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Natures of Colonial Change

Review by: Frederick Kruger, Former Director, South African Forestry Research Institute

Jacob Tropp, Natures of Colonial Change: Environmental Relations in the Making of the Transkei, (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2006).

The Transkei is the territory east of the then Cape Colony in South Africa, annexed to the Colony finally in 1880 at the close of a series of frontier wars. It presents an especially interesting case in the history of the world’s many colonisations. A territory of ancient grassland, in which small areas of evergreen closed-canopy forests are scattered, it is the centre of a cattle culture in which diverse African peoples had settled over several centuries, displacing the Khoisan hunter-gatherers and transhumant herders. At the time of colonisation, indigenous institutions of governance – personified in chiefs and headmen, and centred on the Nguni clan system – were fluid, porous and malleable, but durable in the face of the forces of colonial administration. Here colonisation involved the incorporation of these institutions, rather than their destruction, as opposed to the conquest of Chile or the American West, for example. In this, the colonisation of the Transkei resembled the Indian Raj, rather than other histories.

Jacob Tropp’s book, Natures of Colonial Change, focuses on one aspect of this history: the emergence of state forestry in the Transkei during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His book is a history of forestry in this territory. It investigates the ‘technical colonization’ of the then Transkei by forestry professionals, first from the Cape Colony and then from the Union of South Africa (after 1910). In 1948, the incoming Nationalist government famously began to develop the policies of Apartheid, a program that finally ended in 1994 with the first democratically elected multiracial government. This book examines forestry in the Transkei throughout this period.

Before commencing, I should note that I review this book as a forester from within the institutions of forestry in South Africa. Like Tropp, I am interested in exploring and using history to help understand how the past connects with the present, and to navigate current and future issues relating to the environment in South Africa by drawing on this history. Since 1994 there have been profound changes in South African forestry toward a position of social justice – some to good effect, some evidently not. The new forest policy has promoted black economic empowerment and a sound regulatory footing for sustainable forest management. However the extent and sustainability of the forest estate has declined, at a time when demand for its goods and services is growing. Wildfires have cut back the industrial forest by up to 10%; artisanal honey producers and other users of timber and non-timber forest products lose their natural resources to trespassers, and with that, their sales and livelihoods; the biodiversity of the tiny extent of indigenous forest shrinks under the force of illegal extraction. The intellectual property from previously publicly funded forest research is being lost or privately appropriated. In short, there are profound institutional, environmental, and economic issues that require serious academic and public attention. We need to learn from our recent and more distant past in order to navigate these issues. This is the present-day context in which I will situate much of Tropp’s book.

The book has two parts. The first section, with three chapters, deals with the sometimes uneven development of colonial institutions and conflicts that arose among the actors involved in the establishment of colonial authority after the last Frontier War in 1877 and the Mpondo rebellion of 1880. This section sets out the course of events that led to the reservation of the larger forests of Transkei, and the development of the regulatory regime that accompanied it. It traces the hesitant development of timber plantations as an alternative to indigenous forest resources, and the increased usage of plantation supplies in the local economy.

The second part of the book argues that the European forest authorities regarded resource needs of Africans as ‘merely economic’ and ‘simple’; ostensibly, Africans only needed ‘sufficient wood’, which led to the program of restructuring forest access and limiting popular rights to minimal ‘livelihood’ requirements. This argument is a later point of contention. This part provides fascinating insights into the cultural and religious roles of certain forests and trees. Chapter 5, ‘The Python and the Crying Tree’, brings together the contents of colonial reports, the unpublished memoirs of CC Henkel, first Conservator of Forests in the Transkei, and oral history to describe the customary reservation of sacred groves to the use of amagqirha, the traditional healers of the community. Especially interesting is his description of the belief systems that the AmaThembu, recent settlers, brought with them to Transkei. In their native Zululand, they had ascribed magical properties to one species of tree from their native Zululand, which they then transposed onto a tree of another kind in Transkei, for the same purpose of taboo and the reservation of their exclusive role as priests in the community.

Today, the authorities, together with their partners in the local amagqirha, are locked in a losing struggle to protect these same forests against the pressures of a mercantilist trade in traditional medicines, supplying the ever-growing demands in the urbanised population of South Africa. Neither statutory law nor taboo appear now to protect the forests. According to Tropp, his purpose in writing the book is to redress the colonial historical narrative by reflecting ‘… critically on how our understandings of Transkeian environments and resources over time are fundamentally altered when we move beyond dominant state conceptualizations to recognize Africans’ own historical perspectives on their social and natural surroundings’ (p. 13). In this he succeeds, by explaining the evolution of forest policy and the establishment of reserved and managed forest resources in the region, as the colonial administration – magistrates and the forest department – and chiefs, headmen and commoners struggled among themselves to settle the issues that arose with the institutionalisation of state forestry in the Transkei. The book is about the politics of colonial conservation, based on thorough research into the colonial and Union records, and with a strong and novel focus is on how local people – and especially women – reacted to and attempted to use, moderate and subvert the official policies and interventions, as individuals, as leaders, through the courts, by allying themselves with the officials, and by deception and fraud. In the conclusion, Tropp relates the history he reveals to the salient place it should play in ‘the ongoing challenges of dismantling the colonial legacies in South Africa today’ (p. 28).

His book is an extraordinary piece of research. Tropp has combed archival material from 24 sources, as well as the ample records, reports, and correspondences of the Chief Conservator of Forests. He has consulted the records from magistrates’ courts, Reports of Select Committees, as well as academic papers. Key insights, moderated for the faults of memory, come from his interviews of many elder citizens in the region. He reveals much of the history thus far hidden in official documents by skilful analysis, correlation and triangulation of contemporary reports of magistrates, especially the rich court records, and reports of the forest authority.

Tropp concentrates his research on a region he calls Matiwane, in the center of the present OR Tambo District of the Eastern Cape of South Africa, and addresses the period from about 1880 to 1930, after annexation by the Cape Colony and into the period before Apartheid. Tropp does not create a picture of pre-colonial Utopia in the Matiwane, as this area was a crucible of change and conflict traceable back 100 years or more before the 1880s. It was a refuge for tribes fleeing the indigenous imperialism of Shaka during the 1820s. The Cattle Killing of 1857 caused desperate and impoverished Xhosa people from the west also to seek refuge near the Matiwane. To the north and east, lands temporarily vacant were settled in the early 1860s by the Griquas, displaced by colonial incursions in what became the diamond fields far to the west. Chief Lebenya and his people, fleeing the colonial war with the Basuto in the emerging Orange Free State, settled in the district to the north of Matiwane in 1873. Colonial buffer communities to the west created a new demand for timber.

The indigenous forests of the Transkei were a vital resource to the people living there, for fuel, construction of homes, medicines, charms, and culture. Use was more or less loosely regulated by ‘custom’ (his quotation marks). In-migration, population growth and changes in fire regimes placed this tiny resource under pressure, as well as disturbing the ‘traditional’ institutions for governing forest use. But as Tropp makes clear, the forest resources at the time were under pressure of exploitation by sawyers entering from outside the Transkei, and initially, the chiefs collected revenue from these sawyers, accruing ‘handsome profits’ (p. 43), often corruptly. In this cattle culture, a few men in any community owned most of the cattle, commanded most of the access to land, and would have resisted most strongly any change of land use.

Thus, the foresters were confronted by many rent-seekers. From the outset, before forest administration, the magistrates were aware of the danger to the forests, initially relying on chiefs and headmen, and ‘trustworthy’ African men, as ‘unpaid forest guards’, who were rewarded with a percentage of the fines imposed on offenders.

Foresters were thrust into this crucible, arriving with a mindset and policy originally Eurocentric but tempered by the Empire forestry experience in India, where for the first time scientific forestry encountered the need to provide for the traditional economies of village people – the forestry of the commune. Their thinking had also been determined by the realization in the Cape of an overwhelming timber shortage looming, and the need to protect the indigenous forests while creating alternatives to the indigenous resources. They were under pressure to derive revenue to justify the cost of forest administration, but at the same time fully aware of the role of forests in the livelihoods of local people and on the non-use values of forests – water resource protection, soil conservation, and amenity values. The leading foresters were good scientists and ardent students of the botany of forests, and were often the leading ethnobotanists of their time, as attested by the contents of books that Tropp consulted.

These foresters thus set out to reserve forests for state use, that is, the control and management of forests by foresters employed by the state. Magistrates as well as indigenous leaders in council were among those who resisted the foresters and their new policies. Arguments were skilfully formulated by the magistrates, who were often advised by indigenous counsel and frequently took a paternalistic position in favour of the ‘natives’. Not all who resisted the foresters were members of local communities; some were interlopers from the Cape intent on exploitation. Tropp describes these conflicts in detail, and traces the course of development of forest policy and practice as it responded to these pressures.

But in this period and later, a very small fraction of the territory was reserved for forestry – about 0.3% (see below). This ‘incursion’ seems to have had consequences far out of proportion to the area affected – which must mean that the demands on the resource were extremely acute, or that very powerful forces were at play in commanding these forests, or that forestry simply was a pawn in a bigger game. Tropp’s analysis, which brings necessary attention to the conflicts and dynamics involved in the establishment of state forestry in the Transkei, does not adequately explain this disjuncture.

Tropp’s book has two major faults: first, he fails to see how the very small extent of the indigenous evergreen closed-forest would have determined forest policy, and he neglects certain important elements of the evolution forest policy and regulation.

The Transkei seaboard is a sea of ancient grassland, with small islands of evergreen Afrotemperate closed-forest, surrounded by fringes of pioneer Acacia karroo woodlands in a climate that has the potential to sustain forest throughout. This is a landscape that is the product of ancient fire, cultivation and grazing regimes, a scene probably as old as the evolutionary history of the dominant tropical (C4) grasses and the rich diversity of the dominant grasses and forbs that is 6 million years old. In recent times, the evergreen closed forests were at their smallest size during the last Ice Age, expanding slowly as the climate warmed, from about 12,000 years ago. Now, in South Africa, official estimates put these evergreen forests at around 500,000 hectares, about 0.4% of the land area – which is about as large an extent as there ever has been in historic times. But this total is made up of a few large patches of forest, and thousands of small islands. Over 80% of these forests in South Africa are in patches of 40 ha and less, and most of these small patches are in the Eastern Cape.5 The present OR Tambo District, which includes the former Transkei, has about 63,000 ha, which would be about the extent that existed in 1880.

These forests grow slowly; the annual increment of wood is in the order of 2 tonnes per ha per year. Rural people in South Africa require about one tonne of wood per year for household use (though some estimates are as high as 3 tonnes per year). This means that the forests of the Transkei would have been able to support about 130,000 people, whereas during the period examined in the book the population had reached 640,000 to 870,000. The foresters may not have had all the data, but they knew by then that the low yields and high demands created a crisis, and would have perceived an entirely unsustainable resource-use situation.

But Tropp repeatedly creates another scenario, of extensive forests with an abundance of resources. For example, he states, ‘… as colonialism began in the area, vast hardwood forests … existed in the mountains of the Matiwane …’ (p. 21). His source is an early geological reconnaissance by H.C. Schunke of the area that includes vague statements about the forests: ‘Of the coast forest some are of enormous extent, such as the Udwessa …’; the forest that Schunke cites, now called Dwesa, is actually 2,200 ha in extent. He continues: ‘In the early colonial period, much larger afromontane forests also stretched along the seaward side of this range’ (p. 15) and ‘… the vast forest tracts beyond the Kei River, particularly along the coast and in the inland mountain ranges’ (p. 17). Yet Tropp seems to have ignored contemporary reports by foresters to the contrary that worried about prospect of the ‘… disappearance of the Transkeian forests …’, ‘the lamentable condition of the Transkeian forests’.

This ill-grounded position—that forests were vast and their resources abundant—colours all of the analysis. Forest reservation is an ‘imposed wood shortage’, and everything leads from that. This he couples with the notion that the forest policy was to profit from the natural forests, by sale of ‘valuable’ timber to commercial markets. Their programme was, in Karen Brown’s words, ‘…the seizure of vital timber resources that were required for the development of mining and industrial capitalism …’. This is a common view by many historians writing about forestry in South Africa.

But this is not borne out by historical evidence. One example (in a text he cites) illustrates his error. From the Dwesa-Cwebe forest, in all 3,486 ha, the Forest Department allowed timber harvests of up to about 150 tonnes per year, i.e. about 2% of the annual growth increment in the forests. The reason for this was that harvesting was limited to ‘damaged, windfelled, dry and crownless trees’ only. This was the general policy in the Cape, as well as the Transkei, as foresters attempted to achieve sustainable forest management.

By 1893, 14,393 hectares of closed-canopy forests (about 0.3% of the total area of Transkei of 45,000 square km) was reserved to the Crown. This means that the timber harvests from the reserved area would have amounted to about 500-1000 tonnes per year (a quantity never realised), enough for some local industries (some of which still today operate from timber in plantations, contributing employment and local development in a region still economically depressed). But this is hardly the volume to supply ‘mining and industrial capitalism’: mining in South Africa alone took up 800,000 tonnes yearly of timber at its peak, all from managed plantation forests.

The foresters were consciously in a race against time. Unsustainable exploitation of natural forest and the needs of local households were plain. Substitutes were needed in the form of planted forests (for which the ideal species were not yet known). There was a need to create shelterbelts for stock, to employ bridging measures though free access for fuelwood (as teza, headloads of dead and dry wood), and to gain licensed access for other resources from the natural forests (however well or poorly administered). These measures were all in their portfolio of policy instruments used to respond to the evident problems they faced as conservators. Thus reservation was accompanied by diverse measures to allow access to forests.

But Tropp does not discuss these factors. His history, as a result, overlooks a proper account of these policies, as well as the existence and consequences of the tension between forest conservation and forest production, then and into the future. Here and elsewhere, Tropp has little sympathy for the foresters and their official ‘narratives’: they are ‘brutish’, and ‘gloating’, at best ‘fiery conservationists’. And foresters now working to establish the new forest economy in the region find in their interactions with local people are confronted by the ghosts of foresters past, the ‘the legacy of the harsh side of early forestry’.

But not all foresters fit this harsh model. Leading foresters in South Africa’s history were well educated, erudite and well-connected in scientific circles. Many were extraordinarily imaginative and innovative – Henry G. Fourcade, for example, was an eminent forester, botanist, trigonometrician, and pioneer photogrammetrist. Foresters in South Africa were conservationists and early biodiversity managers. Every Crown forest was demarcated with multiple ecosystem benefits in mind, especially the conservation of water. A good history needs to look beyond the stereotypes.

Although foresters were embedded in the colonial systems of the time, they made earnest attempts to find a forest policy and programme fitted to the situation in Transkei. Tropp’s prejudice against foresters prevents us from learning a valuable history of the evolution of this forest policy. And indeed, by Tropp’s account, the professional foresters in the Transkei appear to have missed important opportunities. While their policies provided for headmen’s forests, they kept these at arm’s length, rather than adopting a village forestry approach as in India – and the professional forestry community in the Cape was well aware of forest policy in India, at least because the Cape Forest Act of 1888 was based on the Madras Forest Act of 1882. They apparently failed to recognise the importance of the woodlands of Acaia karroo that grew outside the closed-canopy forests, with much higher productivity, and which may have been integrated into the forestry programme to good effect. Thus they evidently missed the opportunity to institute participatory forest management practices, now provided for the South Africa’s National Forests Act, practices that are beginning to work for forest conservation at least in some cases. This may have been because they were blinded through ‘Imperialism hardening into racism’, because of difficulties with fluid and factious local institutions, or the primacy given to protection of the natural forests and the race to create substitute resources through plantations. Tropp appears to favour a racist explanation, while recognising the frailties of traditional institutions, but the historical evidence throughout his book appears to support the last explanation the people were new arrivals, their economic and social systems made frail by their exposure to war, drought, and famine.

It is not clear that Tropp’s goal—of contributing to the ‘dismantling the colonial legacies in South Africa’ (p. 2)—is a worthy goal for a history of this kind. To quote Manmohan Singh: ‘it is possible for an Indian Prime Minister to assert that India’s experience with Britain had its beneficial consequences too’. This speech refers to the imperial legacies that India has adopted and owned. In South Africa, the colonial institutions remain, and many are necessary. New forest law, much amended to ensure redress and equity, as well as forest sustainability, are nonetheless a colonial legacy. Professional foresters are necessary, as is scientific forestry; the inherited institutions of education, adapting as they have done, are essential to maintaining a cadre of skilled people to work for forest conservation in all the conflicting demands of today. Tropp’s recasting of the history of state forestry, bringing in local perspectives and focusing on the conflicts which arose out of forestry institutionalisation in the Transkei has been long missing. His tendency to perpetuate stereotypical perspectives on the practice of forestry and foresters themselves, however, serves to mask valuable and continued lessons and contributions made to contemporary forestry policy and practice in South Africa.

But in conclusion, Tropp’s history is a vital contribution to forest history, standing with the excellent local history of the Dwesa-Cwebe forests compiled by Palmer and colleagues, and the recent works of Karen Brown, as a pioneering work in building the picture of a history so far mostly untold.

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