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Chapter 6: Conclusion: Tree growing and the rural economy in Kenya

Trees in high potential agricultural areas of Kenya occupy a significant land area. Land use inventories have suggested that planted and managed trees usually cover between 5 and 10 percent of agricultural land. On average, over 20 percent of the total high potential, smallholder agricultural land area has been used for growing trees, or has otherwise been left under natural woody cover. Even when other forms of land use could generate substantially higher levels of household income, the planting and management of trees has remained an important form of land use. This is in part an outcome of problems with agricultural labour supplies. Though other land uses may be more lucrative, labour for smallholder agriculture has become constrained and farmers are not able to cultivate other crops because of the much higher levels of labour use that would be required.

Central to the question of why trees are a common form of land use is why agricultural labour has become constrained in the first place, in the face of burgeoning urban sector unemployment and a phenomenal population growth rate. The answer is partly related to long-term policies which have favoured the development of a migrant labour economy -policies that date to the earliest days of Colonial settlement and that sought to mobilize labour for work on European farms.

Labour constraints could be somewhat alleviated if capital were available so that farmers could hire wage labourers to help cultivate other cash crops. However, capital for this specific use is seldom available through formal lending mechanisms, though it can sometimes be generated through informal mechanisms: kinship credit, moneylending, mutual savings societies, or the redeemable sale of crops or capital assets. One outcome of a limited access to capital is the development of alternative forms of labour organization (often derivatives of traditional labour practices) to provide farm labour during periods of peak demand. The most common of these strategies is labour sharing.

For the most part however, capital is generated through employment in the formal sector -a process encouraged by the inertia of pre-Independence labour policies which favour labour migration as a means of supplying workers to urban areas and plantations. Household labour migrates to these areas to generate capital which, remitted to the farm, can be used for hiring agricultural wage labour or for other farm inputs. As a result, household labour becomes increasingly scarce, and hired labour to replace it is much more expensive because of the difficulty of supervision and its relative inefficiency.

The household has responded in part by modifying its patterns of labour use - and consequently its patterns of land use - so that less farm labour is actually needed. Partly by growing subsistence crops, households can reduce their labour demands while reducing their exposure to the risk that income from cash crops will be insufficient to meet their subsistence needs. In Kikuyu areas, subsistence crops were traditionally women's crops; they have emerged as a dominant land use in areas where male labour migration has skewed the labour supply picture. Perennial crops, on the other hand, were traditionally crops which were cultivated by men and were also famine foods: arrow root, cassava, bananas, and so on. The absence of male labour, because of the migrant labour economy, meant that there was an important niche for a labour extensive perennial crop that could also generate income in times of need.

Around the time colonial labour policies really began to bite, black wattle emerged as an important cash crop. Though it was introduced originally to meet subsistence demands for wood that could no longer be met from the forests, its bark could be sold for processing into tanning extracts. Before independence, it was nearly the only cash crop which Africans were allowed to grow. Its adoption meant that a household could plant its plot with trees, allowing male labour to go off to cities and plantations in search of waged employment. Wattle served other purposes as well which helped to account for its huge popularity. These were primarily related to the insecurity of traditional land tenure in Kikuyu areas.

Within the system of traditional Kikuyu land tenure, land use rights were inherited through the male lineage. Rights of control remained with the sub-clan's lineage authority. Use rights could be borrowed and lent, in which case the person cultivating the land was not allowed to live there. Land could also be lent through a sort of tenancy agreement that did allow the tenant to live on the land. It could also be temporarily "sold" so that the seller could generate income for bridewealth or for other needs. The sale would be cancelled upon the return of the original selling price. The proliferation of land lending agreements, which were entered into to maintain the land use rights of the original rightholder, fostered the creation of a class of landless agricultural labourers who were not allowed to live on the land they had borrowed.

The outcome of these inheritable tenancy and sale arrangements was that the land use rights of the original rightholder became open to debate after several generations. When the Kikuyu agricultural frontier was closed to further expansion after around 1905, tenancy and land lending arrangements were increasingly cancelled. This in part contributed to landlessness, but also fostered the development of the migrant labour economy, as these people often sought employment either as squatters on European farms or in urban areas.

Wattle became popular during the 1930s because the planting of permanent crops could more firmly establish land use rights. Permanent crops belonged to whomever planted them, and they tended to reinforce long-term cultivation and use rights, regardless of how these rights might have been acquired. If a rightholder was unable to cultivate all of his fragmented plots, his alternative was to rely on some sort of tenancy arrangement, or to plant plots with permanent crops like wattle. While tenancy arrangements could technically be cancelled, with the general breakdown in customary systems of land tenure, rightholders were more inclined to plant their plots with wattle. The wholesale cancellation of tenancy and land lending agreements in the 1930s and 1940s was accompanied by a huge increase in the area planted under black wattle.

Wattle was also important because it generated income so that rightholders and tenants could mount land litigation to recover, or to gain use rights, to additional land. It also provided income for the development of small businesses in Central Province. The ability to articulate disaffection rested with those who were educated and with those who had accumulated capital, such as wattle growers. Wattle producers developed close working links with anti-Government political organizations. Although the Government had earlier strongly encouraged wattle growing in reserve areas, by the mid-1940s, it mounted a vigorous campaign against it, rooted in the notion that it was contributing to economic differentiation, land tenure insecurity, and, ultimately, to the African vision of independence from their colonial masters.

Social and economic disaffection in Kenya brought about serious unrest, eventually resulting in the 1952 State of Emergency. Land tenure reforms in the late 1950s through the mid-1960s, an outcome of the State of Emergency, sought to strengthen the African middle peasantry, though often at the expense of the landless. A key aspect of these reforms involved the cancellation of land lending agreements, the consolidation of fragmented holdings, and land registration - processes that conferred private land ownership rights upon Africans. Consolidation and registration lessened the importance of wattle as a means of strengthening land use rights. Coupled with declining prices for bark in the mid-1960s and new opportunities for smallholder cash crop development, huge areas of waffle were cleared by the late 1960s and planted under coffee and tea.

At the same time, the consolidation process capitalized on traditional tree planting practices by requiring that consolidated holdings be demarcated with planted trees. This was a long-term outcome of accepted customary land tenure practices that involved the planting of specific trees along the boundaries of sub-clan lands as well as the planting of subdivisions within these holdings.

Land tenure reform introduced important changes affecting tree tenure. In customary law, whomever planted a tree (provided they had some sort of cultivation right) was its owner. With land reform, trees became the property of the registered land owner. The effects of land reform on tree tenure were mostly profoundly felt by the landless, who may have had rights of use to trees growing on sub-clan lands, but who lost these rights as land was registered in the names of private land owners.

It is unlikely that guarantees of private tree ownership by themselves, a result of land tenure reform, actually encouraged people to grow more trees. Ownership of planted trees had long been guaranteed by customary law. Planted trees always belonged to whomever planted them but only as long as they held some sort of cultivation rights. Land tenure reform increased the security of these rights. It is this security that had a greater impact on farmers' interest in tree planting and in making other improvements to the land.

In contemporary Kenya, limited controls on tree cultivation and management are supposed to be enforced through the Chief's Authority Act and the Agricultural Act. There is, however, no consistency in the extent to which these controls are enforced. In some areas, chiefs may require a farmer to obtain a license before trees can be harvested, and this has acted as a disincentive to plant trees because there is no assurance that they can be harvested for the benefit of the person who planted them. As a result, trees are sometimes harvested or managed individually or in small blocks, rather than in even-aged stands.

Over the last 15 years or so, there have been numerous publicly-supported or aid-financed efforts to encourage farmers in Kenya to grow more trees. These efforts have seldom taken into account the extent of existing farmer tree growing activities. Plans for future efforts have the same disregard for the obvious and widespread local knowledge and awareness about tree growing. The challenge for planners and development agencies alike is threefold.

First, it is critically important that efforts to introduce tree planting innovations are put into a context which more accurately reflects local farmer ability and knowledge. Conventional approaches to rural forestry extension have been expensive and ineffective, particularly in the light of what farmers have been able to accomplish in the absence of these types of inputs.

Secondly, tree growing is one result of problems in the rural economy that limit agricultural development. If these problems are effectively addressed, trees will become a less common feature of the farming landscape. If farm trees are to continue to provide the range of benefits they have in the past, there is a clear need to diversify the tree planting strategies that have been undertaken in the areas of least agricultural diversity. For instance, if problems with labour and capital markets are reduced in tea growing areas, the planting of tea at the expense of tree cover, will be accompanied by an increasing scarcity of wood products to meet both subsistence and market demands.

Finally, the long-term security of rights to trees and their products has been affected by externally imposed controls on planting and harvesting. An assurance that benefits and income from the farm production of tree products will accrue to the farmer and not to the Government or the local administration, will be essential before there can be any hope that farm trees will meet the many demands that will be placed on them in the future.

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