The depletion of natural woodland by peasant farmers in developing countries
is a matter of serious concern to governments and environmentalists - and not
least, of course, to the rural societies which are running short of free firewood and
building poles, and waste a great deal of time looking for both. This was less of a
problem 50 years ago, and in Tanganyika was a local rather than a national one.
The conventional wisdom at the time required the designation of forest reserves
to conserve valuable timber and/or to protect against soil erosion and protect
watersheds. These measures were later complemented by the establishment of
plantations to provide a future national timber resource.
One of the localities which had been badly affected by the depletion of natural
woodland and "bush" was Ukerewe district, and specifically Ukerewe island, in the
south-east corner of Lake Victoria. The island was relatively densely populated,
and earlier in the century had been virtually denuded of trees except for a small
area of rainforest at the western tip of the island. But long before my posting there
as District Commissioner in 1958, the problem had been solved. A local by-law
required every household to plant and maintain a sizeable plot of cassia siamea
trees - approximately half an acre for family use. Similarly every village headman
had to maintain a larger plantation for communal use. Somewhat tangentially
all local roads were lined with cassia trees, mainly I think to provide shade for
the traveller on foot or bicycle, but also providing supplementary firewood when
branches fell off or needed cutting back.
Now whether this practice was initiated by an early District Commissioner or by
the local Native Authority - then the Chief in Council - I cannot be sure. I am
inclined to think it was the NA as the Kerewe had a tradition of communal self-help
independently of comparable programmes organised by central government.
This was typically manifested in the clearing and grading of small feeder roads to
facilitate access to market, and by volunteering to clear and level an airstrip near
the District Office in about 1957. My view that the tree planting programme was
initiated by the NA is reinforced by the fact that Ukerewe did not become a district
in its own right until the late 1940s or early 1950s, and that because it was so self-evidently
beneficial, the by-law needed neither enforcing nor policing. It perhaps
helped that a local system of land tenure approximating to freehold ensured that
most households had secure access to their own timber supply. Another possibility
is that the by-law arose from a conversation between the Chief and a visiting DO or
Forest Officer back in the 1940s or even 1930s. Its precise origin is immaterial, but
it is a fair assumption that Government provided seed in the first place.
The essential point is that it worked. Whether this practice still exists in Ukerewe
or elsewhere I have no idea. But after 50 years of lavish global development aid
one might have expected it now to be commonplace in all parts of the developing
world where peasant agriculture persists, where there is a shortage of wood for
domestic use, and where soils and the rainfall regime allow it. It is not a panacea,
but it certainly beats the destruction of natural forest and bush as a source of
firewood and simple building poles.
Ukerewe island was also the location of one of the Government forest plantations
referred to above.