Things Fall Apart? The Political Ecology of Forest Governance in Southern Nigeria

West Africa is wrapped in narratives of crisis: to many observers, things seem always to have just fallen apart. Conventional wisdom regarding the decline of commercial forestry in the region conjures a familiar suite of culprits as causes for deforestation and entrenched poverty —from corruption and gross mismanagement to the supposedly unscientific forestry practices of locals. As Pauline von Hellermann points out in the beginning of this fine study, even experienced analysts of the rural economy in southern Nigeria reproduce the well-worn title of Chinua Achebe’s classic novel: things fall apart in Nigeria, it seems, and the past is an irrevocable talisman of a more peaceful and productive age. The question mark in von Hellermann’s title invites readers to interrogate the prevailing sentiments that forest governance has fallen apart in southern Nigeria, and the author capably charts a fresh approach to understanding the intersections of environmental and political change in this region over the past three centuries. The book’s central argument is that the telltale signs of governance failure in Nigeria’s forests are the historical outgrowths of colonial dynamics that are not so easily summed up in narratives of crisis and decline. In setting out to track policy processes historically and ethnographically, von Hellermann notes that 20th Century forestry reforms “have often been undertaken without sufficient understanding of the reasons for the failures of centralised management” (p. 5). Things Fall Apart? shows how the exogenous narrative of failure contrasts with the long history of local communities adapting forestry policy to their own ends in southern Nigeria.

The text focuses on Edo State, which today is home to various environmental reserves, timber and palm oil concessions, and burgeoning cities. Historically the Edo State, from the 17th century forward, was under the influence of the Kingdom of Benin. Precolonial political rivalries—and their ecological consequences—are important for an understanding of contemporary sociopolitical relations in Nigeria’s forests. The very existence of forests that could be recognized as such by European colonists depended on massive depopulation and the incorporation of the region’s oba (hereditary title-holders) into the zone of Benin’s influence. Forest density was a function of the political history of the region, though the forests that emerged in western Benin Kingdom were patchworks of cultivated and wild spaces, thoroughly inhabited and used by shifting cultivators who participated in complex and shifting networks of political allegiance managed by village obas. With the ascendancy of British colonialism at the close of the 19th Century, this patchwork was targeted for categorical purification: “forest” was to be separated from “farm” through the implementation of a reserve system and the principles of scientific forest management. The Okomu Reserve took in the landscapes surrounding Udo town, and over the next several decades local obas attempted to adapt colonial territorial and political principles to the preexisting political economy. Shifting cultivation declined, but the transformation of Okomu habitats and political economy was not a matter of hamfisted colonial fiats. von Hellerman presents archival and oral historical evidence to show that Benin’s obas maintained patronage networks through their participation in the reserve system; furthermore, the midcentury decision to degazette reserves in favor of expanded export monocropping suited the perspectives of colonial economic planners as well as those traditional leaders who controlled access to concessions and positions within the forestry bureaucracy. The author stops short of calling this process one of indigenization or localization, but these concepts are never far from mind, especially during her discussion of Nigeria’s recent implementation of Taungya farming and national parks within the confines of Okomu Reserve. Like scientific forestry and plantation monocropping, Taungya (an agroecological strategy adapted from Burma as an afforestation method) and national parks were land policy imports that were adapted to meet local ends.

The resounding point is this: local communities are agents in bringing such policy innovations to life, yet policy remains consistently blind to local histories and sociopolitical dynamics. The history of Nigerian forests is defined by local political systems responding to and reshaping a series of exogenous policies that have sought to maintain lumber production, stave off ecological disaster, or simply make forest landscapes conform to globally circulating models of conservation. Ultimately, it is this repeating pattern of policy imports failing to understand local histories that produces the crisis narrative: things are falling apart because sociologically blind policies continue to fail, and those failures create the conditions for new, similarly blind policy interventions.

Things Fall Apart? performs a disruption to this inexorable logic by bringing careful historical and political description to bear, not so much on the question of why forestry policies fail but on the conditions that have led the question of failure to being the only one asked. In this way, the book makes an important contribution to the political ecology of West Africa, and has important insights for scholars of conservation policy worldwide. As a case study, the book would make a fine supplement in undergraduate teaching, with two caveats. Very little in the way of lively ethnographic description makes its way into the text, and von Hellermann’s detailed descriptions of the archival material sometimes distract from the book’s central arguments. Furthermore, the book’s utilization of theory is relatively limited. Perhaps this is because of the author’s desire to write a focused case study, as the volume appears in a monograph series that privileges rich description over conceptual innovation. Still, fascinating conceptual dilemmas are hinted at but not fully developed, such as the work of failure as a government tool, the limitations of the agency/structure framework in studies of environmental policy implementation, and the role of patronage politics and corruption as being concomitant with (rather than opposed by) the practice and theory of good governance. The book has much to say on these matters, though not without a good deal of extrapolation on the part of the reader. These faults notwithstanding, Things Fall Apart? is important as a document of the limits of scientific forestry—policies did not override, but were rather shaped by longstanding political-ecological relations in Nigeria—and as a rejoinder to the conventional wisdom of crisis and decline that such policies engender.

Jeremy M. Campbell, Roger Williams University

 von Hellermann, Pauline. Things Fall Apart? The Political Ecology of Forest Governance in Southern Nigeria.  Berghahn, 2013. Read more at Berghahn Books.

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