Groundnuts and headwaters protection reserves. Tensions in colonial forest policy and practice in the Northern Territories of the Gold Coast

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European interest in tropical forest resources grew significantly during the expansion of colonial trading in the eighteenth century. The nature and extent of timber exploitation varied among colonial territories. In some cases the extraction of timber was of secondary interest in relation to land clearance schemes which aimed to develop plantation agriculture, whilst in others forest resources were completely cleared to meet the needs of metropolitan navies. By the middle of the nineteenth century it had already become clear that the forests of the colonies were not an inexhaustible resource. The development and introduction of ‘scientific forestry’ emerged in response to the perceived threat of deforestation, initially, in India and Burma. By the early twentieth century, the ‘empire forestry mix’ was adopted as a global model and had been replicated in, inter alia, several anglophone countries of Africa. Many scholars have documented the influence of colonial forestry in several ‘rich forest’ countries of South-East Asia. The explicit precolonial interests and subsequent colonial interventions in these countries were inextricably linked to timber values.

A comparable pattern of Eurocentric trading interests, initially in rubber and later timber, is associated with the history of littoral West Africa. The adoption of forest conservation measures in West Africa was pioneered in Nigeria and Sénégal and replicated thereafter in Côte d’Ivoire, southern Ghana and Sierra Leone during the first three decades of the twentieth century. The Gold Coast Colony, for example, cognizant of the growing problem of deforestation and of the importance of the forests in southern Ghana to the cocoa and mahogany timber trades, commissioned Thompson, then Conservator of Forests, Southern Nigeria, to undertake a thorough study of the forest situation in the country.

Comparatively little research has been conducted, however, with a focus on the legacy of colonial forestry in relation to ‘poor forests’— the tropical dry forests—in the seasonally-arid regions of West Africa. The Northern Territories of the Gold Coast Colony, British West Africa (henceforth NTs) was distinguished by a distinct lack of timber (or other economic resources), and hence was largely ignored by successive colonial administrations other than as a source of labour for economic development in southern Ghana. Why was the ‘empire forestry mix’ applied so belatedly in a region of West Africa where there were clearly few, if any, timber interests? To what extent was the process driven by the ideological, territorial or fiscal imperatives of a colonial forestry department implicated in ‘State-building’? Did it more accurately reflect simply the continuation—or obligations—of a process started in neighbouring territories?

This chapter explores how, in addition to the recurrent administrative and fiscal difficulties confronting a marginalized colonial territory, the Forestry Department’s plans were tempered by tensions with political and administrative officers, with other technical departments and within their own ranks. The article was prepared on the basis of archival and field research conducted in Ghana. Section II provides an overview of the historical precedents to the formalization of forest policy in the Gold Coast in 1947. Section III explores some of the tensions associated with forest policy and practice in the NTs during the period 1932–57. Some conclusions are presented in Section IV in relation to the contemporary outcomes of the colonial forest reservation policy in northern Ghana. Appendices 1 and 2 provide lists of archival sources in Ghana and selected references respectively.

Obituary for Professor Richard Grove.


    Damodaran, V. and D'Souza, R. (eds.). 2020. Commonwealth Forest & Environmental History. Empire Forests and Colonial Environments in Africa, the Caribbean, South Asia and New Zealand. 357-401


    Primus Books

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    Wardell, D.A.



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