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The Soil Solution: Ruins, Rain, and the State in Lesotho

Date and Time: 
Thursday, February 7, 2019. 05:00 PM - 07:00 PM
Meeting Location: 
Stanford Archaeology Center
Archaeology: Connectivity and Temporality, An Archaeological View
Meeting Description: 

This paper examines the material culture of soil conservation in Lesotho, showing how the multitemporality of crumbling physical conservation works discloses an uneasy social contract emerging out of Southern Africa’s shifting political economies. For over a century, Lesotho operated as a labor reserve for South African gold and diamond mines, though that system collapsed in the 1990s with declining gold prices, mine mechanization, and South Africa's transition to democracy. Livestock production represents one of the few ways to earn a living in Lesotho's rural highlands today. It also happens to be a source of anxiety among national and foreign elites. Fears that livestock-induced soil erosion is causing downstream floods, reservoir sedimentation, and desertification have manifest in the production of ubiquitous but largely ineffective soil conservation structures, which are ill-suited to Lesotho’s changing rainfall regime. Such fears have amplified in light of a multi-billion dollar water export scheme undertaken with South Africa, the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. Drawing on historical and ethnographic data collected over 16 months of fieldwork with rural farmers and civil servants, I suggest that the history and form of these structures reveals how soil conservation binds together elites and peasants in a system of exploitative extraction—but also distribution. Care of the soil through performative labor has become an occasion to reconstitute distributive economies. Fato-fato, as these conservation programs are known, have been fueled since independence by development aid and are used by politicians as patronage for their constituents. The gabions, stonelines, and check dams that now litter the roadside landscape therefore pronounce the efficacy of the government in redistribution, while admonishing peasants for their land-use practices. Ultimately, these structures assert a particular landscape historiography—one that is used to stabilize a precarious social contract in this defunct labor reserve.

Colin Hoag is assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at Smith College. He holds doctorates in cultural anthropology from UC Santa Cruz, and in Biological Sciences from Aarhus University. His research focuses on topics of water, soil erosion, rangeland ecology, migration, and bureaucracy in Southern Africa.