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.