptied, and almost immediately after the D-Day landing at Normandy the New Forest once again became very sparsely populated.

Troops training near to Brockenhurst, in the New Forest. Source: The New Forest Guide.

The Second World War, beyond its association with the New Forest, was the site of actual battle. One example is that of the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, which took place between the US and German forces through September 1944 to February 1945. Situated on the border of Germany and Belgium, the Germans occupied the forest because of its strategic importance to future offensives on the Rhine. Fearing that these German troops would eventually therefore support the front line, the US Army sought to take control of the forest to stall this pursuit. However, because the terrain was very uneven, the access routes through the forest to constituent villages were narrow and almost non-existent, the trees were very dense in many locations, and forest clearings sudden and sporadically occurring, support from tanks was not feasible, and navigating the forest was often challenging and certainly very risky. Subsequently, the US forces suffered losses of over 30,000 men (at times, entire units were lost), eclipsing those incurred by the Germans; in spite of their much larger size. Granted, the Germans also suffered huge losses (Rush, 2001). The forest was thus named ‘The Death Factory’, by the US troops (Whiting, 2000), and became the grave of many individuals from both sides of the conflict.

The 28th Infantry Division of the US Army journey through the intrepid forest on 2nd November 1944. Source: History Net.

Curiously, the close of the Second World War also saw forests treated almost as bounty or reparation; at least, in Germany. Following the defeat Germany suffered, the country was subsequently segmented into various zones: the south-west of Germany became the French Zone, whilst the southern and south-east segments were under control by the Americans, the northern and north-west overseen by the British, and the east and north-east by the Soviets. The purpose of this was to enable Germany to ‘repent’ its ‘sins’, and the occupiers – the Americans, British, French, and Soviets – could harvest the forests as they saw fit, as long as such harvests were not in excess of the reparation quotas detailed after the Potsdam Conference in the summer of 1945.

Unfortunately, as such quotas usually were far greater than the rate at which the remaining forests (many were in an alarming state of disrepair, commercially-speaking) of Germany could be replenished, the Soviet zone saw fourteen years’ worth of timber logged in just four years. Alongside the purging of these now Soviet-controlled forests, those foresters who were not drafted into the war effort by the German government at the time were forced to work as hard labourers in the forests, and the traditionally scientific method that was German forestry was quashed by the inexperienced Soviets. Similar unsustainable levels of forestry were undertaken in the other occupied areas of Germany, by the Allied governments (Nelson, 2005).

Beyond the Second World War, Clayton (2012) remarks that the forest has been the site of battle as early as 9 A.D. In this year, the forest of Teutoburg was to plague three Roman legions and their auxiliaries – who were ambushed by the allied local Germanic tribes after an uprising in the region – quite cataclysmically. In this case, the Roman legions were headed by the reportedly inexperienced commander Publius Quinctilius Varus, whilst the commander of the allied tribes was the Germanic nobleman known as Arminius, who had himself been trained by the Roman army and was in fact part of the Roman legions who were tasked to deal with the uprising of the local tribes, though quickly defected to lead the Germans into battle.

Under the order of Varus, who was persuaded by Arminius (who at this point in the saga was still in the Roman army and appointed as an officer), the Roman legions headed into the forest to attempt to quell the uprising; at which point Arminius defected, and gathered up to 50,000 Germans to fight against approximately 7,000 Roman troops and their horses (including the three legions of eighty men each). In this forest, the now-defected Arminius used the terrain (including steep slopes, fallen trees, and dense forest cover) to confuse and disorientate the armour-clad Roman legions and support troops, who at first became surrounded and then were torn apart by the nimble Germanic warriors equipped with lightweight weapons (such as darts) and, for close combat, broadswords and spears. Most Roman troops were killed within the forest, in the small units that fled in all directions after Varus (who committed suicide) declared a retreat, though some unfortunate individuals were enslaved and / or tortured by the Germans. Ultimately, this situation manifested because the Roman troops were geared for close combat in the open setting, and the clever use of the forest by Arminius and his warriors led to what can only be considered a Roman tragedy – a tragedy that would not have occurred, and in fact likely have been reversed, if the battle was undertaken in the open (Clayton, 2012; Murdoch, 2006).

Varus is defeated within the forest of Teutoburg, as is depicted through this illustration. Source: Heritage History.

The use of trees during conflict has also given rise to their use for hanging and other forms of execution (Stone, 2008). Certainly a macabre aspect of how warfare – and on a broader scale acts of genocide – ties man to the arboreal world, it is nonetheless an important point to consider, as it highlights how the tree, as a tool, has uses that extend beyond those aforementioned. In the genocide that plagued Cambodia from 1975-1979, for instance, the Khmer Rouge, who were followers of the community party led by Pol Pot, are said to have thrown children against trees until they died – because trees were cheaper than bullets. In these cases, Tyner (2009) remarks, the children were executed because their parents were considered enemies of the state. Lynching in the US, between 1889 to 1930, constitutes another form of warfare; albeit more a form of societal warfare, which can occur even during peacetime. During this period, an estimated 3,724 individuals were lynched, and before usually being hung from a tree and displayed for all to see the pursued individual was tortured, humiliated, dragged, and sometimes burned in front of potentially many thousands of onlookers (Dutton, 2007). In the UK, trees have also been the site of hangings; for example, for the execution of ‘rebels’ – whatever this loose term was deemed to define at the time by the ruling powers (Barnes & Williamson, 2011).

Running concurrently to the very human dynamics of wars and forests, exist more ecologically-based aspects worthy of consideration in this section. Principally, and notably over the past decades, one can identify the desire to safeguard forest biodiversity during times of war, by incorporating forest conservation into military projects (Machlis & Hanson, 2008). As ascertained prior to this point, the demands placed upon the forest in such a period unrest is possibly incredibly great, and particularly when the forest is being harvested for its timber, is being cleared to flush out a hiding enemy or to remove a hiding place, or the war is taking place largely within the forest (Reuveny et al., 2010). In recent years, tropical forests over South America and Africa have been the site of armed conflicts between the state and drug cartels, rebels, or otherwise, and McNeely (2003) astutely observes that such forests and their ecosystems can therefore be considered victims of war. Where these forests are considered hotspots for biodiversity, the impact is certainly markedly more severe and concerning for the scientific community (Hanson et al., 2009).

However, war is not always bad for forests. Where armed conflicts drive the general populace away, if the forests are not being actively utilised for resource to fuel the conflict, then they can undoubtedly benefit from the sudden drop in human pressures. Of course, the displaced populace is not purged from existence, and therefore where refugee camps associated with the conflict are constructed within – or adjacent to – forests, there can be a huge spike in deforestation. A pertinent example of such a phenomenon is when the Rwandan civil war displaced large numbers of people, who settled in the Democratic Republic of Congo in refugee camps and caused over 300km² of deforestation to nearby forests (Machlis & Hanson, 2008).


Barnes, G. & Williamson, T. (2011) Ancient Trees in the Landscape: Norfolk’s arboreal heritage. UK: Windgather Press.

Clayton, A. (2012) Warfare in Woods and Forests. USA: Indiana University Press.

Hanson, T., Brooks, T., da Fonseca, G., Hoffmann, M., Lamoreux, J., Machlis, G., Mittermeier, C., Mittermeier, R., & Pilgrim, J. (2009) Warfare in biodiversity hotspots. Conservation Biology. 23 (3). p578-587.

Leete, J. (2014) The New Forest at War: Revised and Updated. UK: Sabrestorm.

Machlis, G. & Hanson, T. (2008) Warfare ecology. BioScience. 58 (8). p33-40.

Murdoch, A. (2006) Rome’s Greatest Defeat: Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest. UK: Sutton Publishing.

Nelson, A. (2005) Cold War Ecology: Forests, Farms, & People in the East German Landscape, 1945-1989. USA: Yale University Press.

Reuveny, R., Mihalache-O’Keef, A., & Li, Q. (2010) The effect of warfare on the environmentThe effect of warfare on the environment. Journal of Peace Research. 47 (6). p749-761.

Rush, R. (2001) Hell in Hürtgen Forest: The Ordeal and Triumph of an American Infantry Regiment. USA: University Press of Kansas.

Stone, D. (2008) The Historiography of Genocide. UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Tyner, J. (2009) War, Violence, and Population: Making the Body Count. USA: The Guilford Press.

Whiting, C. (2000) Battle of Hürtgen Forest. UK: Spellmount.

Trees, forests and warfare

Trees in the ecosystem pt IV: Trees & arthropods

The arthropods are vast in terms of species, and include ants, beetles, butterflies, mites, moths, spiders, and so on. Therefore, covering the entire spectrum of arthropods in this section is impractical, though the general provisioning by trees will be outlined and species will be used to illustrate given examples.

Many arthropods are considered to be saproxylic in nature – they principally utilise dead woody material (both standing and fallen, in both dead and living trees) as habitat, for at least part of their life cycle, though they may also rely upon fungal sporophores associated with the presence of deadwood, as is to be detailed below (Gibb et al., 2006; Harding & Rose, 1986; Komonen et al., 2000). Of all the saproxylic arthropods, beetles are perhaps the most significant in terms of the proportion occupied of total saproxylic species worldwide (Müller et al., 2010), though saproxylic flies also feature in great numerical abundance (Falk, 2014; Harding & Rose, 1986).

Beetles may be either generalist or specialist in nature (on either broadleaved or coniferous hosts), and they will normally require a host with an abundance of deadwood (or large sections of coarse woody debris) usually over 7.5cm in diameter that resides within an area typically not heavily shaded (Müller et al., 2010; Siitonen & Ranius, 2015). This may be, in part, due to many beetle species (in their adult stage) requiring nectar from herbaceous plants, which would be lacking in woodland with significant canopy closure (Falk, 2014; Siitonen & Ranius, 2015). This means that veteran trees amongst wood pasture and parklands (including in urban areas) may be particularly suitable (Bergmeier & Roellig, 2014; Harding & Rose, 1986; Ramírez-Hernández et al., 2014; Jonsell, 2012; Jørgensen & Quelch, 2014), though this is not at all a steadfast rule as species may also be found abundantly in (perhaps more open) woodland, and particularly where there are large amounts of veteran trees and deadwood – around 60 cubic metres per hectare, according to Müller et al. (2010). Granted, they are found particularly in older (mature to veteran) trees, including within cavities that possess wood mould, water-filled rot holes, dead bark, exposed wood, sap flows, fruiting bodies (of fungi and slime moulds), mycelia of fungi, dead branches, and dead roots (Carpaneto et al., 2010; Falk, 2014; Harding & Rose, 1986; Siitonen & Ranius, 2015; Stokland et al., 2012). Beetle species may also not necessarily associate preferentially with a species (or group of species), but with the conditions aforementioned that are present within a tree (Harding & Rose, 1986; Jonsell, 2012). At times, preferable conditions may be an infrequent as one veteran tree in every hundred (Harding & Rose, 1986).

A veteran oak tree that is of prime habitat for a variety of organisms.

Despite this, species preference is observed. For broadleaved obligates, heavier shade may be more necessary, and in such instances there is a closer affinity of the beetles with fungal mycelium. Because fungi tend to produce more mycelium in cooler and more humid conditions (though this does, of course, vary with the species), the broadleaved obligates may therefore be found normally in greater abundance where conditions are more suited to fungal growth, and their presence may thus be associated with a canopy openness of as little as 20% (Bässler et al., 2010; Müller et al., 2010). This is, of course, not a steadfast rule, and many open wood pastures may support a great abundance of saproxylic beetles (Harding & Rose, 1986).

It is also important to recognise that many species of saproxylic beetle are reliant upon particular stages of the wood decay process. For instance, species that require fresh phloem tissue will only be able to colonise briefly in the first few summers following on from the death of the phloem tissue (Falk, 2014). Other species require significantly-decayed wood in a particular micro-climate, and even of a particular tree species (Harding & Rose, 1986). There also exist intricate associations between species of fungi and saproxylic insects. Inonotus hispidus, which is usually found upon ash, is the habitat for Triplax russica and Orchesia micans, whilst the coal fungus (Daldinia concentrica), also oft found upon the deadwood of ash (Fraxinus excelsior), is the main provider of habitat for Platyrhinus resinosus (Falk, 2014). The birch polypore (Fomitopsis betulina) is also host to numerous species of Coleoptera (Harding & Rose, 1986); as is the polypore Fomitopsis pinicola (Jonsson & Nordlander, 2006; Komonen, 2003; Komonen et al., 2000). This means that these species may be found where there is a suitable population of the fungus’ host species, where sporophores are present and will likely fruit again in the future, across numerous trees, and for many years. Most beetle species rely on oak more so than other tree species however, as oak generally lives for much longer and thus provides a wider array of different micro-habitats, and possesses increased compositional complexity as a result (Harding & Rose, 1986; Siitonen & Ranius, 2015).

A fruiting body of Inonotus hispidus on apple (Malus sp.). This fungus not only creates habitat in the wood that it degrades but also is a direct habitat through its sporophore.

Therefore, the loss of suitable habitat through active management programmes (including logging, and felling trees for safety reasons in urban areas) will have a very adverse impact upon saproxylic beetles, though also certain species of moth, and even species associated with saproxylic insects, including parasitic wasps, solitary wasps (which use beetle bore holes for habitat), and predatory Coleoptera (Harding & Rose, 1986; Komonen et al., 2000). Curiously, research by Carpaneto et al. (2010) concluded that trees that were ranked as the most evidently ‘hazardous’ were host to the most saproxylic beetle species, and their removal would therefore have a drastic impact upon local populations. Similarly, fragmentation of woodland patches suitable for saproxylic populations has led to a decline in the meta-populations (Grove, 2002; Komonen et al., 2000), as has deadwood removal in a managed site itself (Gibb et al., 2006). Interestingly, though not surprisingly, ‘deadwood fragmentation’ also has an adverse impact upon saproxylic insect populations (Schiegg, 2000).

Both ants and termites also benefit from the presence of deadwood. With regards to both, nests will usually form at the base of a tree or at an area where there is at least moderate decay – enough to support a viable population (Jones et al., 2003; Shigo, 1986; Stokland et al., 2012). Ants and termites both follow CODIT (compartmentalisation of damage in trees) patterns in relation to how their nests progress, and thus their territory will increase as fungal decay propagates further into the host. Ants will not feed on the decaying wood of the host however, and will simply use the decaying site as a nesting area. Conversely, termites will feast upon decayed wood and essentially control (perhaps by slowing down) the spread of fungal decay in a manner that provides as much longevity of the host as possible for a viable nesting site (Shigo, 1986). In tropical rainforests, termites are in fact considered to be one of the principal means of wood decomposition (Mori et al., 2014), and thus the provisioning of deadwood habitat is absolutely critical. Without decaying wood within trees therefore, ants and particularly termites will lack a potential habitat, and thus where a stand is actively managed populations may be markedly reduced (Donovan et al., 2007; Eggleton et al., 1995). Of course, termites are not necessarily to be desired when they are invading the wood structure of a property, and therefore deadwood is not universally beneficial (Esenther & Beal, 1979; Morales-Ramos & Rojas, 2001) – at least, when human properties are involved.

Ecologically beneficial? Yes. Economically beneficial? No. Termites can – and do – damage timber-frames buildings, as is the case here. Source: Pestec.

The presence of deadwood may also be beneficial for ground-nesting and leaf-litter dwelling spiders, which can utilise downed woody debris (particularly pieces with only slight decay) for both nesting and foraging (Varady-Szabo & Buddle, 2006). In fact, research by Buddle (2001) suggested that such spiders may more routinely utilise downed woody material when compared to elevated woody material (dead branches and telephone poles) because of the greater array of associated micro-habitats, and particularly at certain life stages – such as during egg-laying, for females (Koch et al., 2010). Furthermore, as fallen woody debris can help to retain leaf litter (or even facilitate in the build-up leaf litter), spider populations are more abundant and more diverse in sites where such woody debris is present (Castro & Wise, 2010). Therefore, where woodlands are managed and areas are clear-cut, spider populations may be markedly reduced in terms of the diversity of species. However, generalist species may benefit from the amount of cut stumps (Pearce et al., 2004). Curiously, Koch et al. (2010) suggest that spiders may perhaps benefit from woodland clearance, because the vigorous re-growth of trees and the higher light availability to the woodland floor (promoting herbaceous plant growth) increases the abundance of potential prey. Despite this, old-growth species will suffer (Buddle & Shorthouse, 2008), and thus the population structure of spider populations may dramatically change.

Soil mites are a further group that benefit from coarse woody debris, though also from hollows and holes throughout the basal region of a tree (including water-filled cavities), and from fungal sporophores and hyphae associated with wood decay (Fashing, 1998; Johnston & Crossley, 1993). Typically, termites will use fungi and insects found within the wood as a food source, and the wood structure itself will provide for an array of niche micro-habitats that are critical at different life stages of a mite. Certain mite species are obligates that associate with coarse woody debris exclusively, and may in fact only be associated with certain species’ woody debris. Additionally, mites may utilise woody debris and hollows within trees to parasitise upon other species using the ‘resource’, with both lizards and snakes being parasitised by mites following their frequenting of such resources. Beetles may also be parasitised, though the mite in such an instance may use the beetle as a means of entry into woody debris (Norton, 1980).

It is not just deadwood that arthropods will utilise, however. Foliage, both alive and abscised, is also of use (Falk, 2014). For example, the ermine moth (Yponomeutidae) will rely upon the living foliage of a host tree as a food source, and the bird cherry ermine moth (Yponomeuta evonymella) is one example of this. During late spring, larvae will fully defoliate their host Prunus padus, before pupating, emerging, and then laying eggs upon the shoots ready for the following year (Leather & Bland, 1999). Many other moth species will, during their larval stage, also behave in such a manner and thus defoliate their host – either entirely, or in part (Herrick & Gansner, 1987). Other species may alternatively have larvae mine into the leaf and feed upon the tissues within (Thalmann et al., 2003), such as horse chestnut leaf miner (Cameraria ohridella). Flies, including the holly leaf-miner (Phytomyza ilicis), will also mine leaves in a similar fashion (Owen, 1978). Ultimately however, the same purpose is served – the insect uses the living tissues of a leaf to complete its life cycle, and fuel further generations.

Bird cherry ermine moth having defoliated an entire tree. Source: Wikimedia.

Fallen leaf litter, as briefly touched upon earlier when discussing spiders, may also be of marked benefit to many arthropods. Ants, beetles, and spiders are but three examples of groups that will utilise leaf litter as a means of habitat (Apigian et al., 2006). Beetles will, for instance, rely upon leaf litter to attract potential prey, though also to provide niche micro-climates that remain relatively stable in terms of humidity, light availability, and temperature (Haila & Niemelä, 1999). Their abundance may, according to Molnár et al., (2001) be greatest at forest edges, perhaps because prey is most abundant at these edge sites (Magura, 2002). Of course, this does not mean that edges created through artificial means will necessarily improve beetle populations, as research has shown that there are few ‘edge specialists’ and therefore populations usually will go into decline where there has been significant disturbance. Unless management mimics natural mortality events of forest trees, then constituent beetle populations may thus suffer adversely (Niemelä et al., 2007).

With regards to ants, Belshaw & Bolton (1993) suggest that management practices may not necessarily impact upon ant populations, though if there is a decline in leaf litter cover then ants associated with leaf litter presence may go into – perhaps only temporary (until leaf litter accumulations once again reach desirable levels) – decline (Woodcock et al., 2011). For example, logging within a stand may reduce leaf litter abundance for some years (Vasconcelos et al., 2000), as may (to a much lesser extent) controlled burning (Apigian et al., 2006; Vasconcelos et al., 2009), though in time (up to 10 years) leaf litter may once again reach a depth suitable to support a wide variety of ant species. However, the conversion of forest stands into plantations may be one driver behind more permanently falling ant populations (Fayle et al., 2010), as may habitat fragmentation (Carvalho & Vasconcelos, 1999) – particularly when forest patches are fragmented by vast monoculture plantations of tree or crop (Brühl et al., 2003). The conversion of Iberian wood pastures to eucalyptus plantations is one real world example of such a practice (Bergmeier & Roellig, 2014).

Also of benefit to many arthropods are nectar and pollen. Bees, beetles, butterflies, and hoverflies will, for instance, use nectar from flowers as a food source (Dick et al., 2003; Kay et al., 1984), and generally (but not always) a nectar source will lack significant specificity in terms of the insect species attracted (Karban, 2015). Despite this, different chemicals secreted by different flowers, and the toxicity of certain nectar sources to particular insects, means certain tree species may only be visited by certain insect species (Adler, 2000; Rasmont et al., 2005). Tree diversity may therefore be key to sustaining healthy insect populations (Holl, 1995), and where species may prefer to frequent herbaceous plant species the presence of a diverse woodland canopy above may still be very influential (Kitahara et al., 2008). This may be because a diverse array of woody plant species increases the diversity of herbaceous species. At times, pollen may also be a reward, as may (more rarely) a flower’s scent. Karban (2015) remarks that all are collectively dubbed as ‘floral rewards’.


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Trees in the ecosystem pt IV: Trees & arthropods

A history of state forestry in Java, Indonesia

See part III of this series on state forestry in France here.

This phenomenon of the environmental and social misunderstandings of the peasantry and their forests can be further observed in Indonesia, and specifically upon the island of Java. This is because Indonesian state forestry practices began in Java with the State Forestry Corporation of Java in the 1870s, initiated by the Dutch colonial government, and emanated outward from the island into Indonesia more broadly.

The natural forests of Java have historically been a mix of a variety of tree species, including Altingia excelsa, Elaeocarpus macrocerus, Pinus merkusii, Tectona grandis, and Toona sureni. These forests have been the home of many millions of villagers, with their livelihoods being critically dependant upon the longevity and thus careful management of the forests and surrounding areas. Activities undertaken were rather similar to those undertaken in Uttarakhand, and in relation to construction teak (Tectona grandis) was the most favoured tree. Owned – pre-colonially – by Javanese kings and other elite individuals, villagers were permitted to use these forests under their decree, and often would there be a fair but entirely manageable (financial and free-labour) levy imposed on the villagers to maintain the functioning of the Javanese domains. However, because of the nature of forest communities, which were generally-speaking somewhat isolated from the king or other sovereign, villagers had a certain amount of freedom to ignore particular rules and regulations associated with their contract with the forest owner, though this of course varied with the extent of isolation – not that there were many limitations on how villagers could utilise the forest anyway, with only sparing and well-guarded royal forests and sacred groves being protected.

As far back at 1596, the Dutch, who would go on to rule Java from 1796, placed as important value on Javanese timber – notably teak. Javanese villagers, initially employed by the king or regional sultan under contract from the Dutch, though after 1743 generally directly employed by the Dutch, would harvest this timber, and sell it for purposes including ship building. Similar trade relations were also established with the Chinese. Subsequently, an informal ‘state’ forestry practice had actually begun centuries prior to the creation of the true state forestry department in 1865 (and the associated forest laws written between 1860-1934). However, the pre-colonial rule of Java was, as has been detailed, a relatively passive one, with villagers having a good degree of autonomy over their lives and forests. It was only when state forestry came into being, primarily for the cultivation of teak, that this began to drastically change, as the Dutch government sought to control and limit the relationship villagers had with their forests for the purposes of financial profit.

Notably, the tactics employed by the Dutch went about to usurp the villager and their relationship with the forest. In this sense, villagers had very little influence into the creation of teak plantations and felling operations, despite such operations having a sometimes quite drastic impact upon their livelihoods. One notable impact upon villagers, beyond the loss of forest cover, was their rapidly declining population of buffalo, for the buffalo were drafted by the Dutch to transport felled timber from the site of felling to the river or coast. Some of the largest teak trees, for example, required 80 buffalo to transport, and en route it was not uncommon for 10 of these buffalo to die. Because buffalo were used by villagers for cultivating land for agriculture, their population reduction had very real consequences for local food production.

An image, of unknown date, depicting two Indonesian workers felling a tree for its timber. Source: FAO.

By the same token, the environmental destruction associated with cleared forest areas, or even sparsely-forested areas after select trees were felled, had adverse impacts upon the lives of the villagers, and this occurred both before and after the onset of state forestry. The forest laws passed, notably those from 1860-1875, also saw large portions of land come under state ownership, which directly opposed cultural norms associated with villagers, in essence, owning the land surrounding their villages. These now state-owned areas were also policed, with quite harsh punishments for seemingly meagre ‘crimes’, which only became crimes – having once been customary villager rights – after the state itself detailed them as so under forest law. For instance, 45,000 people were arrested in 1905 for forest crimes, with most being for stealing wood – wood that was some decades earlier free to take.

Such changing of land ownership also limited the ability for villagers to farm in the surrounding landscape (by 1940, 3,057,200 hectares of land were state-owned), as did it hinder their ability to migrate to flee oppression and other undesirable circumstances, including excessive population growth and poor financial standing. However, with regards to farming, recently felled areas could be temporarily farmed (known as tumpang sari) by villagers with the permission of the state, for a period of between 1-3 years on average – the palette of crops was however limited to ones that would not have adverse impacts upon the trees regenerating within the area (usually teak or pine), either naturally or far more routinely artificially (from planted seed). Of course, this did mean that some villagers had to constantly follow the path of the forestry operations, in order to sustain their way of life; as did it sometimes require villagers to adhere to the demand of corrupt forest officials, who oversaw the allocation of tumpang sari land. Ultimately, the increasing levels of bureaucracy were alien to villagers, who were unaccustomed to such a myriad of regulations surrounding the use of forests.

A photo of a forester in central Java, taken between 1900-1940. Source: Wikimedia.

Such a situation was unfortunately only further exacerbated in World War II, when the Japanese took control of Java in 1942-1945 (Peluso, 1992). In this period state forestry operations, spearheaded by the Japanese Forest Service of Java, doubled in timber output compared to under the Dutch, and a ‘scorched earth’ policy by Dutch foresters and ransacking by Javanese villagers led to the forests deteriorating in quality quite massively in only three years – the effects are still observable today, in the landscape. Then, following Indonesian independence in 1949 (after four years of sometimes violent revolution), the new state only served to continue with state forestry operations (under the banner of the State Forestry Corporation), all whilst using the old Dutch laws (mostly almost verbatim – notably forest boundaries) and some of their foresters, albeit with recalibrated intentions that ‘better’ (a potentially malleable term, in this situation) served the nation’s populace.

In light of this, protest was certainly common from the late 1800s onward, and specifically from 1942-1966. The form a given protest took would however vary, with particular protests being non-violent (migration and ignoring the forest laws) and others certainly more violent (acts of crime, arson, and – more broadly – rebellion). Within the umbrella of protest, there are certain movements that deserve notable attention, however. One pertinent example is what was known as the Samin Movement, which was a social movement borne in 1890 but gained most notable momentum by 1907 when over 3,000 village families had adopted the ethos of the movement. This form of protest, founded by the peasant Surontiko Samin, was non-violent in approach and involved protesters purposely ignoring the instruction of state forest officials, for the purpose of safeguarding traditional customs of the Javanese villagers. However, because of the state’s pursuance of dissenting villagers, certain villager leaders did not support the movement, for fear of retribution if they did indeed show support. Therefore, some Saminists were exiled from their villagers, or excluded from communal practices.

A large teak (Tectona grandis) that the Samin Movement encouraged native Javans to utilise for their own needs, in place of supporting the Dutch forestry efforts. Source: Wikimedia.

Some decades later, during the second half of the 1940s (after the demise of the Japanese colonial government and at the inception of revolution, which itself ended in 1949), protests began to significantly rise in frequency and became far more organised, due to the adoption of a stance on forest politics by many political organisations. For example, in 1948, the Indonesian Communist Party and People’s Democratic Front attacked buildings and structures owned by the Forest Service, after it failed to amend forest policy in a manner that would more extensively benefit local people. These attacks caused rather extensive damage, and some main routes to transport timber were rendered impassable after bridges were destroyed. Two years prior, approximately 220,000 hectares of state-owned forest in Java was damaged (or destroyed) by protesting groups and individuals, and a further 110,000 hectares occupied by villagers and taken over or stripped for timber and firewood.

Alongside such protests, the Indonesian Forest Workers’ Union and Indonesian Peasants’ Front would support the villagers, in hope of returning Java’s forests to the people. In the few years following 1962, the Indonesian Forest Workers’ Union was most effective is achieving this aim of returning the state-owned forests to villagers; perhaps because nearly 25% (or 5,654,974 individuals) of the adult Indonesian peasantry were members. Granted, organisations did exist that were distinctly anti-communist, such as the Islamic Workers’ Union, who in fact battled with the Indonesian Communist Party over issues relating to state forestry. In the years immediately after 1964, the Islamic Workers’ Union was known to lead communist supporters into the forests of Java, shoot them, and then bury them in mass graves within the forest.

Following on from law changes in 1967, such protests generally begun to adopt a more clandestine approach. Because of the increasing militarisation of the forest service, notably with regards to its four different police forces, villagers were more fearful of reprisal if caught disobeying forest law. Stands comprised largely – or exclusively – of teak were most ferociously guarded. Granted, villagers did sometimes attack the armed police forces, and notably when the police forces were caught undertaking clandestine operations themselves, and also burned the state-owned forests of teak and pine (principally Pinus merkusii). At this time, the forest service also became more centralised, which further alienated a forest service from the villagers that, despite its now Indonesian-run state, reflected distinctly its Dutch ancestral roots, and diametrically opposed the traditional Javanese agrarian lifestyle. As a consequence of villager exclusion, the quality of the Javanese forests progressively declined over the decades because villagers had to resort to ‘theft’ to obtain what they could once gain on a subsistence basis (or to support black market demands for teak, in order to supplement the limited wages they would gain by working for the State Forestry Corporation on an ad hoc basis), which has contributed to sometimes quite severe environmental degradation. Such issues are still pertinent today.

Principal source

Peluso, N. (1992) Rich Forests, Poor People: Resource Control and Resistance in Java. USA: University of California Press.

Additional sources

Benda, H. & Castles, L. (1969) The Samin Movement. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land-en Volkenkunde. 125 (2). p207-240.

Boomgaard, P. (1992) Forest management and exploitation in colonial Java, 1677-1897. Forest & Conservation History. 36 (1). p4-14.

Colchester, M. (2006) Justice in the forest: rural livelihoods and forest law enforcement. Indonesia: CIFOR.

Galudra, G. & Sirait, M. (2009) A discourse on Dutch colonial forest policy and science in Indonesia at the beginning of the 20th century. International Forestry Review. 11 (4). p524-533.

Honna, J. (2010) The legacy of the New Order military in local politics: West, Central and East Java. In Aspinall, E. & Fealy, G. (eds.) Soeharto’s New Order and its Legacy. Australia: The Australian National University.

Korver, A. (1976) The Samin movement and millenarism. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land-en Volkenkunde. 132 (2-3). p249-266.

Lindayati, R. (2002) Ideas and institutions in social forestry policy. In COlfer, C. & Resosudarmo, I. (eds.) Which Way Forward?: People, Forests, and Policymaking in Indonesia. USA: Resources for the Future.

Lounela, A. (2012) Contesting State Forests in Post-Suharto Indonesia: Authority Formation, State Forest Land Dispute, and Power in Upland Central Java, Indonesia. Austrian Journal of South-East Asian Studies. 5 (2). p208-228.

Maring, P., (2015) Culture of control versus the culture of resistance in the case of control of forest. Makara Hubs-Asia. 19 (1). p27-38.

Peluso, N. (1991) The history of state forest management in colonial Java. Forest & Conservation History. 35 (2). p65-75.

Peluso, N. (1993) ‘Traditions’ of forest control in Java: Implications for social forestry and sustainability. Global Ecology and Biogeography Letters. 3 (4-6). p138-157.

Smiet, A. (1990) Forest ecology on Java: conversion and usage in a historical perspective. Journal of Tropical Forest Science. 2 (4). p286-302.

Vandergeest, P. & Peluso, N. (2006) Empires of forestry: Professional forestry and state power in Southeast Asia, Part 1. Environment and History. 12 (1). p31-64.

A history of state forestry in Java, Indonesia

A history of state forestry in France

See part II of this series on state forestry in Zimbabwe here.

Whilst slightly less economically-driven in the direct forestry sense, the development of state forestry practice in the mountainous regions of France – principally the Alps and Pyrenees – provides for another example into how state forestry has been met with civil unrest. Traditionally, the agrarian peasantry of the mountainous regions of southern France had maintained a close connection with the forest (comprised of species including silver fir Abies alba, beech Fagus sylvatica, oak Quercus robur / Quercus petraea, pine Pinus mugo, and spruce Picea abies), using it, for example, as pasture for local breeds of cattle and sheep, for medicinal purposes, or to provide for the necessary timber and firewood for sustaining a somewhat comfortable existence. Forest was also cleared for agricultural purposes, as was it harvested for charcoal to fuel the developing ironworks industry. Management typically adopted what is defined as jardinage, which entails the management of the forest as if it were a form of garden – felling was irregular, and there was no ‘scientific’ approach to forest management; simply because it didn’t need to be, as the forest was managed for subsistence purposes by the peasantry. Therefore, the forest – as well as the pasture lands surrounding – was understood as belonging to the peasantry, sometimes on a private basis but more often on a communal one, and its existence was critical for sustaining their way of life. Consequently, when the state began to encroach upon this assumed right of forest and land ownership, for a multitude of reasons, such an intent was met with marked vitriol.

Forest being cleared for charcoal production. Source: Z-Blogs.

Whilst the bulk of the protest occurred during the period of 1860-1940, it is important to recognise the political dynamics that led up to this tumultuous period of French history, and therefore one can begin observing how the state interfered in the management of forests (both lowland and upland, as one combined entity) as far back as 1215. From 1215 through to 1800, a series of Ordinances had governed the use of the forest across France. Different Ordinances meant different limitations were in place, though in principal royal and ecclesiastical forests had limited potential use by the peasantry. Largely-speaking, such Ordinances were geared towards the management of lowland forests of France, and not to the mountainous ones referenced here. Therefore, the Ordinances, and in particular the 1669 Ordinance, did not hold much clout in the mountainous regions of southern France, and were therefore intentionally ignored – or simply not enforced – by and upon the peasantry, respectively. Nonetheless, forestry did occur in France, and this prior period is detailed by Matteson (2015).

However, come the 18th and 19th century, as the state observed the forests of the mountainous regions slowly dissipate as a consequence of continued degradation by the peasantry, and the adverse environmental impacts of this (soil erosion of upland areas, large-scale flooding in critical lowland agricultural areas, and so on), it sought to alter its modus operandi with regards to the upland forests. However, military efforts and the improvement of infrastructure also demanded timber, which must be provided from national forests. Most importantly, because the state did not trust the peasantry to restore the mountainous areas to high forest cover, it pursued the acquisition of territory to undertake such reforestation itself. Such a process began in 1790 when the state initiated the accumulation of ecclesiastical land, though the Rural Code of 1791 (put in place following the French Revolution that ended earlier that year) prohibited the state from acquiring communally-owned land, which limited its capacity in developing large tracts of mountainous land for reforestation purposes. However, come 1801, the Administration des Forêts was established, with the main aim of supplying timber for shipyards – this birth of a new era in state forestry soon led to the establishment of the Forest Code in 1827, which adopted a much broader set of aims.

Artwork depicting the Pavillon de l’administration des forêts in Paris, 1878. Source: Wikimedia.

The Forest Code of 1827 was a particularly undesirable piece of legislation, in the view of the mountainous peasantry. The Code allowed the state to acquire communally-owned land with relative ease, and forbade pasturing in forests, the gathering of firewood, and the felling and extraction of particular trees. It also established the footings of future reforestation efforts. Crucially, the Code did not recognise the huge distinction between mountainous forests and lowland ones. In this sense, the traditional way of the mountain regions was directly in opposition to the Code. The situation was further exacerbated by the heavy policing that came with the introduction of the Forest Code. Forest guards, employed by the state, were instructed to arrest individuals for crimes that were once not even considered crimes (and by the peasantry still were not), and prosecutions for these crimes (however little – such as illegally grazing one cow outside of permitted zones) in court were met with fines and jail time. Therefore, by 1829, the electrical social and political standing was so severe that mountainous peasants began to revolt. One notable example of such revolt, which was certainly violent in many aspects, was the War of the Demoiselles (1829-1832) in the area including Massat, which saw male peasants dress up as women and ransack privately-owned and state-owned forests, and also attack the much-maligned forest guards and noblemen (see Sahlins, 1994). The famine of 1848 also saw many peasant revolts in these forests, for the limited usage of the forest was certainly a driver behind the extent of the famine of the mountainous peasants.

In 1851, when the state voted to relax the control of lowland forests to promote better agricultural practice, the mountainous forests took a further step towards state ownership and management. The state saw agriculture as highly important for France’s economy, and therefore considered the mountains to be of supreme importance in safeguarding lowland plains from the throes of flooding (as so pertinently demonstrated by the horrific floods of the 1840s). Subsequently, the mountain slopes had to be reforested, as their current state was far from sufficient in the aim of having such upland forests protect the lowland plains from harm. As ascertained, because the state was not trusting of the mountainous peasantry, it pursued reforestation through its own means; as well as mandating land owners to reforest their land that, if refused by the land owner, resulted in them forsaking at least half of their land to the state (who would then reforest it). Laws passed by the state in 1860 enabled for even more communally-owned upland land masses to be occupied by the state, which certainly aided in this reforestation effort; albeit to the huge detriment of the mountainous peasantry.

Moorland prior to afforestation with pine in the middle of the 19th century. Source: Abelard.

It was therefore this period, from 1860, when political tensions were reaching the proverbial boiling point between the state and the peasantry of the Alps and Pyrenees. After all, the attrition upon and erosion of their traditional customs had resulted in their way of life having to alter greatly if their agrarian existence was to remain tenable. Matters were made worse by the lack of inclusion of the peasantry in local decisions made on reforestation, and the exclusion of the very same peasantry from some – if not all – of the land upon which they made their living. In 1864, the state recognised the friction between the state and the peasantry, and made more lax the regulations of reforestation, allowing instead for some areas to remain as grassed pasture. 1870 also witnessed the close of the 1860 law, and the subsequent pursuit of new forest laws to protect the mountain slopes from erosion and flooding. Discussions began in 1873 to produce a new law, though it only were properly formalised as a new law in 1882, and was entitled Restoration and Conservation of Alpine Lands. Curiously, its title entirely omits the idea of reforestation, though the peasantry were just as wary of this new piece of legislation as the end goal of the state was no different to what it had been in 1860 – it was simply more inclusive of the needs of local peasants, and opted to pursue engineering solutions as well as natural solutions for the protection of mountain slopes. The law also restricted the state’s ability to acquire new land for reforestation, and mandated there be ample justification in purchasing communal or private land, and created a department known as the Restauration des terrains en montagne (or RTM). This department would largely be responsible for reforestation projects.

However, the constant change in leadership of the Administration des Forêts resulted in this approach (of being more accepting of the peasantry) lacking long-term commitment, as different forest managers approached the pursuit of reforestation and land acquisition in different manners; certainly, some approaches were far more militant, and the 1882 law didn’t always appear as being more lax than its 1860 predecessor. Therefore, whilst having ended in 1832, the War of the Demoiselles evolved into the Affair of the Mountains, for example. This new era of protest, which gained serious momentum after in the later periods of the 19th century, saw peasants adopt a progressively more political and legal approach to protest, culminating in the early 1900s with the local government being comprised of almost exclusively the peasantry. This approach was spearheaded in part, from 1870-1900, by Francois Piquemal, a peasant farmer who promoted rebellion against forest law and the innate right of the peasants to the lands they lived within and worked upon. In response to this political uprising and modernisation of peasant protest, the French state quelled quite extensively its pursuit of reforestation in the area, having realised that state forestry in a location so opposed to it – and with a peasantry willing to hamper quite zealously any efforts made to create forest cover – was an exercise in futility.

An entire mountain slope within the Alps void almost entirely of trees, in 1889. Source: Landscapes for People, Food and Nature.

Partly as a consequence of the association of the Administration des Forêts in the late 19th century with a lack of consideration for peasants, though also because the administration also became responsible for France’s waters in 1896, its organisational name was changed to Eaux et Forêts in 1898. Such a name change also reverted the administration’s name back to what it was prior to 1801, thereby reflecting a more traditional approach to state forestry and land management. Despite this homage to traditionality, the Eaux et Forêts (principally the RTM) pursued the acquisition of land (communally- or privately-owned) for the state en masse, and by 1900 a total of 163,000 hectares had been secured and another 172,000 hectares were highlighted for acquisition. This almost industrial rate of conversion to state-owned land had ramifications for the peasantry of the mountains, and by the project was falling short of its targets – in part, because of protests.

Regardless, the state continued with its aim of obtaining land for reforestation, and therefore in 1913 the Audiffred law was passed, and enabled the state to impose more controls upon privately-owned forest land. Scope even existed to allow the RTM to manage the forest on behalf of the land owner, with the interest of protecting lowland plains from the throes of flooding brought about from the mountains. In the same year, to supplement this new law, the state’s means of managing communal lands was enhanced. A revision potentially triggered initially by the unrest in the late 19th century, the new law developed into one of allowing the Eaux et Forêts to have much greater control over the management of land in upland areas. Whilst the 1882 law had not allowed the state to acquire land for the purpose of reforestation unless there was marked justification for doing so, this new law gave the state scope to acquire any land it desired.

A century of difference on mountain slopes within the Pyrenees. Source: Revuelto et al. (2016).

The onset of World War I, some months later in 1914, relayed the enactment of the 1913 laws, though also led to the laws being supported by a further wave of legislation and political standing pertaining to forest management, which would have repercussions for the rural Alpine and Pyrenean communities. The evident frenetic demand for timber for the war effort rapidly demanded additional resources beyond what the RTM could provide, and therefore in 1915 the Service forestier aux armées (SFA) was created the help with the felling and transport of timber to the front line. By 1917, the Comité général des bois also was born, for similar purposes. In late 1918, when the war has come to a close, a total of over 600,000 hectares of forest had been literally consumed in France, and it was estimated that there was a deficit of 1,636,000 cubic metres of timber each year. The decimated landscape, courtesy of persistent shelling and military action, also meant many standing forests were scarred, and areas to be reforested damaged significantly. Consequently, the Eaux et Forêts and RTM very rapidly earmarked massive areas for replanting, and the mountainous tracts of land did not escape this process.

Initially, the RTM entertained the idea of planting up coniferous forest stands within the Alps and Pyrenees, though the documented evidence and evidence gained after some initial planting projects soon lay waste to this pursuit – the conifers simply could not grow desirably, given an array of climatic and geological factors. Therefore, notably after the formalising of the Chauveau law in 1922, reforesting projects were undertaken under the banner of ‘protective forestry’. In short, the aim of reforestation reverted back to the initial aim from the century before, though with an added impetus: the lowland areas below the slopes were now becoming more heavily industrialised and infrastructure was better, and therefore protection was even more necessary as the costs associated with flooding would be even greater. Not only did the new law drastically limit the ability for agrarian peasants to undertake grazing, the felling of trees, and so on, but it also gave the RTM the power to very swiftly obtain land and reforest areas earmarked for planting. After consultations in 1925 over land masses to be planted, despite being near universally met with unease by rural councils and peasants, projects began as soon as 1926. This resulted in many peasants losing access to their land, and in turn a rural exodus began; such an exodus paved the way for what was to come.

Quite simply, following the exodus, those who remained became more reliant upon the Eaux et Forêts for employment and financial aid; such a reliance was accentuated by the economic plights of the 1930s. Furthermore, within the same decade, and also because of the exodus of rural peasants, the state passed laws recognising the importance of traditional customs in rural communities. Certainly a means of trying to safeguard rural economies and communities, laws in fact allowed – and even promoted – jardinage, which had historically been frowned upon by foresters. Peasants could also collect firewood from state forests, as could they gather fodder for animals, and timber from deformed branches (collectively known as sarclage). Ultimately, as long as the forests remained in tact and could fulfil their purpose for protecting the lands below, peasants had more freedom to practice their traditions. Even pastures were opened up for grazing by sheep and cattle, and some foresters also allowed pastoralists to graze their sheep or cattle within the forest itself by 1936. As a result, peasants began to warm to the idea of state forestry (and the role the forests themselves played in rural life), and the Eaux et Forêts began to warm to the peasantry – quite ironically, one could remark, given the centuries of almost unsolvable animosity between state and mountain peasant.

This decade also witnessed the decline in power of the Eaux et Forêts, however. By 1935, it had 25% fewer staff than it had in the preceding decades, and peasants were calling on the organisation to employ more foresters to enable communal forest management projects to be overseen properly. For the foresters that remained within the organisation, though also those that worked for private landowners, the situation was concerning. Therefore, many had begun to join organisations dedicated to promoting tourism within the French mountains (such as the Société des Amis des Arbres and Touring-Club), as these organisations championed the idea of reforestation upon the slopes of the mountains – notably on communal land abandoned following the outward migration of pastoralists. Since the last decade of the 19th century, such tourism had begun to gain popularity, and by the 1930s the Eaux et Forêts had formed partnerships with many of these organisations – partnerships that also provided funding, from the Eaux et Forêts to the tourist organisations, for the purpose of reforestation projects. The main aim of such reforestation, in the eyes of the tourist organisations, was that their clients (often well-off individuals) wanted to experience unadulterated nature, away from civilisation (notably the peasant under-class). Consequently, this is what the organisations would seek to provide.

Alongside tourism came industry, and in turn a changing demographic. Because the well-off tourists didn’t want to experience the ways of the traditional peasantry, and compiled with the fact that the peasantry could not provide the services demanded by the tourists, businessmen migrated into the mountains and the peasantry further migrated out. In spite of organisations such as the Société Française d’Économie Alpestre and the Fédération Pyrénéenne d’Economie Montagnarde promoting pastoralism during the 1920s and 1930s – a pursuit even funded by the Eaux et Forêts up until 1937 – the rural exodus did not wane, and the original aim of reforestation on the mountain slopes was fulfilled through the natural regeneration of forests on abandoned pasture. Traditional custom of the French mountain slopes thus became a practice of novelty, undertaken only by a few and relegated to the halls of memory for many.


Whited, T. (2000) Forest and Peasant Politics in Modern France. USA: Yale University Press.

Additional reading

Matteson, K. (2015) Forests in Revolutionary France: Conservation, Community, and Conflict, 1669-1848. UK: Cambridge University Press.

Sahlins, P. (1994) Forest Rites: The War of the Demoiselles in Nineteenth-Century France. USA: Harvard University Press.

A history of state forestry in France

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