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  • Imperial Gullies: Soil Erosion and Conservation in Lesotho
  • Deborah Johnston
Showers, Kate B. 2005. Imperial Gullies: Soil Erosion and Conservation in Lesotho. Athens: Ohio University Press. 346 pp., $55.00 (cloth); $26.95 (paper).

Regarded as one of the most eroded landscapes in the world, Lesotho underwent the first national soil-conservation program implemented in Africa. In 1989, Kate Showers published an article that challenged expert opinions on the cause of this erosion. This article was followed in the early 1990s by another (Showers and Malahleha 1992) that asserted an important role for oral history in the construction of environmental evidence. These articles were important advances in the historiography of Lesotho and the development of the interdisciplinary arena of environmental history. This book develops these arguments with intellectual and methodological clarity. Showers's intention is to find out how erosion occurred in Lesotho, and why land users have been blamed as the cause of erosion. The answers suggest, startlingly, that gully erosion in Lesotho was not produced by land users, but was induced by conservation.

Showers constructs her case using data and analysis assembled over a 25-year period. Her methodological stance is that environmental history must be based on three types of evidence: field study, historical research, and oral history. She provides a detailed discussion of her approach and the changing intellectual context within which she has worked. It is admirable to find an author so willing to hold her methodology up to scrutiny and, in doing so, to document her methodological mistakes, such as, at one point, conducting oral interviews with only a narrow understanding of Sesotho. As a result, this book provides an excellent guide to those wishing to understand and replicate Showers's approach.

The book has three parts. The first presents a landscape history of Lesotho. Showers draws a clear link among land use, soil erosion, and wider political and economic change. To do this, she conceptualizes four distinct periods of land use, each with implications for soil processes. On the one hand, this periodization works well in illustrating the relationship between wider change and soil processes; on the other hand, the simplification required precludes a sense of the growing rural differentiation that has occurred in Lesotho (Johnston 1996). Thus, writing on the recent period gives the suggestion of a greater homogeneity of land-use practice than might be justified for a country with one of the highest levels of inequality in Africa. Part I also discusses colonial policies toward land use. It shows convincingly that, despite evidence to the contrary, the failure of colonial agricultural policies was ascribed by colonial officials to local farmers' "apathy and indifference" (p. 61).

Part II of the book sets out Showers's detailed fieldwork study in Ha Tšilo Valley, southeast of the capital, Maseru. These chapters, perhaps the most difficult for readers untrained in soil science, describe the physical and cultural geography of the area. Through the use of aerial photographs and oral history, they chart the development of soil erosion. Showers shows that the [End Page 120] deep and extensive gully erosion in the valley is of recent origin, and that it cannot be explained by conventional explanations relating to overgrazing, climate, or Basotho farming methods. She suggests an explanation for the origin of this erosion: the antierosion measures taken in the 1930s.

This conclusion is generalized in Part III of the book, which looks at the wider history of soil-erosion control in Lesotho. Through detailed archival research, Showers shows the origins and problems faced by colonial soil-conservation programs. She presents evidence suggesting that gully erosion in Lesotho predominantly originated with the use of contour-bank soil-erosion technology, which appears to have been inappropriately applied to conditions in Lesotho, and thus acted as a cause of erosion, rather than as a means of preventing it. With no appropriate research carried out and no attention given to the concerns of local land users or even the problems reported by administrators, soil conservation "moved from an atmosphere of scientific exploration to one of ideological implementation" (p. 242).

Showers's chapter on Basotho responses to erosion and conservation is based on oral histories. The...


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