Thin on the Ground

Land Resources: Now and for the Future






363 000 people were born

154 000 died

World population increased by 209 000


World population increase:

2008 77M, 2009 80M, 2010 78M, 2011 (est.) 76M



Thin on the Ground

Land Resource Survey in British Overseas Territories

Anthony Young, University of East Anglia

The Memoir Club, Stanhope, UK, 2007, ISBN 978-1-84104-175-9, 230pp

For the first time, the story of the great era of soil survey in developing countries has been told. It begins with the pioneers between the two World Wars: Fred Hardy, who taught generations of intending Agricultural Officers sin the West Indies; Arthur Hornby in Nyasaland (Malawi); Geoffrey Milne, who invented the catena concept, and produced a reconnaissance soil map covering three countries of East Africa; the ecologist, Colin Trapnell in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia); and the earliest soil surveyor of local origin in the tropics, A. W. R. Joachim in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). These were remarkable men, working in isolation, who made first appraisals of the land resources vast areas.

Land resource survey reached its peak with the strengthened focus on development in the post-war period, 1950-1975. Work was carried out initially by soil surveyors in Colonial Departments of Agriculture. Later, after independence, their work was taken over by the UK Government's Land Resources Division. Over a 25-year period reconnaissance surveys were completed, covering the greater part of Britain's former overseas territories, in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, and the Pacific.. At the same time an All-India Soil Survey was established, which continues its mammoth task to this day.

Keen young men set off into the bush, the jungle, or the desert. The author was one of these, constituting the Soil Survey of Nyasaland (Malawi) from 1958 to 1962. With air photographs at their disposal, often employing the land systems approach, they travelled on foot or by Land Rover. In writing this book he draws on personal recollections from over 90 former colleagues. Biographies of some of these are given, such as the C. F. Charter of the Gold Coast (Ghana), known for speaking his mind - and getting his way; foreign nationals, including ex-prisoners of war, who joined British government service, like Stanislav Radwanski and Willem Verboom; and the giants of our time, Hugh Brammer, who dedicated his life's work to Ghana, Zambia, and Pakistan, and is still active at the age of 80. Experiences in the field, sometimes bizarre, some showing mistakes that can be made by Europeans new to the tropics, lighten the text. It is illustrated by period photographs.

The final chapter, Retrospective, carries lessons for development planning by governments and aid agencies at the present day. It argues that the current swing in the direction of emphasis on socio-economic aspects has gone to far, and a more balanced approach, in which the potential of the land is matched against the needs of the people, is required.

Although the accounts of surveys contain technical material, the book is highly readable by the non-specialist. It forms a contribution to the history of science, colonial history, geography, and development studies.

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Thin on the Ground by Anthony Young, 230 pages, 23 photographs, ISBN 978 1 84104 175 9, was published in 2007 by The Memoir Club, Durham, UK, priced at £14.50 / US $ 30.00. It can be ordered online from www.thememoirclub.co.uk by telephone on 0191 3735660, or through bookshops.