The economic depression of the 1930s
The 1930s left deep marks on the psyche of the colonies in Africa. Based on the experiences from the southwestern United States—events referred to as the ‘dust bowl’—colonial authorities were concerned that a similar environmental crisis would occur in Africa.’1 This global vision of environmental crisis took center-stage in academic debates, both in the colonies and within empires. It resulted in a vigorous convergence of writings and discussions about the African environmental crisis by professional geographers, anthropologists and ecologists. The global viewpoints on environmental change were prescriptive about the actions required to resolve the problem.’2 At the same time, the period was marked by extended droughts and famine. Influenced by what had happened elsewhere, colonial science, blamed the changes on long-term ‘misuse of the land’ by African peasants and pastoralists. A further claim (although unproven) was that the depression had created disorders in environmental and social systems’5 (see Chapter 4).
After nearly three decades, the colonial administrations in East Africa attempted to accelerate scientific research but met with one failure after another. To begin with, economic depressions in the 1930s decelerated research work, most notably due to the lack of funds.’4 The most significant aspect of government action was the distribution of free seeds to farmers. This was despite disagreements among officials regarding the claim that African peasants had little to offer in terms of improving farming practices. Accordingly, Lord Stanley5’ of Alderley, the chairman of the joint agricultural committee in London, claimed that consultations with African communities would yield no beneficial information. The official explanation was that African societies were incapable of offering solutions to their own problems, let alone advancing new ones.’6 The officials blamed the African peasants for the decline in agricultural production and, by focusing on soil erosion, they failed to investigate the sources of economic depression.’'
The most significant contribution of scientific research at this time was the publication of the African Survey Report that assigned priority to increasing both agricultural production and soil erosion control.’'4 By 1933, the idea of science had gained significant currency to establish a baseline for biological and social science research in the colonies.59 Sir Sydney Henn, then in the British House of Commons, proposed a resolution for a parliamentary commission to be sent to East Africa, to report to the secretary of the colonies on how to coordinate and stimulate their economies.60
By 1935, the British Government had established the Colonial Agricultural Service, charged with unifying research throughout the colonies.61 One such area of research interest was soil fertility. The decline in soil fertility associated with indigenous farming systems was attributed to reduced crop production. The outcome was claimed to result in land degradation (for contrasting evidence, see Chapter 5). Yet, the rainfall failure—which was, in fact, the main cause of famine—was not even mentioned. For the colonial officials, the future looked grim, unless drastic changes to indigenous farming systems were undertaken. Consequently, advisers insisted that ‘if something is not done, in less than twenty years a certain well- populated district would be reduced to desert.’62 Mr Nowell, in his contribution during the Royal African conferences held in East Africa, went even further in the rhetoric: ‘[w]e did not put it at hundred years. We put it at twenty.’6’ From this melodramatic prediction, perhaps with hindsight, one may infer that the whole affair of land degradation was exaggerated. Development programs from the late 1930s onwards recommended ‘prepackaged settlement schemes,’ referred to as ‘tests,’ by which any failure would be explained as part of the process of ‘testing’ new ideas.64 (see Chapter 4). These implementations had to wait (until 1943), owing to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.
The Second World War years, 1939–1945
The Second World War influenced the progress of research in two note- worthy ways: one negative and the second positive. The negative outcome was that research and development activities were scaled down due to con- tingencies brought about by the war.65 The positive outcome was that military demands for beef and other animal products reached such volumes that despite the lower prices, the inflow of cash to peasants and pastoralist communities suddenly increased their purchasing capacity for consumer goods. The war years produced urgent requirements for the immediate utilization of research results for development. Taking credit for this outcome, the colonial governments invoked a reconstruction program to try to comprehend the economic potential of the pastoral regions in the colonies.66 An ongoing challenge during the war years was the lack of finances which accounted for the failure to accelerate scientific research.6. Endeavors were invigorated by the passing of the Colonial Development and Welfare Act of 1940.68 In London, the Act was followed by the establishment of scientific committees and councils to advise the Colonial Office. Colonial scientists made short visits to East Africa, to develop research proposals for funding through grants made available via the Act.69 The overall aspiration of the Act was to end the menace of famine and hunger in the colonies.’0
Experience had shown that new scientific knowledge was needed to meet complex development imperatives. This was the beginning of the applied scientific research era, when different scientific disciplines came to be integrated. Rather than being conducted by individual scientists, research activities were organized under research teams. Perhaps the motivation for this was the increasing emphasis on large-scale development programs as opposed to singular experimental trials. The motivation might have also been trends in industrial production in the west, where the processes of industrial growth had shifted from simple manufacturing to complex industrial units. Consequently, large research teams were established, led by experienced scientists bringing together varieties of scientific expertise.'1 The government provided services in support of research activities by promoting increased agrarian production, and improving social services such as public health, social welfare and the use of community labor.'2 A significant scientific breakthrough in East Africa from the 1940s was the launch of the Agricultural and Forestry Journal that communicated research results from across colonies in Africa (more on this in Chapter 5).
In the 1940s, the Colonial Office appointed research councils to oversee the implementation of research in the colonies. The councils recruited experienced researchers to improve communication between the councils and among the researchers. The research councils provided researchers with autonomy to maintain the professional status they enjoyed in the metropole institutions. In practice, however, research involved close collab- oration with colonial administrations.'* For the colonial officials, the priority was to improve agricultural production by focusing on soil erosion control.'4 Therefore the three colonies adopted a common policy which was envisaged to promote better methods of soil conservation. Indeed, Sir Philip Mitchell, the Governor of Kenya (during 1944) had called for greater efficiency in dealing with the problem. It was during his term that large-scale development programs were introduced, for which a sum of £8.1 million was allocated to the African Land Development Organization (ALDEV).'’ These programs treated development as experimental science.