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
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.
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.