University of Sussex
Showers.pdf (206.34 kB)

From forestry to soil conservaton: British tree management in Lesotho's grassland ecosystem

Download (206.34 kB)
journal contribution
posted on 2023-06-07, 17:25 authored by Kate B Showers
Why have colonial and independent governments sponsored tree planting campaigns in a southern African grassland for more than a hundred years - despite high mortality rates - and how have local residents responded? Pollen analysis shows that the Kingdom of Lesotho has been a grassland for the last 23,000 years. Freezing winters and drought-prone summers limited indigenous tree growth to places sheltered from wind or near streams and wet spots. Early missionaries harvested most of the indigenous trees for construction and fuel, then planted alien fruit and fuel wood trees in their domestic spaces. Even after environmental constraints were recognized, and after first thousands, and then millions, of introduced trees died, a series of British administrators and international aid donors advocated planting exotic tree species to solve a variety of perceived problems. The persistence of this activity in the face of obvious failure can only be understood by examining the beliefs held about the virtues of trees - beliefs so strong they blinded observers to a contrary reality and alternative strategies. Lesotho became the British Protectorate of Basutoland in 1868, shortly before the first representatives of scientific forestry reached the British Cape Colony to the south. Because of widespread regional concern about drought, belief in all trees ability to induce rainfall, and preference for any tree over grass vegetation, tree planting was considered to be both morally and environmentally beneficial. These European-derived attitudes influenced officials in England and Basutoland (as well as regional settler societies and their governments), and persisted in various forms for generations. Arguments justifying Basutoland tree projects changed over time, ranging from the need to afforest denuded hillsides, through trees inherent soil stabilization capabilities, to trees as sources of fruit, fuel and construction materials. Those without mythic (or romantic) views of trees were less certain about the efficacy of generalized tree planting. Their advocacy was more selective about species, purpose and location. A 1908 Cape Foresters report commented on the rationality of Basotho (residents of Lesotho) choices of tree species and village planting locations, while criticizing government plans for mass afforestation and the establishment of woodlots in scarce agricultural or grazing land. This divergence of opinion between most Basotho and most government and aid agency representatives persisted throughout the 20th C, resulting in official characterization of Basotho as disliking trees. However, while campaigns for tree planting were frequently resisted - if not sabotaged - individuals bought, propagated, protected and planted trees for domestic use. As official justification for tree planting changed (afforestation, soil protection, soil restoration, source of food, fuel and timber), so did the definition of a forest. The 19th century ideal of a forested mountain slope became, in the late 20th century, a woodlot that could be certified as a forest. Basotho were sent to study forestry so they could tend these new reserves. At the beginning of the 21st C, the ideal of a forested slope was resurrected. A government ministry added Forestry to its name and announced an official goal of 5% tree cover in a decade. Yet Lesotho remains a grassland, 20 year old woodlot/forest reserves had to be replanted because of drought and cold, and Basotho cherish their fruit and fuelwood trees.


Publication status

  • Published

File Version

  • Published version


Conservation and Society




Medknow Publications





Page range




Department affiliated with

  • Geography Publications

Full text available

  • Yes

Peer reviewed?

  • Yes

Legacy Posted Date


First Open Access (FOA) Date


First Compliant Deposit (FCD) Date


Usage metrics

    University of Sussex (Publications)


    No categories selected



    Ref. manager