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Traditions and innovation in land husbandry: building on local knowledge in Kabale, Uganda

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In the late 1970s and 1980s, there was a growing tide of opinion that many ëexpertsíwere mistaken about how to conserve soil in Africa. Ideas from outside the continenthad been brought to Africa without consulting the local people. Of course many ofthe new systems recommended (though certainly not all) were technically sound. Butthe majority - however effective they were at slowing down erosion - simply did not fitin with local production systems. We do not need to write too much here about whatthose particular problems were. These have been described in detail elsewhere, manytimes.But an example will help to paint the picture. Graded terraces or ëbundsí wereintroduced into many dry regions of Africa in countries as far apart as Zimbabwe andBurkina Faso. The term ëgradedí means that the ditch above the earth bund isconstructed on a gradient (slope) to get rid of extra rainfall runoff. This makes goodsense in areas with heavy and reliable rainfall and large fields. The trouble was thatthese were dry areas where the farmersí first priority was to save water. So in manycases the farmers either ploughed out the bunds, or, more cleverly, adapted them toharvest and hold water. In Zimbabwe, this was done by digging deep trenches in theditch. In Burkina Faso, farmers placed stones in spaces in gaps in the bunds - or usedstones to replace the bunds altogether - to allow water to spread slowly through thewhole field.In Uganda, we are familiar with the unpopular colonial by-laws that instructed farmersto do this and not do that. Again, although these laws were drawn up with the bestintentions, they were often shortsighted for various reasons. Can farmers, for example,in very densely populated areas, really be expected to leave wide uncultivated stripsbetween their plots of land And is it the best approach to force people to look aftertheir land: isnít it better to understand what they are already doing to solve the problem,and then look for improvements together

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