HC Deb 17 February 1949 vol 461 cc1464-76

9.57 p.m.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Snow.]

Mr. Skeffington (Lewisham, West)

I am very glad to have this chance of directing the attention of the House to a problem which is of fundamental importance to the whole world and of particular significance to the British Commonwealth. Some of us have had our thoughts directed to this problem by the very remarkable book written by William Vogt, called "Road to Survival." Although I do not want to be associated with all the conclusions of the book, I think there are a large number of figures and a great many facts in it which we cannot afford to ignore. A great deal of the future happiness and prosperity of the world will undoubtedly depend on how we treat the subject of soil erosion, particularly in the British Commonwealth.

In this connection we have to realise that since 1939 the pressure of world population has been growing and there are 130 million extra mouths to be fed since that year. Yet the acreage for food throughout the world has probably been decreasing. It was interesting to recall that in 1938 Dr. Hugh Bennett, giving evidence before a Congressional Committee on soil erosion, pointed out the position in the United States, and I only give this as an example of the world problem. He said: We are losing every day as the result of erosion the equivalent of 200 40-acre farms. We have lost that much since we were here yesterday. It has gone, gone, forever. Earlier he said: It takes nature 300 to 1,000 years or more to bring about a single inch of topsoil and we sometimes lose that much topsoil as a result of a single rain if it is an especially heavy torrential type of rain. That is the problem as it affects the United States. Tonight I wish only to direct attention to areas in Africa. In any case the continent of Africa is particularly exposed to the menace of the removal of its soil. Apart from the northern and southern extremities, it lies entirely within the tropics, most of its elevation is an average of about 2,000 feet, and so blazing temperatures are experienced over a very large proportion. Rainfall is in many places hardly adequate for cultivation and in the few places where there is excessive rainfall, if the rain forests are removed the soil is removed as well. In addition in most of the continent a coast mountain barrier prevents the moderating influence of maritime factors.

The problem of East Africa was brought home to me very vividly when I flew over considerable areas last year, and saw those horrible red scars on the earth where soil had been removed, sometimes through hill cultivation and sometimes, of course, by nature——

It being Ten o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. R. Adams.]

Mr. Skeffington

I can remember particularly areas in Kenya where I was told that a hundred years ago a very considerable proportion was covered by rain forests and where today less than two per cent. is now so clothed with vegetation. The Kikuyu tribe is in a measure responsible for some of this devastation. In 1910, before they could be stopped, they had destroyed very considerable portions of the forest land, which made soil erosion much more rapid. Mr. Vogt says in his book that the arid land south-east of Lake Rudolph, which I also visited, is being lost to the desert at the rate of about six miles a year. It really is a very menacing problem. Flying over the Tana River, particularly at its mouth, one can see that the Indian Ocean is stained for 30 miles or more with soil brought down from the Mount Kenya area—another fertile area.

In the inter-war period, there was a good deal of hillside development by Europeans, sometimes coffee, cotton and even corn plantations going up the slope elevations as much as seven degrees, which means again that soil erosion has taken place from this very scarce but fertile land.

I was interested to see that this fact was realised by a number of the responsible leaders of African opinion. Mr. Juno Kenyatte, President of the Kenya African Union, whom some people regard as the devil incarnate, I think quite wrongly, in talking to a group of Africans at Ndeiya said, according to a report I have, "he was extremely angry with the people of Ndeiya. He said that they were particularly bad offenders in respect of the cultivation of land. When it had been given them it was good fertile land with plenty of trees, but now it was bad. Trees were most important and anyone who cut down one should plant another in its place." I am very glad to think that at least one leader of African opinion is talking to his own people about the problem, because this is the sort of difficulty that can only be solved by co-operation and measures of a very comprehensive kind.

I do not want to say very much about West Africa, because to me it is only a book problem. I have heard a great deal about the de-forestation of the Niger and its delta and the consequent erosion. I am told that in the north and east and the great central forest area there has been very considerable cultivation without appropriate preservation methods being taken, so that there is a very grave chance that in that particular spot we may find soil erosion developing at an alarming scale in the next few years.

I should like to ask the Under-Secretary if he has any particular news or views about that. What can be done? I think the Under-Secretary has said on a previous occasion that regulations in regard to cultivation must be most strictly enforced. Perhaps we ought not to go to the extent to which the old tribesmen used to go in Madagascar where anybody who cut down a tree was beheaded on the stump of the tree which he had felled. Undoubtedly, people who do not take the appropriate measures, whether they are individual African cultivators or others, are exposing the territories to the most grave consequences, particularly when one remembers the increasing population of the areas. The present African population of British East Africa, as far as can be estimated, is about 10 million, and that figure is likely to double itself in the next 10 years. In most of these areas it is necessary to import food. At the present time, if a considerable area of the remaining fertile land is not preserved, then the direst consequences will follow.

Regulation, however, is only a negative approach. We must do something much more positive. I should like to know whether there is any general scheme for East or West Africa, and whether indeed we have even got the data. I was shocked to find in Kenya that only one per cent. of the territory had yet been mapped on a one-inch scale. Until one has a general over-all picture of the places where this problem is most acute and where it must be tackled immediately, piecemeal measures will not get us very far.

I imagine that a great deal could be done for African cultivation by African agricultural advisers. When I was in East Africa it was obvious that there were far too few of them. Many are being trained at Makerere College, where excellent work is being done. The trainees are given a two-year course. But it is clear that only a small number of people are being affected and that much more precise instruction must be given to many more African cultivators. The work will have to be done on a fairly large scale. I should like to hear something of what is being done in the way of contour ploughing and strip cropping. I should like to know whether there is a general plan which will give us some idea how far the seriousness of the problem has been realised in Africa and what measures are being taken to meet it. There is much more that I could say, but I know many hon. Members want to speak and I should like to give other hon. Members the opportunity to take part in this Debate.

10.9 p.m.

Mr. Baldwin (Leominster)

We are much obliged to the hon. Member for West Lewisham (Mr. Skeffington) for calling the attention of the House of a tragedy. Anyone who has been to Africa, whether he has flown over the territory or travelled through it, must realise that something is happening there which should be tackled without delay. Books have been written on the subject. Many men who have devoted a lot of time to the problem have repeatedly called attention to the trouble, and yet no drastic steps are taken to stop it. We are creating a dust bowl in Africa at a fast rate. Stronger steps should be taken in the way of compulsory powers to ensure that this is stopped.

A great deal of the trouble is caused in the native reserves by over-stocking and over-cultivating—corn after corn—and also by the fact that not sufficient trees are being planted. That is what is happening in the native reserves, and I think that the same thing will happen in Tanganyika under the Government scheme unless they start to plant some shelter belts there to replace the bush. This problem needs tackling. I know the difficulty of getting the natives to cultivate their land properly. They look upon cattle as the only wealth and they do not sufficiently contour plough the land.

The way to tackle the problem is to train some of the African people themselves as cultivators. I know that we have got Makerere College. I admit that I have used strong terms about it in a little debate with an hon. Gentleman opposite, but I feel that that college should be turning out African agriculturists—because Kenya and that part of the world is an agricultural country which must maintain itself by agriculture—instead of training lawyers, and so on. This college ought to be producing trained cultivators who will be able to get a response when they go back to their own reserves, and will be able to instruct their own people on how the job should be done. I think the natives are much more likely to respond to one of their own community who will have responsibility, and that they will cultivate their land properly and encourage their people in the right way.

This problem, as I say, is not one that wants talking about but one that wants tackling, and I hope that the Colonial Office will tell us without delay how they propose to deal with it. In this country, we are being led to believe that Africa is the future provider of food for this country, but Africa is going to have the biggest job in the world to maintain itself. When I was in Kenya two years ago, one of the native reserves was having to buy maize from the Argentine to feed its own people, and yet we are led to believe that they will provide this country with food. With a population which doubles itself every 20 years, owing to the actions of the British people in stopping tribal warfare and preventing the spread of disease, if they do not tackle the cultivation of their land properly they will run the risk of starvation.

10.12 p.m.

Mr. H. D. Hughes (Wolverhampton, West)

I want to add briefly to what my hon. Friend the Member for West Lewisham (Mr. Skeffington) has said about the urgency of this problem of soil erosion, and I speak with some brief firsthand experience of West Africa, in support of what he said about East Africa. I have recently seen the terrible devastation of soil erosion in the Eastern provinces of Nigeria, where the great gulleys of ruined soil are a monument of neglect and decay. There is in that part of Africa a tremendous pressure on the land because of a tremendous surplus population. I recognise the efforts that are being made by the Colonial authorities to tackle this problem. They are experimenting, not only with contour ploughing but with the planting of new crops, and there are hopes of an improvement in a reasonable space of time.

I would stress the inadequate number of skilled technicians available at the moment to tackle this problem. In Nigeria, at present, there are only two trained agricultural officers for every million of the population, and the population is dependent almost entirely upon agriculture. It is obviously quite impossible for a personnel of that limited scope to be able to get round the peasants, teach them new methods, break down the prejudices of the past, deal with the difficulties of land tenure, and so on. There is no solution to this problem other than pressing on far more rapidly than has been done so far with the training of African technicians to do this job among their own people. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give some encouraging figures of the number of agricultural students from the Colonial territories who are now in agricultural colleges in this country, because I am quite convinced that only in that way shall we get a solution to this problem.

10.15 p.m.

Squadron-Leader Kinghorn (Great Yarmouth)

I wish to reinforce the remarks made by hon. Members on both sides of the House tonight. This is the most important problem of our generation. On the one hand, we have a great responsibility for this increasing erosion in Africa, and, on the other, we have a great responsibility in the fact that we administer a great Empire, that we are the leading nation in the world, and that we have to lead other nations to salvation. The one nation on which we are all depending at this moment has great flaws in its armour, such as we have being informed about tonight.

This is an urgent problem. We must get the Africans into it, but besides that—and, after all, there are some very primitive races in many of the places of Africa—we must husband all the resources we can in this country to get from Africa every possible blade of grass that can grow there. We must apply all the research, experience and knowledge that we have in this country of matters of agriculture, apart from industry. I was discussing this matter only this morning with a scientist who had visited all these territories we are discussing tonight. He pointed out the fact that a man in this country could dig down to two feet of soil, but that in Africa the soil is only a matter of inches deep, and is a prey to swift downpours of rain. Up to now, the natives have been largely ignorant of the uses of agriculture, and have, I am afraid, been inveigled largely by us, to grow cotton in Uganda which has ended in eroding the soil more than if it had been left alone.

In this country, which has the finest mechanised system in the world, and still produces wonderful crops, we have one of the most closely living industrial communities in the world, and also the finest agriculture in the world. We are the only people to use all the methods we have in Africa, and I hope that we shall do everything to prosper a great plan which is going to bring salvation to us in the years to come.

10.18 p.m.

Mr. Rankin (Glasgow, Tradeston)

In the very brief time at my disposal, I wish to support what has already been said tonight about this tremendous problem. There is one little aspect which has not been emphasised, and that is the fact that we could see, when we entered into the Continent of Africa, that we entered into a place where there was already a balanced economy. It may have been primitive, but, nevertheless, it was balanced, that is, the population did not exceed the carrying capacity of the land. One of the results of our advent and that of other white races into Africa has been that we have upset that balance at both ends—at the population end and at the agricultural end. If we would reach a solution, we must approach it not merely from the point of agricultural regeneration, but also from the point of view of population.

10.19 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. Rees-Williams)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for West Lewisham (Mr. Skeffington) for raising this subject on the Adjournment tonight, because my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Colonies and I myself believe that there is no more important subject than this, not merely for this country, and not merely for the Colonial Empire, but for the people of the world. The facts which the hon. Gentleman gave in his speech are facts which anyone who is concerned with government must treat very seriously. It is the constant preoccupation of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Colonies to see that the best possible measures of soil utilisation, stocking policy and the rest are adopted. We recognise, therefore, the importance of the facts to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and we realise that the problem which is now before the House is fundamental to the wellbeing of the territories for which my right hon. Friend is responsible.

There are five ways in which we propose to tackle this subject. The first is by the extension of contour terracing. I believe there are photographs of such contour terracing on show in the Library; and hon. Members have, no doubt, seen them. The second method is by the conservation of rainfall and proper irrigation. We recently had a report on this very subject from Professor Debenham, the professor of geography at Cambridge, who was a member of Scott's famous expedition to the Antarctic, and I am glad to say that he is exceedingly optimistic about water supplies in Africa so long as they are properly conserved. The third way is by the control of stock generally, and cattle and goats in particular.

Mr. Baldwin

And forestry.

Mr. Rees-Williams

I am coming to that; I should like to deal with the methods one by one. The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) talked about this question of animals and of how they are used as a post office savings bank or for a bride's price. He is perfectly correct, but I feel that to some extent the blame is not all on the African, because I am informed on very good authority that up to now there has been very little incentive for the African to sell his cattle at an economic price. I am glad to say that the Government of Kenya, under the inspiration of the Governor, Sir Philip Mitchell, is remedying that state of affairs. They are erecting an abattoir and a factory——

Mr. Baldwin


Mr. Rees-Williams

Liebigs did not do it. I cannot go into the pros and cons of it, but the Governor is hoping that this factory and abattoir will manage to do what Liebigs could not do; that is to say, use the whole of the animal and not just the prime joint, as it were.

Fourthly, we come to the conservation of forests and the control of the burning of forests for agriculture. I have seen this done all over the world in various places, especially by hill tribes, where it is difficult very often for them to get land on the plains. I have seen it on the frontiers of Burma, for example, where whole regions are burnt out with disastrous consequences. Therefore, we have a very strong policy for the conservation of timber forests. The fifth point is the conservation of the existing soil by good husbandry and methods of improved cultivation. I am glad to say that in Kenya in 1946 a £1,500,000 scheme to build up a soil conservation service over the next 10 years was started, and the necessary staff is being engaged and the necessary assistants trained. At Makerere College which has been mentioned before this evening there is already in existence a scheme to train these agricultural assistants and many of them have already earned high praise.

The question of getting trained agriculturists from here is one of our biggest difficulties. Owing to the war and the cessation of training of these people, they have come into extraordinarily short supply. Therefore, we have urged upon governments to take diploma students if they cannot get degree students, and if necessary also to take students from the schools which the Ministry of Agriculture has set up in this country. Only last week my right hon. Friend's assistant adviser on agriculture went to one of these schools to discuss the whole question of our needs with the students. There is no lack of activity on our part. The fact is that we are in competition with agriculture in this country, with the Dominions and with others who need the services of these students.

The problem placed before us tonight is of immense importance at this moment in view of the recent scientific discoveries such as the new drug antrycide and others which may, and we hope will, prove of immense benefit to the cattle situation in Africa. My right hon. Friend has decided that this particular time in history is so important that it calls for an examination by all the Governments of East and West Africa of their stock policy and also of the control of their land.

Mr. J. H. Hare (Woodbridge)

Can the hon. Gentleman assure us that he is taking into consideration the great knowledge which exists in Southern Rhodesia and South Africa. This is not merely a Colonial problem. Will he take into consideration what is already learned by the two self-governing Dominions?

Mr. Rees-Williams

We have taken that into consideration. My right hon. Friend wants to be assured that in these vast areas which possibly may be opened up for cattle and husbandry over-stocking will not take place and that there will not be soil erosion, as unfortunately there has been in the case of some of the older areas. He has, therefore, invited the Governments in East, West and Central Africa to meet in Nairobi in June when these matters will be discussed, we hope, and when suggestions will be made to the Governments for land utilisation and stocking policy. We regard this as of immense significance at this particular moment and it would be a tragedy, not only for our own people but for the human race, if we did not make the best possible use of the land which may become available to us through the inventions of science and the work of the scientists. We are also having in Jos a little later in the year another conference on aspects of the problems of Africa, mainly to consider the mixed farming which may be possible with the discovery of the new drug. Furthermore, we have held in the Congo an International Conference at which all powers responsible for African territories have had these matters under consideration.

Hon. Members can rest assured that the very proper and indeed reasonable fears they have expressed tonight on this problem are having my right hon. Friend's constant attention and that he is taking all the necessary steps to ensure that the evils of the past shall not be repeated in the future. At this Nairobi conference it is intended that members of the various governments in East, West and Central Africa shall be present—that is those territories for which my right hon. Friend is responsible—and that observers shall be present representing other powers who have responsibilities in Africa. I agree that that point is important. Southern Rhodesia will be invited to be represented as well as South Africa, Belgium, France and Portugal, but they will be represented by observers.

I hope that in the short time available to me I have convinced hon. Members that we are taking this matter extremely seriously and doing everything possible to meet the very proper fears that have been expressed.

Mr. Skeffington

Before my hon. Friend concludes, would be say whether it is possible to step up the number of students at the Makerere college? There seems to be such a disproportionate number on other subjects, with only 20–40 students a year for agriculture. That seems to me one of the practical solutions.

Mr. Rees-Williams

Here again the question of teachers arises. My right hon. Friend's adviser is in Africa and that is one of the subjects he is looking into.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-Nine Minutes past Ten o'Clock.