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, 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, 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 buy generic viagra cheap 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 propecia without prescription 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 cheap kamagra in us 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.


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