landscapes: A critical
reappraisal of Sierra
forest cover histories
Paul George Munro
University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
Greg van der Horst
University of Melbourne, Melbourne, New South Wales, Australia
In the late-1990s anthropologists James Fairhead and Melissa Leach declared in a series of seminal
publications that mainstream understandings of Sierra Leonean forest cover history had greatly
exaggerated its past extent and rate of conversion to other land uses. Using archival evidence,
they recast the ‘official’ story as a product of antiquated European environmental philosophy
rather than empirical data. Moreover, they found that it distorted environmental policy by
perpetuating images of a mythological past in which once nearly universal forest cover had
been (and continued to be) denuded and degraded by irrational, primitive rural agricultural
practices. Building on this foundation, they developed a trenchant critique of the existing
academic literature describing land cover change in Sierra Leone, discounting most findings on
the grounds of the authors’ uncritical engagement with the colonial-era narrative. In this article
we present a re-evaluation of this influential thesis, arguing that while their broader critique is
quite sound, historical deforestation in Sierra Leone has most certainly been considerably
exaggerated, Fairhead and Leach overreached in their dismissal of prior works. Drawing upon
new empirical data, we revisit these debates and develop a more nuanced critical platform from
which to understand Sierra Leone’s forest cover history.
Sierra Leone, forest, political ecology, environmental history, Africa, deforestation narratives
In the late-1990s, anthropologists James Fairhead and Melissa Leach produced two seminal
texts that sent a theoretical wrecking ball through the body of received wisdom on coastal
Paul George Munro, University of New South Wales, Level 3, Morven Brown Building, Sydney 2052, Australia.
Environment and Planning D: Society and
!The Author(s) 2015
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West Africa’s environmental history (Fairhead and Leach, 1996b, 1998b). In these key
books, and in the numerous additional journal articles
and book chapters
them, they dismantled the contemporary discourse of progressive deforestation, exposing its
origins in colonial era prejudices and spurious statistics ‘veriﬁed’ by decades of uncritical
repetition in the absence of actual data. To ﬁll this empirical void, they presented a
compelling counter-narrative based on methodologically rich research employing archival
analysis, oral history, landcover change analysis and archaeological investigation. From this
detailed work, a rather diﬀerent story emerged: not only did net forest cover loss appear to
be negligible, but the same human actors long blamed for its destruction also appeared to be
equally forest progenitors in a dynamic, patchy and constantly shifting mosaic of
agricultural activity, (re)settlement and cyclical regrowth. Fairhead and Leach’s work has
been of considerable importance not only as an empirical contribution to the understanding
of forest cover dynamics in West Africa, but also through its conceptual contributions to the
ﬁelds of environmental anthropology, human geography and environmental history. In
particular, it has often been identiﬁed as a formative example of ‘post-structuralist
political ecology’ (e.g. Demeritt, 2001; Forsyth, 2003; Neumann, 2005; Peet and Watts,
2004; Robbins, 2012), demonstrating how the deconstruction of hegemonic environmental
discourses opens up the necessary critical space for the emergence of new, more nuanced
(and empirically based) understandings of socio-ecological dynamics and transformation.
Furthermore, their work has provided an important contribution and platform for broader
critical literature that has emerged over the past couple of decades that challenge
deforestation narratives in Africa (cf. Davis, 2005; Kull, 2000; McCann, 1997; Ribot,
1999; Walker, 2004).
The richness and importance of their contribution notwithstanding, however, the broad,
region-wide thesis developed by Fairhead and Leach is not comprehensive in its local-level
detail, and there remains considerable room for reﬁnement on a country-by-country basis.
In this paper we argue that Fairhead and Leach overreached in their critiques of existing
literature with respect to Sierra Leone’s forest cover history. It is our ﬁnding that while their
deconstruction of prior assessments remains important, more analytical nuance is needed to
establish what ideas, data and arguments can be salvaged from existing works. In essence,
therefore, our work complements that of Fairhead and Leach according to the broad model
articulated by Paul Robbins (2012), who represents political ecology as a twofold process
reliant on both the metaphorical hatchet of critical diagnosis and the metaphorical seed of
normative prognosis. Whereas Fairhead and Leach have eﬀectively wielded the hatchet of
deconstruction, in this paper we seek to plant some new analytical seeds drawn from existing
material, new sources (i.e. Akiwumi, 2006a, 2006b; Deveneaux, 1985) and recently
discovered archival data (i.e. Elliot and Raisin, 1893; Stebbing, 1934) for the development
of a nuanced political ecology of Sierra Leone’s forest cover history. Being grounded in
political ecology, our approach here is critical realist one, an interpretive approach where we
oﬀer diﬀerent plausible forest histories based on rigorous analysis, rather than establishing
deﬁnitive ‘factual’ conclusions (Forsyth, 2003). Political Ecology is apt framework for such a
historical endeavour, as its emphasis on conceptual genealogies helps us to formulate an
understanding about how contemporary knowledge of forests have emerged (Neumann,
2005). Thus the focus here is not to tell a (hi)story about forests in Sierra Leone, but
rather to further understand why certain forest histories have emerged and why.
In the sections that follow we provide a review of historical forest cover debates in Sierra
Leone. The next section provides an overview of Fairhead and Leach’s broader thesis on the
discursive exaggeration of deforestation in West Africa. The following two sections then
move on to examine Fairhead and Leach’s more speciﬁc assessments of individual prior
2Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 0(0)
works, interrogating their approach to understanding forest extent in nineteenth century
Sierra Leone, and to recalculating change dynamics of the twentieth century. The ﬁnal
section presents a summary of conclusions and thoughts on future research in this area.
Deforestation narratives in West Africa
While it is the regional-scale analysis in Fairhead and Leach’s text Reframing Deforestation
(1998b) that has received perhaps the most enduring attention, it is important to note that it
was their earlier experience conducting detailed research in the Kissidougou prefecture in
rural Guinea that provided the impetus and set the tone for the later set of country-
by-country case studies (Fairhead and Leach, 1998b). When they ﬁrst arrived in
Kissidougou’s predominantly Grassland Savanna, Fairhead and Leach began their
ethnographic work based on the (standard) assumption that the characteristic scattered
‘forest islands’ were remnants of a much larger contiguous expanse of mature forest that
would have dominated coastal West African ecology until the not too distant past.
Moreover, as for previous visiting outsiders, it seemed self-evident to them that the
demise of this mythic ‘original’ forest must have been caused by over-enthusiastic
‘slashing and burning’ on the part of the local population (Fairhead and Leach, 1995a,
1995b, 1996c). In the course of exploring the oral of various communities around
Kissidougou, however, they began to perceive the outlines of a surprisingly diﬀerent
account. In tales told by village elders, the densely wooded ‘islands’ appeared not
as remnant patches of a primordial ‘virgin’ forest, but rather as the products of patient
work by previous generations to ‘improve’ the grassland environment with an eye
to priorities such as food, fodder and defence. Intrigued, Fairhead and Leach began
a focused investigation of these claims drawing on a range of other data sources
including documents from the colonial archives, archaeological evidence and time series
aerial photography. The results were detailed in what would prove a seminal text,
Misreading the African Landscape, which provided an ‘alternative’ and counter-colonial
narrative of historical landcover dynamics in the Kissidougou region (Fairhead and
An important focus of this text was not only to disprove the ‘oﬃcial’ story of a ‘degraded’
Kissidougou regularly rehearsed by Guinean State agents and international actors alike, but
also to explain both its origins and its persistence in the face of a steady stream of
contradictory evidence (Fairhead and Leach, 2003). Approaching this genealogical project
through archival research, Fairhead and Leach traced the ‘Forest Zone’ hypothesis back to
the pronouncements of late 1800s and early 1900s European colonial oﬃcials who combined
an overtly racist thorough-going distrust of ‘native’ environmental competence with an
equally systematic misreading of the Guinean landscape under the inﬂuence of pseudo-
scientiﬁc ecological notions such as ‘succession,’ ‘equilibrium’ and (deforestation-induced)
desiccation. Based (almost solely) on the precipitation levels of the day, these self-proclaimed
experts determined that the vast Guinea Savanna region should have had continuous canopy
tropical moist forest as its ‘natural’, ‘climax’ vegetation, which, given its absence, must have
been destroyed by the ‘primitive’ and ‘irrational’ practices of the local farming populations
(Fairhead and Leach, 1996b). Tracking such proclamations through time, Fairhead and
Leach (1995a) argued that the reason for the (otherwise inexplicable) persistence of this
‘‘False Forest History’’ – which had somehow survived the transition to indigenous rule,
the comprehensive discrediting of its underlying ‘theories’ and the persistent non-occurrence
of the apocalypse it predicted – was simply its continual renewal and re-entrenchment
through uncritical repetition in an empirical vacuum (Fairhead and Leach, 1996b). Given
Munr and Horst 3
the remarkable nature of these ﬁndings, their work quickly became the subject of
considerable interest and debate, not least with respect to its signiﬁcant implications for
existing forest conservation policies and programmes (Fairhead and Leach, 2003).
Building on these ﬁndings, Fairhead and Leach subsequently expanded their analysis,
producing more reviews of the contrasts between constructed and empirically demonstrable
forest histories in several other countries including Sierra Leone (Fairhead and Leach,
1998b, 1998a, 2000c, 2000b).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, their ﬁndings in Sierra Leone (and
elsewhere) were broadly similar to those of the original study or the other case studies.
Certainly, a nearly identical narrative describing the linear degradation of a once
ubiquitous primordial forest (due to ‘wasteful’ native practices) had survived from the
early colonial era to dominate contemporary environmental rhetoric and policy-making.
In addition, as in Guinea, they found a variety of scattered evidence contradicting the
‘oﬃcial’ story. In the case of Sierra Leone, however, the historical data available were not
adequate to support deﬁnitive conclusions regarding the country’s forest past. As a result,
the crux of their argument was that – in contrast to the conﬁdent claims of the dominant
narrative – it is simply not known how much of Sierra Leone was once covered by primary
forest and that ‘‘while it is certain that Sierra Leone currently has a relatively low proportion
of mature forest, the question arises as to when, if ever, it had much more’’ (Fairhead and
Leach, 1998b: 138). Given the lack of conclusive data, they argued, the entrenched notion
that Sierra Leone had been heavily forested prior to the 1900s was (and always had been)
based on speculation rather than evidence. Indeed, the scant early documentary evidence
that does exist for Sierra Leone suggests that some of the country’s most widely celebrated
areas of ‘primary’ forest might once have been farmland in the 1800s (Fairhead and Leach,
Beyond this central thesis, however, their work also develops an equally important and
closely related second argument that concerns not the forest past, but a particular tension in
‘popular’ present-day constructions. As Fairhead and Leach illustrate, tied to the notion of
the now vanished ‘original’ forest has been a concomitant neo-Malthusian claim that Sierra
Leone is still experiencing rapid deforestation as a product of population growth and
ongoing dependence on shifting agriculture (also see Kandeh and Richards, 1996). As
they rather pointedly remark, this claim illustrates a contradiction at the heart of the
mainstream narrative. For over a century, a wide array of national and international
observers have repeatedly parroted the initial colonial oﬃcials’ assessment that a once
great forest had been nearly completely destroyed by the ‘slashing and burning’ of local
farmers who (given their obstinate persistence in this ‘irrational’ practice) would inevitably
consume the dwindling remainder in the immediate future. Unfortunately for the proponents
of this view, during the twentieth century, their statistical forests have behaved in rather
unexpected ways. First, either the various authors on record are describing diﬀerent Sierra
Leones or there have been startlingly rapid rates of regeneration and (re)deforestation as
various accounts have the country nearly completely covered in mature canopy at very
diﬀerent points in time ranging from the early 1900s, the 1940s, and even as late as the
1960s (e.g. Ciesla, 1995; Conteh, 2010). Second, not only has population growth failed to
demolish the ‘residual’ forest estate, but apparently must have even somewhat increased it
during the course of the past century – as quotes from various heads of the Sierra Leonean
(colonial and post-colonial) Forestry Department uncovered during our own ﬁeld research
The Rain Forests at one time must have covered the whole country... 99 per cent of this has
been destroyed [i.e., only 1% left] (Lane-Poole, 1911: 6)
4Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 0(0)
High forest is the natural vegetation of Sierra Leone but in the early history of the country the
forests were subjected to uncontrolled exploitation... the remnant high forests are now 4.15%
(Sawyerr, 1965: 121)
Sierra Leone was once a well forested country, but the closed forest cover has been reduced from
about 70% of the total land area in about 7 decades [i.e., since the 1920s] period to only 5% of
land area in 1990 (Alieu, 2011: 1)
The validity of Fairhead and Leach’s claims on this count continue to be borne out in
international circles as well. The Food And Agricultural Organisation (FAO), for
example, considered one of the most deﬁnitive sources in the establishment of country-
level rates of deforestation, has been distinctly inconsistent in its State of the World’s
Forests (SWF) and Global Forest Resource Assessment (GFRA) reports. As Figure 1
indicates, each of the reports records a decrease in cover, but the numbers vary
substantially from one report to the next. From these reports, one could ‘cherry-pick’
statistics to paint any number of diﬀerent forest cover and deforestation rate scenarios for
Sierra Leone. For the years 1990 and 2000, for example, FAO statistics show more than a
25% diﬀerence between the highest and lowest estimates. Ultimately, such contradictions in
the baseline data are a largely product of the FAO’s respect for state sovereignty when it
comes to the collection of forest cover data. The forest cover change statistics are provided
by national governments and then are dutifully published by the FAO, which does not
by any means have the mandate or resources to engage in rigorous empirical veriﬁcation.
1990 2000 2005 2010
SWF (1999) 22%
SWF (2005) 15% 15%
SWF (2007) 39% 39% 39%
SWF (2011) 39% 38%
GFRA (1990) 26%
GFRA (2000) 20% 15%
GFRA (2005) 43% 43% 39%
GFRA (2010) 44% 44% 39% 38%
Figure 1. Percentage of Sierra Leone cover in forests according to FAO’s State of the World’s Forests
(SoWF) (1999, 2005b, 2007, 2009, 2011) and Global Forest Resource Assessment (GFRA) (1990, 2000, 2005a,
2010) reports. The FAO definition includes any area that contains more than 10% crown cover.
Munr and Horst 5
As Grainger (2010) notes, this is problematic as numerous studies around the world
uncritically use these statistics to make broader inferences about worldwide deforestation.
Unfortunately, therefore, given the multiple contradictions FAO statistics for Sierra Leone
do not oﬀer any particular insight into ‘actual’ material forest cover change in Sierra Leone.
What they do, however, is indicate that the Sierra Leonean Government is convinced of
ongoing deforestation despite a lack of data indicating a trend one way or the other – again
supporting the earlier ﬁndings of Fairhead and Leach (1998b).
As the foregoing discussion makes clear, Fairhead and Leach’s broader arguments were
(and remain) well-founded and exceedingly pertinent. Certainly there has been a pronounced
tendency to exaggerate deforestation rates in the literature and thereby exerting considerable
(and consistently alarmist) inﬂuence on broader global discourse of West Africa’s forests.
Nevertheless, the devil – as always – resides in the details, and while Fairhead and Leach’s
general conclusions about ‘deforestation narratives’ in Sierra Leone appear to be sound,
some of their more speciﬁc conclusions on deforestation in the country need to be
re-considered. In particular, their conclusions regarding nineteenth century land cover
change dynamics and the methodologies they employed to calculate ‘alternate’ landcover
change histories, require some scrutiny. In the next two sections, aspects of Fairhead and
Leach’s work is re-examined in the light of newly uncovered archival material.
During the early 1800s, Sierra Leone became perhaps the ﬁrst area in West Africa to
experience widespread timber exploitation by Europeans. Between 1816 and the 1880s, a
number of self-made timber barons established themselves in the Sierra Leonean hinterland,
exporting timber to European and North American dockyards for the construction of naval
ships. Despite several decades of success, however, this trade declined considerably at the
end of the nineteenth century due to the shift toward steel-hulled ships, competition from the
thriving palm kernel trade and, some suggest, from the exhaustion of the most proﬁtable
timber reserves (Akiwumi, 2006a, 2006b). While several analysts have argued that the
lucrative timber trade during this period had signiﬁcant environmental impacts (Dorward and
Payne, 1975; Millington, 1985a, 1987b), in their key texts, Fairhead and Leach (1998b) discount
these claims. Their assessment considers that although logging was an important industry at the
time, its scale and scope have been exaggerated and likely had only a negligible impact on net
forest cover. As such, they ﬁnd that the rigour of such analyses was adversely inﬂuenced by
mainstream ‘deforestation narratives’ that assume a once universal primeval forest. For a
number of reasons, however, this dismissal requires reassessment.
Deforestation in Freetown’s immediate hinterland?
A key point of contention is a 1975 article in which Dorward and Payne (1975) examine the
relationship between nineteenth century deforestation and the death of horses in Freetown
due to the spread of the tsetse ﬂy. Admittedly, the article was ambitious with its hypothesis,
seeking to ﬁnd a deﬁnitive reason to explain why the domestic horse population in Sierra
Leone, used by the resident European colonial population, came to a sudden decline in the
mid-to-late 1800s. The ﬁrst (and possibly most robust) part of the article analysed historical
veterinary records using a contemporary epidemiological analysis framework to reach the
conclusion that horses in late 1800s Freetown most likely died from trypanosomiasis, a
disease typically spread by the tsetse ﬂy. The second (and slightly more reaching) part of
the paper attempts to establish an explanation as to why a rapid spread of the disease would
have occurred at this particular time. Beginning with the knowledge that the tsetse ﬂy is
generally found in Savanna environs and avoids tropical moist forest areas, Dorward and
Payne conclude that the ultimate cause of the outbreak was likely a major change in the
6Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 0(0)
landcover of Freetown’s immediate hinterland. Drawing upon archival evidence that
suggested this area was heavily logged by timber merchants throughout the nineteenth
century, the authors infer a rapid transformation from tropical moist forest to more
Savanna-like vegetation which could have facilitated the spread of the tsetse ﬂy.
Approaching the history of land cover change in Sierra Leone from a considerably
diﬀerent starting point, however, Fairhead and Leach heavily criticise Dorward and
Payne’s conclusions in a number of works (Fairhead and Leach, 1996c, 1997, 1998a,
1998b, 2000c). Ultimately, their conclusion is that: ‘‘the argument for the importance of
nineteenth century deforestation being centred on the timber industry in Sierra Leone
is ...invalid [and a] ...diﬀerent reason will have to be sought for the outbreak
of trypanosomiasis among the horse population in the 1850s’’ (Fairhead and Leach,
Although Dorward and Payne do occasionally make unsubstantiated assertions regarding
Sierra Leone’s heavily forested past, Fairhead and Leach’s deconstruction of the horse/
tsetse-ﬂy/deforestation thesis also deserves reassessment. For one thing, their challenge to
Dorward and Payne’s conclusion is based on an analysis of timber export records from
Freetown during the 1800s. Using these data they calculate that the amount of timber
exported from Freetown between 1827 and 1860 would have amounted to a very small
area of forest loss – far short of the amount required to induce the landscape
transformation that Dorward and Payne identify (Fairhead and Leach, 1998b). Their
assumption that these data can be taken as a reliable proxy for nineteenth century timber
trade in Sierra Leone and its impacts on land cover dynamics, however, is problematic
(Munro and Hiemstra-van der Horst, 2011). A key issue is that for most of the nineteenth
century the boundaries of the British Colony in Sierra Leone were restricted to the Freetown
Peninsula and formal colonial administrative expansion into the hinterland did not occur
until 1896. As a result, the logging activity discussed by Dorward and Payne did not occur
under the auspices (or, therefore, the record keeping mandate) of the British regime and
therefore quite likely was not featured in the formal timber export statistics of the Freetown
Colony. Indeed, Dorward and Payne themselves note that very little timber production was
actually occurring within the boundaries of the British Colony at this time. Moreover, more
recent work by Fenda Akiwumi (2006a, 2006b) demonstrates that the timber trade in Sierra
Leone during the period in question was characterised by poor recordkeeping, chronic
under-reporting of cargo quantities and widespread smuggling. In sum, historical records
of ‘oﬃcially’ exported timber are likely to represent at best a modest fraction of the actual
total of timber that was harvested and traded.
In addition to this broader methodological issue, a re-examination of Dorward and
Payne’s article, in conjunction with other sources, indicates that their arguments are far
from implausible. First, although they do make some unsubstantiated statements about
broader trends of deforestation in Sierra Leone, the main focus of their article is on
deforestation in the ‘immediate vicinity’ of Freetown – namely the Koya Chiefdom, which
was adjacent to the Sierra Leonean Crown Colony of the 1800s (see Figure 2). Their
analytical question can therefore perhaps be reframed as: ‘did rapid deforestation occur in
the Koya Chiefdom during the 1800s?’ All in all, the historical data suggest that this is not
only very possible, but even quite likely. First, as Fairhead and Leach themselves note,
coastal and riparian areas were the main focus of logging operations as they oﬀered ease
of access and low cost methods of timber transportation. In this context, the Koya
Chiefdom, with its extensive coastline and two major rivers (Ribbi and Rokel), would
therefore have been a natural area of exploitation. Second, the main access road (and
later railway line) from Freetown to the broader hinterland ran through the middle of the
Munr and Horst 7
Koya Chiefdom, oﬀering an additional avenue for access and transportation of logs. Third,
Dorward and Payne cite archival evidence speciﬁcally indicating that John McCormack –
one of the earliest and most prominent timber traders during the nineteenth century – set up
a number of timber harvesting operations in the Koya Chiefdom. This is supported in
Deveneaux’s (1985) historical study of the Koya Chiefdom, where it is noted that when
the colonial government in Freetown had issues dealing with the Chiefdom authorities in
Koya, they chose to send McCormack as a representative. The fact that the colonial
authorities chose to send an independent timber merchant rather than a government
oﬃcial to conduct negotiations with a neighbouring chiefdom neighbour suggests both
that its own political inﬂuence was very limited outside the Freetown Peninsula and that
McCormack had considerable connections in Koya. Finally, the Chiefdom’s signiﬁcance to
the industry is further supported by the forester Charles Lane-Poole (1911) who observed in
1909 that harvesting was still ongoing near Boia, a town in Koya’s north. In sum, it seems
reasonable to conclude that during the period disputed by the two sets of authors timber
harvesting was a rather lively industry in the Koya Chiefdom due to the combination of its
easy access, proximity to Freetown’s amenities and lack of regulation by the colonial state.
Naturally, as Fairhead and Leach note, even quite enthusiastic logging does not
automatically result in the conversion of forest to grassland. Indeed, part of their critique
of Dorward and Payne’s work is that the latter uncritically assume a simple causal linkage
between the two and fail to appreciate either the selectivity of colonial era logging activities
which were largely focused on a few particular species, or the natural regenerative capacity
of the forest itself. Nevertheless, there is some evidence suggesting that Freetown’s
immediate hinterland may have been deforested during the 1800s. In an 1893 report
written by colonialists Scott Elliot and Catharine Raisin stated that:
Most of the forest in the immediate neighbourhood of [the] Sierra Leone [colony]
was cut down
for export many years ago in the period during which the timber trade was one of the most
important industries. (Elliot and Raisin, 1893: 32)
Figure 2. Map of the Sierra Leonean Crown Colony and the Koya Chiefdom.
8Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 0(0)
As such, the available information indicates that the Koya Chiefdom was the focus of
intense timber harvesting operations in the mid-to-late 1800s which could, in turn, have
caused some form of rapid deforestation in the area. While this does not ‘prove’ Dorward
and Payne’s thesis of the link between deforestation, tsetse ﬂy migration and horse deaths in
Freetown, it does suggest that their conclusions about localised deforestation remain quite
plausible and that Fairhead and Leach may have been too hasty in dismissing the thesis.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that archival sources alone will be able to provide a deﬁnitive
conclusion about the extent (and/or occurrence per se) of deforestation in the Freetown
hinterland during the 1800s and natural science approaches such as the use of sediment
cores may be needed to help settle the question.
Millington and the question of the interior
Similar to Dorward and Payne, geographer Andy Millington in his Doctoral thesis
(Millington, 1985a) and a number of journal articles and book chapters (Millington,
1985b, 1987a, 1987b, 1988) has also attempted to trace part of Sierra Leone’s forest
history. During the early-1980s, he conducted research on indigenous agricultural
practices in which he took a special interest in the historical intersections of oﬃcial
agricultural and forestry policies. Developing inferences from the prior work of Ayondele
Cole (1968), in sections of his thesis he develops a map of the areas of Sierra Leone in which
he considers where the timber trade would likely have caused deforestation during the early
1800s. In the course of their general critique of received forest histories of Sierra Leone,
Fairhead and Leach (1998b) take issue with Millington’s conclusions, ﬁnding that
Millington took a very ‘liberal’ interpretation of Ayodele Cole’s analysis (which in any
event is not itself a primary data source). Speciﬁcally, they point out that Millington’s
map indicates deforestation not only in coastal areas and river sides (in line with Ayodele
Cole’s descriptions) but also across broad swaths of Sierra Leone’s interior.
Though the critique launched by Fairhead and Leach was well founded, there are some
reasons to suggest a compromise between the two assessments. First of all, we ﬁnd it
important to note that there is a logical ﬂaw in Millington’s analysis that has not
previously been identiﬁed. On one hand, his indication of inland deforestation buﬀered
along the (now dismantled) colonial rail is not unreasonable since during the ﬁrst half of
the 1900s the Railway Department was the Forestry Department’s biggest customer. It
frequently bought large amounts of timber to make sleepers and build carriages (King-
Church, 1922; Robertson, 1937) and areas close to the line itself would have been the
most convenient timber sources, potentially becoming deforested in the process.
Conversely, as the construction of Sierra Leone’s railway did not start until 1896, it
would unlikely have been an agent of deforestation between 1810 and 1860 as Millington
suggests. On the whole, simple reasoning indicates that if deforestation did occur in this
region, then it would likely have occurred during the time the railway was constructed.
Second, new data uncovered during our own archival investigations sheds additional light
on the matter. Speciﬁcally, a set of notes scribbled by forester-academic Edward Stebbing,
(1934) regarding his visit to Sierra Leone in the 1930s appears to oﬀer general support for
Millington’s map. Interestingly, although it suggests that there was deforestation of the areas
in question, it also implies that this occurred sometime between the 1870s and 1930s rather
than at the beginning of the 1800s as Millington proposes. Stebbing ﬁrst travelled to Sierra
Leone to examine the progress of forestry activities in the colony in the 1934. Stebbing’s
foray into Sierra Leone is particularly interesting, as he appears to be the only colonial
forester to have actually interviewed local community members regarding historical forest
Munr and Horst 9
cover change. One of his group interviews was conducted in Kowa Chiefdom (in central
Sierra Leone) and involved the Paramount Chief Kwee, some members of Kowa Chiefdom
Council, and Beinya, a local village elder who was around 80 years old at the time. Writing
about the discussions, Stebbing notes:
On the question of the disappearance of the high forests in their Chiefdom opinions were pretty
well unanimous and it may be held that 40–50 years ago furious inroads had already been made
into much of it and that it had already ceased to be solid blocks of virgin forest... Beinya, the old
man, made a valuable corroboration statement. He said that when he was a young man the Tabe
Forest Reserve, now a waterlogged area containing a few small relics of the old Rain Forest and
a few scattered individual magniﬁcent old trees standing amidst a waste of short grass, was all
covered with Rain Forest (Stebbing, 1934: 11).
The Tabe Forest Reserve, which was gazetted in 1931, was located on the railway line
between Moyamba and Bo in the centre of the Kowa Chiefdom. If we take Beinya’s
recorded statement as accurate, deforestation would have occurred in this area sometime
in the late 1800s since he claims to have been ‘‘a young man’’ when the area was still heavily
forested. Unfortunately, Stebbing does not ask about causal factors, given the time period,
but the construction and later maintenance of the railway line is a highly plausable
candidate. As well, it is certain that the area was still being harvested at the beginning of
the twentieth century given Lane-Poole’s contemporary notes that there was ‘‘a small supply
of timber coming into Freetown [and] this is cut in the neighbourhood of Boia and between
Moyamba and Bo’’ (Lane-Poole, 1911: 21; emphasis added). Ultimately, since the Kowa
Chiefdom and Tabe Forest Reserve fall within the easternmost point of deforestation
indicated on Millington’s map (see Figure 3), the evidence suggests that the dismissal of
his ﬁndings by Fairhead and Leach may have been overly hasty.
Furthermore, while there are ﬂaws in Millington’s analysis, it is an overstatement to label
his work as a simple promulgation of the standard colonial era narrative. For one thing, he
clearly eschews the outlandish assertions of a once-grand forest decimated in the 1800s made
by other sources and in many ways his map corresponds relatively well with primary source
descriptions of deforestation. Additionally, Millington’s research on swidden farming has
often challenged assumptions that this agricultural practice has caused environmental
damage in Sierra Leone and he emphasizes that some colonial oﬃcers (though a small
minority) showed a great appreciation of the intricacies of shifting cultivation and how it
was well suited to the Sierra Leonean environment (Millington, 1987a, 1987b). In his work
he comes to the conclusion that:
Recognition of the intrinsic value of the shifting cultivation systems was extremely rare during
the colonial era... this lack of appreciation can be seen as a major error and one which has
continually dogged the eﬀectiveness of land conservation policies in Sierra Leone. Shifting
cultivation was, and has been for many years, intricately balanced with the physical and
human constraints of farming in Sierra Leone... Recent studies... have examined the
formulation and adoption of indigenous soil conservation techniques throughout Sierra Leone
in the absence of eﬀective government soil conservation policies and ﬁeld trials have shown these
techniques are well adapted to both the socio-economic and environmental constraints facing
small-scale agriculture in Sierra Leone (Millington, 1987a: 121–122).
Millington’s arguments are therefore quite contrary to the popular perception that the local
population has caused widespread deforestation through its farming activities. As a further
note, Fairhead and Leach’s overall criticisms of both Dorward and Payne’s as well as
Millington’s works are also somewhat inconsistent with their broader critique of West
10 Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 0(0)
African deforestation narratives. One of Fairhead and Leach’s key, and quite legitimate,
concerns with respect to the dominant narrative is that in exaggerating deforestation it ‘‘only
stigmatises local populations unnecessarily and supports inappropriate policies which
further impoverishes the poor’’ (Fairhead and Leach, 1998b: 170). In the works of
Dorward, Payne and Millington, however, forest cover loss is not only not associated
with the practices of indigenous forest communities, but also quite pointedly linked to the
activities of European timber merchants.
Nyerges and the methodological debate
Fairhead and Leach’s revealing analysis of the Sierra Leonean ‘deforestation narrative’ and
its wide range of thematically similar (though, as we have shown, often mutually
contradictory) forest histories and statistics raises critical methodological questions for
environmental historians. In the context of the current paper, their critique highlights the
broad dilemma of how Sierra Leone’s forest cover history might be reconstructed with
Figure 3. Map of Sierra Lone. Shading indicates area of deforestation as presented by Millington (1987b).
Munr and Horst 11
satisfactory detail and rigour. In a 1996 book chapter, for example, Fairhead and Leach
themselves attempted to provide an alternative statistic to those generated by the dominant
narrative, suggesting that Sierra Leonean forest cover had increased from 90,000 hectares in
1900 to 500,000 hectares in the 1990s (Fairhead and Leach, 1996c: 1989). As Nyerges notes
(2008), however, they make the considerably more modest assertion in a text published just
two years later that net forest cover change in Sierra Leone during the twentieth century was
close to zero (Fairhead and Leach, 1998b). All strengths of their broader discursive critique
aside, it is diﬃcult to assess the rigour or accuracy of their revised statistics as there is no
account of their methodology beyond a vague gesture toward privileging historical data.
Furthermore, although they clearly consider their own (re)calculations more accurate than
previous estimates, they themselves note that these are not deﬁnitive (Fairhead and Leach,
1998b). Ultimately, it is perhaps this handling of methodological questions that has most
exposed their work to criticism (Nyerges, 2008).
A key ﬁgure in this regard has been the ecological anthropologist Endre Nyerges, whose
focus on forest cover change history in Sierra Leone led him to engage in methodological
and theoretical debates with Fairhead and Leach. Nyerges’ earliest analyses were based on
ﬁeldwork conducted in Sierra Leone during the early 1980s for his Doctoral thesis, largely an
ethnographic account of the social, agricultural and ecological practices of the Susu ethnic
group in the Kilimi region of north-western Sierra Leone. One of the broader conclusions
of this work was that the patriarchal and gerontocratic organisation of Susu society
had generated labour patterns that gradually degraded the local environment. Drawing
upon these ﬁndings, Nyerges took an action-orientated approach, strongly advocating
against further state-promoted economic development in the region, fearing that further
population increases could result in deforestation and environmental degradation
(Nyerges, 1987a, 1987b, 1988, 1989, 1992, 1997). Importantly, the discussion of both
geographically broader and historical deforestation in Sierra Leone only receive limited
attention in Nyerges’ earlier works.
In an article published in 1994, however, Nyerges extrapolates from his ethnographic data
to hypothesise a gradual process of deforestation across north-western Sierra Leone which
he attributes to environmentally degrading activities of local communities. This claim is
based on the assertion that ‘‘a basic ecological problem exists in this system such that any
increase in production must occur by intensifying land use, thereby risking forest
degradation’’ (Nyerges, 1994: 8). The Susu, however, are a small ethnic minority in Sierra
Leone accounting for around 3% (192,000 people) of the population (Konteh, 1997) and
even the northwestern region where they are most concentrated is home to a considerable
population of other ethnic groups, particularly the Temne. Therefore any attempt to infer
broader regional patterns of land cover change based on ﬁndings (however valid) regarding
the ‘ecological practices’ of the Susu is risky at best. In a later publication which also draws
upon historical sources, Nyerges seems to have revised his earlier conclusions, stating that
land cover change over the last 500 years in Sierra Leone has largely been in a dynamic
equilibrium between forest growth and forest loss (Nyerges, 1996). Nonetheless, in the same
paper relying mainly on secondary sources he simultaneously advances a claim that
deforestation in the north-west of Sierra Leone actually occurred between 1100CE and
1500CE due to mass immigration and large-scale charcoal production by blacksmiths
Nyerges’ extrapolation-based accounts of deforestation history in Sierra Leone received
pointed critique by Fairhead and Leach in their Sierra Leone case study, which largely
dismisses his conclusion that widespread deforestation occurred between 1100CE and
1500CE. In particular, they draw attention to the fact that his primary source materials
12 Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 0(0)
provide far from deﬁnitive evidence of such developments and, in any event, do not directly
apply to his Kilimi case study area (Fairhead and Leach, 1998b). To be fair, though
considerably speculative, Nyerges’ theory could be tractable. Mass migrations into the
region during that time period could have caused forest loss, and indeed Fairhead and
Leach themselves work eﬀectively the same argument in reverse with regard to the Gola
Forest in the south-east of Sierra Leone, suggesting that its current dense forest growth
could be the product of regeneration following local depopulation during the 1800s
(Fairhead and Leach, 1998b). The main issue with Nyerges’ thesis, however, is perhaps
the directness with which he claims that ‘‘original wildwood – whose extent, proportion in
relation to Savanna, and precise ecological characteristics are unknown – was converted
during the periods 1100–1500 into a landscape of coppice forest patches in Savanna [and]
resource management practices evolved to conserve the forest once the phase of charcoal
production to support commercial iron-smelting was past’’ (Nyerges, 1996: 139). Given the
paucity of empirical evidence and the historical distance of the period in question, Nyerges
somewhat oversteps in presenting his conclusions as fact rather than tentative hypothesis.
In response to Fairhead and Leach’s criticisms of his work, Nyerges published two pieces
of note (Nyerges, 2008; Nyerges and Green, 2000). The ﬁrst was in an analytical article in
2000, in which he uses aerial photographs and satellite images to test if the village forest
island phenomenon that Fairhead and Leach observed in Kissidougou (Guinea) was
occurring in the Kilimi region of Sierra Leone, as well as to identify recent landcover
change in the Kilimi area. From the results, he concluded that the village forest island
phenomenon was not occurring in Kilimi and that overall forest cover decline was
occurring in the region (Nyerges and Green, 2000). Importantly, as Nyerges was unable
to do ground-truthing for the images due to the civil conﬂict still ongoing in Sierra Leone at
the time, his conclusions regarding forest cover change should be treated with some caution.
This point notwithstanding, his observation that the forest island village phenomenon was
not occurring in the Kilimi area is based on sound analysis of aerial photographs, and
underscores the need for caution in extrapolating from localised observations – in this
case with respect to Fairhead and Leach’s move from Kissidougou to the broader West
African coastal region. Overall, although other research in Sierra Leone has indicated that
there are anthropogenic forest islands surrounding some villages (DeCorse, 2012; Siddle,
1968), much more research is needed in order to understand the extent and nature of the
‘village island’ phenomenon across the broader Sierra Leonean context.
Nyerges’ second, and almost vitriolic, retort to Fairhead and Leach’s work is a book
chapter in a festschrift text dedicated to Andrew Vayda. The text is perhaps a ﬁtting site for a
critique: Vayda, himself a human ecologist and self-proclaimed ‘anti-political ecologist’
(Vayda, 2009; Vayda and Walters, 1999), argues that the examination of socio-
environmental changes needs to be based solely on causal explanation through empirical
observation, rather than through theoretically based and interpretive approaches.
in his text Explaining Human Actions and Environmental Changes Vayda complains that
political ecologists ‘‘approvingly cite Fairhead and Leach,’’ while failing to acknowledge
Nyerges’ critiques of their work (Vayda, 2009: 36), an ironic turn, given that Nyerges has
previously positioned his work as a contribution to political ecology (Nyerges, 1996, 2001;
Nyerges and Green, 2000). In any event, in this chapter Nyerges ardently sets out to defend
his previous research in Sierra Leone and discredit that of Fairhead and Leach, refusing even
to concede the validity of their broader critique of the historical ‘deforestation narrative’ in
Sierra Leone. Instead, Nyerges appears to be determined to achieve academic retaliation and
as such the chapter’s theoretical and empirical contributions with respect to Sierra Leone’s
environmental history are limited. Revealingly, Nyerges describes his quantitative
Munr and Horst 13
approaches as ‘‘science’’ (Nyerges, 2008: 91), while Fairhead and Leach’s more qualitative
approaches are presented as ‘‘innuendo’’ (Nyerges, 2008: 83). Much of the chapter,
therefore, is not a debate about forest cover change, but rather one about social science
epistemologies in which Nyerges asserts his positivist methodology as being superior to
Fairhead and Leach’s broadly social constructivist approach. It is a problematic approach
to the debate, most strikingly because Fairhead and Leach do not criticise Nyerge’s
ecological ethnography of the Susu, his quantitative analysis, but rather describe it as a
‘‘sophisticated analysis’’ (Fairhead and Leach, 1998b: 156). Their main concern is with his
broader assumptions about derived Savanna and his statements about deforestation between
1100CE and 1500CE, which are themselves mainly based on qualitative analysis.
These issues notwithstanding, Nyerges’ chapter does raise a salient criticism of Fairhead
and Leach’s work. Taking issue with their use of statistics to recalculate forest cover history,
Nyerges challenges their use of Unwin (1909) as a source to support their 1900 forest cover
statistic for Sierra Leone in their 1996 book chapter (Fairhead and Leach, 1996c). As
Nyerges notes, Unwin only spent a limited amount of time in Sierra Leone, and therefore
his study was restricted to too little of the country to make a proper estimate of forest cover
(Nyerges, 2008). It is also important to note that Unwin actually never made an estimate
of Sierra Leone’s forest cover in his 1909 report, and the statistic that Fairhead and Leach
refer to comes from a book he published in 1920 (Unwin, 1920: 25), therefore even more
removed from Unwin’s direct experiences in Sierra Leone – certainly more guesswork than
In any case, in this case Nyerges does present a valid point about Fairhead and Leach’s
apparently selective use of colonial statistics to support their claims of alternative forest
cover change, a move which is curious in the context of their broader argument which seeks
to dismantle the claims and misperceptions of the era. More importantly, their eﬀort to
provide alternative ﬁgures for twentieth century deforestation is itself questionable given the
paucity of available empirical data. Certainly there is ample qualitative information to
challenge the notion of extensive deforestation during the period, however accurate
quantiﬁcation is essentially impossible in the absence of reliable measurements. Moreover,
the provision of these statistics appears in a certain sense to contradict the central logic of
Fairhead and Leach’s broader approach, which challenges the reductionist preoccupation
with quantifying West Africa’s forests per se as such snapshots eﬀace the complex dynamics
of forest cover loss and regeneration, shifting the focus onto relatively unhelpful static
numbers. In a certain sense, it appears that in providing such dramatically diﬀerent
ﬁgures Fairhead and Leach may have been trying to oﬀer their study greater appeal to
people working more broadly in global forestry (where statistics is an important part of
the language), placing their social science within a world of wider knowledge-making. To
some extent, however, this move has the eﬀect of positioning their work as more
methodological review (appraising the calculation of forest statistics), than epistemological
critique (deconstructing the narrow representation of forest dynamics by statistics per se).
This inadvertent shift in emphasis is unfortunate, as their work in both areas remains
In this paper we have presented a ﬁne-grained political ecological analysis of some of the key
literature describing Sierra Leone’s forest history, drawing upon new empirical data to
develop a critical reappraisal of prominent scholarship on the topic to date. In so doing we
have intentionally avoided oﬀering new statistics or a novel alternative narrative describing
14 Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 0(0)
the speciﬁc path(s) of twentieth century forest cover change in Sierra Leone. Instead, our
purpose has been to explore the bases of existing claims regarding the country’s forest past
and, in the process, improve the critical platform from which both ongoing debates and new
ﬁndings may be evaluated. Perhaps most importantly, while our ﬁndings clearly support
Fairhead and Leach’s broader arguments regarding deforestation narratives in the Sierra
Leonean context, they also indicate a need for caution in developing new accounts of the
country’s environmental history. Certainly, mainstream statistics and their explanations
remain largely rooted in a generic colonialist imaginary that continues to present spurious
accounts of rampant deforestation as the ostensible product of indigenous agrarian practices.
Nonetheless, in revisiting their speciﬁc claims with respect to certain key prior works, we ﬁnd
that in some cases they have thrown the baby out with the proverbial bathwater. While the
critical ‘hatchet’ they brought to bear on the dominant version of the country’s environmental
history was much needed, we ﬁnd that at times they have been too hasty in dismissing existing
scholarly accounts. Concomitantly, we argue that while the works of Nyerges, Millington,
Dorward and Payne must also be treated with some caution due to legitimate concerns
regarding the assumptions and methodologies supporting particular claims, some of the
arguments and evidence they present remains salient to those engaged in the ongoing
project of reconstructing Sierra Leone’s forest history.
In moving forward, we emphasize the need for all scholars of West African environmental
history to take a balanced approach to both historical sources and past analyses of their
content. While there will always be a place for pointed critique, it is essential to avoid the
easy dichotomous tendency toward wholesale dismissal or acceptance of prior arguments
and ideas. Instead, we argue, the focus must be on re-contextualising and improving on
existing work in the light of new evidence, particularly as the data available are so sparse.
Though we may never be able to calculate an exact forest cover history for Sierra Leone or
other parts of West Africa, there is nonetheless considerable scope for the building of
plausible hypotheses. In order to do so it is necessary to bring together all available
evidence and analysis of ongoing relevance. Ultimately, there is still much need for
further empirical research moving beyond the archives and existing secondary literature to
expand the base of data from other sources such as local oral histories, remote sensing
assessments, archaeological evidence and sediment core analyses which, in the Sierra
Leonean case, remain under-explored. While a deﬁnitive forest history may remain
elusive, considerable progress can still be made by continuing to build up the layers of
empirical evidence from which to valid critical histories may be produced.
Declaration of conflicting interests
The author(s) declared no potential conﬂicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or
publication of this article.
The author(s) received no ﬁnancial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
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Munr and Horst 15
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4. Charles Lane-Poole was the first person to head the Department which he did from 1912 to 1916;
Joshua Sawyerr was the Department’s first indigenous Sierra Leonean head, in charge from 1963 to
1975; while Emmanuel Alieu headed the department between 1997 and 2003.
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Paul George Munro is a Lecturer in Environmental Humanities at the University of New
South Wales in Australia. His research is situated within the ﬁelds of political ecology,
environmental history and human geography, with a particular interest in society-
environmental relations and how they change through time. He has carried out extensive
ﬁeld research on environment and development issues in Africa, with funding from the
European Union, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, USAID and
the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development. Outside of Africa, he has
also been involved in research projects on mining conﬂicts (in Australia) and water
governance (in Mexico).
Greg van der Horst is completing his PhD in Resource Management and Geography at the
University of Melbourne, Australia. Greg’s research is informed by a wide range of
inﬂuences including Ecology, Political Ecology, Political Geography, Anthropology and
Science and Technology Studies. Broadly speaking, his research focuses on the dynamics
and evolution of human-environmental relationships and practices, as well as the (frequent)
tensions between environmental narratives and ecological theory and data. Working
predominantly in the ﬁeld, he has conducted a variety of studies across sub-Saharan
Africa on topics ranging from urbanization and fuelwood use in Botswana to satellite
image analysis of land-cover change in Sierra Leone.
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