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  • Deforestation and Reforestation in Namibia: The Global Consequences of Local Contradictions
  • Thaddeus Sunseri
Emmanuel Kreike. Deforestation and Reforestation in Namibia: The Global Consequences of Local Contradictions. Princeton, N.J.: Marcus Wiener Publishers, 2010. xviii + 224 pp. Maps. Photographs. Bibliography. Index. $88.95 Hardcover. $28.95 Paper.

In Deforestation and Reforestation, Kreike draws from his earlier work on the socio-environmental history of Ovamboland to confront modern paradigms of environmental change. Modernizationists view Western conservation science and technology, guided by state authority, as mastering world environments and overturning destructive, irrational indigenous natural resource use. Declinists argue that Western science, capitalism, and commodification have disrupted a pristine nature characterized by indigenous people in harmony with their environments, ushering in environmental decline. Inclinists place faith in indigenous knowledge and resource use to solve environmental problems, eschewing alarmist claims about environmental degradation. They all, in Kreike's view, posit false dichotomies that separate nature from culture, wilderness from civilization, overlooking historical paradoxes that do not fit neatly into any single framework. Kreike offers historical evidence from Ovamboland, a region bisected by the Angolan-Namibian border, to argue for a view of environmental change that is nonlinear, and that accepts the reality of historical paradoxes and contradictions in local environments.

Despite the title, there are few forests in this book. Yet the forestry case study perhaps best illustrates Kreike's main argument. Nineteenth-century European explorers, missionaries, and colonial conquerors entered into [End Page 211] a floodplain environment between the Cunene and Okavongo rivers that was densely populated and heavily forested, punctuated by Ovambo grain fields and cattle kraals. One hundred years later, Ovamboland was again heavily forested, although not in the same locales or with the same tree species of the previous century, but rather with fruit trees that had accompanied and facilitated Ovambo migration from Angola into Namibia. In the interval, Ovamboland had gone through decades of deforestation caused by the influx of refugees, who used trees to build fortified homesteads and fire to clear floodplain and bush lands for grain crops. Over time Ovambo migrants actively and passively propagated indigenous fruit trees, recreating, but not replicating, the dense forest environment of the previous century. This is a familiar argument in recent African forest history. Depending on the point at which evidence is sought, Kreike argues, one will find "dramatic deforestation" or "spectacular reforestation" in the same landscape, challenging linear views of environmental change.

Other chapters present similar paradoxes. While many histories see colonialism as integrating African societies into modern international commodity networks, Kreike argues that before colonialism began, Ovambo people were already well-integrated into "global" commodity networks by supplying tens of thousands of cattle to regional and Atlantic markets. Trade enabled Ovambo chiefs to import thousands of modern rifles, which had dramatic consequences for elephant hunting and wildlife control. Colonial rule upset this globalized economy, making Ovamboland into a regional backwater largely cut off from the main colonial centers in Angola or Namibia. A section on the San hunter-gatherers emphasizes that the San, far from being a pristine people close to nature, were early users of modern firearms and commercial hunters of elephants, and that they often posed a threat to Ovambo refugees and labor migrants. A chapter on the Ovambo cattle economy shows that, despite massive death by rinderpest and lungsickness late in the nineteenth century, Ovambo were far from the conservative hoarders of cattle depicted by "cattle complex" theorists. Instead, they actively engaged in a cattle market until colonial fears of disease transfers to settler cattle in Namibia isolated Ovamboland from the rest of the colony. A chapter on biological imperialism examines the integration of donkeys into the Ovambo political economy as both an invasive species and as a cheap substitute for cattle, a product of labor migrants using cash wages from working in Namibian copper and diamond mines to invest in wheeled transport and plows. Other chapters discuss the interventions of colonial policymakers and scientists, particularly veterinarians, who quarantined Ovamboland from the rest of Namibia, creating a fenced border called the Red Line that continues to exist today.

Despite a far-ranging discussion that emphasizes an early global integration of Ovamboland subsequently thwarted by colonial...


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