Population prompts progress

THE International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo in September, reopened the debate over old Malthusian fears. The conference was convened in the belief that unless governments the world over take firm and coordinated action, the hungry billions will eat up global food supplies and exhaust the world's non-renewable resources, landing it in a mire of pollution, soil erosion and environmental degradation.

Malthus' critics have, however, for long averred that each new mouth to be fed comes with a pair of hands and a brain. In 1965, economist Esther Boserup, in her book The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure, held that technological change becomes a necessity as the land:people ratio changes and an increase in the population density leads to an increasing use of intensive agricultural practices. Boserup saw new technologies as impelled by population growth and made feasible by additional labour.

In 1986, a us National Academy of Sciences report concluded that there was no necessary connection between population growth and the cornucopia of fears attached to it. It said that economic growth, urban expansion, unemployment, migration, and resource exhaustion are not so much affected by population growth as government policies. And, at the first World Optimum Population Congress, held in Cambridge last year, agroeconomist Patrick Darling suggested that "in many cases in Africa population growth acted as a catalyst for positive development and environmental improvement and not a recipe for disaster". But these analysts were unable to substantiate their argument because of weak empirical data, partly because few social scientists have taken an interest in such a task, and partly because such data is difficult to get.

This is sought to be redeemed by Mary Tiffen and Michael Mortimore of the London-based Overseas Development Institute and Francis Gichuki of the University of Nairobi. In their book More People, Less Erosion, the researchers examine the interactions between people and the environment of the semi-arid Machakos district of Kenya, from 1930 to 1960.

Machakos district forms part of Kenya's eastern province. In 1989, the district had a population of about 1.4 million, of whom 8 per cent were living in Machakos and a few other small townships. At the centre of the district, hills rise steeply to 2,100m and are surrounded by a plateau. In the north, the Ol Doinyo Sabuk rises to 2,144m and in the south, the Chhyulu volcanic range reaches 2,392m.

The soil is deeply weathered, except where it is eroded on steep slopes, or where there are outcrops of unweathered rock in the hill escarpments. Average annual rainfall increases with altitude, from less than 600mm in the lowlands of the southeast and the dry plains of the extreme northwest to 1,200mm at an altitude of about 2,000m in the Mbooni Hills. There are 2 rainy seasons, from March to May and October to December, resulting in 2 agricultural seasons.

The native Akamba people are believed to have first occupied some uplands of Machakos during the 17th and 18th centuries. They raised cattle, cultivated shifting fields of grain and pulses, and were involved in trading. The Europeans arrived in 1889 and a treaty was signed. A British East Africa Company fort was built and mission stations followed. In 1895, the British Protectorate of East Africa was declared and in 1899 its capital was shifted from Machakos to Nairobi. And, in 1906, the Native Reserve was created to prevent Akamba expansion.

The authors argue that common assumptions about the linkages between population growth and the environment, specifically in Africa, are inaccurate because they are based on shorter time periods. The study contradicts the assumption that rise in agricultural productivity in Africa is minimal, that commercial production harms food supplies, that out-migration is a negative phenomenon, that development depends overwhelmingly on government initiatives and aid support, and that population growth harms the environment. The authors argue that in economic terms, the replacement of natural vegetation by sustainable farming systems, which over time maintain an adequate level of nutrient replacement and conserve soil and water in forms useful to human beings, is development and not degradation.

In the '30s, the district was considered an environmental disaster. Between 1930 and 1990, the population of Machakos increased 5-fold. Simultaneously, dramatic environmental changes had taken place. Soil erosion had declined because of the terraces built to protect arable land and predictions of a wood-fuel crisis were unfulfilled thanks to a larger number of farmed and protected trees. Additionally, agricultural production was higher and new technologies and farming systems had been introduced, with better contacts with markets and more sources of information. Colonial legacy
The Machakos problem, the authors say, was rooted in colonial Kenyan history. In 1932, the Kenya Land Commission ruled on the inevitable conflict between the colonialist and the colonised. Areas reserved for European settlement -- known as the Scheduled Areas or White Highlands -- bordered the native reserve on 2 sides. On the other sides, the Akamba confronted the newly designated Crown Lands, whose use the government felt entitled to control, and which in the southeast were so infested with the tsetse fly as to be almost useless. Thus encircled, the Akamba grew in numbers and in livestock, while clearing extra land for shifting cultivation and chopping down trees for fuel and building homes.

The implications for the management of the drylands should have been obvious, but the government was more concerned about political containment. The official mind also linked environmental misuse with the scourge of famine. Failures in rainfall were common in the district. In less than a century, there have been 90 droughts of light, moderate or severe degree. In 1928, droughts caused crop failures and the following year there was hardly any rain. Locusts invaded the area. Denudation of the grasslands was reported and cattle died, but an appeal for famine relief was dismissed by the governor.

Worse followed. During 1933-1936, 6 droughts -- 3 of them severe -- occurred in 8 seasons. Again, locusts invaded the area, erosion intensified, cattle died and food became desperately scarce. This time the government could not ignore the situation. Maize and pigeon pea were distributed and the cattle tax was suspended. Efforts were intensified to induce destocking and to introduce erosion control measures. They were seen to be the government's logical response and the only form of insurance against a repetition of disaster. However, with the return of better rains, the district was able to export some food crops during 1936-1939. The real low point appears to have been the '40s, with small maize and bean exports only in 1942 and famine relief required during 1943-46 and 1949-51.

Land transformed
The situation is, however, different today. Photographic evidence shows tremendous environmental recovery. The so-called "badlands" of the reserve are now covered by carefully terraced fields and boundary fences and on them grow a rich mixture of fruit and other useful trees like mangoes, bananas and papayas. The population increased all this while, accelerating at about 3.7 per cent during 1969-79, leading to the overall population increasing more than 5 times during 1930-90.

But, till 1962, Machakos was a colony and population was compressed within Reserve boundaries. A rising population combined with a lack of market incentives to experiment with new technology contributed to land degradation. The natural desire was to provide for an enlarged population by continuing with extensive techniques of agriculture on vacant land. As this was politically disallowed till about 1960, people resorted to temporary out-migration for work. Wherever government investments in transport and water facilities have occurred, they have given a greater stimulus to new settlements than have intensive investments in localised settlement schemes. And because of the population pressure, investments have been made in farm improvement.

There is now no free land for occupation and as farm sizes fall, the incentive to encourage children to qualify for non-farm jobs increases, forcing people to limit family sizes because of the high costs of education. Income generation from smaller farms means highly intensive agriculture in which new technologies play an important role.

In Machakos, farmers have developed and adopted new techniques. They are experimenting with new varieties of maize and using the ox plough for small terraced holdings. Effective soil and water conservation measures have not only checked soil erosion substantially, but also raised productivity. In less than a century, Akamba farming systems have moved from extensive cattle and goat rearing, accompanied by shifting cultivation to permanent terraced fields with ox ploughing, intensive tree crops and horticulture and relatively integrated crop and livestock enterprises. The rapidly degrading land has been transformed into a partially capitalised productive and appreciating asset.

Population growth coupled with new technologies, markets for produce and adaptive strategies like migration can lead to environmental recovery. This is highlighted by the history of the Akamba.

Based on More People, Less Erosion - Environment Recovery in Kenya, by Mary Tiffen, Michael Mortimore and Francis Gichuki, published by John Wiley and Sons, 1994