The British Empire Library

Thin On The Ground: Land Resource Survey in British Overseas Territories

by Anthony Young

Courtesy of OSPA

John K.Coulter (Colonial Agricultural Service, Malaya 1947- 59)
Unlike most of the books reviewed in the Overseas Pensioner which narrate the experiences of individuals, this book recounts the work of many individual scientists involved in land resource surveys in the overseas territories from the 1920s until 1975. It is of interest to note that while the most important activity in these was agriculture, the natural environment on which agriculture depended received little attention from professionals until the 1920s, though 19th century pioneer explorers like Livingstone and Lugard recorded many astute observations on the soils and the agricultural practices in Eastern Africa. From the 1920s until 1939 there was scattered pioneering work by individual professionals but the major international drive came after World War II. The failure of the Groundnut Scheme in the former Tanganyika, which started on the assumption that large areas of under-populated land could be developed, proved that there were very good reasons for the failure - unsuitable soils and climate.

After defining the nature and the needs for land resource surveys the book describes the work of the pioneers in the 1930s and illustrates something of the conditions under which they worked. This provides a fascinating story of the lives of these individuals, some of whom, in spite of the hardships, lived into their 90s. These solo efforts were made with limited financial support and with the few technical means of the time. Rapid expansion of resource surveys took place from 1950 onwards and both reconnaissance and detailed surveys were done in many tropical countries. Aerial photography became an essential tool for this and the value of field work was greatly extended by air photo interpretation. The excellent bibliography records the large number of publications which resulted from this work.

The questions are: did this immense effort avoid disasters in development; did it help determine development project viability; did it succeed in transferring useful knowledge on agricultural potential from one area or one country to another; was sufficient attention paid to the social and economic aspects of land use and agricultural development? The answers vary; some countries used the information, others ignored it for political or social reasons. On the other hand the surveys are a useful and in some countries the major source of information about a country's natural resources. This is a crucially important aspect of land resources, particularly the question of spare land. In many countries the population will have nearly doubled between 1950 and 1975 and probably again to the present time. The ability to cope with this population pressure and the recent ideas of using more land for biofuels depend on the concept of plenty of spare land. Yet it is obvious to any traveller that in many countries cultivation extends on to steep slopes and into dry areas very susceptible to crop failure and often there is no spare land. It is probable therefore that this vast amount of basic information about natural resources of many countries will become more valuable in future.

While this book will be of major interest to those who are or have been involved in resource surveys it will also interest others for its history of an important aspect of human endeavour in the tropics. The author is to be congratulated on his exploration of often obscure sources of information to bring these to light.

British Empire Book
Anthony Young
The Memoir Club
978 1 84104 175 9