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Poverty in the Gwai Forest Reserve, Zimbabwe: 1880-1953

Vimbai Chaumba Kwashirai

Global Environment 1 (2008): 146–175

Nelson Mandela observed that, like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. This study examines the role of colonial foresters in introducing new socio-economic arrangements that resulted in increased poverty among the Tonga, Shona and Ndebele communities in the Gwai Forest Reserve (GFR) of North-Western Matabeleland, Zimbabwe. Countrywide, Europeans appropriated land and exacted tax and labour from indigenous peoples. Africans were assigned forty infertile reserves that served as labour reservoirs for European mining, agriculture and manufacturing. Officials undermined the African institutions of extended family and traditional agriculture that had provided for the welfare of poor people in pre-Rhodes Zimbabwe. The commercial forest sector in the GFR replicated in microcosm the overall colonial economic structure. Forest officials viewed Africans resident on gazetted state forests as sources of labour for forestry work. Government forest policy retained small numbers of African families in each of the eight state forests of North-Western Matabeleland for labour requirements. The eight state forest reserves had a combined total area of 1.6 million acres, half of which was in the GFR. Imperative labour demands forced the government to retain the Ndebele, Kalanga and Tonga as forest tenants whose rights to land, livestock, pasture and forest were severely restricted by forest rules and regulations. African forest dwellers were given permits and thus acquired the status of tenant farmers with an obligation to work for the Forestry Service and commercial timber millers. In the period under discussion, 1880-1953, landlessness and appalling working conditions turned forest tenants into the poorest people in colonial Zimbabwe. Their poverty was exacerbated by inordinate regulations denying them access to facilities such as boreholes, schools and stores for fear of fire hazard to forests.

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