Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Legal Geographies of Catastrophe: Forests, Fires, and Property in Colonial Algeria

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Legal Geographies of Catastrophe: Forests, Fires, and Property in Colonial Algeria

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. Forest fires in Algeria in the 185os and 186os suggest a link between environmentally induced catastrophes and the geographies of property and territory in the colony. In eastern Algeria, these fires helped fuel a discussion over the security and reliability of European settlers' property rights and of the colonial state's ability to guarantee them. Following a brief analysis of forestry policy in France and Algeria, this paper analyzes some of the correspondence and official reports that emerged in the wake of major conflagrations. By the early 186os, settlers and private forestry companies were calling the colonial state's credibility into question and demanding far-reaching changes to the property law and land-use regimes in place in the colony. Eventually, colonial authorities moved to help cement settlers' property claims, eliminating enclaves and imposing new rules on "native" Algerians' rights to use the forest. This essay concludes by suggesting that the process of making property private, in Algeria and elsewhere, is informed by perceptions of risk and by the modes of awareness inspired by environmentally induced catastrophic events. Keywords: forestry, legal geography, colonialism.

In 1866, a group of concessionaires in Algeria--men who, through their contacts with the government of Napoleon III, in Paris, had been given long-term lease for cropland in the colony--addressed a report to the governor general in Algiers. The writers decried the state of economic penury in which they claimed to find themselves, a situation they attributed to forest fires, "Arab" hostility to Europeans, and political indifference from metropolitan and colonial officials. After describing the economic impact of the fires on tree farms and arboriculture, the authors quickly adopted an apocalyptic tone. They alleged that the fires of the early 186os represented a turning point in France's relationship to its colony: whereas older fires were occasional, isolated events, more recent blazes represented nothing short of an "ably weaved CONSPIRACY" designed to wreak havoc on the colonial body politic (Lesseps and others 1866, 53, emphasis in the original). "Arab fanaticism, defeated on the battlefield, unequal to the courage and to the force of our valorous troops, has sworn a war of extermination against the institutions of the French colony" (Lesseps and others 1866, 64, original emphasis), while the government had in turn failed in its "moral obligation" to property holders (Lesseps and others 1866, 61), choosing instead to curry favor with indigenous populations always ready to strike at French interests. Foresters, and colonial settlers more generally, were thus facing a "war by means of the arsonist's torch [which], like that of the assassin's ambush or the rifle of the insurgent, follows from the same causes and leads to the same goal: THE RUIN OF THE COLONY" (Lesseps and others 1866, 155, emphasis in the original).

Disasters tend to prompt apocalyptic imagery. Nature-induced calamities such as earthquakes, locust swarms, or floods can reshape human perceptions of nature and of how to best govern the natural world. They can also trigger new forms of territorial behavior--new ways of bounding and bordering space as well as new understandings of the importance of territory and property. This article is about the forest fires of the 186os and early 187os in Algeria and about the legal-geographical refashioning of property and territory that these prompted. In the aftermath of these fires, concessionaires sought to establish exclusive territorial control over their concessions so that these would be free from competing claims by "native" Algerians. (1) To achieve these goals, they lobbied the colonial government with reports and letters that, like the report discussed above, tied environmental catastrophe to colonial sovereignty and imperial greatness. They sought new rules on land use, pasturing animals, controlled burnings and so-called traditional usage rights--that is, the rights of Algerians to use lands they did not own. …

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