Imperial Gullies: Soil Erosion and Conservation in Lesotho. By Kate B. Showers. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005. Pp. xxix, 346. $55.00 cloth, $26.95 paper.
Kate Showers could hardly have chosen a more difficult topic to investigate than the history of soil erosion and conservation in Lesotho. Even the physical measurement and modeling of soil erosion remains a scientifically contested exercise; the appropriate strategies for its prevention and control still more so. Lesotho itself presents a physical environment marked by extremes of topography and climate that would produce high levels of soil erosion before any human acceleration of the process. Added to this is the Byzantine complexity of the colonial administration of this outpost of an outpost of the British Empire, the political context in which Showers situates her study. Her attempt to weave a "political ecology" style web of explanation that includes the environmental, political, economic, and social factors involved in creating the gullies that today still scar Lesotho's landscape thus deserves admiration for its sheer ambition.
The book's title captures its central thesis: that the severe gully erosion so prevalent in this small, landlocked southern African country has its origins in imperialism, rather than in the poor farming or land use practices of the local Basotho people. Showers argues her case at two inter-linked scales. First, at the general level, she presents a history of Lesotho from a soil perspective, describing how from the nineteenth century onward, white settlement in what became South Africa increasingly restricted the amount of arable land available to the Basotho people, forcing them to cultivate on steeper slopes and to push pastoralism into ever higher mountain reaches of the country. New agricultural technologies and the changing regional political economy after the discovery of diamonds and gold in South Africa also brought radical changes to rural production, labor and land use practices, and thus to the physical environment, leading to growing concern over environmental degradation. Having established this broader context, Showers then focuses on the local level, demonstrating how the widespread construction of contour banks under anti-erosion schemes implemented by the British administration exacerbated rather than limited the formation of gullies (or "dongas" as they are known in this region). Water trapped behind contour banks eventually either broke through weak points or ran around the ends of the banks, initiating the formation of gullies which then became self-expanding as runoff was channeled into them rather than spreading more evenly across the sloping terrain.
Strongest in method and presentation are those parts of the book based on the author's personal immersion in local Basotho "land and life. …