Selective memories: The historical roots of environmentalism

Book describes how colonialism resonates today in forest management
Groundnuts at Chiana market in Kassena Nankana District, Ghana. CIFOR/Axel Fassio

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When the late British scientist Richard Grove spoke at the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library in 2006, he did what historians often do — he demonstrated parallels between past and present.

But Grove was not a conformist. By the time of his presentation in New Delhi, he had already changed the generally accepted historical narrative on colonialism, arguing that the conservationist movement emerged due to unfettered extraction by European companies and colonial governments.

His significant professional legacy exists because he stood out. He established the Centre for World Environmental History at Britain’s University of Sussex and the journal Environment and History. For Grove — who died last year at age 64  — of key interest was the interplay between colonial expansionism and the emergence of environmentalist, then conservationist, ideology.

In his landmark book, Green Imperialism (1996), he proposed that early concerns over the potential for the environment — including forests — to withstand persistent human interference grew out of observations made by empirically-driven scientists who ultimately recognized the need to protect the natural world.

The data they compiled remains a valuable resource today, permitting scientists to take a measure over time of the vulnerable interrelationship between humanity and the environment. Yet, in colonial times, as now, the findings of scientists were often ignored in the push to extract resources and maximize profits.

“I am afraid little attention was paid to their warnings and we now find ourselves in a much more serious situation,” Grove said. “It has been argued that being an environmental historian . . . is rather like being a journalist sitting on a deckchair on the Titanic as it begins its last long slide to destruction, at least we can document destruction.” It is only after major disasters that governments listen to scientists and even then, not for long, he added.

Last year, Grove’s 2006 remarks were reproduced in a new book, Commonwealth Forestry and Environmental History: Empire, Forests and Colonial Environments in Africa, the Caribbean, South Asia and New Zealand (Primus 2020). Although the overarching concepts and ideas he shared seeped into environmental and climate change narratives long ago — often uncredited — they are now part of the lexicon.

Grove’s insights continue to resonate. Amid ongoing efforts through various U.N., national and corporate initiatives to address environmental challenges, including climate change, historical context is often overlooked. Yet it is important to understand this to veer current initiatives and policies away from the practices that shaped colonial interventions and many subsequent efforts, says Andrew Wardell, a principal scientist with the Value Chains, Finance and Investment team at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

For example, in the Gold Coast Colony — present-day Ghana — in colonial times, a key focus was on timber extraction and forest reservation, the latter established to create the micro-climatic conditions to support cocoa production, a key export crop. This only occurred after cogent resistance for more than 30 years to all attempts by the colonial administration to introduce new land or forest legislation. The Forest Ordinance was eventually adopted in 1927.

A chapter in the book entitled “Groundnuts and Headwater Protection Reserves – Tensions in Colonial Forest Policy and Practice in the Northern Territories of the Gold Coast,” written by Wardell underlines a contrast, a belated encounter with colonial forest conservation in the Protectorate of the Northern Territories of the Gold Coast.

Under the influence of global fears that deforestation would unhinge the economic base of colonial rule, a “deforestation-desiccation” discourse emerged in the Gold Coast Colony and the Protectorate as forest policies were being developed. It was shaped by two dominant schools of thought that diverged over whether desiccation was human-induced or occurring naturally.

“One of the great problems of West Africa is the question of the depletion of the forest and bush region, which is generally held to be the cause of the growing scarcity of water in the dry season,” wrote a British general in a 1905 report, making one of the earliest references to the discourse in anglophone West Africa. “The French are of the opinion that the volume of water in the Niger River is diminishing and that the Sahara Desert is slowing extending southwards.”

However, it was not until 1934 that English forester Edward Percy Stebbing, the former Inspector-General of the Indian Forestry Service, joined the Anglo-French Forestry Commission in four countries in West Africa to determine the evidence of forest degradation. This led to a proposal to establish two forest protection belts across West Africa to stop the encroachment of the Sahara Desert. No further action was taken due to disruptions resulting from World War Two.

Through an examination of archival materials, missionary records and oral histories, Wardell describes how forest policy in the Northern Territories was tempered by the convergence of the political and economic interests of the Gold Coast Colony and ultimately the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.

The forest reservation at the headwaters of the Volta River system coincided with the work of a Preparatory Commission — which later became the Volta River Authority — to develop its hydroelectric potential. This was coupled with efforts to move up to 70,000 people from the densely populated present-day Upper East Region to provide labor for the Gonja Development Corporation, a monumental attempt to promote agricultural modernization in the region. It proved to be an ill-fated investment by the British government to produce groundnuts for the metropole.

“Formal forestry,” then as now, is largely concerned with the production and processing of timber in southern Ghana. “There is still relatively little available information on the dry forests in northern Ghana,” Wardell said.

“The comparative neglect of the Northern Territories by the British colonial government contributed to the systematic underdevelopment of what is present-day northern Ghana, a situation that persists today,” he added.

Recent forest policy reforms, which aim to promote local management of forests, are attempting to change this colonial legacy — the formulaic style of environmental governance first placed in a modern-day context by Grove.

These reforms differ, however, from colonial decentralization — introduced in response to the British Secretary of State’s local government dispatch of 1947 outlining a new policy on colonial government –characterized by institutional fragmentation and the absence of effective fiscal decentralization, Wardell said.

For more information on this topic, please contact Andrew Wardell at a.wardell@cgiar.org.
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