In its September 1943 war-time progress report, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England – CPRE – what one would nowadays call an environmental not-for-profit – took to reviewing changes in the countryside “aggravated by or directly due to the war.” It considered the most influential factors to be the dispersal of industry and the establishment of munitions factories and other new industries together with the necessary housing accommodation for the workers, and the provision of aerodromes, camps and actual defence works which had “inevitably resulted in the loss of much hitherto unspoilt farm land.”

Whilst a proportion of the aerodromes and training camps built were the result of decisions taken during war-time, hundreds of new military-industrial sites – mainly fighter and bomber aircraft and munitions factories – were almost entirely the result of central government war planning in the inter-war period, with many built and in production before Britain declared war on Nazi Germany on 3rd September 1939.

If after the Second World War this landscape militarisation had been reversed – as had happened after the First World War, when a number of Britain’s munitions factories had been dismantled and the land returned to its pre-war use – then the temporary transformation of significant tracts of the British rural landscape in support of the war effort may have been relatively historically insignificant. However, findings from my PhD thesis suggest that only one site – of just five acres – was returned by the Government in the post-war period to anything like its pre-war rural identity.

Looking at primary sources within the environmental history domain provides an alternative timeline to conventional military and industrial approaches to the Second World War. Through looking at internal CPRE documents held in the organisation’s archives at the Museum of English Rural Life at the University of Reading, England, it can be argued that the Second World War began not on 3rd September 1939 but on 29th October 1935, when CPRE’s Executive Committee minutes record discussion of an Air Ministry proposal to establish an aerodrome near the village of Woodsford, in the west of England. The issue of Defence Department land acquisitions and requisitions would then be a virtually ever-present agenda item at the CPRE’s monthly Committee meetings from this point, through the whole of the Second World War and into the late-1940s.

With little effective legislative protection to stop land in rural (or indeed urban) areas from being built on, CPRE became increasingly concerned throughout the 1936 to 1937 period over Defence Department demands for land and in late 1937 cooperated with landed interests in the southern England county of Wiltshire (particularly badly hit by Defence Departments’ land demands) to make a written representation to the new conservation-minded and CPRE-supporting British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, requesting him to intervene to protect the environment against the consequences of Britain’s inter-war mobilisation.

Chamberlain responded positively to this lobbying in January 1938, getting his chief civil servant aide to chair a meeting of the relevant departments, and subsequently a requirement was issued to Defence Departments that they engage with the Ministry of Agriculture & Fisheries and CPRE over land that the State wished to acquire for war-related purposes. This established a consultative mechanism for both governmental departments and civil society which to a certain extent compensated for the lack of protective legislation.

Frustratingly for the historian, but understandably given the war-time context, CPRE was circumspect in its internal documents about the detail of the work it undertook with Defence Departments through the mechanism, but CPRE archives and personal papers show that Professor Patrick Abercrombie, CPRE Executive Committee member and consultant to the Air Ministry, performed a key intermediary role. CPRE Executive Committee minutes do not systematically document specific sites under consideration by the various War Departments, due to the obvious need for secrecy during war-time. However, it is clear from looking at the long series of minutes that CPRE was actively consulted on a large number of Defence Department proposals which had their origins in the inter-war period.

From late 1943 onwards, with an end to the war in sight at some point in the future, the Government started to make plans for the disposal of surplus-to-post-war requirements factories, with each Defence Department required to make lists of sites that would be available for disposal. The Board of Trade was tasked with compiling a list of enquiries from firms desiring to acquire by purchase or lease Government factories at the end of the war. The Minister of Reconstruction, Lord Woolton, proposed six criteria for the disposal of available factories: the requirements of town and country planning came fourth in order of importance, after the balanced distribution of industry, the potential for new owners to manufacture for the export trade, and the maintenance of a war potential. Every site was seen as either a military or economic asset, with the exception of just one site, at Calgarth on the shores of Lake Windermere in England’s Lake District, where the amenity value of the site exceeded the potential benefit of retaining the manufacturing capacity of the war-time flying boat factory for other peace-time purposes.

The remainder of the sites were either retained by the Government’s various Defence Departments for military-industrial purposes, some transitioned into single-use civilian manufacturing – most notably aircraft factories into mass-production car factories – or into multiple commercial uses as trading estates. With construction dates for many of the new-build industrial sites starting as far back as 1936, and the post-war future of these sites sometimes taking years to determine, from an environmental history perspective, Britain experienced a long Second World War which extended beyond the start and end dates of the actual military conflict.

Mobilisation for war from the mid-1930s onwards had acted as an urgent agent for change for hundreds of rural areas, spanning tens of thousands of acres of rural landscape. Given the prevailing inter-war peace-time trends of suburban sprawl and random industrialisation, whilst Britain’s rural landscape may have been built on for any number of purposes if there had been no war, the imperative of war planning led to many rural lands being militarised when they would arguably not otherwise have been – and some sites industrialised or at least commercialised earlier than they might have been – or in different places, given that industrial location criteria in peace-time and war-time do not share all the same factors. The environmental significance of this is magnified by the fact that all but one of the military-industrial sites remained within the military, industrial or commercial sphere after the war, creating permanent urban-orientated industrial or otherwise commercial outposts in rural areas, or expanding the pre-war urban periphery into rural areas.


Gary Willis
PhD Student
Department of Historical Studies
University of Bristol, England

By: Richard Tucker

Throughout history, refugee movements have been a tragic consequence of war. These social upheavals have usually been sudden and overwhelming, uprooting entire communities, in contrast to other mass migrations, including recent climate refugee movements. In the industrial era, as the scale and intensity of warfare have increased, the human costs of these tragedies have been accompanied by severe environmental consequences. These costs tend to fall beyond the limits of both military studies and environmental studies, but they contribute to sustained stress on land and resources long after open conflict ends. The environmental costs need to receive more serious attention. This summary proposes perspectives on the war/refugee/environment nexus, using twentieth century examples.

Wartime refugee movements have resulted in environmental degradation in three areas: the locations they are forced to leave, their migratory routes, and locations where they have landed for shorter or longer times. In many cases, marginalized groups such as ethnic minorities have been particularly impacted by these perturbations. The impacts are expressed in damage to natural environments, including loss of biodiversity and disruption of water regimes, and increase of pollution and waste disposal problems. The lands refugees have left (and in some cases returned to) experienced chaotic collapses of land tenure systems and land use, which help to determine long-term environmental consequences.

The history of international refugee aid agencies provides perspective on refugee movements, but their vast archives and studies about them give only tantalizing indications of environmental disruptions.  “A global refugee regime, comprising a formal international organization for refugees, legal conventions, and an international structure to care for the displaced, only began to emerge in the aftermath of the First World War.”  World War I produced chaotic flows of refugees, primarily in Russia, the Middle East and Armenia, as the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires collapsed in the carnage. But their environmental dimensions remain to be reviewed in depth.

Turning to World War II, the environmental disruptions of the massive refugee movements that covered central and eastern Europe have not yet been considered systematically either, though glimpses appear in two new collections.  We have a somewhat clearer understanding of the environmental impacts of certain refugee floods in Asia.  In China the war created many millions of refugees through twelve chaotic years.  When Japanese forces spread across the critically important food producing rice terraces of Henan Province in the plains of the Yellow River in the summer of 1938, the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) army blasted the great river’s dikes, flooding 30% of the region in order to impede the enemy.  Many farmers drowned; fifteen million more, nearly half the province’s population, were displaced.

Many struggled westward into higher land in the Huanglongshan mountains of Shaanxi Province.  In that region of steep slopes and fragile ecological equilibrium, terraced agriculture achieved by forest clearance had spread for several centuries, until civil wars in the 1860s largely depopulated the region.  Thereafter the deserted areas returned to secondary succession vegetation and gradual collapse of terraces, resulting in widespread soil erosion. Straggling into Shaanxi, the refugees found the Kuomintang (Nationalist) army desperate to increase food production.  The KMT sent new arrivals to the Huanglongshan mountains, to reclaim the abandoned land, clearing secondary forest to grow rice again. The situation was exacerbated by the arrival of a second wave of refugees from the eastern lowlands, victims of a great famine in 1942-43.  By 1945 portions of the hills were repopulated, but at the cost of widespread deforestation and soil erosion.

Meanwhile in lowland Henan the flood waters remained in place for as much as a decade. In the aftermath of the Japanese retreat in 1945, that critically important rice region was gradually rehabilitated as its people returned to their homeland and repaired the massive environmental damage of wartime.  The Chinese Communists’ work in Henan contributed to their ultimate success in occupying Beijing in 1949.

Burma and Northeastern India

Farther south the efforts of the Western Allies to stop the advance of Japan through Southeast Asia toward British India centered on the forested eastern Himalayas of northeastern Assam and northern Burma, home of many tribal communities, and the more heavily populated agricultural and urban population dominated by ethnic Burmese Buddhists in Lower Burma.  The Japanese advance into Lower Burma in early 1942 created a mass refugee movement fleeing from Rangoon and the southern region.  Many struggled along the Arakan coast to eastern Bengal. In the process, that coastal lowland and adjacent chain of hills, now named Rakhine District of Myanmar, underwent severe displacement of its Muslim population, the Rohingyas, as an early chapter of the refugee crisis that is culminating today.   Some settled in Dacca and Calcutta, where they intensified urban environmental stress including severe water supply disruptions and waste pollution. Others turned northward into the Chittagong hills, where they carved survival settlements out of the forests, competing with local hill cultures.

The largest refugee masses from Lower Burma fled northward into the hill region along the border with Assam.  Hundreds of thousands struggled across the tribal zone of the monsoon-flooded Hukawng Valley, carving new routes where none had existed before, and leaving masses of abandoned goods.  Those who survived the trek into British-defended Assam settled in sparsely populated hill forests, cumulatively stressing that fragile ecosystem as well. An ecologist’s report fifty years later reported that the Hukawng forest had largely recovered, but junk still littered the refugees’ routes, and tracks for subsequent forest clearance and wildlife reduction had been established.  

Thereafter, the wartime disruptions led to the Partition of British India and the creation of Pakistan in 1947, when neo-wartime conditions created an exchange of some 15 million refugees between the new countries, and trends begun in World War II intensified.  Refugees, mostly Hindu, fled newborn East Pakistan (which became Bangladesh in 1970), flooding into urban areas of West Bengal, especially Calcutta, since little rural lowland was available for new settlement. Others scrambled northward into the Chittagong hills and beyond.  The environmental history of Partition is still to be studied, more than just implied.

The Cold War Era: Anti-Apartheid Struggles in Southern Africa

Independence struggles in southern Africa centered in the Portuguese colonies from the 1960s onward.  Their environmental impacts were widespread; many were the consequence of coerced population movements.  Until the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1994, Angola and Mozambique underwent bloody turmoil, even over the borders into South Africa-held Namibia, as well as Southern Rhodesia (independent Zimbabwe after 1980).  The South African Defense Force (SADF) went to great lengths to cripple the anti-apartheid movements in a lengthy counter-insurgency (COIN) campaign. [COIN campaigns against insurgents are an identifiable class of orchestrated violence against whole populations, often causing deliberate environmental degradation and displacement of rural populations.  These need study for their environmental dimensions.]

Emmanuel Kreike has located the ecological impacts of these wartime displacements in fragile settings, describing “environmental changes caused by forced population movements and the terror-inspired disinvestment of human labor from the creation and maintenance of rural infrastructure (wells, water holes, farms, fields, fences, fruit trees) and food production …”  Farms and rural villages turned into “deserted bush-encroached ‘wilderness,” and towns’ resources were stretched to the limit by the influx of refugees.  

In the Namibia-Angola border region disruption fanned out from military bases.  Most fighting was during the rainy season — the cropping season — disrupting subsistence food production.  Anti-guerrilla strikes mostly hit civilians. Bulldozers removed vegetation; heavy fences and land mines crossed sandy soils, removing farms and brush (including wildlife).  Displaced people landed in the floodplain of Namibia’s fragile Ovamboland marshes.

Farther east along the South Africa-Mozambique borderlands, Mozambique gained independence in 1975, but a civil war lasted until 1992.  A resistance movement supported by South Africa launched a scorched-earth war of terror against populations sympathetic with the new government and its ally, the African National Congress.  Much fighting centered in national parks on both sides of the border. Resistance fighters lived off the land, terrorizing villagers. In response the government concentrated rural populations in fortified villages, backed by the army and militias.  “Thus the rural populations became not only the object and target of the war, but also the principal weapon of war, as farms, food and seed stocks, animals, crops, and fruit trees were pillaged and destroyed.”  Many communal villages were deserted, and bush encroachment let tsetse fly infestations spread.  


After the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to support the Communist regime that had overthrown the king a year before, a decade’s fighting between the occupying Soviets and Afghan resistance produced a mass emigration into Iran in the west, and 3,500,000 Afghans fled into Pakistan in the east.  Geographer Nigel Allan studied the intense ecological impacts of the Afghan refugees in northern Pakistan by the mid-1980s. Leaving mountain environments in eastern Afghanistan, where they had ancestral skills of pasturing, farming and hunting, they moved to various niches in northern Pakistan, where their agro-ecological knowledge sometimes fit their new surroundings effectively, and sometimes not.  Many settled in Pakistan’s adjacent North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Where the match was poor, the environmental damage was more severe. In all cases the newly concentrated population placed unprecedented and unmanaged pressure on the alpine forests. Some areas were entirely denuded. Some Afghans ultimately returned home, but continued fighting after the Soviets left in 1989 kept many in Pakistan.


These cases indicate that over the past century, as entire civilian populations became engulfed in war and their noncombatant status was increasingly ignored, refugees from a wide range of conflicts became the victimized agents of widening environmental degradation.  Many Cold War era civil wars and insurgencies (almost invariably intensified by foreign powers and the international arms trade) invite similar environmental analysis. The human drama of wartime population dislocations has largely overshadowed their underlying environmental costs.  But the enormous dislocations of refugees under modern warfare have had correspondingly great and complex ecological costs. In many cases these are partially reversible, if military and political conditions permit. The immediate impact of mass violence has not been the end of the story, since both natural and social systems have the capacity to repair damage.  But in all cases, the environmental degradation that accompanies these upheavals has contributed to the degradation of the biosphere.




1. Alexander Betts, Protection by Persuasion: International Cooperation in the Refugee Regime (Cornell University Press, 2009), p. 8.

2. Richard P. Tucker, Martin Schmid, John R. McNeill and Tait Keller, eds., Global Environmental Dimensions of World War I (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

3.  Simo Laakkonen, Richard P. Tucker, and Timo Vuorisalo, eds., The Long Shadows: A Global Environmental History of World War II (Oregon State University Press, 2016); Simo Laakkonen, J. R. McNeill, Richard P. Tucker, and Timo Vuorisalo, eds., The Resilient City in World War II: Urban Environmental Histories (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming, 2019).

4.  Micah S. Muscolino, The Ecology of War in China: Henan Province, the Yellow River, and Beyond, 1938-1950 (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

5.  Richard P. Tucker, “Environmental Scars in Northeastern India and Burma,” in Laakkonen, Long Shadows, 117-34.

6.  Emmanuel Kreike, “War and the Environmental Effects of Displacement in Southern Africa (1970s-1990s),” in William G. Moseley and B. Ikubolajeh Logan, eds., African Environment and Development (Ashgate, 2004), 90.  Also Emmanuel Kreike, Recreating Eden: Land Use, Environment, and Society in Southern Angola and Northern Namibia (Heinemann, 2004).

7.  Kreike, “War,” 103.

8.  Nigel J. R. Allan, “The Impact of Afghan Refugees on the Vegetation Resources of Pakistan’s Hindukush-Himalaya,” Mountain Research and Development 7:3 (August, 1987), 200-204.

Santiago Gorostiza, “’There Are the Pyrenees!’ Fortifying the Nation in Francoist Spain,” Environmental History 23:4 (October 2018), 797-823.

From the abstract:

Literature on war and the environment has examined a wide range of militarized landscapes, but massive fortification systems such as the Maginot or Siegfried lines, which are symbols of a military trend in vogue during the interwar period, have largely been ignored. These military walls interwove natural and national values and constituted massive landscape interventions, aimed at reinforcing political borders, embedded in—and relying upon—geographical features. This article examines a late example of this trend: the fortification of the Pyrenees border that the Spanish dictatorship carried out during the 1940s. Particularly after the liberation of France in 1944, the Francoist regime engaged in a serious effort to build a fortification system in the Pyrenees, fearing a potential invasion; by the early 1950s, several thousands of bunkers formed what became the Pyrenees Line. … The militarization of the Pyrenees shows how walls, fences, and other forms of fortification can be a fertile ground for environmental history to explore the mix of culture and nature as well as the political implications of the concept of natural borders.