Centre for World Environmental History

Towards An Environmental History of Lesotho

Foresting a Grassland

Global climate change has intensified interest in tree planting as a mechanism of carbon sequestration. Proposals are being made for planting trees on marginal land throughout the world, supported by a range of narratives: tree planting will combat desertification, cover eroded hillsides, provide a crop on otherwise unproductive land. Yet little thought is given to the consequences for receiving landscapes.

Pollen analysis has shown that the high plateaux and mountains of Lesotho have been part of the southern African grassland ecosystem for the last 30,000 years. The first Europeans to see the landscape (French missionaries in the 1830s) reported tree growth in specific locations - along rivers and in sheltered places on the lower slopes of some of the foothills. Lesotho's freezing winters and erratic semi-arid rainfall regime favour the growth of grass over trees.

Since their arrival, Europeans have introduced a range of exotic trees for fruit and fuel. The most successful have been peach, eucalyptus, pine, wattle, and poplar. Peaches became extremely popular. Basotho (residents of Lesotho) invariably plant one or more peach trees when establishing a house or garden, and governments have planted eucalyptus and pine when creating woodlots.

This project will construct a long history of tree planting to determine its environmental effects. How has this southern African grassland been affected by the introduction of trees? The question will be approached from an interdisciplinary perspective, combining research tools from the physical and social sciences with those of archival and oral history.

Results of this research should have subject matter, methodological and policy significance. Specific information about tree growth should be of interest to Lesotho's gardeners and foresters alike. The experience of imposing the idea of interdisciplinarity on the conceptualisation and implementation of field work will contribute to discussions about enriching approaches to research in all disciplines in general, and in environmental history in particular. Last, but perhaps not at all least, a study of the landscape consequences of planting trees on marginal land should contribute to carbon-offsetting and biofuels policy debates.

This twenty four month project is funded by the Leverhulme Trust

Photo at top: Unplanted Roma valley.
The photos used throughout these pages are the property of the project and can be used only with permission.