Iron-smelting and deforestation: an alternative ethnoarchaeological perspective

It has long been assumed that there is a direct relationship between pre-industrial iron-smelting and large-scale deforestation. The general argument is that pre-industrial bloomery iron production depended on the consumption of huge quantities of charcoal, which over several centuries denuded the forest cover and depleted sources of wood for making charcoal. This led to a significant transformation of the landscape, ecology and environment in several regions where iron-smelting was widely prevalent. Iron-smelting was seen as one of the main agents of deforestation, desiccation and environmental change in West Africa (Goucher 1981, Haaland 1985), continental Europe and the British Isles, and recently, India (Sivramkrishna 2009). An overwhelming rate of charcoal consumption by several iron-works was responsible for adversely affecting the forest cover in different parts of pre-revolutionary United States (Muntz 1960). Due to the lack of high-grade coal deposits, charcoal is still widely used in the iron and steel industries of Brazil which is adversely affecting the ecology of the Amazonian region (Kato, Demarini et al. 2005).

In the context of West Africa and South Asia, this discourse is increasingly presented as a counter-argument to the nationalist post-colonial narratives which suggest that the import of cheap industrial iron from Europe and prohibitive colonial laws smothered traditional craft-production including iron-smelting (Goucher 1981, Sivramkrishna 2009). Studying the decline of the pre-industrial iron-smelting and steel making tradition in the Maidan area of Karnataka in South India, Sivramkrishna argued that overwhelming consumption of bamboo and different kinds of hardwood charcoal has denuded the area off its earlier forest cover. Maidan is a semi-arid, rain shadow region of the Deccan plateau. The lack of rainfall meant that the rapid rejuvenation of the lost forest cover was not possible. Soon this led to the scarcity of appropriate charcoal for smelting, which caused the decline in the traditional iron-smelting and steel making industry over the 19th and early 20th centuries. Colonial laws and importation of industrial iron and steel played only a secondary role in this process of decline. He based his hypothesis on several colonial period records, which expressed concerns regarding the rapid disappearance of forest in Maidan due to unregulated charcoal consumption for manufacturing iron and steel by traditional methods (2009).
Here I present an alternative hypothesis based on my ethnoarchaeological fieldwork with two iron-smelting communities in India: the Mudda Kammari of northern Telangana and the Asur of Jharkhand. I argue here that charcoal consumption in iron-smelting in different areas must be studied in their discrete anthrocological contexts. Iron-smelting communities in various ecological zones were aware of their natural environment including its several constraints and possible deleterious effects of rampant charcoal consumption on the environment. As a result, they were capable of implementing strategies for sustainable exploitation of the forest resources and regulate the consumption of charcoal. These strategies varied significantly between different ecological zones making any attempt to provide a generalized trans-regional narrative on charcoal consumption and its ecological impacts impossible and redundant.


Mudda Kammari and charcoal consumption
The Mudda Kammari presently live in small hamlets scattered across the forested terrain in southern part of Adilabad districts of Telangana. Before iron-smelting stopped in the 1940s and 50s, they smelted iron-rich magnetite sand (wuske) collected from the sediments in seasonal stream-beds to produce iron bloom. Hardwood from surrounding forests was burnt in pits over a long period to produce charcoal (boggu) for smelting. At least in its last days 10 kg of charcoal was required to reduce 28-30 kg of wuske to produce a bloom (mudda) of 3-4 kg in weight. Judging by the numbers, it indeed was a wasteful method, requiring a high amount of charcoal consumption. However, the presence of a large number of slag heaps with deep deposits in several parts of the forests indicate iron-smelting persisted in this region over a long period of time. This could not have been possible if the Mudda Kammari arbitrarily cut down the trees to prepare charcoal.


We explored the forests of southern Adilabad with the Mudda Kammari elders in order to understand the local pre-industrial smelting and resource use

My ethnographic research with the Mudda Kammari indicates that they were well aware of the possible dangers of arbitrary felling of trees for charcoal. Therefore, cutting of trees for charcoal was regulated by a strict ethic. The forest in this area is constituted primarily of teak (Tectona grandis) trees. However, this was not the preferred source of charcoal for smelting. The Mudda Kammari preferred wood from Sandra (Acacia catechu) to prepare charcoal. This species was therefore selectively exploited from the forest, keeping teak and other trees intact. This selective strategy did not, therefore, lead to a large-scale arbitrary deforestation in the region.

Secondly, the Mudda Kammari adopted a shifting strategy in cutting Sandra trees. Sandra normally occurs in large clusters deep inside the forests. The Mudda Kammari exploited one cluster at a time, moving on to the next cluster only when the present one was exhausted. The denuded areas were then left untouched for a period of 10-12 years, the average duration required for Sandra to grow back to maturity in an environment that gets 1000-2000 mm rainfall per year on average. The groups of Mudda Kammari families, therefore, moved in a circle from one cluster to the next. This pattern probably reflected in the nature of the distribution of slag heaps in the forest area. A majority of slag heaps in different parts of this forest occurs in large clusters. Each slag heap within a cluster might indicate individual periods of smelting activity in the area, corresponding with the Sandra consumption from a nearby cluster.

The Asur and charcoal consumption
The Asur are an indigenous group of iron-smelters, who live in the forested highlands of the Netarhat plateau in Jharkhand. Unlike the Mudda Kammari the Asur mined iron-ore (bichi tuku) from several laterite rich veins in the forest I produce iron blooms. For charcoal (hasa), the Asur use wood from the Sal tree (Shorea robusta), abundantly available in the surrounding forests. Despite its relative abundance than Sandra used by the Mudda Kammari, the Asur employed sustainable strategies for the consumption of  Sal.


The forest cover near every Asur settlement was divided into several sections. The smelters only cut trees from one section at a time. When a section was cleared of Sal trees, it was left untouched for a period of 6-8 years to allow the forest to grow back. The ashy residues from the charcoal preparation process were regularly sprinkled in the cleared sections to increase the soil fertility. The Netarhat plateau receives an average annual rainfall of 2000-3000 mm. This enables Sal to grow back rapidly and reclaim the cleared section of the forest within a period of five years in the area.
Both case studies indicate that the iron-smelters were aware of their immediate natural environment. They understood the negative implications of the arbitrary destruction of forest resources on their lives and their craft. Therefore, consumption of wood for making charcoal was regulated by species-specific tree felling strategies. These strategies were used even when that species was abundantly available in the forest. Apart from its calorific qualities, both Sandra and Sal also has a deep ritual significance and medicinal use in their respective cultural contexts. Therefore it is unlikely that the smelting communities will arbitrarily destroy these trees for smelting.
However, the success of the shifting strategies crucially depended on easy access to and mobility within different parts of the forest. This freedom was gradually curtailed during the colonial period. The colonial authorities treated the nomadic and semi-nomadic communities with extreme suspicion. They did not fit into the colonial ontological structure of static Indian rural society. Parthasarathi (2001) showed how the weavers (and other artisan communities) gradually lost their rights of mobility between different regions of South India with the establishment of the Colonial rule. In Hyderabad state and elsewhere in central and South India, the Lambadas and several other itinerant communities were classified as “criminal” tribes and were forced to settle down and take up agriculture (Bhukya 2010).
Restrictions on mobility must have affected several iron-smelting communities, including the Mudda Kammari and the Asur. For the Mudda Kammari, once the Sandra clusters located closer to these fixed settlements were exhausted, iron-smelting suffered. My Mudda Kammari interlocutors repeatedly recounted the tales imprinted in their collective memory about how the inaccessibility of “Sandra kattu” (kattu=wood) gradually killed iron-smelting over the last 150 years. Fixing iron-smelting communities in permanent villages, especially in more constrained environmental contexts, might have compelled them to use whatever trees available near these villages to make charcoal. This probably led to the overwhelming destruction of the forests observed by the colonial officers in the mid-19th century.
Bhukya, B. (2010). Subjugated nomads: The Lambadas under the rule of the Nizams, Orient BlackSwan.
Goucher, C. L. (1981). “Iron is iron ’til it is rust: trade and ecology in the decline of West African iron-smelting.” The Journal of African History 22(02): 179-189.
Haaland, R. (1985). “Iron production, its socio-cultural context and ecological implications.” African Iron Working. Ancient and Traditional, Norwegian University Press, Oslo: 50-72.
Kato, M., et al. (2005). “World at work: charcoal producing industries in northeastern Brazil.” Occupational and environmental medicine 62(2): 128-132.
Muntz, A. P. (1960). “Forests and Iron: The Charcoal Iron Industry of the New Jersey Highlands.” Geografiska Annaler 42(4): 315-323.
Parthasarathi, P. (2001). The transition to a colonial economy: weavers, merchants and kings in South India, 1720-1800, Cambridge University Press.
Sivramkrishna, S. (2009). “Production Cycles and Decline in Traditional Iron Smelting in the Maidan, Southern India, c. 1750-1950: An Environmental History Perspective.” Environment and History 15(2): 163-197.

2 thoughts on “Iron-smelting and deforestation: an alternative ethnoarchaeological perspective

  1. Rithin Varghese says:

    Very interesting article Tathagatha. So the iron industry may caused deforestation in two ways : by smelting and by cutting down the trees by iron objects !


  2. Sulagna Chakraborty says:

    Same story is repeated for shifting cultivation also. The trials too practice slush and burn agriculture in forest region and follow the same method. But during British rule most they lost their right on forest and became” criminals”.


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