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date: 22 March 2019

Forest History

Summary and Keywords

Natural and human histories intersect in Africa’s forested regions. Forests of several types cover the continent’s mountains, savannas, and river basins. Most current classifications divide forest by physical structure. Open canopy forests occur in semi-arid regions of western, eastern, and southern Africa, while closed canopy rain forests with large emergent trees cover much of the Congo River basin, the upland forests of Rift Valley escarpments, and the volcanic mountains in eastern and Central Africa. Along the tropical coasts, mangrove forests hug the river estuaries. For much of human history, Africa’s forests have anchored foraging and agrarian societies. In the process of domesticating the landscape through agriculture, Africans modified forests in ways that ranged from large-scale deforestation to forest creation on savanna environments. A boom in forest commodities preceded European colonialism and then continued when foreign governments took formal possession of African territory in the late 19th century. In this context, states ascribed value to forest trees as commodities and so managed them as profitable agricultural crops. Colonial forestry separated people from forests physically and culturally. This fundamental shift in human–forest relations still resonates in postcolonial African countries under the guise of internationally funded forest conservation.

Keywords: forest history, forestry, conservation, colonialism, biological diversity

The Good Forest in African History and Ecology

Although forests cover less than 10 percent of Africa’s surface area, their ecological importance extends far beyond the land that they cover. They regulate water flow in river valleys. They serve as carbon sinks and therefore help to dampen human-induced climate change. They harbor globally important biological diversity. Forests thus exert a very large ecological influence on their proximate regions. Africa’s rivers, for example, rise in moist upland forests then flow into drier environments where their waters support food production. More than that, forests have supplied Africa’s human populations with cultural and material sustenance. People have come therefore to value forests for the life that they support both inside and outside their boundaries. As with most valuable landscapes, people have historically tried to manage forests in ways that take advantage of their multiple productive capacities. Africa’s forest history is as much a fight over the definition of the good forest as it is a conflict over resources.

Sources for Africa’s forest history are found in the literature of physical and biological science, anthropology, history, religion, literature, and philosophy. Each discipline casts forest history in a different light. The natural history favored by science renders the past in millions of years, time scales that dwarf human history. In this history, dynamism describes forest expansion, contraction, migration, and ecological change. To the natural historian, then, human alteration of forest environments is both very recent and extraordinarily jarring. Homo sapiens has clearly and indelibly marked Africa’s forests. Especially over the past several thousand years, African farmers and foragers domesticated forested land in order to produce food in the form of grains, legumes, tubers, and fish. To Africans who lived in or near one, the good forest appeared as a botanical mosaic where each constitutive swatch reflected the legacy of centuries of human-nature interaction. Over the past two centuries, new ascriptions of forest value have become powerfully evident in the tree plantations of industrial timber production and in the fortress forests of conservation philosophy.

A Chronology of Africa’s Forest History and Forestry Conservation

The Prehuman Forest

Africa’s forests evolved in concert with the continent’s geological and climatic history. The most recent phase of Africa’s geological uplifting, which formed Africa’s Rift Valley and volcanic mountains, began about twenty-two million years ago. Areas of plentiful rainfall supported forest growth. Climatic pulsations over the Quaternary Era, the past two and a half million years, also played a prominent role in forest evolution across the continent. During the Pleistocene’s long dry and cool phases, areas that continued to receive stable rainfall—highlands, tropical coastlines, river valleys—fostered high levels of species endemism and biological diversity.1

Human Domestication Phase, 40,000 BP–1850

During this era, human beings shaped forests into cultural landscapes in the Congo Basin, in uplands and mountains, along Africa’s tropical coastlines, and in the savanna-forest transition zones. Scholarly histories of particular forests remain tied closely to research in archaeology, palynology, and language.2 During this period’s late stages, demographic change, agricultural plant introductions, and iron working all influenced forest history trajectories. Forest ecology came to reflect agroforestry patterns as well as the pulsations of climate change, deforestation, and recovery.

The Anthropocene—Intensification Policy and Practice, 1850–Present

This era begins with the 19th-century race among European imperialists to secure forest commodities such as slaves, ivory, and rubber. The violence that permeated the infrastructure of exchange in central and eastern Africa skewed human–forest interrelationships. Human (and elephant) population declines left some areas open to forest colonization. The 19th century saw many communities lose control of their agroforestry systems for lack of labor.

By the turn of the 20th century, colonial forestry departments had garnered enough power to survey and claim most of what they believed to be exploitable forests. As justification for the land grab, foresters cited their own, arguably limited, scientific expertise, arguing that indigenous peoples threatened valuable timber resources with ecological degradation and ultimately deforestation. The stories of looming ecological crisis played out across Africa’s agrarian lands throughout the colonial era. Colonial development specialists created a model of ecological history whose function combined population growth with a perceived backwardness in African agricultural systems. The result was unrelenting deforestation, accelerated soil erosion, and general ecological decline.3 By the end of the colonial period, a pattern of western intervention in rural Africa had become firmly established in conservation and forestry circles. After World War II, international conservation organizations began to assert control over the orientation of research and funding.

In the forest itself, dramatic ecological change accompanied this period. Colonial governments severely restricted access to what they regularly referred to as the “forest estate.” Forestry departments contracted with timber companies to clear-cut the indigenous forest to make room for tree plantations of exotic species. All the while, the colonial state apparatus evicted small-scale farmers and pastoralists, creating a clear boundary and a no-go zone beyond it.

As with their colonial antecedents, international conservation projects in Africa’s forests regarded humanity’s role in African forest history as a zero-sum game of ever-creeping ecological degradation. Historians of Africa have countered with stories that complicated the debate over the history, meaning, usage, and ownership of forested environments. This writing-the-community-back-into-the-forest history argues consistently for local history as an important contributor to landscape health.

Natural History and Biogeography in African Forests

Because human communities have managed Africa’s various forest types as agricultural land, sacred space, and hunting and fishing sanctuaries, a forest’s natural history cannot be completely disentangled from the signatures of human manipulation. Biologists have nonetheless succeeded in using proxy evidence to make a case for climate as the major driver of prehuman forest history.4

Forest classification hinges on physical structure, that is, the open or closed nature of its tree canopies.5 Open forests, also known as Brachystegia (or “Miombo”) woodlands, tend to populate seasonal or semi-arid environments. Closed forests grow in areas of rainfall sufficient to support the growth of trees at least ten meters tall and with interlocking crowns. Another distinction lies with the make-up of evergreen and deciduous trees. Conservation initiatives, colonial forest reservation, and logging concessions focused their efforts on the more abundant and marketable woody biomass of the closed forests.

Africa’s natural forest types include the following:

  1. 1. Tropical evergreen and semi-evergreen lowland rainforests: Thirty to forty meters in height, the trees form a closed canopy pierced by taller emergent trees. These forests feature high biomass density and high species diversity. Some examples occur along coastal West Africa in southern Liberia, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, and the Congo River basin.

  2. 2. Tropical wetland forests: The trees grow in saltwater swamps along coastlines or in river estuaries. These forests form important thresholds between the ocean and farmlands and have been historically valuable for providing timber, especially for building poles. Freshwater swamp forests, some continuously submerged and some seasonally submerged, occur mainly in the Congo Basin and often contain valuable timber trees.

  3. 3. Tropical montane and submontane forests: Forest vegetation differs according to elevation gradient with a division between upland and lowland forest types occurring at about one thousand meters above sea level. Montane forests generally thrive in cooler, moister climates where daily temperature variation increases with altitude. Examples can be found in Cameroon, East Africa’s Eastern Arc Mountains, the Great Rift Valley volcanoes and highland escarpments, and the Ethiopian highlands.

  4. 4. Tropical dry deciduous forests: Also called Miombo or Brachystegia woodland, these forests grow in areas with a pronounced dry season. They are more open in character and have a lower canopy than the wetter types.6

Recent cycles in forest history revolve around climate change, most clearly apparent during the Pleistocene epoch.7 During the drier, cooler phases of glaciation, African forests became fragmented, restricted to ever-shrinking areas of sufficient rainfall. For long spans of the past two million years, forest plants and animal species evolved in island-like isolation, which led to high levels of speciation and endemism in the refuges.8 During the warmer and wetter phases of the interglacial periods, forests expanded, recolonizing what had been drier savannas and deserts. What natural scientists refer to as Africa’s hotspots of forest biodiversity represent laboratories for the study of these long-term evolutionary processes.

Forest and African Life before the 19th Century

At least forty thousand years ago, and possibly as long as two hundred thousand years ago, human social life in and around forests complicated natural history.9 People clearly adapted to climate fluctuations, keeping to the transition zones between the forest and open country in order to take advantage of both savanna and forest biomes. In Gabon, for example, Stone Age people foraged in rainforests but chose to live on hilltops and ridges along the forest boundary.10 On the level of cosmology, forests contained powerful symbols linking past and present. Old settlement sites, sacred groves, and long-lived trees all found their way into an embedded cultural history of place. These early forest residents are the cultural ancestors to the hunting peoples, often clumped together derogatorily as Pygmies, or more carefully categorized as ethnicities like Batwa or Mbuti of Central Africa’s rainforests.11

Between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago, Bantu-speaking farmers began to spread into the Central African rainforests of southern Cameroon, and beyond. Recent research argues that the agricultural communities took advantage of a climate shift to drier conditions. Increasing seasonality resulted in longer and more severe dry periods from approximately 2,500 and 2,200 years bp, leaving forests more open and fragmented, a condition amenable to the cultivation of millet, yams, and other cultigens associated with what came to be called the Bantu expansion.12 During subsequent centuries, Bantu language and culture successfully colonized much of eastern and southern Africa, carrying out what Jan Vansina has referred to as a slow revolution in farming and social organization.13 In order to legitimately occupy rain forests, Bantu-speaking farmers and fishermen developed complicated social relationships with the more mobile autochthons, recognizing them as the original inhabitants who possessed a vast knowledge of forest plants and animals. The newcomers also recognized ancestor spirits that animated life in order to legitimate their right to dwell in and to cultivate Central Africa’s forests. Over time, by developing a more sedentary existence, the colonists came to dominate new networks of exchange and the geography of land use. Rain forest adaptation under the influence of agriculture represented only a piece of a much larger process that included highland and plateau forests, not to mention Miombo woodlands and savannas.

Farming people imported iron-working technology into forests across eastern, central, and southern Africa during the first millennium ce. Iron tools helped to intensify long-fallow shifting agriculture. There is evidence that the timber demands for iron smelting dramatically altered, or even eliminated, forest vegetation communities in areas of intensive iron production.14 Land use in Africa’s forests did not necessarily result in forest loss. In the forested highlands of Guinea, agroforestry practice actually enlarged the area of forest vegetation.15 Between one and two thousand years ago, Bantu-speaking farmers introduced bananas and plantains, Asian imports, into agroforestry. They modified Musa species genetically to create multiple varieties that fit well into forest environments in highlands and lowlands.16 African forest farmers thus created a mosaic of secondary forest types. In addition to the land-use systems briefly described above, people understood forests as places of life, ritual, healing, ancestor veneration, and intense power. For millennia, African culture and forests co-evolved.

Unfortunately, the long-term ecological history of human–forest relations remains only vaguely understood. Clearly, the dramatic temperature pulsations over glacial epochs of the Pleistocene shaped the flora that human beings subsequently altered for food and iron production systems over the course of the past several thousand years. In their agroforestry complexes, people imitated forest structure, and in their settlement patterns, African communities sought to remain physically close to forest ecosystems. Rather than thinking about ecological conservation in a western sense, Africans incorporated forests into a larger cosmology forged in daily life.

The Transition to Capitalism

Over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, the global demand for tropical forest commodities increased markedly. In the heavily forested regions of central and western Africa, global demand drove harvests of slaves, ivory, rubber, and palm oil, linking supply in Africa to demand in Europe and the Americas. Although European powers turned away from the slave trade during the second half of the 19th century, commerce in forest products continued apace. In late-19th-century Gabon, for example, timber exploitation created a patchwork of resource depletion and exploitation along the Ogooué Valley.17 In eastern Africa’s coastal forests, profit seekers mined copal and extracted rubber. The Omani ruling classes inserted plantation systems into coast forest areas as well.18 European trading firms and their agents attempted increasingly to either tap into or control this trade wherever it became profitable.

European-style forestry and empire building merged in colonial Africa in the final years of the 19th century. Together they formed a piece of a modernization project that called for ecological and social control. The new power brokers in European capitals confiscated thousands of hectares of indigenous land in a process that proved to be extraordinarily disorienting to local life and to the forests themselves, which became sites of bitter conflict. As the battle played out, timber concessions reoriented labor patterns and stripped and sold the indigenous forest trees without providing any long-term economic development.19

As colonies consolidated their administrative power, they brought into the bureaucracy forestry officers. Many had trained in Germany, where forestry science and management had a long history, or in British colonial settings like India or South Africa. Colonial governments created land commissions to legalize land confiscation that included both forested and potentially forested lands (often places believed to have been forested) in the interest of meeting lumber demand in colonial and international markets. Their ideology of control introduced a decidedly secular view of forest value to their new possessions in Africa.

Forestry departments hired surveyors to measure their estate. This extension of European domain involved thousands of square miles stretching across many different ecozones, and so applied to many different forest communities a fairly uniform exploitation plan based on cleaning out the indigenous forest and then planting woodlots of fast-growing exotic trees. Foresters instilled an image of the land alienations’ permanence by demarcating their estate property line with fast-growing trees like eucalyptus, an Australian native. Alien trees thus stood guard over the estate.

In the process of alienating the land, colonial administrations stripped indigenous people of their usufruct rights. Forestry departments rebranded those who remained in the now-commercial forests as “squatters.” The many acts of forest confiscation set the stage for the conflicts to follow.20 Land reservation also had ecological repercussions outside the reserves as people struggled to reorient agricultural life without the firewood, timber, medicinal plants, and meat that the forest provided. Perhaps most importantly, forest reservations alienated land from small-scale farming systems, creating a growing cadre of landless farmers.

Inside the forest reserves, silviculture science began to transform the landscape ecologically. The German model of sustained-yield forestry, which conceptualized trees as agricultural crops to be planted and harvested on a regular rotation, dominated forestry practice worldwide. In Africa, forestry departments first developed a felling plan and then hired logging concessions to clear-cut the designated areas and harvest all valuable indigenous trees. Forestry scientists drew on nursery stock in order to propagate new stands of what they believed to be more viable—usually exotic—tree species. In an ecological sense, they imposed a simple, straight-lined arboreal order onto what had been, to them, a messy forest.21 In defiance of the new order, local people continued to gather medicinal plants, to cultivate gardens, or to graze livestock in the forest. Forestry departments countered with forest guards, prison sentences, and fines for trespassers. A discourse of indigenous criminality and ecological threat to their estate gained traction among colonial foresters.22 Crossing a forest boundary became a punishable “incursion” rather than a matter of course in daily life. Farming inside the boundary led inevitably to eviction. In general, the colonial state’s restrictions on indigenous life in and around forests fostered an atmosphere of low-level, ongoing violence.23

Where colonial forestry departments practiced sustained-yield forestry, logging and tree nursery operations absorbed the newly landless population into a system called taungya, which British foresters had developed in their tree plantations in colonial Asia. In return for their labor, workers received temporary access to the land beneath the plantation trees, until their canopy closed. Laborers then shifted their gardens to new clear-cut areas and repeated the process. Taungya work gave landless people a lifeline in the felling zone, but without the security of tenure rights.24

In less-organized felling zones, a floating population of loggers working for wages followed the concessionary timber operations as they searched for marketable tree species. In the Congo Basin and its tributaries, logging operations simply removed timber and moved on without a thought to sustained harvests. The workers found themselves adrift, living in camps for part of the year and in logging towns for the rest. Meanwhile logging operations had become enterprises of intensive forest exploitation.25

Colonial forestry management in Africa destroyed large swaths of Africa’s biologically diverse, old-growth forest communities. In the replanting zones, forestry departments introduced Australian and American species in genera that included Eucalyptus, Pinus, Casuarina, Cupressaceae, and Grevillea, among others. Some of the alien monocultures turned out to be vulnerable to insect infestations and disease, while others yielded a harvest or became staples in agroforestry practice. In any event, forestry departments were carrying out experiments in silviculture that significantly altered ecosystems. In South Africa, foresters went so far as to plant alien tree species on grasslands of the eastern escarpment covering valuable pastoral lands. Foresters justified the industrial tree farm by arguing—without evidence—that they conferred to the land the same ecological benefits as mature, multi-species forests or grasslands.26

In 1935, the Empire Forestry Conference convened in South Africa during a time when foresters from across the British colonies worried about worldwide deforestation, soil desiccation, and drought.27 In this context of ecological crisis, the delegates engaged in an intense debate over the hydrological effects of planting alien tree species. The anti-exotic faction argued that tree belts and wood lots of Australian natives absorbed ground water and robbed soils of fertility, creating local deserts. The critical fusillade came from ecologists who argued that their colleagues who favored exotics saw trees as cultivars rather than part of a habitat community.28 Clearly, the debate over the nature of the good forest and forest succession had shifted and a sustained critique of tree plantations continued through the colonial period.29 By the 1950s, forestry scientists and staff began to embrace the value of a holistic forest habitat, or an interrelated community of flora and fauna.30

Academic Science in Colonial Forests

Before World War II, scholarly scientific work on African forests represented a parallel stream of knowledge creation that at times dovetailed with forestry department priorities of sustained-yield production and at times took a more preservationist approach based on emerging theories of plant succession. Forestry staff and academic biologists nonetheless agreed that colonial governments should own forested lands. Both camps also agreed that African land use axiomatically degraded natural forest environments.31 It followed that colonial scientists developed a research paradigm based on a shrinking and threatened forest, a narrative that carried a great deal of explanatory power in colonial scientific circles.

Naturalists had begun to categorize and name African plants before colonial governments had become established. In the 1880s, Oscar Baumann, an Austrian geographer, carried out some of the most compelling descriptions of African forest vegetation.32 Baumann read the landscape of East Africa’s mountains as discrete vegetation zones, much in the vein of 19th-century explorer Alexander von Humboldt’s study of Andean vegetation communities. Indeed, highland forest vegetation tended to correspond to distinct altitudinal gradients of temperature, rainfall, and aspect that placed very different ecosystems in close proximity to one another. Some mountain forests, Baumann observed, also exhibited very high levels of species diversity.

A German botanist, Adolph Engler, significantly enriched Baumann’s work with a compelling description of forest biodiversity—“Über die Gliederung der Vegetation von Usambara und der angrenzenden Gebiete”—which appeared in 1894.33 Engler focused on forests where German settlement, coffee production, and forestry initiatives would require the clearance of the same forests he deemed worthy of scientific study. The two seemingly contradictory streams of thought about forested environments came together in 1902 in German East Africa’s Amani Biological Research Station. The German government decided to build Amani within one of the most biologically diverse mountain forests on the planet, yet economic priorities overrode scientific research impulses at Amani. The station became one of many colonial science concerns, studying ways to propagate marketable crops in the tropics.34 In the mountain forests around Amani, colonial coffee plantations replaced thousands of acres of dense rainforest with the straight lines of coffee shrubs surrounded by windbreaks of fast-growing trees.

After World War I, the research continued at Amani under the British Tanganyika mandate. British scientists revived ecological study, including the ornithological research of Reginald Moreau and Geoffrey Milne’s work on soil degradation on moribund coffee plantations. Scientists who lived in such settings increasingly conceived of a forest as something wholly distinct from a tree plantation.35

Colonial forestry and academic science saw history more or less the same way. Local farming inevitably threatened valuable forest. The “good forest,” for colonial experts, was in general an unpeopled place. At best, Africans disturbed forests; at worst, they destroyed them. Under colonial management, foresters assaulted forest life by treating species as variables in mathematical formulas that yielded to the state timber royalties and wood products. An alternative view in the scientific discourse that favored preservation for biological diversity value garnered little actual power to effect change. In this context, forests without economically viable timber species could and did survive colonial-era logging.

Postcolonial Conservation—Biodiversity and Community-Based Conservation

After independence, most African nations that carried large forested tracts followed their colonial predecessors in their strong orientation toward exploitation. Forestry policy in general continued to emphasize logging and replanting with fast-growing, exotic tree plantations. At the same time, conservationists had begun to establish a powerful lobby for the reservation of large tracts of African forests and savannas in order to preserve species richness and diversity. Scientific and pseudoscientific publications that promoted preservation continued to paint small-scale farmers and pastoralists as agents of forest fragmentation.36 Philosophically, modern forest conservation followed its colonial predecessors in advocating for the separation of agrarian communities from forests.37 This essentially Western conservation philosophy ignored the very real problems of social inequity and poverty in developing nations.38 Dan Brockington has aptly referred to this stance as “fortress conservation.”39

Meanwhile, African governments struggled to balance the multiple demands on forests as areas for the expansion of small-scale agriculture, logging, and conservation.40 Well-funded organizations like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the World Wildlife Fund began in the late 1980s and early 1990s to lobby and to underwrite African governments’ preservation of biologically diverse forests. The scientific community likewise urged immediate action.41 In a watershed moment for conservation, many African countries became signatories to the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity, a multilateral treaty from 1992 to 1993 that required nations to set aside for conservation areas of high species diversity.

The convention codified the historical view in the field of conservation biology that small-scale farmers simply colonized and destroyed forests. According to one scholar, “Bantu-speaking peoples stumbled on virgin ecosystems that ideally suited their economy, with rich soils, abundant rainfall, and moderate temperatures; by the time Europeans arrived a hundred years ago, much of the original montane forests were gone at lower altitudes.”42 Another, more nuanced though less powerful, historical interpretation would suggest that Bantu colonization, far from a “stumble,” systematically transformed forests in ways that varied across space and time. In fact, most historical evidence argues for millennia human–forest co-evolution that produced many of the forest environments which Europeans stumbled upon in the 19th century.

In recent scholarship on resource value, an international conservation phenomenon with deep significance for African forest life has been dubbed “green grabbing”—the appropriation of land and resources for environmental ends.43 Clearly, naked accumulation of African land by foreign entities is not new. However, this episode of “primitive accumulation” is transnational and the players include nongovernmental organizations, international conservation organizations, the business community, and African states. Green grabbing emerges in new types of legal claims by international entities on African areas deemed appropriate for conservation. As with fortress conservation, the power to determine a landscape’s use value becomes the issue of contest. It follows that forest reservation and protection become one piece of a larger resource grab that international conservation entities carry out in all of Africa’s biomes in the name of development and modernization.

The green-grabbing discourse may at times oversimplify the history of complex local processes. At the Dukuduku Forest in Natal, South Africa, for instance, industrial sugar producers and conservation interests vie to define the good forest against land restitution claims from “squatters,” a mix of people who now live the coastal forest (some long-time residents and some relative newcomers). Conservationists see a forest, a river, or a marsh as an ecological entity that has survived cycles of small-scale agriculture, industrial logging, and sugar production. They measure health on a continuum of degradation and restoration. In contrast, the Dukuduku residents’ successful land claim made a legal case for the application of post-Apartheid land law instituted in South Africa designed to redress past abuses of power.44 The case raises important and broader questions about history, land use, and land ownership. At Dukuduku, sharp conflicts over the biological, economic, and moral value continue to emerge in forested landscapes.45

Forests and Communities

Scholars have begun to extend the definition of a forest beyond a place of pristine nature to include the heavily domesticated landscapes of agroforestry, a suite of systems with deep historical roots. Agricultural forests appear to enhance environmental and social resiliency.46 Successful agroforestry has been observed in neighborhoods where farmers retain an extant environmental knowledge base that reaches back generations. Moreover, careful historical study has demonstrated that agroforestry practice can actually enhance local biological diversity.47 A multitude of historical contingencies, such as drought, famine, migration, and crop introductions, all play critical roles in the nature of the evolution and nature of the agroforest.48

Sacred groves, another feature of the African agricultural landscape, are spiritual reifications of forest that memorial the past in some way and serve as vital community institutions.49 Forest groves served as ritual sites to which people traveled for personal spiritual sustenance or to encounter supernatural power. In coastal Kenya, Kaya sacred forests mark old settlement sites and in this way become community centers of ancestral history and cultural identity. As communities around the groves place less institutional relevance on these sites, individuals interested in quick cash returns can easily and quickly convert the trees into money without fear of sanction.50

Discussion of the Literature

Natural History and the Nature of Forest Ecosystems

In much forest natural history, humans figure as agents of environmental desiccation or destruction.51 The boldest attempt to add nuance to the debate, the work of Weber et al. offers one of the most complete compendiums of forest history for Africa and individual authors to in fact explore the interactions of Stone Age peoples with forest environments.52 Nonetheless, ancient forest dwellers, especially foragers, tend to be portrayed as ahistorical societies, remnants of early members of our species who took what the forest had to offer rather than to modify its fauna and flora.53 The swidden farmer who subsequently colonized Africa’s forests fit into the natural history paradigm as an actively destructive force.54

Given their aversion to human intrusion, most natural histories focus on biological evolution prior to the Holocene. These works have an avowed bias toward forest preservation for biodiversity conservation. Jonathan Kingdon’s Island Africa is one of the most elegant examples of this type of writing aimed at a general audience. Other works have a decidedly academic thrust.55

Landscape Reading

The release of Misreading the African Landscape initiated a paradigm shift in writing forest history. The authors, James Fairhead and Melissa Leach, thoroughly critiqued what they argued was a deeply flawed French colonial interpretation of forest history in West Africa’s forest–savanna transition zone. The authors demonstrated through multiple types of evidence, including aerial photographs, archival records, and oral history, that forest islands in Guinea’s savanna were not relicts of a more forested past. Rather they were old village sites where people enriched or even created a forested landscape. They debunked, at least in one setting, the degradation narrative so commonly associated with African farmers.

In a particularly innovative related work of interdisciplinary research, Carola Lentz and Hans-Jürgen Sturm have reconstructed the vegetation history of an agricultural region in Burkina Faso that shows how settlement patterns, biogeography, and migration episodes conjoined historically to create forested parks.56

Forests as Cultural Space

This scholarly literature, based in language study and oral history, recounts local forest histories in which peoples’ past connects very deeply to place. Several excellent works on this type of forest culture have focused on Central African rainforests. The classic is Robert Harms’s Games against Nature, which examines how Central Africans mastered the swamp forests of the Congo-Ubangi basin. Kairn Klieman’s The Pygmies Were Our Compass tells a story of forest transformation tied to the history of foraging and agriculture in Central Africa’s rain forest. Another excellent work that entwines culture and environment is Tamara Giles-Vernick’s Cutting the Vines of the Past, which examines as conceptual space the forests of the Sangha river basin in the Central African Republic.

The historical work on sacred groves fits into this genre. One of the best and most comprehensive works to date is Michael Sheridan and Celia Nyamweru’s volume appropriately titled African Sacred Groves. Essays in this collection span the continent from Morocco to Madagascar and show the surprising pervasiveness of these neighborhood forests.

Colonial Forestry Practice and Conservation

Histories of forestry practice in colonial Africa focus on the conflict between colonial forestry ideology and practice and indigenous use. They cover issues like ecological change, labor patterns, colonial evictions, and land disputes.57 The stories tell of the institutionalization of forestry practice and the resulting conflicts that resulted in disenfranchisement of indigenous forest users, often referred to as squatters.58

Another set of works discusses colonial forestry practice. Early colonial foresters introduced a number of exotic tree species with varying ecological effects. Among these, Australian trees figured prominently.59


The conflict over forest land occupies a significant niche in the literature on the environmental history of postcolonial Africa. The heart of the issue revolves around a debate over the nature of international conservation. The literature sketches the complex set of institutions that shape modern conservation of protected areas. And it highlights the power differentials inherent in the process.60

Primary Sources

Holdings for Africa’s forest history are spread across a number of very different types of archives. In the realm of oral history, the knowledge exists locally. It is embedded in the structure of language and narratives. For colonial documents, various national archives hold them in the files of forest officers, and other relevant colonial officials. Useful primary sources are found as well in aerial and landscape photographs, surveys, explorer accounts, pollen studies, and material culture, to name a few.

Further Reading

Fairhead, James, and Melissa Leach. Misreading the African Landscape: Society and Ecology in a Forest-Savanna Mosaic. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Harms, Robert. Games against Nature. 2d ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Kingdon, Jonathan. Island Africa: Evolution of Africa’s Animals and Plants. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.Find this resource:

Klieman, Kairn. The Pygmies Were Our Compass: Bantu and Batwa in the History of West Central Africa, Early Times to 1900 CE. London: Heinemann, 2003.Find this resource:

Kreike, Emmanuel. Deforestation and Reforestation in Namibia: The Global Consequences of Local Contradictions. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2010.Find this resource:

Lovett, J. C., and S. K. Wasser, eds. Biogeography and Ecology of the Rain Forests of Eastern Africa. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993.Find this resource:

McClanahan, T. R., and T. P. Young, eds. East African Ecosystems and Their Conservation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Sheridan, Michael, and Celia Nyamweru, eds. African Sacred Groves: Ecological Dynamics and Social Change. Oxford: James Currey, 2008.Find this resource:

Sundnes, Frode. “Scrubs and Squatters: The Coming of the Dukuduku Forest, an Indigenous Forest in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.” Environmental History 18 (April 2013): 277–308.Find this resource:

Sunseri, Thaddeus. Wielding the Ax: State Forestry and Social Conflict in Tanzania, 1820–2000. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Troup, R. S. Colonial Forest Administration. London: Oxford University Press, 1940.Find this resource:

Vansina, Jan. Paths in the Rainforests: Toward a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Weber, William, Lee J. T. White, Amy Vedder, and Lisa Naughton-Treves, eds. African Rain Forest Ecology and Conservation: An Interdisciplinary Perspective. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

White, Lee J. T. “The African Rain Forest: Climate and Vegetation.” In African Rain Forest Ecology and Conservation: An Interdisciplinary Perspective. Edited by William Weber, Lee J. T. White, Amy Vedder, and Lisa Naughton-Treves, 3–29. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.Find this resource:


(1.) Jonathan Kingdon, Island Africa: Evolution of Africa’s Animals and Plants (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 10–22.

(2.) Jan Vansina, Paths in the Rainforests: Toward a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990). See also multiple issues of Azania.

(3.) For example, see G. V. Jacks and R. O. Whyte, The Rape of the Earth (London: Faber and Faber, 1939).

(4.) Kingdon, Island Africa, chapters 9 and 10.

(5.) Alan Grainger, “Forest Environments,” in The Physical Geography of Africa, eds. William M. Adams, Andrew S. Goudie and Antony R. Orme (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 174.

(6.) Ibid., 182–183.

(7.) Jean Maley, “The Impact of Arid Phases on the African Rain Forest through Geological History,” in African Rain Forest Ecology and Conservation: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, eds. William Weber, Lee J. T. White, Amy Vedder, and Lisa Naughton-Treves (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 68–78.

(8.) See, for example, F. White, “The History of the Afromontane Archipelago and the Scientific Need for Its Conservation,” African Journal of Ecology 19 (1981): 33–54.

(9.) See, for example, Patrick Roberts and Michael Petraglia, “Pleistocene Rainforests: Barriers or Attractive Environments for Early Human Foragers?,” World Archaeology 47.5 (2015): 718–739; and Kairn Klieman, The Pygmies Were Our Compass: Bantu and Batwa in the History of West Central Africa, Early Times to 1900 CE (London: Heinemann, 2003).

(10.) Richard Oslisly, “The History of Human Settlement in the Middle Ogooué Valley (Gabon): Implications for the Environment,” in William Weber, Lee J. T. White, Amy Vedder, and Lisa Naughton-Treves, eds., African Rain Forest Ecology and Conservation: An Interdisciplinary Perspective (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 103–116.

(11.) Klieman, Pygmies, chapter 1.

(12.) Alfred Ngomanda, Katharina Neumann, Astrid Schweizer, and Jean Maley, “Seasonality Change and the Third Millennium BP Rainforest Crisis in Southern Cameroon (Central Africa),” Quaternary Research 71 (2009): 315.

(13.) Jan Vansina, “A Slow Revolution: Farming in Subequatorial Africa,” Azania 29–30 (1994–1995): 15–26.

(14.) For the Lake Victoria Basin, see Peter Schmidt, “Historical Ecology and Landscape Transformation in Eastern Equatorial Africa” in Historical Ecology Cultural Knowledge and Changing Landscapes, ed. Carol Crumley (Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press, 1994), 108–109.

(15.) See the seminal work of James Fairhead and Melissa Leach, Misreading the African Landscape: Society and Ecology in a Forest-Savanna Mosaic (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

(16.) See Edmond De Langhe, Luc Brydaghs, Pierre de Maret, Xavier Perrier, and Tim Denham, “Why Bananas Matter: An Introduction to the History of Banana Domestication,” Ethnobotany Journal 7 (2009): 165–178.

(17.) Christopher Gray, “Lambaréné, Okoumé and the Transformation of Labor along the Middle Ogooué (Gabon), 1870–1945,” Journal of African History 40 (1999): 88–96.

(18.) For coastal East Africa, see Thaddeus Sunseri, Wielding the Ax: State Forestry and Conflict in Tanzania, 1820–2000 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2009).

(19.) Gray, “Lambaréré,” 100.

(20.) James Fairhead and Melissa Leach, “Contested Forests: Modern Conservation and Historical Land Use in Guinea’s Ziama Reserve,” African Affairs (1994): 481–512; Frode Sundnes, “Scrubs and Squatters: The Coming of the Dukuduku Forest, an Indigenous Forest in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa,” Environmental History 18 (2013): 277–308; C. A. Conte, “The Forest Becomes Desert: Forest Use and Environmental Change in Tanzania’s West Usambara Mountains,” Land Degradation and Development 10.4 (1999): 289–307; and Pauline von Hellerman and Uyilawa Usuanlele, “The Owner of the Land: The Benin Obas and Colonial Forest Reservation in the Benin Division, Southern Nigeria,” The Journal of African History 50 (2009): 223–246.

(21.) Alfonso Peter Castro, “The Political Economy of Colonial Farm Forestry in Kenya: The View from Kirinyaga,” in Tropical Deforestation: The Human Dimension, eds. Leslie E. Sponsel, Thomas N. Headland, and Robert C. Bailey, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 122–143.

(22.) See, for example, Fairhead and Leach, Misreading.

(23.) Castro, “Political Economy,” 122–143; and Christopher A. Conte, Highland Sanctuary: Environmental History in Tanzania’s Usambara Mountains (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004).

(24.) For a description of the system in colonial Nigeria, see Pauline von Hellermann, “Things Fall Apart? Management, Environment, and Taungya Farming in Edo State, Southern Nigeria,” Africa 77.3 (2007): 371–392. See also Sunseri, Wielding, chapter 7.

(25.) Gray, “Lambaréré,” 101. For East African coastal forests, see Sunseri, Wielding, chapter 3.

(26.) Harald Witt, “The Role of Alien Trees in South African Forestry and Conservation: Early 20th-Century Research and Debate on Climate Change, Soil Erosion, and Hydrology,” Journal of Southern African Studies 40.6 (2014): 1197–1199; and Kate Showers, “Prehistory of Southern African Forestry: From Vegetable Garden to Tree Plantation,” Environment and History 16.3 (2010): 295–322.

(27.) See, for example, G. V. Jacks and R. O. Whyte, The Rape of the Earth (London: Faber and Faber, 1939).

(28.) Brett M. Bennett and Frederick J. Kruger, “Ecology, Foresters and the Debate over Exotic Trees in South Africa,” Journal of Historical Geography 42 (2013): 105–106, 108.

(29.) Frode Sundness, “Scrubs and Squatters,” 288.

(30.) Bennett and Kruger, “Ecology,” 105.

(31.) Fairhead and Leach, Misreading, 12.

(32.) Oscar Baumann, In Deutsch-Ostafrika während des Aufstandes (Vienna: Eduard Hözel, 1890).

(33.) Adolph Engler, “Über die Gliederung der Vegetation von Usambara und der angrenzenden Gebiete,” Abhandlungen Adademischer Wissenschaften (Berlin: 1894), 1–86.

(34.) Amani’s research initiatives followed closely those at other, similarly oriented tropical research stations in British and Dutch colonies. See Richard Drayton, Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the “Improvement” of the World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000). For a similar process in Sri Lanka’s tropical forests, see James L. A. Webb, Tropical Pioneers: Human Agency and Ecological Change in the Highlands of Sri Lanka, 1800–1900 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2002).

(35.) Christopher A. Conte, “Forest History in East Africa’s Eastern Arc Mountains: Biological Science and the Uses of History,” Bioscience 60 (2010): 309–313.

(36.) Chris Conte, “Nature Conservation in Africa’s Great Rift Valley: A Study in Culture and History,” in National Parks and the Nation, eds. Mark Fiege, Jared Orsi, and Adrian Hawkins (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016), 170–190.

(37.) Ramachandra Guha, “Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique,” in The Great New Wilderness Debate, eds. J. Baird Callicott and Michael P. Nelson (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998), 233.

(38.) Ibid., 241.

(39.) Dan Brockington, Fortress Conservation: The Preservation of the Mkomazi Game Reserve (Oxford: James Currey, 2002).

(40.) See, for example, Kara Moskowitz, “‘Are You Planting Trees or Are You Planting People?’ Squatter Resistance and International development in the Making of a Kenya Postcolonial Political Order (c. 1963–78),” Journal of African History 56 (2015): 99–118.

(41.) For forest value, see Jon Lovett, Rob Marchant, James Taplin, and Wolfgang Küper, “The Oldest Rainforests in Africa: Stability or Resilience for Survival and Diversity?” in Phylogeny and Conservation, eds. Andy Pruvis, John L. Gittleman, and Thomas Brooks (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 198–229. For urgent need of conservation, see, for example John Terbourg, “The Fate of Tropical Forests: A Matter of Stewardship,” Conservation Biology 14.5 (2000): 1358–1361.

(42.) Truman Young, “High Montane Forest and Afroalpine Ecosystems,” in East African Ecosystems and Their Conservation, eds. T. McClanahan and T. P. Young (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 413.

(43.) James Fairhead, Melissa Leach, and Ian Scoones, “Green Grabbing: A New Appropriation of Nature?,” Journal of Peasant Studies 39.2 (2012): 238. The entire issue of JPS is devoted to the issue.

(44.) Knut G. Nustad and Frode Sundness, “The Nature of the Land: The Dukuduku Forest and the Mfolozi Flats, KwaZulu-Natal,” Journal of Modern African Studies 51.3 (2013): 487–506.

(45.) Mau Escarpment, Kenya, Mt. Kenya, Mt. Kilimanjaro, and almost all agricultural highlands in eastern and southern Africa.

(46.) See, for example, Lars Johannson, Ten Million Trees Later: Land Use Change in Tanzania’s Usambara Mountains (Eschborn, Germany: Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit, 2001), chapter 7.

(47.) Seminal study is Fairhead and Leach, Misreading. But see also Kimberly E. Medley and Humphrey W. Kalibo, “Global Localism: Recentering the Research Agenda for Biodiversity Conservation,” Natural Resources Forum 31 (2007): 152–153.

(48.) Carola Lentz and Hans-Jürgen Sturm, “Of Trees and Earth Shrines: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Settlement Histories in the West African Savanna,” History in Africa 28 (2001): 139–168.

(49.) Michael Sheridan, “The Dynamics of African Sacred Groves: Ecological, Social and Symbolic Processes,” in African Sacred Groves: Ecological Dynamics and Social Change, eds. Michael Sheridan and Celia Nyamweru (Oxford: James Currey Publishers, 2008), 12.

(50.) Celia Nyamweru, Staline Kibet, Mohammed Pakia, and John A. Cooke, “The Kaya Forests of Coastal Kenya: ‘Remnant Patches’ or Dynamic Entities?” in African Sacred Groves: Ecological Dynamics and Social Change, eds. Michael J. Sheridan and Celia Nyamweru (Oxford: James Currey, 2008), 73. See also Peter Castro, “Sacred Groves and Social Change in Kirinyaga, Kenya,” in Social Change and Applied Anthropology: Essays in Honor of David W. Brokensha, eds. Miriam S. Chaiken and Anne K. Fleuret (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1990), 277–289.

(51.) See, for example, the table of contents structure in Weber et al., The African Rainforest.

(52.) For an exception, see Roberts and Petraglia, “Pleistocene Rainforests,” 718–739.

(53.) For an important corrective, see Klieman, Pygmies.

(54.) Young, “Montane Forest,” 413.

(55.) See, for example, A. C. Hamilton, Environmental History of East Africa: A Study of the Quaternary (London: Academic Press, 1982).

(56.) Carola Lentz and Jans-Jurgen Sturm, “Of Trees and Earth Shrines: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Settlement Histories in the West African Savanna,” History in Africa 28 (2001): 139–168.

(57.) For South Africa, see Jacob Tropp, Natures of Colonial Change: Environmental Relations in the Making of the Transkei (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2006). Examples for Tanzania include Christopher A. Conte, Highland Sanctuary; and Thaddeus Sunseri, Wielding the Ax.

(58.) See, for example, Frode Sundnes, “Scrubs and Squatters,” 277–308; and C. A. Conte, “The Forest Becomes Desert.”

(59.) See Harald Witt, “Role of Alien Trees”; and Bennett and Kruger, “Ecology,” 100–109.

(60.) See, for example, James Fairhead, Melissa Leach, and Ian Scoones, “Green Grabbing: A New Appropriation of Nature,” Journal of Peasant Studies 39.2 (2012): 237–261. All essays in this special issues treat some element of green grabbing.