Indigenous Trees and Forests: Contradictions, Conflict and Conservation in Natal and Zululand (1900-1960)

By Witt, Harald | Environment and History, August 2016 | Go to article overview

Indigenous Trees and Forests: Contradictions, Conflict and Conservation in Natal and Zululand (1900-1960)


Witt, Harald, Environment and History


ABSTRACT

At the turn of the nineteenth century, it was estimated that nine-tenths of the identified forests in Natal had been permanently alienated from the Crown through their incorporation into private lands and Native Trust Lands. The entrenchment of the political power of white land-owners in the twentieth century ensured that official attempts at restraining private land-owners from destroying indigenous forests on their lands were doomed to fail. Trust forests, as quasi state forests, were however, more accessible to Forestry officials, who remained convinced that the management and ultimately preservation of these forests could best be controlled and managed by themselves. This article examines the manner in which the conservation and administrative control of the various forests on Trust lands became the subject of dispute between various organs of the state in the first half of the twentieth century. This contestation was characterised, on one level, by a general shift from a conservationist and utilitarian approach in regard to the management of indigenous forests to one that was far more preservationist in definition while, at the same time, illustrating fierce administrative tensions between a relatively compassionate Department of Native Affairs and a Department of Forestry that subscribed to a more racialised agenda.

KEYWORDS

Conservation, forestry, Natal, Zululand, Native Trust Lands, South Africa

INTRODUCTION

This article examines the manner in which the conservation and administrative control of the various forests on Trust lands in Natal and Zululand in South Africa became the subject of intense contestation between the Native Affairs Department and the Department of Forestry in the first half of the twentieth century. This was a contestation characterised, at one level, by a shift from a conservationist to a preservationist approach (1) with regard to the management of indigenous forests while, at another level, illustrating the administrative tensions between a relatively benevolent Department of Native Affairs and a more racially predisposed Department of Forestry. The juxtaposition of these two Departments as embracing contrasting socio-political perspectives is merely for explanatory purposes and does not suggest that personnel within either Department would routinely exhibit the said generalised characteristics. This would require a far more intimate and individualised study well beyond the scope of this article. (2) Nonetheless, an examination of inter- and intra-departmental correspondence of the first half of the twentieth century provides sufficient evidence to lend credence to the argument that the state did not function as a monolithic entity in its imposition of a (segregationist) racial order and the establishment of the conditions for the reproduction of capital. (3) Final policy outcomes were often determined by struggles within the state over the 'allocation of resources and the exercise of administrative authority' (4) as well as the actual capacity of state organs to impose segregation in rural areas and fully to control access to resources. (5) This was particularly true of conservation policies within the forestry sector in Natal and Zululand in the first few decades of the twentieth century, which provides the core focus for this particular study.

As such, this article is written from a forest history perspective located within the burgeoning field of environmental history which, since its emergence in the late 1980s as a recognisable discipline in South and southern Africa, (6) has provided an additional lens to Africanist historians with which to explore the 'landscape through history, what happened in the landscape, and how human systems and natural systems have interacted over time'. (7) In South Africa the field has generally been strongest on 'state regulation of natural resources' and 'conflicts between the state and rural people over such policies' (8) with a strong emphasis on 'analyses of the colonial encounter' and on 'discourses of erosion, deforestation, and desiccation'. …

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