21 MAY 1948, Page 8


By J. B. HYND, M.P.

THE warnings that have been given concerning the world food- supply position are sufficiently serious to indicate the need for taking forthwith every possible strp to avert the threat of famine. It is all the more pity that the East African groundnut scheme should have become a target for political sniping and tendentious criticism, which can only serve to confuse opinion both at home and abroad. All too often have critics with apparently little knowledge of what is actually happening been responsible for such statements as that the scheme is already a " fantastic failure " ; that because of lack of foresight " 35o bulldozers are standing in the Central African jungle doing nothing " ; that only a " paltry total of to,000 acres " was planted in 1947 instead of " the expected 150,000" ; that already the amount spent on the scheme is disproportionate to the relatively small area planted to date.

The facts are that, far from the project being a fantastic failure, the work that is being done at Kongwa, in extraordinarily difficult conditions, can fairly be described as magnificent ; and to talk of 35o bulldozers doing nothing is to anyone who has visited the site patent nonsense. At the time that this statement was made there were at Kongwa not more than 300 bulldozers in all, of which 15o were in operation, and the remainder under or awaiting repair. All of these were second-hand machines. As for the " expected 150,000 acres " to be planted in 1947, the White Paper, far from encouraging such expectations, committed itself to no more in the first year than " operations to begin on a substantial scale," in order to ensure the planting of " the maximum possible acreage of ground- nuts in 1948 irrespective of the acreage planted in 1947." How anyone can interpret this as conveying any promise or " expectation" of an achievement of 15o,000 acres in 1947 is beyond comprehension.

Again, the surveying and opening up of 31- million acres of mainly wild, tsetse-ridden bushland to new food-production, in a series of areas widely separated, many remotely situated hundreds of miles from the coast and without existing communications of any kind ; the rapid organisation of water-supplies, of roads and railways ; the construction of docks and deep-water harbours and bulk-storage accommodation—probably the greatest single peace-time project that has ever been attempted at any time in world history—all this neces- sarily entails large preliminary capital expenditure before a single Acre can be planted. In such conditions the achievement of 8,000 acres, already cleared of bush, ploughed, harrowed and planted and now ready for crop- ping, can hardly be regarded as "paltry." It has entailed the assembling of hundreds of bulldozers, tractors and other heavy machines and their transit to the site ; the levelling of the bush and forest itself—which must then be left to dry for three months before it can be burned and stacked into wind-rows as a protection against wind erosion ; the removal of giant tree-roots by ripping and cross- ripping ; the recruitment and training of thousands of bush natives, so primitive that they fled when they saw the first jeep approaching a few months ago, but who are now, many of them, already driving great bulldozers and tractors with quite surprising skill, and plough- ing furrows in a way that would not disgrace a moderate British ploughman. Many of the fields were ploughed, harrowed and planted in the space of three weeks.

There has, of course, necessarily been improvisation in these first stages. Some kind of accommodation for the large numbers of workers had to be provided quickly ; at first tents, but now already houses, are springing up to accommodate the families of the European workers, then the single Europeans and Africans. Ameni- ties have had to be provided—club-houses, tennis-courts and so on ; a single line railway-track has had to be conjured up by the can- nibalisation of existing tracks and sidings in other parts of the country. To meet the immediate problem of fuel, arising from pre- liminary transport difficulties, the husks of the first crop of ground- nuts are to be used for stoking furnaces, and experiments are in hand for their subsequent use for running tractors.

Experimental farms and research stations are already established and in full operation. " You cannot," says one critic, " go on reaping peanuts year after year in the same ground" or you will create " Africa's first dustbowl." Who ever suggested you could ? Doesn't the White Paper make it quite clear that :—

" There can be no question of outright exploitation of the land ; consequently only half the total areas would be under groundnuts at the one time."

The present intention, indeed, is that the nuts should be planted for two years in succession and then the ground devoted for two or three years to grass or alternative crops. But the reactions of African soil and climatic conditions to modern mechanised methods of agri- culture and to various artificial fertilisers are as yet largely untested ; even better methods may be evolved from the experiments now pro- ceeding. Already quite unexpected success has been achieved with a variety of crops and grasses ; it may be found that sunflowers— of which several varieties have been planted and are flourishing— will give even more valuable results in fats alone than the groundnut, and there are no fewer than 42 other types of crop in 140 different varieties already being tried. Stock-farming, too, may well, as the White Paper envisaged, become an important industry in these groundnut areas.

With so much research and experiment under way it is clearly futile to seek to judge at this stage the ultimate degree of success that may yet be achieved. But that such research and experiment— so long overdue—are now proceeding on a big scale is itself a matter for satisfaction. When it is recalled that the first pioneer party arrived at Kongwa as late as February, 1947, to find an area only barely habitable, and the home of elephants, lions, rhino and other wild animals, and that already fifteen months later, no less than 8,000 acres of hitherto dense bush and forest have been cleared and planted, there can at least be no complaint of lack of courage or drive in tackling this tremendous project, while the fact that the crops already being harvested will almost certainly far exceed the yield of 75o lb. per acre assumed in the White Paper is surely a cause for congratulation and optimism.

Nor will the success of this work be judged finally only by the tonnage of groundnuts achieved, for that is only one object of the scheme. East Africa is a region possessing millions of acres of potentially rich agricultural land, to say nothing of untapped mineral wealth, but the crude methods of native cultivation are gradually destroying its fertility—creating, in fact, just that "dustbowl" which only operations on the scale of the groundnut scheme can prevent. The tsetse fly is advancing. It has already devastated nearly one-

third of the total land area of Uganda ; what were once rich cattle- ranching areas are now deserted. In the Buruli district, which is no exception, the cattle population was reduced by the ravages of the fly from 13,50o head to 15o within the five years 1940-45- The groundnut scheme is the beginning of a real attempt to tackle this great problem of African agriculture on a scale likely to bring substantial and lasting benefit to the local economy and a better standard of life. In terms of groundnuts alone it can enable Tan- ganyika to double its present exports, and its further possibilities are incalculable. It is estimated, for example, that the East African peasant farmer with his present methods can produce on an average about 4 cwts. of groundnuts per year in addition to subsistence crops for himself and his family, whereas at Kongwa each labourer in the groundnuts scheme will turn out his own subsistence crops plus 25 tons of groundnuts. Apply that measure of progress to African food-production in general, and who can doubt the importance of this project ?

It is no doubt true that it might have proved less costly financially if the scheme had been planned more carefully over the next few years, instead of over a few months ; if we had not commenced operations until the full complement of roads and railways and docks and the rest had been ready, and adequate supplies of new bulldozers and tractors with plentiful stocks of spare parts made available, the necessary labour force recruited and housed and given a thorough technical training before being entrusted with tractors and other machinery. Then by 195o, or perhaps later, we could have gone ahead with more confidence and with a better chance of keeping pace with preconceived estimates—and perhaps with more political kudos for the Government. What this argu- ment overlooks is that the world food crisis is already threatening ; that our own fats position is already pretty grim ; that the African population is already undernourished ; that it is faced now with the threat of famine, and faced now with a desperate need for more and better hospitals and schools and the other social amenities that are required to provide something like a decent standard of life—which the existing " gypsy " economy of East Africa certainly cannot sustain.

It is for these reasons—and they are surely sufficient—that the Government has gone ahead despite the immense special difficulties that Africa presents and the common world problems of shortage of steel and timber and mechanical equipment. Much will be learned only by trial and error, and there will inevitably be set- backs and disappointments, but had we hesitated or refused to accept the risks attendant upon speedy action, we should in any case not now be harvesting some six or seven million pounds of groundnuts at Kongwa ; we should have sacrificed valuable years of experience and experiment, and the world and Africa would have been the poorer to that extent. These are not considerations to be lightly neglected.