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Environment and History

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Environment and History

Sic utere tuo ut alienam non laedas. From Wanton Destruction of Timber Forests to Environmentalism: The Rise of Colonial Environmental and 'Sustainability' Practices in Colonial Zimbabwe, 1938-1961

Muchaparara Musemwa

Environment and History 22 (2016): 521-559. doi: 10.3197/096734016X14727286515772

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This article examines the roots of colonial Zimbabwe’s culture of environmentalism – described, here, as increasing social awareness of the rapid deterioration of the environment and the pressing need to take decisive action to counteract it. It argues that only a one-sided story – namely colonial conservationist discourses and practices especially as they pertained to African reserves in colonial Zimbabwe and other parts of Southern and Eastern Africa – has been the object of myriad historical analyses. Yet, there is a corresponding story that seems to have fallen between the seams of history as it is rarely articulated in Zimbabwean historiography in a systematic and comprehensive way, i.e. the origins of a colonial environmentalism – one focused more on reinforcing white settlers’ sustainable uses of natural resources and less on Africans. It chronicles how the once verdant landscapes of colonial Zimbabwe were transformed into near waste in the first four decades of colonial occupation from 1890; highlights how the diverse voices of environmental concern that appeared at the time compelled the colonial Zimbabwean state finally to institute the Commission of Inquiry into the Preservation of the Natural Resources of the Colony of Southern Rhodesia in 1938; and examines how this Commission’s recommendations became the basis for the establishment of a number of institutional regulatory systems to initiate an efficiency-oriented approach to the management of the colony’s natural resources. It highlights how the notion of ‘sustainability’ was infused into the Commission’s Report and became such a powerful trope that it laid the basis for subsequent institutional and legal environmental resource management in colonial Zimbabwe, surviving intact into the first two decades of postcolonial rule. The article further explores how the farmer–miner conflict unfolded beyond the McIlwaine Commission and how the Natural Resources Board finally led to a successful resolution of the conflict in 1961. The McIlwaine Commission Report attests to rising social and environmental concern at the ongoing ecological decline of the colony’s resources, resulting in the realisation of a resolute response in order to guarantee the sustainability and welfare of white settler society.

KEYWORDS: Environmentalism, colonialism, conservation, environmental degradation, natural resources, sustainability, timber, Zimbabwe

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