History of forests

The history of Slavonian forests, within the research of Croatian forests in general, has a prominent place, mainly because of pedunculate oak forests, which werefrom the immemorial immensely significant due to their quality and the size of the area they covered. According to estimates made by forestry scientists, before massive exploitation in the 19th century, some 70% of Slavonia was covered by forests, which inspired an 18th century author Friedrich von Taube to call the region “a huge, almost endless, oak forest”. Until then, the people used to live in harmony with forests, because the human knowledge and technology were unable to affect the environment in those days. However, in Taube’s time, clearcutting of large forested areas had already begun, reaching its highest point in the 1880s. Thus, a new paradigm of conquering forest expanses was set up, after millennia of harmonious coexistence. This conquest was presented as an improvement of land by making it arable in the name of modernisation and progress, although, the main motive that drove the forest owners and investors was, from the very beginning, making profit. Besides their impact on the economy, the forests also affected the mentality of the Slavonian people through their influence on everyday life, and have retained an important place in the cultural identity of the Slavonians until today. Historical evaluation of the relations between the man and the forest in Slavonia has an unquestionable scientific relevance, because these relations are unique in many ways. Still, they can represent a model for the research of similar relations in other Croatian and world regions.

The history of the forests, in general, has already distinguished itself as a separate branch of the historiography. Such researches have considerable relevance to Croatian historiography because they complement various studies in the fields of economic history, historical demography, social history, and even political history. Despite some individual efforts to publish works on the topic in the past decades, the history of forests has yet to achieve the status of a prominent scholarly field of research. From the aspect of historical studies, Croatian scholars lack the knowledge and institutional stimulation to seriously engage into ecohistorical researches. On the other hand, the forestry scientists are primarily interested in biotechnical topics, whereas the historical contexts in their works are discussed rarely and peripherally. Generally speaking, one of the major problems today is the lack of cooperation between the Croatian historians and forestry experts, without which this field of research is unable to evolve. However, the developed historiographies abroad have organised advanced forms of interdisciplinary cooperation. One of the best examples of such cooperation is the French “Group for the History of French Forests” (Groupe d’historie des Forêts Françaises, www.ghff.ens.fr), which has gathered historians, forestry and other scientists for years.

The research on the history of forests in Croatia was initiated by the forestry experts who published the first works on the topic in the 1880s (Kesterčanek 1882a; Kesterčanek 1882b; Kosović 1914). Among the Croatian historians, it was primarily the researches of economic history who showed considerable interest for the topic, mainly within the studies of the modernisation and industrialisation in Croatia, conducted between the 1950s and 1990s (Bičanić 1951; Karaman 1961; Anić et al. 2014). Nevertheless, during this period history of forests did not develop into a separate discipline, but it was rather covered by some authors within the framework of other disciplines and research topics. After 1990, the treatment of the history of forests by Croatian historiography did not change significantly. It did catch the attention of certain forestry scientists (Piškorić, Vukelić 1992; Klepac 1996, Klepac 2000), as well as the historiographers (Golec 1996, Kolar-Dimitrijević 2003; Kolar-Dimitrijević 2008, Volner 2012), but the interest did not yield a comprehensive study.

This is the reason why the history of forests has remained an undeveloped branch of the Croatian historiography, which has thus been unable to adequately respond to a number of research topics. The history of Slavonia and Slavonian forests supports this assertion the most. The forests used to be an essential element of the life in Slavonia throughout its entire history, especially during the modernisation processes of the 19th century. Still, our historiography only partially covered the topic of development of Slavonian wood production industry, whereas much broader consequences of clearing and exploiting forests remain unknown. (Kolar-Dimitrijević, 2008) According to the report of Slavonian Chamber of Commerce, the major sawmills in the 1889 were the facilities of the companies S. H. Gutmann in Belišće, Société d’importation de chêne in Slatina, and Neuschlosz, Schmidt & Marchetti in Đurđenovac. A number of works has been published on their economic impact on Slavonia at the turn of the 20th century. But, besides the profit of the foreign companies, owners of large estates in Slavonia also benefited form the forests (among which was the Đakovo Diocese), as well as the cities that owned forests and the estate communities of the Military Frontier. Partly because of the state policy, and partly because of the efforts made by the local politicians, industrialists and private forest owners, some of the income from the forest exploitation was invested into public projects, which helped the overall modernisation of Slavonia.