Case 2: Agricultural and soil conservation schemes, 1943–1954

In order to enforce compliance by the African peasants on soil conservation schemes, the government implemented rules that laid down guidelines on how the land plots should be managed by individual farmers. The Land and Water Preservation Ordinance of 1943 declares that: ‘As soon as pos- sible after any area has been declared “closed” the Director shall complete notification in the forms contained in the schedule’—a copy of this schedule was given to every farmer. Being illiterate, most of the African peasants did not understand the contents of the forms. Yet, they were expected to carry the documents around and produce them when the officials requested verification. The rules themselves were harsh and impractical. One forbidding regulation stated:

[Farmers shall not| ... except with the permission of the Director [of the scheme| ... and subject to such conditions as the Director may impose, in any closed area cut down, remove or destroy, or cause to be cut down or destroy in any manner what so ever, any living vegetation, or depasture any livestock.41

Another rather absurd rule states: ‘The Director may by order prohibit or limit the watering of stock at any stream or river except [under] such conditions as he may specify in such order.’46 The most radical rule was the one in which a farmer might have planted crops that ‘contravened’ the order of the official. Officials were authorized to cut down and destroy such crops without fear of prosecution.4' The agricultural officials were, however, under no illusion regarding the successes of the schemes, pointing out that the ‘work of ... nature—represents capital expenditure’ that often exceeds what individual farmers and the government could accomplish.48 Soil conservation was a case in point.

Soil conservation

When dealing with problems of soil erosion on farmers’ lands, other than verbal instructions, officials in the Department of Agriculture lacked both the financial and technical capacity to demonstrate actions that they recommended.49 We may use an example here. The case concerns the Gem farmers in the Lake Basin. The Gem farmers in the lake region who planted monocultures of maize using cattle manure to fertilize their land enjoyed initial successes, until they were forced to remove their livestock. The agricultural officials realized that without access to cattle manure, and in the absence of soil conservation methods, crop production was declining. Indeed, the main challenge was how to recommend to the farmers to bring back the cattle, at the risk of destroying the crops50—this presented a serious setback to farming.51

According to the authorities, maintaining soil fertility would succeed only if the orders were reinforced by the rules of land ordinances. The rules specified the types of crops allowed and the seasons of planting. They also regulated the use of manure on family farms. One of the rules stated that: ‘The authority may, after consultation with the indigenous elders, order all persons in possession of a livestock enclosure in any specified area to remove all the manure ... and apply to the land before each planting season.’5’ This is precisely what the farmers had previously done on their own—for which no rules had been required. Additionally, the by-law made it compulsory for all able-bodied persons to participate in soil conservation activities under instructions of local headmen.”

The agricultural officials admitted that the shortcomings of soil conservation activities arose from their own lack of familiarity with African systems of agriculture, especially in hilly areas. In a letter to the Director of Agriculture, an official stated:

The trouble is that hillside cultivation is foreign to the British agriculturalist, whose usual attitude is that it ought to be suppressed. But the fact remains that it is a widespread form of African agriculture which cannot be got rid of and should not be ignored.’4

Indeed, contrary to the agricultural officials’ views, some African communities such as the Kipsigis had developed indigenous soil conservation methods on steep slopes, combining methods such as grass filters, trash of cut vegetation, and terraces, as well as methods of maintaining soil fertility and rotational cropping.’5 Nonetheless, in a written memorandum, agricultural officials admitted that it was challenging to apply soil conservation schemes on African peasant farms. The memorandum drew the following conclusions:

It is impossible to lay down hard and fast rules with regard to the planning of arable holdings for African peasants, on account of the wide variations in ecological conditions which occur between relatively small areas.... For this reason, a policy for farm planning can seldom be applied on a district scale and is ... scarcely applicable to locations and even small recognizable political and administrative sections of the land.... In practice physical soil conservation work is unpopular with the African, because he does not appreciate that he is, to some extent, arresting further soil ... deterioration.’*’

Contrary to the above claim, we have already shown that indigenous methods of soil conservation existed. The inference one would draw from the above statement is that—despite the expansion of acres of land under soil conservation—its benefits had not been commensurate with financial investment by the authorities. What encouraged the colonial officials to persist was the perception that soil conservation was achievable, not forgetting its political imperative as a colonial policy. While accepting the failures of the past, the officials were determined to ensure success in the future. A provincial agricultural officer reported the following: ‘I think it is logical reasoning to suppose that as ... the Africans progress in the direction they are going at the present ... we should base our programs on the future and not the past.”7

The opinion of the official was that the participation of African peasants in soil conservation efforts could be improved if there was a change in land tenure, from clan to individual land holdings. With individual holdings, the owners would be entirely responsible for the betterment of their land and would benefit from government extension programs by learning directly from demonstrations on their own farms. Another proposal was to lease land to farmers, subject to their performing soil control works.58 An agricultural official appeared to be certain of this proposal, when he stated: ‘Without control there can be no success and the present erosion will still carry on until the people are driven off the land.”9

The agricultural officials believed part of the failure of soil conservation efforts was due to African peasants using inappropriate technology for building terraces. The officials did not entertain the idea that it was enough to allow the African peasant to implement soil conservation practices on his own. The ordinance that was promulgated empowered the authorities to force farmers to carry out compulsory soil erosion control activities. If the farmers failed to carry out the necessary work, the officials were empowered to do so, and recover the costs from the farmers. To this effect, the District Commissioner of North Nyanza proposed a new bylaw, which required the peasants who failed in these activities to be taken before the African courts. According to the proposal, any fine charged to the culprit would compensate the headman for the time and trouble that he had expended in the court action.60

The Provincial Commissioner rejected this proposal, as it failed to take into account that no legal arguments could be conducted outside competent Crown courts.61 The outcome was that the officials, despite their attempts to work on the challenge of soil conservation, had seldom been successful. This was partly because official guidelines of land use aggravated environmental problems—and unfairly blamed the African peasants for land degradation.62 In the third case study, we examine how African societies were involved in agricultural schemes and bush clearing projects in the implementation of further controversial land ordinances. We will also examine the Kipsigis and the Maasai land conflicts linked to development of the schemes in case 3.

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