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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