British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Anthony Young
In Agricultural Enforcement in Nyasaland by the late R E N Smith described the attempt, in the early 1950s, to bring about soil conservation in Nyasaland through compulsion. Remarkably, this was to lead to a new approach, called land husbandry, in which the newly independent Malawi became the world leader.

Smith describes how the enforcement of boxed ridges soured relationships between farmers and Agricultural Officers, and also with the District Officers "to whom the people looked for...fair and sympathetic treatment". Even so, it should be said that for all its unsatisfactory features this conservation campaign, the brainchild of the highly experienced Director of Agriculture, Dick Kettlewell, was not without its achievements. By the time I arrived in the country as Soil Surveyor in 1958, cultivation by ridges hoed along the contour was almost universal. But by the end of the 1950s, with pre-independence unrest growing, further attempts to impose soil conservation by compulsion were out of the question.

Yet within ten years of independence in 1964 not only had a radically different way of looking at the problem been developed, but Malawi had become the world leader in this. The movement had been started in colonial times by Garry Godden (South Africa), Soil Conservation Officer, and Robert Green, Conservation and Extension Officer. It was developed by two other Colonial Service members, Erancis Shaxson and Malcolm Douglas. The titles of Shaxson's position indicate the change of emphasis: Soil Conservation Officer 1958-62 but Land Husbandry Officer 1968-76. Douglas served nine years, 1974-80, in the latter post.

Malawi's Pioneering Role
in the Development of Land Husbandry
Zomba Botanical Gardens
Green and Shaxson had become dissatisfied with the application to Malawi of the standard 'earth structure' methods of conservation used in Southern Rhodesia. In 1970 they organised a Land Use Training Course in Zomba, which turned into an exchange of ideas between those who were nominally the instructors and local staff attending the course. This led to the choice of "Land Husbandry" as the title for the new approach, the setting up of a Land Husbandry Training Centre in Zomba (a small building in a corner of the Botanical Garden), and the production by Shaxson and colleagues of a Land Husbandry Training Manual. Malawian staff joined expatriates as advocates of this approach.

The key feature of land husbandry, which distinguishes it from traditional methods of soil conservation, is to make improvement of crop yields and production the primary objective. This means that right from the start, the farmer is on the side of the conservationist. Long-standing agricultural advisory practices, such as crop rotation, efficient application of fertilizer, and improvement of soil fertility through biological means, are integrated with the checking of erosion. One way to do this was to emphasize the benefits of improving soil water conditions, of which farmers were very aware. When population pressure forced cultivation onto steep slopes, which would formerly have been classed as 'uncultivable', Malawi become one of the first countries to experiment with soil conservation through agroforestry.

After leaving service in Malawi, Shaxson and Douglas became world ambassadors for land husbandry. Douglas became EAO's leading advocate, welcomed even by the Chinese who had formerly been dependent on the labour-intensive method of terracing. I was later to become an early staff member of the International Council for Research in Agroforestry (now the World Agroforestry Centre). These achievements started in colonial times and brought to fruition after independence made Malawi a pioneering country in bringing about the now widely-recognized benefits of land husbandry.

Colonial Map
Central African Federation Map, 1960
Colony Profile
Books by the Author
Thin on the Ground: Land Resource Survey in British Overseas Territories
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 102: October 2011