This paper investigates the processes governing land cover change in and around the Mafun- gautsi Forest Reserve in Zimbabwe. This study site lies at the interface between the state and communal property regimes. Land cover change was analysed using aerial photography for 1976, 1984 and 1996 within a Geographic Information System (GIS). Perceived change and its causes were investigated through governmental data sources, participatory mapping and interviews with the local community and forest guards. It was found that whilst forest cover within the reserve has remained constant, it has been steadily declining outside its boundaries. This decline, a result of agricultural expansion and demand for building materials and firewood, was perceived as more pronounced by local farmers than by the forest authorities.
In the last decade, the established view of land cover change in Africa has been reappraised. For much of the last century, environmental degradation (loss of forest cover and soil erosion) were held to increase linearly with population density and measures were put in place to combat such changes (Bassett & Bi Zueli, 2000). In Zimbabwe, for example, forest reserves were gazetted to protect river catchment areas through the removal of the human population. More recent work in Guinea, however, has shown that the relationship between population density and land cover change is more complex (Fairhead & Leach, 1996). In the longer term, cyclical expansion and contraction of forests may take place as agricultural land is abandoned and then recolonized. ‘Crisis narratives’ of environmental history have also been challenged by further work in Cote d’Ivoire (Bassett & Bi Zueli, 2000) and Kenya (Tiffen, Mortimore & Gichuki, 1994).
Previous research (Elliot & Campbell, 2001) has also questioned the simplistic assumption that a reduction in percentage tree cover necessarily leads to greater scarcity of woodland resources. Within Zimbabwe, Scoones and Wilson (1988) have shown that biomass production per hectare may actually increase as tree cover dimin- ishes when remaining woodlots are managed by pollarding or coppicing. Similarly, Wilson (1990) showed that the abundance of fruit trees did not decline after defores- tation, because fruit trees were selectively conserved and their value recognized by smallholders.