Date of Graduation


Document Type



The Mulanje cedar is a unique and endangered tree that is found only within the confines of the Mt. Mulanje Forest Reserve in southeastern Malawi. This dissertation examines the relationship between scientific forestry as introduced by British experts and the role and status of the endangered cedar. The British, like forest experts and other natural scientists today, believed the tree to be in danger of imminent demise. Economic expediency made it so that the tree was harvested by colonial officials from the beginning though they attempted to replace what they had taken. This did not work. Throughout the past century, this belief that the cedar could be both utilized and saved is repeated again and again by scientists assessing the status of the tree and the forest reserve more generally. There is a continual sense that the tree will be rescued by future management strategies, but that the actions of earlier, irresponsible forest users caused the decline of the species. Blame is placed on past actors, whether they are local forest users or colonial foresters, and the blame coexists tenuously with optimism that future plans will save the cedar, as long as they are designed by contemporary expertise and supported with a reliable stream of funding. A key point in the dissertation is that forest management in Malawi today grew out of the very same paradigm of forest management that was introduced by the British. As that is the case, a replication of practices in which the cedar forms the chief consideration can be seen in working plans regarding the montane reserve today. These practices include: to replant the cedar throughout the mountain, both in small clusters and in plantations; to introduce sustainable development to the communities surrounding the mountain base in order to deflect their use of the forest; and to continue to protect living cedars from fire and illegal harvesting. These policies have clear antecedents in the practices of imperial foresters, but these very same practices have not yet delivered the cedar from its endangered status. Considerations about natural resource management at Mt. Mulanje have, from the point of its incorporation into the British Empire, coalesced around the Mulanje cedar. The superficial attributes of the cedar tree, such as its appearance and utility, made the cedar seem like the perfect candidate through which to funnel the discourse of imperial forestry. As such it has remained a top priority of foresters since the beginning of the colonial period. However, the tree’s other attributes, such as its susceptibility to fire and its difficult reproduction, were not very compatible with scientific forestry. As sustainable development was a key tenet of imperial forestry, colonial foresters needed a tree that could be harvested for timber and also, replaced easily and quickly. This was not, and never will be, the case with the Mulanje cedar. This case study exemplifies the clash between standardization and coagulation of a natural science, forestry, with the elements of a unique and particular landscape. The Mulanje cedar is not amenable to cultivation in accordance with the scientific forestry paradigm as other trees have proven to be. It’s utility and attractive qualities allowed it to be enveloped within the system of colonial forest management from the 1890s, but other aspects and life attributes of tree have made it exceedingly difficult for foresters to force it to bend to the rationalizing will of scientific management. . At first glance, colonial foresters in the Nyasaland Protectorate believed the cedar would fit the sustainable use paradigm of forestry. However, this dissertation illustrates that the cedar is not a viable candidate for this role. This is because not every tree acts like the trees of continental Europe, the species around which the discipline of scientific forestry first evolved. The body of expertise that purports to rescue this tree today alludes to the same strategies that were tried in earnest by the Nyasaland forestry department during Malawi’s colonial era. Lack of success on the part of the British was not due to a failure on their part, as imperial forestry evolved in response to the success that foresters had in other colonies as they attempted to do the same thing they attempted in Malawi—to reforest with indigenous species first and foremost, and with exotic species if necessary. Rather, it was due to the fact that the cedar tree has been shown unresponsive to the practices enveloped within the models of scientific forestry. Therefore, the goals of forest management at Mt. Mulanje should be reconsidered in light of the historic inability of forestry to expand the population of the cedar tree. (Abstract shortened by UMI.).