The Journal of Modern African Studies

‘Something else to burn’: forest squatters, conservationists, and the state in modern Tanzania

Thaddeus Sunseri a1
a1 Department of History, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, USA.

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In the last fifteen years, Tanzanian forest policy has embraced an agenda of biodiversity preservation coupled with privatisation that calls for the expansion of state oversight over forests and woodlands. Reflecting the hegemony of conservationist donors and international and local NGOs, and couched in a language of community conservation, this agenda decries peasant intrusion into forest reserves to burn charcoal for the urban market and to expand fields for agriculture. This agenda is a departure from over a century of state forestry that sought to exploit forests for domestic consumer and development needs, and to compete in export timber and charcoal markets. Following the Second World War, state forestry anchored peasants in selected forest reserves as licensed cultivators in the face of an ongoing labour shortage, in order to create tree plantations that replaced indigenous hardwoods with fast-growing exotic softwoods. This trend continued after independence as forestry was perceived as a means for agricultural modernisation and economic self-reliance, particularly after the Arusha Declaration. Current changes in forest policy prioritise forests more as ‘refugia’ for endemic plant and animal species, rather than as sources of timber and fuel, moving forest policy more in the direction of wildlife conservation, which has long aimed at excluding peasants and pastoralists from reserves. Recent evictions of peasants from forest reserves, and ongoing tensions between villagers, the state and conservationists, are the direct result of NGO pressure to protect forest reserves and to expand forest conservation into previously unreserved lands.