Review of From Enslavement to Environmentalism: Politics on a Southern African Frontier - Anthropological Studies

From Enslavement to Environmentalism: Politics on a Southern African Frontier
David McDermott Hughes

2006: (pp: 284) 230 x 150 mm
ISBN-13: 9781779220479
ISBN-10: 1779220472


Project Muse/Journal of Anthropological Studies
Reviewer: Jessica Shafer


Community-based natural resource management became ubiquitous as a development model in southern Africa and beyond from the late 1980s. The proponents of this approach advanced it as a way of conserving biodiversity by making conservation profitable to local resource users. Development agencies, clinic governments, and many academics hailed this new strategy as a form of participatory development that would politically enfranchise and advance the economic position of local people faced with corrupt state governments or rapacious foreign investors. Yet within a few years of the spread of such projects and programs, critics were raising serious questions about both the design and implementation of the community resource management strategy. Criticisms have ranged from questions about the ill-defined concept of 'community' in contexts of internally differentiated social structures (Leach, Mearns and Scoones 1999), to evidence that projects ostensibly intended to decentralize power have had the opposite effect, extending state power deeper into rural society rather than relinquishing control to local resource users (Ferguson 1994; Ribot 1999; Schafer and Bell 2002).

David McDermott Hughes may be the first critic to suggest that the central problem with community-based natural resource management programs is that they are too liberal. In the context of the deeply divided societies of southern Africa, Hughes recognizes that it may appear to verge on blasphemy to question the desire of intellectuals, development practitioners and conservationists for a multiracial, unitary society, based on the eighteenth century Euro-American liberal ideals of freedom, meritocracy, equality and democracy (186-7). Yet he dares to take such a stance, suggesting in his conclusion that 'cross-class and/or crossracial partnerships create wide scope for exploitation' (187). The liberal approach of opening formerly closed boundaries between spaces defined along racial lines produces a worse form of colonization than that which previously existed during the 'colonial' period, according to Hughes. The argument Hughes builds to reach these conclusions is based on two main strands of analysis. The first is an historico-anthropological study comparing the past hundred or so years of settler colonization and African society in the neighbouring regions of Vhimba and Gogoi, border regions belonging respectively to the present-day nations of Zimbabwe and Mozambique. This forms Part 1 of the book. The second part of the analysis develops an 'ethnography of liberal projects along the Zimbabwe-Mozambique border' (198), presented in Parts 2 and 3 of the book.

The first part of the book centres around several key processes: of defining and creating hinterlands, boundaries and frontiers, and of political evolution from a system of power in people ('enslavement') to one of power in land ('enclosure'). Hughes suggests that while the political boundaries demarcating English and Portuguese sovereignty became fixed in the late nineteenth century, the zones perceived as 'hinterlands' have shifted considerably since that period. Importantly, he asserts that the worrying practice of opening frontiers for pioneering and settlement has recommenced recently. While there have been shifting zones of colonization on both sides of the border and considerable movement of goods and people across the international boundary in both directions, Hughes argues that in many respects the border has drawn a hard rather than fuzzy division between the two societies, resulting in the markedly different political evolution of African polities on either side (76).

In the introductory chapter, Hughes provides a schematic account of the political economy of African societies based on the system of 'wealth in people' or enslavement. His account suggests that such systems develop in societies characterized by relative under-population, where elites increase their power and wealth by accumulating rights over people (5). When land becomes scarce, control over spatial rather than (or in addition to) human resources becomes the main means of garnering economic and political power. This evolutionist picture is not a central part of his argument, but it is worth noting that there are dissenting views on this issue in African history that are not acknowledged here. John Thornton, for example, argues that the institution of slavery developed in Africa as a result of a legal system that allowed ownership of people but not of land, rather than being the inevitable result of under-population (1998, pp. 74-6). There is an implicit suggestion in Thornton’s argument that the view espoused by Hughes (and many others before him) privileges the European historical experience and assumes that Europe has reached a more evolved stage of development than Africa.

For whatever reason the African power-in-people system developed, it clearly differed radically from the cadastrally-focused political system of the European colonists who pushed gradually further into the interior of southern Africa over the centuries after first contact in the 1500s. Hughes is on firmer ground when he suggests that political transformation to a system of power over land is shaped by the process of land-grabbing itself, and that local people come to participate in cadastral politics as a result of the rights claimed by settlers and the concomitant partitioning of land. Thus we come to the argument of the first part of the book and one of its central conclusions: 'as the frontier closes and its inhabitants vie for livelihood and predominance, they shift the cultural terms of their engagement from categories of people to categories of land. … Discourses of enslavement give way to those of enclosure, boundaries, and maps' (11). In Part 2 of the book, the focus is on the contemporary period, in which Hughes carried out ethnographic field work in Zimbabwe and Mozambique, exploring and interpreting the various struggles and schemes of the 1990s. Hughes is admirably open and reflective about his own role as an 'anthropologist- mapper' who 'joined and even pushed forward the territorializing processes [he] set out to study' (77). In Vhimba, Hughes describes a system of political organisation in which local leaders struggle to maintain or re-claim power over agricultural land against claims from outsiders, through their allocation of land to small-holders. Hughes probes beneath the rhetoric of local land allocation to paint a more nuanced and 'murky' (80) picture of how negotiations over land between in-migrants and headmen actually take place in the present day. He finds that migrants tend to bargain with headmen when choosing the site for their homestead and farms, using their power as potential subjects as leverage. However, one particular category of migrants has enjoyed a far lower capacity to engage in such bargaining over the recent decades: those who crossed the border from Mozambique into Zimbabwe seeking refuge from war and drought-related famine. In Hughes’ research sample, crossing the international border was the single factor that stood out as depriving migrants of the ability to participate in choosing or relocating the site of their land allocation. Hughes argues that Mozambican migrants to Vhimba expected to pledge personal submission (kukhonza) to headmen and not to bargain over the site of land allocated as a result of two main differences between these migrants and Zimbabweans: the relatively powerless position of Mozambicans caused by their status as refugees fleeing conflict and drought in Mozambique, and their lack of experience with cadastral politics. Zimbabwean headmen deployed these unwitting migrants as boundary beacons in zones of territorial conflict, as a strategy to enlarge their cadastral control and assert their political legitimacy against internal and external threats.

In Gogoi, by contrast, Hughes was initially taken aback by the absence of cadastral politics when he arrived to start his mapping project. The idea behind community mapping was to give people documentary evidence to support land claims against the incursions of outsiders wishing to exploit their resources. Without the delineation of political boundaries on a map, local entitlements were liable to be wiped out, as they had been in Zimbabwe a century earlier. The vagueness of boundaries between chieftaincies in the region led Hughes to the conclusion that politics in this 'hinterland' continues to be based on power over people rather than land. This system began to change over the course of Hughes’ mapping intervention, as Gogoi people awakened to the nuances of cadastral politics, in response to three factors: 1) The return or new settlement of war-time migrants; 2) The arrival of a timber company in the area whose management expressed the intention to assert control over the land and harvest timber in forests locally considered sacred; 3) The mapping project in which Hughes participated, in which foreign-based NGOs collaborated with Mozambican state officials ostensibly to enlarge the role of smallholders in the management of resources and profits from their use. Hughes admits that he and the other key NGO personnel viewed Mozambique through the lens of their experiences in Zimbabwe, misreading Mozambican political geography as a result, and thereby 'created, perhaps fabricated, territorial entities' (135).

In his conclusion, Hughes distils the central question posed by his findings with the uncomfortable recognition of the continued relevance of the colonial legacy, 'where should the natives live and farm?' (147-8). The justification for this colonial-era terminology is found in both the assumptions and conclusions of present-day development policy. People who ostensibly intend to promote democracy, emancipation and development nonetheless continue to view smallholders as obstacles to progress, 'tradition-bound people of narrow vision' (148), hence the use of the term 'native.' The policies these liberal 'boosters' pursue threaten to repeat earlier colonial enclosures by uprooting people and re-rooting them in smaller spaces.

How do people with good intentions carry out projects so harmful to the people they intend to benefit? Hughes is not alone in asking this question, and his answer shares much in common with those of James Ferguson (1994) and James Scott (1998): unintended, negative results occur more often through ignorance than corruption, mistakes rather than malice. Hughes argues that liberals’ moves to open up former native reserves to outside 'investment' are based on high ideals but also mistaken views about smallholder farm economics. On the side of ideals, liberals see native reserves as a hold-over from a time of racial segregation; eliminating racial boundaries is thus part of the liberal project of emancipation. The mistake, however, is to view smallholder agriculture as backward, economically unproductive, and to believe that outside (mostly white) investment is the answer to economic growth. Hughes’ evidence, and that of many other analyses of similarly-structured community conservation programmes, suggests that both parts of this economic equation are mistaken. On the one side, Hughes mentions the fact that the reserves were the one sector of the Zimbabwean economy that continued to produce agricultural surplus during the recent years of crisis (though he provides little quantitative backing for this assessment). On the other side, he shows that NGO projections for tourism revenues in both Vhimba and Gogoi/Chimanimani are wildly optimistic and have not been borne out by reality, nor do they make economic sense when compared with other smallholder agricultural options. Meanwhile, the unintended results of this misguided strategy are uniformly negative. In Zimbabwe, opening the native reserves to outside investment has already, or is likely to, result in the dispossession of black smallholders through European enclosures of more land. Smallholders are placed in competition with outsiders in a 'free market,' a competition they are most likely to lose. Africans are stripped not only of their basic entitlements to land but also of the protection of local elites provided through the current political system. The end result is more inequality between blacks and whites rather than the idealized liberal equality. In the process, smallholders also lose their power to make collective demands for more land, or an expansion of the reserve area – demands that were at the basis of rural nationalism in Zimbabwe. In Mozambique, Hughes sees a similar scenario as a strong possibility for the future, as policy makers seek to emulate their Zimbabwean neighbours and forego the possibility of creating native reserves in favor of the chimera of external, investment-led development.

Given the failure of NGO projects to provide viable rural development models, and the clear example over the past hundred years of the negative impact of both settler-led and industrial investment in Zimbabwe, Hughes argues that the reserves should revert to the model originally intended by Native Commissioner L.C. Meredith, a 'black refuge' and a 'forbidden zone to white settlement' (153). In Mozambique, such zones should be created where they did not exist previously, following the classical rather than neo-colonial model. At the same time, he suggests that although whites should be kept out of the black lowlands, the reverse should not be true; the white highlands should be restructured, while the status quo of the black lowlands is maintained. While generally impressed with the research and writing presented, I do have a few criticisms and discussion points to raise. One question arises from the historical chapters, in which the colonial systems of the British and Portuguese are contrasted. Hughes suggests that the Portuguese did not have the resources to achieve settler-led colonization in the same way as the British, and therefore ended up with a system that exploited labor rather than land. Yet he also suggests that the British did not have the resources to exploit labor as fully as they desired, and therefore land enclosures became their dominant mode of colonization. Can both of these analyses be correct? Does lack of resources lead to a colonial policy of labor or land exploitation, or does some other variable intervene to explain the pivotal difference between the two systems? Another criticism relates to Hughes’ minimal analysis of the war in Mozambique. While he recognizes in his conclusion that small-holders can, and often do, hold non-local political desires, his discussion of the war period in the Gogoi region seems to neglect this aspect of local peoples’ motivations and behaviors. His analysis runs the risk of reducing migration decisions to economic choices and minimizing the political aspects of the conflict, its impacts on local people, their political participation in war, and their wider political sentiments in the post-war period. He makes a brief mention of the fact that Zimbabwean headmen were suspicious of Mozambican migrants’ potential past participation in the conflict. But issues related to local political consciousness do not factor sufficiently into his discussion of political evolution in Gogoi. In the anthropological discussion of the cultural meanings attached to the political systems in question, the argument would have benefited from more explicit attention to the differential impact of the two main political systems under question on men and women, particularly given much recent attention to gender in the historical literature on enslavement. For example, Hughes notes that a Zimbabwean widow migrating into Vhimba is in a structurally similar position to the Mozambican refugee migrants in respect of her inability to negotiate over land allocation. Surely this raises questions about the extent to which the concept of kukhonza is differentially applicable along gender lines. Another instance suggests that land allocation negotiations proceed differently according to economic stratification. These cases suggest that the importance of the border may be secondary to social distinctions, or that the distinction between Zimbabwean and Mozambican political cultures is not as absolute as Hughes paints.

A related criticism is that Hughes has made abundantly clear the negative impacts of the 'open frontier' approach to African land and livelihoods, but has perhaps neglected the problematic aspects of communal tenure through hereditary chiefdoms, both historically and in the present day. He rightly points out that the form of democracy embodied by hereditary chieftaincies is distinct but not necessarily inferior to the constitutionally democratic forms development agencies attempted to impose on target 'communities'. Yet he dismisses the attempts by development agencies to promote the rights of women within this context by arguing that female political representatives would not be able to achieve respect in this male-dominated society and therefore communities should not be required to include women in decision-making bodies. This argument bears some resemblance to that put forward by opponents when feminists began demanding the opening up of career opportunities to women: that allowing women to take on roles such as construction site manager would be counter-productive because the men would not respect them and they would therefore not be able to do their jobs properly. There is no easy solution to the problem of whether structural or cultural change has to come first in promoting empowerment. Nor is it easy to imagine reforms to the hereditary system that would not require external intervention, thereby raising all kinds of questions about accountability, representation and ultimately power. But it would be worth at least raising some of these issues when expounding a solution that rests upon maintenance of the status quo. Overall, this is an important book. Its contributions are multiple. The historical analysis of political development in these two regions of Mozambique and Zimbabwe is provocative, and suggests a novel way of viewing the dynamics of colonialism. Hughes shows that it was not so much an ideological difference between British and Portuguese colonialism that resulted in differential development in this case, but rather the failed versus successful implementation of the same colonial approach. His detailed examination of the historical transformation of political structures in Zimbabwe and Mozambique provides new insights, and particularly for the Mozambican case, is an important addition to the scant historiography of the region. Hughes was thorough in his consultation of archives and other historical sources, though perhaps insufficiently critical of his sources of oral tradition. The most widely resonant contributions of the book emerge from the 'ethnography of development' aspect of the study. Rural Zimbabweans and Mozambicans reject 'development' not because they are tradition-bound, conservative peasants, but because they sensibly weigh up the pros and cons of what is offered to them and calculate both social and economic advantages to weigh in favour of the status quo – or at least, they are reluctant to relinquish their right to pursue their own development goals in favour of those of external agencies. By stimulating controversy with his heretical suggestion that the solution to development in the region is the 'continuation of Zimbabwe’s thoroughly illiberal, paternalistic practice of reserving land for black smallholder communities' (p. 18), (or its institution in Mozambique) Hughes provokes a deeper examination of a development model that has become ubiquitous in the southern African region and beyond.


© The author/publisher

Review of From Enslavement to Environmentalism: Politics on a Southern African Frontier - Journal of Agrarian Studies

From Enslavement to Environmentalism: Politics on a Southern African Frontier
David McDermott Hughes

2006: (pp: 284) 230 x 150 mm
ISBN-13: 9781779220479
ISBN-10: 1779220472


Journal of Agrarian Studies
Reviewer: Colin Murray


The title of this illuminating book is at first disconcerting. ‘Enslavement’ is clearly a process inflicted by some people on other people. The syntax of ‘environmentalism’ here likewise implies a comparable process of infliction, malady at odds with a prevailing presumption that projects driven by a concern for the environment are useful common ground between the rural poor and outside agencies for ‘development’. Hughes is concerned with key political questions. What happens in practice, viagra to whose environment, with what outcomes – beneficial or otherwise – for whom?

As the argument unfolds, it becomes clear, from Hughes’ engaging and incisive analysis of his experience of fieldwork in this remote borderland in southern Africa, that environmentalism is ideology and practice that have been inflicted by powerful outsiders on poor people who are increasingly exposed, as a result, to the risk of losing their land. His concluding judgement stands in measured and deliberate opposition to the comforting illusions of many and various ‘development’ practitioners. His ‘personal argument’ (p. 188) is that the ‘black lowlands’ should be reserved for the exclusive use of smallholders rather than become zones of experiment for the large ‘liberal projects’ of emancipating and ‘empowering’ rural Africans and of advancing them economically. Too often, the outcome of such projects has been dispossession. Both the analysis and the conclusion are important contributions to debates on the past history, the present experience and the possible futures of the rural poor in Africa and, indeed, elsewhere.

The frontier of Hughes’ sub-title is both hinterland or ‘contact zone’ and boundary line, in this case the international boundary between eastern Zimbabwe and western Mozambique. On the Zimbabwe side, Hughes worked in the mid-1990s in the small and remote chiefdom of Vhimba, at the south-western end of the Chimanimani mountain range. On the Mozambican side, he worked slightly later in the adjoining area of Gogoi, west of the Sitatonga mountains. Both the empirical interest and the driving theoretical tension that pervades the book grew out of the author’s systematic comparison between these two areas. The inhabitants of both speak the Ndau dialect of Shona, and share many cultural premises. But their experience of colonial conquest was radically different: the one of settler-dominated direct takeover of land by Rhodesian white settlers, the other of subordination to a harsh Portuguese labour regime.

The book is an attempt to explain the ‘vastly different conceptions of territory and geography’ (p. xiv) encountered in Vhimba and Gogoi. It is introduced by reference to the prevalence of maps and map-making in Vhimba and the incomprehensibility of maps Hughes found in Gogoi. ‘Cadastral politics’ were a central feature of the experience of people dispossessed by land-grabbing colonists in Rhodesia, whereas until recently in this region of Mozambique – under a regime which coerced labour rather than took land directly, cadastral politics were unknown. The significance of maps runs through the book in a manner highly congenial to this reviewer.

The book is also a study, however, of engagement in both areas in what turned out to be intensely political processes, involving negotiation, frequent misunderstanding, conflict and manoeuvring between local people, state officials and outside ‘development’ entrepreneurs, over the established land tenure regime, the rights of government in introducing or extending national parks and the business interests of the various protagonists of ‘conservation’ – environmental agencies, other NGOs, venture capitalists. The anthropologist was a self-consciously vigorous participant in these political processes, and deployed map-making skills in both cases in a deliberate effort to assist smallholders to retain their land rights. He demonstrates the absurdity, in such circumstances, of any naïve presumption of the possibility of professional detachment. At one point, he reports, a bemused South African businessman remarked at a World Bank meeting, ‘I don’t know what these anthropologists do, but whatever it is, it’s important, and we need more of it’ (p. 175). More grimly, Hughes revisited Vhimba in 2002 ‘with trepidation’, to find that the police arrested and beat one of his hosts immediately after his departure. Zimbabwe’s present climate is not conducive to the progressive and vigorous exchange of ideas that characterised the ‘moment’ of the mid-1990s.

Chapters 1 and 2 in Part 1 trace the labour regimes through the colonial periods in Mozambique and Zimbabwe as they affected Gogoi and Vhimba particularly. Both were incorporated in the Gaza Nguni empire from 1862 to 1889. Thereafter, forced labour in Gogoi took the form of the familiar chibaro, in this case for rubber-tapping and other employment which rewarded chiefs for building up clients, and of migrant mine labour through the twentieth century under Portuguese colonial rule. There followed the violent civil war of 1979–1992 during which both Frelimo and Renamo contested the area. Hughes suggests that ‘power over people remained the default condition of Gogoi and its environs’, and that it took the form of what he calls an ‘ambulatory servitude’ (pp. 27, 29). By contrast, land in Vhimba was expropriated for white settlers and ‘native reserves’ were demarcated in the Save valley. There were four types of forced labour there: labour tenancy on farms; requisitioning through chiefs; chibaro on mines; and hut tax. A second alienation of the Chimanimani Plateau took place through afforestation in the 1950s (p. 63), leading directly to evictions and arson, acute pressure over land allocation and a reinforcement of the power of headmen, so that, ‘instead of ruling people directly, they ruled them through land’ (p. 69). The ‘logic of conservation’, for its part, dictated that smallholders be removed (p. 70).

Part 2 of the book contains the core of the comparative argument about the experience of Vhimba and Gogoi in the 1990s. In Vhimba, headmen settled Mozambican refugees as the footsoldiers of encroachment on lost land, partly on account of resentment over the ‘betrayals’ of the liberation struggle in the period after 1980 (p. 89). Various ‘development’ initiatives took place, based on the now prevalent philosophy of ‘community-based natural resource management’, and political struggles inevitably took place over who managed what and how, in relation to a grinding mill, a tourism enterprise and a botanical reserve. None of these projects succeeded in its nominal objectives, but in some senses they had the regrettable effect, Hughes argues, of disempowering rather than empowering the rural poor. Meanwhile, in Gogoi, a fundamental shift of focus and of conflict was taking place, from labour to land. A wide gulf of understanding opened up, for example, between white logging entrepreneurs who thought they had been given a near-permanent concession over a substantial territory, on the one hand, and state officials who had merely granted a one-year cutting licence for certain species of trees. Unsurprisingly, villagers were confused. Various mappers entered the fray, including the author, with the effect that Gogoi became ‘territorialized’ (p. 138) and the boundaries were hardened between private enclosures and the commons.

Part 3, ‘Native Questions’, opens up broader arguments. Chapter 6 develops a critique of Campfire Thought in Zimbabwe, which eroded established boundaries through its emphasis on bioregionalism, its favouring of elephants, or conservation projects more generally, over cattle-grazing and smallholder cultivation, and a controversial population squeeze arising out of the shrinking of agricultural land and of increasing in-migration. In the Chimanimani area, tourism collapsed but security for smallholders in reserves was eroded. In Mozambique, paradoxically, ‘community-based conservation … frustrated the possibility of widespread rural mobilization’ (p. 172). The key question became whether, or how, Mozambique might regulate outside investment so as to protect the public good. Such investors belonged to social classes foreign to the black lowlands – urban businessmen, highland tourist operators, commercial farmers – and, either alternately or in aggregate, they threatened the minimal territorial security of smallholders (p. 185).

Finally, in Chapter 7, Hughes reassesses the ‘Three Liberal Projects’ of emancipating rural Africans (from the alleged tyranny of ‘custom’, etc.), of enfranchising them and of advancing them economically. He concludes that ‘communal areas, native reserves, or black lowlands provide a better answer to the native questions than does settler-led development’ (p. 200), either of the old type of takeover of land by cadastral demarcation or of the new type of community conservation. Along the way, he forcefully reminds us (p. 196), in a manner that resonates with contemporary debates over land reform throughout the continent, that the granting of private titles intended to offer greater security immediately exposes poor landholders to the probability of mortgage indebtedness and thence to land loss.


© The author/publisher