Deforestation and Reforestation in Namibia: The Global Consequences of Local Contradictions

By McKittrick, Meredith | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Deforestation and Reforestation in Namibia: The Global Consequences of Local Contradictions


McKittrick, Meredith, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Deforestation and Reforestation in Namibia: The Global Consequences of Local Contradictions. By Emmanuel Kreike. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2010. Pp. xiv, 224; maps, photographs, bibliography, index. $88.95 cloth, $28.95 paper.

This book, on the history of changing forest resources in the Ovambo floodplain of Namibia, follows the author's earlier environmental history of the movement of the Oukwanyama kingdom out of Angola and its recreation in northern Namibia. Both are concerned with processes of environmental change in the region, but this book is more conceptual than empirical in its approach, and its arguments strike the reviewer as tilting at windmills in some cases, and unpersuasive in others.

It is difficult to know who the intended readership of this book is. It is not a coherent history of the environment of the Ovambo floodplain, as the substantive chapters are thematic and linked to the paradigms raised in the conceptual chapters. But to an environmental historian, the book is a bit frustrating. The first conceptual chapter lays out a series of paradigms, which, according to Kreike, underlay most environmental historymodernization, declinist, and inclinisi- all of which assume that environmental change is unilinear, moving from Nature to Culture. This strikes me as a vast oversimplification of the field.

The five substantive chapters look at specific themes in Ovambo history, explaining how each challenges unidirectional narratives of change from Nature to Culture. Chapter 2 considers Malthusian narratives of population growth in the region- narratives constructed as people poured across the Angolan border into Namibia to escape Portuguese aggression and then moved from older settlements into the forested areas of the floodplain, cutting down trees all the while to build their distinctive palisaded homesteads. Chapter 3 looks at the system of indirect rule in Ovamboland and its impact on the environment, especially land use patterns; Chapter 4 examines new diseases, particularly livestock diseases, that swept into the region from the mid-nineteenth century on (Kreike interestingly neglects to consider the equally epidemic rates of syphilis and gonorrhea that accompanied the creation of a colonial migrant labor system). Chapter 5, entitled "Guns, Hoes, and Steel," explores the environmental impacts of the importation of guns, hoes and plows; and Chapter 6 looks at what Kreike calls the "deglobal ization" of the cattle trade in the region. The final two conceptual chapters revisit these issues through the lens, primarily, of changes in woody resources in the region

Each chapter covers a similar span of time (late nineteenth century to the 1980s) and each considers the three unidirectional paradigms Kreike lays out in the beginning before concluding that change in each case was multidirectional, and, often, ambiguous in its outcome, resulting in neither a simply degraded landscape nor a simply modernized and "improved" one. The chapters themselves are uneven. Chapter 6, for example, argues that a thriving nineteenth-century cattle trade that tied the floodplain to the global economy gave way under colonialism to a subsistence-style economy as herders were forcibly cut off from markets. …

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