British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Don Barton
(Provincial Administration, Tanganyika 1952-61)
How a Tanganyika District ensured a
Sustainable Supply of Firewood
and Building Poles
Ukerewe island Map
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.

How a Tanganyika District ensured a
Sustainable Supply of Firewood
and Building Poles
Cassia Siamea
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.

How a Tanganyika District ensured a
Sustainable Supply of Firewood
and Building Poles
Ukerewe island
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.

Colonial Map
Map of Northern Tanganyika and Lake Victoria, 1948
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 105: October 2013


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