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The environmental impact of British sugar plantations in South Africa

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Picture: ANA file – Structural timber was vital in building the colonial administration centres and cities needed to run their territories, as well as a vital material for building the ships needed to extend control over colonies, the writer says

By Dominic Naidoo

In 2019, award-winning spoken word artist, George the Poet, revealed that he had turned down an MBE because of the “pure evil” of the British Empire. MBE is the acronym for Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, the third highest ranking Order of the British Empire award.

In turning down the award, the poet said that although “the gesture is deeply appreciated, the wording is not”. George, who was born in London but is of Ugandan heritage, accused the empire of committing “rape” against his homeland and inflicting “trauma” on the children of Africa.

By 1913, after centuries of colonisation of much of North America, Asia, Africa and Australasia, the British Empire was the largest to have ever existed. Covering an area of around 25 percent of Earth’s land surface, it became known as “the empire on which the sun never sets”.

It also oversaw around 412 million inhabitants, or around 23 percent of the world’s population at the time, writes the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. With empire comes resources and the British took as much of it as they could.

Lawrence Wood of Bridgewater State University, Massachusetts wrote in a research paper in 2015 that “indifferent administration by overseas imperial powers transparently sought to enrich their home country with little to no thought about the long-term environmental or political consequences for the colony”.

One of the main objectives of global imperialism, from the first Spanish colonies to the last of the British and Portuguese colonies, was the enhanced profitable extraction of resources. The industrial revolution fuelled the need for colonial resource extraction.

Industrialisation and imperialism formed a positive feedback loop, in which one created a greater need for the other. As the dance between industrialisation and imperialism grew faster and less care was paid towards environmental concerns.

The Relationship between Colonial Control and Deforestation Wood’s research found that before the industrial period’s utilisation of coal and later oil as highly efficient fuel sources, European colonial empires were powered by wood. Charcoal produced the steel weapons and tools that Europeans used to conquer their third-world colonies as well as to provide heat for domestic spaces.

“Structural timber was a vital aspect of building the colonial administration centres and cities needed to run their territories, as well as a vital material for building the vital transportation infrastructure (in the pre-Industrial period ships and in the industrial period railroads) needed to extend control over colonies,” Wood explained.

The rapid deforestation within European colonies mirrors the rapid deforestation of the European continent that had been under way for centuries by the start of the pre-industrial colonial period. This is why much of Europe today is bare countryside and why Europeans set out in search of new resources as they had greedily consumed their own.

The deforestation of colonised lands was a system of colonial control exercised since the Columbian exchange where colonial powers of the preindustrial imperial period sought to shape the environments they encountered into the most profitable and strategic form.

This existed in stark contrast to the indigenous societies that had adapted their ways of life to the environment surrounding them. In this context, altering the environment was a statement of political domination by the colonial power.

This ecological domination of territory would pave the way for the political domination of its indigenous peoples, who, left without traditional means of subsistence, had to choose between relocation to marginal, remote, or otherwise occupied areas, or accepting the new role offered by the colonial society. This role was almost exclusively the role of exploited labourers with limited rights and opportunism. And so comes the sweet grass known the world over as sugar cane, or sacchasum officinasum.

Peter Richardson, in an interpretative essay on the Natal sugar industry between 1849-1905 said that “although not indigenous to Natal, sugar cane was certainly known and used by Africans for domestic purposes from the 17th century onwards. Nevertheless, commercial exploitation of sugar was not initially favoured, even by the proponents of the closer settlement movement on the Natal coastlands in the 1840s.”

At one point, a British government representative actually warned potential emigrants against the cultivation of sugar cane, not on scientific grounds but on economic ones, because of the proximity of Mauritius, an already established sugar colony.

But, with the failure of commercial cotton and other tropical crops amongst the early settlers, experiments with the cultivation of cane in the late 1840s and early 1850s proved too lucrative to ignore.

Consequently, in the following twelve years between 1854 and 1866, the industry registered its fastest rate of growth ever recorded. Richardsson noted that “the acreage of cane cultivated increased from only 338 acres in the three counties of Alexandra, Durban and Victoria to 12,781 acres in 1866, before registering its first contraction in the following year.”

The South African Sugar Association says that sugarcane is a strategic crop for KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, where sugarcane production is located. As per 2019/2020 figures, there were 21 926 registered sugarcane growers who annually produce on average 20 million tons of sugarcane from 14-mill supply areas, extending from southern KwaZulu-Natal to the Mpumalanga Lowveld.

The Louisiana State University Agricultural Centre found that the average yield of cane produced from each harvested acre amounted to 36.6 tons. Thus, South African sugar producers harvested an estimated 2200 square kilometres of cane in the 2019/2020 season.

That is a land area double the size of the city of Johannesburg.

Being situated in present-day KZN and Mpumalanga, the early remnants of these plantations were established by British colonialists, with the first sugar cane cuttings planted in 1849, in what is now the Durban Botanical Gardens.

The KwaZulu-Natal coast, 180 years ago, was dominated by thick, lush coastal forests packed with animal and plant biodiversity Charles Darwin could only dream of. But thick forest and swamp lands were not suited for cane growing, thus, the cutting down of ancient forests and draining of wetlands began.

The James Cook University School of Earth and Environmental Sciences in Australia found that deforestation associated with the cultivation of sugarcane in the coastal lands of Eastern Australia commenced in the 1860s, around the exact time as the colony of Port Natal.

The university’s research found that “beyond the initial large-scale clearing of the native vegetation to create arable land, the growing of sugar cane placed other demands upon the native forests.”

In Natal, additional vegetation was cleared to provide timber for buildings, and railway sleepers, to supply the firewood for the sugar mill boilers and in some instances supply the timber used in sugar mills that were adapted to manufacture lumber in the non-crushing season.

Using newspaper descriptions, archival records and scientific reports, researchers were able to reconstruct the methods adopted to clear the forests and the speed and extent of the loss of forests in the sugar cane growing lands of Eastern Australia and agreed that these methods would have been used in other colonies with similar conditions.

It was found that, like palm plantations today, the environmental consequences of the loss of the native forests included increased incidence of frost, river bank erosion, weed invasions and declining biodiversity. Melisa M. Matavire of Stellenbosch University found in a 2015 study titled Impacts of sugarcane farming on coastal wetlands of the north coast of Zululand, Kwadukuza, South Africa, that there was an increase in the size of the Zinkwazi sugarcane fields from 62.3 percent to 67 percent between 1959 and 1989 and Nonoti sugarcane fields from 50.5 % to 56.4% between 1959 and 2000.

“The last decade from the year 2000 showed a gradual decrease in the area of wetland farmed by sugarcane due to the global sugar price remaining static while the cost of farming inputs increased and due to conversion of some farms to urban developments,” Matavire said.

The study was conducted to assess the impacts of sugarcane farming on wetland extent and water quality in two coastal wetlands of KwaDukuza, North coast of Zululand, and specifically to assess the impacts of sugarcane farming on the spatial extent of wetlands between 1959 and 2012, determine if sugarcane farming negatively affects water quality within the wetlands and evaluate the perceptions of local farmers regarding the impacts of sugarcane farming on wetlands.

The results of the study indicated that, unfortunately, the decrease in planted land has not led to an increase in wetland areas as “waterfront type developments, as well as a formal settlement, have replaced the sugarcane in the wetlands.”

Matavire analysed water samples for nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium with results for both Zinkwazi and Nonoti indicating an increasing trend of nitrogen and phosphorus from upstream to the middle region of the rivers and a decreasing trend from the middle region to downstream.

These elements are commonly found in industrial fertilisers. The study also found an increase in potassium from upstream to downstream with values higher than the other two elements. Both potassium and nitrogen levels were found to be significantly above the South African water quality guidelines for aquatic ecosystems in the middle region.

Her research also found that farmers perceived wetlands to have been transformed into agricultural land and related these changes to their sugarcane farming activities. It can thus be concluded that sugarcane farming has resulted in wetland loss as well as deterioration of water quality within the Zinkwazi and Nonoti wetlands in KwaDukuza.

In that regard, Matavire found that “there is a need to engage farmers in wetland management programs to reduce the negative environmental impacts associated with sugarcane farming in wetlands.”

Wood said, profoundly, that “global imperial powers have left an enduring mark on the development of their former colonies. These colonial legacies take political, economic, social, as well as geographic forms and have often undermined the post-colonial state.”

Above all, these legacies have negatively contributed to the environmental health of many former colonies and although a myriad of forces has shaped former colonies, the open-ended nature of these colonial empires coupled with a general lack of consideration for the long-term consequences of colonial policies makes these damages attributable to global imperialism.

There needs to be an open dialogue on the urgency and importance of returning parts of the Natal and Mpumalanga sugar plantations back to the pristine coastal forests they were some 200 years ago.

The land has given as much, it is time we return the favour.

Naidoo is an environmental journalist and activist.

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.