Forestry and the “World on Paper”

Ideas of Science and Resistance to Forest Reservation on the Gold Coast in the Early Twentieth Century

Timothy Vilgiate


When the British colonial government sought to create a forestry department in the Gold Coast in 1908, the effort met significant legal and political opposition from chiefs, subchiefs, and farmers, especially in the Akan kingdoms in the southern part of the colony. It was only after World War I that the government created a forestry department, and professional foresters struggled to legitimize their activities to the general public. To justify the creation of forest reserves, they emphasized a constructed dichotomy between the scientific nature of their knowledge about the forest and the supposedly backward indigenous techniques of forest management and agriculture. Disregarding the degree to which local farmers, priests, and healers understood the inner workings of the forest, European and European-trained foresters focused on “educating the native” and discouraged native practices like shifting agriculture. However, recent research has shown that many African people groups like the Akan possess more sophisticated and detailed knowledge of their local ecosystems than colonial scientists, technicians, and administrators had imagined. Although based on different cultural concepts and ecological relationships than European forestry, the Akan grounded their interactions with the forest in a parallel body of scientific knowledge, which benefited from a more detailed understanding of local botany. By taking a paternalistic, dismissive attitude toward native forest science, European policies of forest reservation ultimately undermined the Akans’ own goals of either protecting the forest or making it economically productive in the long term. Even as new data and research challenge these preconceptions in the present day, writers on the subject still often use language of “indigenous knowledge” as opposed to “indigenous science,” obscuring the dynamic and sophisticated nature of African scientific knowledge about local environments.

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