Historians of World War II in Africa have long recognized that the war acted as “a catalyst for social and economic change” within the continent, creating an extraordinary demand for raw materials and some industry, yet intensifying material deprivations and social stresses that contributed to postwar nationalism. The war sparked a development ethos far beyond that of the Depression years, a prelude to the economic boom of the 1950s. Moreover, after 1941, when the Japanese conquest of Southeast Asia severed the shipment routes of food and primary products previously destined for Allied and colonial territories alike, the war awakened an American interest in Africa as a source of strategic raw materials. Although tropical crops such as rubber, cotton, peanuts, sisal, and rice have been part of economic histories of the war, products of the natural environment, particularly those of the forests, have often escaped attention. Yet demand for timber, firewood, charcoal, and other tree products, including wild rubber, copal, cellulose, wood alcohol, wood sugar, paper pulp, textiles, and fodder, exploded during the war. German and Japanese total-war planners understood that controlling the forests of occupied territories eased economic quarantines by substituting natural products for industrial raw materials lost from prewar trade linkages, including petroleum, coal, rubber, and chemicals. While historians of the war have often ignored its connections to the natural environment, historians of the environment have rarely incorporated the impact of World War II in their analyses. Just as World War II in Africa launched a “second colonial occupation” following the war, the transformations wrought by the war also sparked an era of conservation and environmentalism.
During the war the British colonial state launched unsustainable encroachment into Tanganyikan forests and woodlands to meet military demands for construction timber, railway ties, mining pit props, building poles, wild rubber, and dyewoods. Although the war created substantial hardships for Africans by curbing imports of food and consumer goods and by military conscription and forcing men to work on plantations, wartime necessity opened forest lands and resources to African exploitation after half a century of colonial forest curtailment.