From Enslavement to Environmentalism takes a challenging ethnographic and historical look at the politics of eco-development in the Zimbabwe-Mozambique border zone. David Hughes argues that European colonization in southern Africa has profoundly reshaped rural politics and culture and continues to do so, as neo-liberal developers commoditize the lands of African peasants in the name of conservation and economic progress.
Hughes builds his engaging analysis around a sort of natural experiment: in the past, whites colonized British Zimbabwe but avoided Portuguese Mozambique almost entirely. In Zimbabwe, chiefdoms that had historically focused on controlling people began to follow the English example of consolidating political power by dividing and controlling land. Meanwhile, in Mozambique, Portugal perpetuated traditional practices of recruiting and distributing forced labour as the primary means of securing power. For almost the entire twentieth century, a sharp disjuncture in the politics of land, leadership, labour, and resource use marked the border zone. In the late 1990s, white South Africans began to establish timber plantations in Mozambique, and that difference began to be effaced. Under the banner of environmentalism and economic progress, tourism firms were allowed to claim peasant farmland. Likewise, southern African policymakers supported this new form of colonization as a form of racial integration between white investors and black peasants, paving the way for an ironic and contentious situation in which ethnic tolerance, gentrification, and land-grabbing have gone hand in hand.