Transforming the “Wonderful”: Forest Plantation and Displacement in Bvumba (Chirara), Zimbabwe, 1948-1970

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In my recently completed PhD thesis at the University of Calgary, entitled “A Social Environmental History of Dispossession and Displacement in the Zimunya, Marange and Bvumba (Chirara) Communities of Eastern Zimbabwe, 1920-2015” I set out to illustrate the endurance of the family institution in times of trouble. Using historical episodes such as the rise of settler capitalist agriculture during the colonial period, recurring droughts, tree farming in Bvumba during the post- World War II era, the 1970s war of independence, the National Resistance Movement Mozambique (RENAMO) war of the 1980s – 90s, and diamond extraction in Marange during the 2000s, I show the intersectionality between dispossession, displacement, familial resilience, and creativity.

As the title suggests, it is a history of dispossession and dislocation of African communities from fertile and well – watered tracts in eastern Zimbabwe. The 1930s and 1940s was a key period within the overall timeframe of the thesis, when the white minority government gradually took more stringent measures to dispossess African communities’ rights to land. Through original archival and oral research, my thesis shows that social dislocation as a result of these policies went hand in hand with environmental degradation. This post highlights some oral interviews, and summarizes some of the developments from the 1930s-70s linking political policy with social and environmental decay in Bvumba community. It demonstrates that export commodities such as timber, sugar, cotton and tobacco (usually exotic to an environment) or ‘commodity frontiers’ as the sociologist Jason Moore puts it, were intensely transformative of labour and land because they were often highly industrial.1

For many generations before the arrival of white settlers, the Bvumba community, which straddles the Zimbabwe – Mozambique border has been settled by people of the Chirara ruling dynasty and many other African families. In comparison to other areas in Zimbabwe, the Eastern Highlands in which Bvumba is located receives high rainfall, usually above 1000 mm per year. The soils are agriculturally productive. This is aided by thick layers of humus in the forests that provide a critical source of nutrients for trees. As a result, diverse plant, animal and bird species thrive. Drought, intense fires, pests and diseases are fairly uncommon and the environment is favourable for growing a variety of crops, as well as plantation agriculture. Commercial farming in this area includes coffee, Protea flowers, and dairy, and includes some eucalyptus, pine and wattle plantations. Many species of fast – growing exotic conifers are well adapted to the area. People in Bvumba benefited in many ways from an environment that they considered “wonderful” in all senses of the word.

1930s-1964: Labour Contracts and Circumvention

By1930, the Southern Rhodesian Lands Commission had marked the slice of Bvumba that falls within Zimbabwe as reserved for Europeans or as a protected Forest Area. Thereafter, a series of forced evictions began, and they accelerated after 1948 when the Rhodesia Wattle Company (RWC) established a timber plantation in the area. The severity of dislocations was exacerbated by the colonial government’s allocation of land to white settler farmers under the Ex-Servicemen Land Resettlement Scheme.2 This resulted in forced removals of several families from their homesteads which they had hitherto lived in for generations.3

Responses of Bvumba residents to the introduction of a timber plantation were mixed. They ranged from partial accommodation to resistance. The RWC officials gave all people inhabiting the land an option to move to the “native” reserves or to remain behind under a labour agreement. In this contract, at least one adult male from each household worked for the firm for six months every year.4 About half of the total number of African families living on the land marked for the timber business chose this option. They perceived it as a “middle ground’’ in that they would continue staying in their ancestral land and have an opportunity of accessing and utilizing it for economic, political, and cultural purposes.5 Many young mothers, teenage girls, and a few men were involved in subsistence farming. They grew crops such as finger millet, maize, cowpea, and pumpkins. In all these years, harvests were fruitful. As one elder pointed out, “While we suffered chibaro [labour contracts] for 16 years, we continued growing crops in our fields. We cultivated as much land as our resources permitted and this prevented us from periodic food scarcity which frequently troubled many people in the reserves.”6 Although they were restricted from cultivating favoured patches of land, fertile soils and reliable rainfall provided great advantages to these people. “Even during the time when we were living in the plantation,” remarked mbuya (grandmother) Matanhire, “there was no need of ploughing a large portion of land. Our family cultivated only a small piece and it was enough to fill up the granary.”7

The signing of a labour agreement meant that land and resource-use conflict between the Indigenous people and white settlers became pervasive. The locals lost their land as the Company began replacing the indigenous arboreal vegetation with alien species such as wattle, eucalypt, and pine trees.8 Moreover, the forest, which served as habitat to various animals and fruit tree species on which people overwhelmingly depended for their livelihoods was destroyed. Invasive species additionally changed soil chemistry and exhausted soil fertility, negatively affecting indigenous plants and game populations. The overall impact was that Africans staying in Bvumba area began seeing the environment as less diverse and not as “wonderful.”

The other group of households that did not choose to remain behind in the timber estate under a labour agreement did not move to the reserves as expected. Instead, some people resisted forced labour and subordination by moving from the heart of the plantation and resettled in the land on the edges of the estate, very close to the border with Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique), but still owned by the Company. Others crossed the boundary and built their homes in the same area.9 Those who crossed the border and resettled in the slice of Bvumba in Portuguese East Africa enjoyed an abundance of autonomy and socio-economic independence as they were distant from the constant watch of the Rhodesian state and Wattle Company officials. The border provided a prime source of resilience. People travelled back – and – forth to both circumvent oppressive colonial policies and to take advantage of Rhodesia’s more developed medical system and consumer products.

1964 -1970 : Forced Evictions

Between 1964 and 1970, the RWC made an attempt to evict all African families from its premises. By the early 1960s, eucalyptus, pine, and wattle trees were flourishing in the mountainous areas and the vast tracts of land previously cultivated by the Indigenous people. By this time, the Company was already harvesting timber planted in the late 1940s and this progress partly persuaded it to make more investments in the wood industry. Consequently, in 1964, the expanding timber project prompted the investors to evict all tenants from the plantation to create a much bigger space for the lucrative business.10 Households developed a number of strategies to the evictions including, migrating to nearby urban areas or reserves, crossing the border to Mozambique, or settling as “squatters” on the edge of the plantation. One of the immediate impacts of the expansion of timber business on the Bvumba residents was that peoples’ relation with the environment changed for the worse as families no longer fully benefit from the forest. Forced displacement meant that the majority resettled on distant places from their ancestral lands on which they were economically, socially, and culturally connected to.  The clearing of bushes forced wild animals (that served as food to the people) to relocate from their habitat. A few families that moved and resettled in the edges of the timber estate as “squatters’’ stated that after dislocation they no longer fully benefited from the forest as they were not allowed to hunt game by company officials.   

But the final forestry – related evictions took place in 1970. During this period, the RWC officials targeted all “squatters” that had moved from the centre of the plantation and rebuilt their homes on the margins of the estate. For nearly a week, these people resisted being moved until the Rhodesian army came and destroyed their shelters. Mbuya Muranda recalled: “Towards the end of 1970, armed soldiers invaded our homesteads. They came one day very early in the morning and ordered us to pack our belongings from our huts…While we were still packing… our huts and granaries were already in flames of fire…Our food and other important possessions were destroyed.”11 Affected households responded by moving into the portion of Bvumba in Portuguese East Africa where they were later dislocated by war in the late 1970s.12


The case study of Bvumba forest plantation in eastern Zimbabwe demonstrated that export commodities such as timber are hugely transformative of labour and land. Both written and oral evidence gathered for this research indicate that export commodity chains that developed around introduced exotic tree species had a catastrophic and powerful effect on the social and environmental landscapes of Bvumba. Tree farming affected the environment as much as people. It negatively affected Indigenous people’s own subsistence both in the labour they had to devote in their contracts with the company, and their narrowing abilities to use the forest in traditional ways. In their effort to adapt to their landscape that was under constant transformation, people creatively utilized the fluidity of the border. They travelled back-and-forth in their pursuits to earn a living in an exploitative power-laden system.


1. Jason W. Moore, “Sugar and the Expansion of the Early Modern World Economy: Commodity Frontiers, Ecological Transformation, and Industrialization,” Review 23, No. 3 (2000): 410-412.
2. Group interview with K. Matanhire, mbuya C. Mudhara and sekuru W. Mudhara.
3. Many, if not all participants interviewed remembered the two white farmers by these names. I tried to look for the actual names of these white farmers in archival documents but they were not available.
4. Interview with J. Binde, Muradzikwa area (Zimunya Communal area) 16 November,2019.
5. Group interview with K. Matanhire, mbuya C. Mudhara and sekuru W. Mudhara.
6. Interview with S. Dinhira, Munene area ( Bvumba community) 21 October 2019.
7. Interview with K. Matanhire, Bhiridhasi area (Zimunya Communal Area), 13 November 2019.
8. Interview with sekuru T.Ruguwa.Dora area (Zimunya Communal area), 23 October 2019.
9. Interview with mbuya K. Matanhire, mbuya C. Mudhara and sekuru W. Mudhara.  
10. Interview with P. Mambondiyani, Dora area.
11. Interview with R. Muranda, Nyamidzi area (Zimunya Communal Area), 11 November, 2019.
12. Interview with R. Muranda

Feature image: Hut on Bvumba Mountains. Wikimedia Commons.
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