An e-publication by the World Agroforestry Centre



2.1 The history of land use in Kenya

A brief review of the history of land use in Kenya may help us to better understand the present situation with regard to tree cover in the country.

African agriculture before the colonial period

Reports from earlier days indicate that before the land area of present-day Kenya was penetrated by the Europeans the land use was a combination of pastoralism and subsistence agriculture (Cone and Lipscomb, 1972). This subsistence-agriculture system was based on shifting cultivation, and since the population density was low, fallow periods were long. It was an extensive land-use system, with vast areas being under grazing. In the farming areas only small patches were cultivated each year and the rest was fallow.

A large number of crops such as bananas, yams, sweet potatoes, Colocasia, vegetable marrow, millet, Eleusine, sugar cane, tobacco and a little cassava were grown (Linton, 1904). The variety of crops grown on one plot ensured that different kinds of food were available over a long period of time.

From early reports it is clear that the agricultural system was a sustainable one. It is also clear that the production was diverse, which made for a varied diet, and the rich flora of crops must have contributed to maintenance of soil fertility and control of pests and diseases.

In spite of the fact that agricultural development over the last hundred years or so has been well documented, little has been written about changes in tree cover. With the sparse population, however, it is obvious that there was little need to plant many trees. Indeed, there were too many trees in some areas and these had to be cleared for agriculture. Fire was an important tool for such clearing.

The white settlers

The early white settlers tended to believe that the fertility of the soil in the highlands was inexhaustible and that the only problem was to find the right crop varieties for each area (Cone and Lipscomb). This approach was in sharp contrast to the diversified traditional African agriculture.

But by the 1930s it became obvious that unless more careful land management was practised, the fertility of the soils would become exhausted. Mixed farming and crop rotation were called for. After the Second World War settler agriculture was intensified. Crop rotation and soil conservation became common practices.

After independence

Radical changes occurred after independence in 1963. The majority of the white settlers gradually left, and more development efforts were directed towards small-scale African agriculture. Many large-scale farms were sub-divided, although a few remain to the present time.

Agricultural development in relation to tree cover during the colonial period

The influx of white settlers into the highlands in the early years of the century had both a direct and an indirect impact on the tree cover.

Some of the areas that were opened up for large-scale agriculture had been grassland with only scattered trees. These grasslands had been used as seasonal grazing by the local pastoral communities and also by the wild fauna which had a significant impact on the ecology. Trees were often left in the fields when new land was opened up for cultivation, so the cultivation of such areas did not bring about deforestation on any large scale. On the contrary, the settlers brought a knowledge of tree planting with them and woodlots and windbreaks were commonly established in the highlands.

Other areas that were covered with dense forests were, however, taken over for other land use. Those areas are mainly the present tea zones and the upper coffee zone. The opening up of these areas for cultivation obviously caused deforestation.

But it was the indirect effect of the settlers' agriculture that contributed most severely to deforestation. The entire area of the fertile "White Highlands" was reserved for white settlers and the Africans became restricted to the various tribal "reserve" areas designated by the colonial government. Thus indigenous agriculture was confined to an insufficient area of relatively poor soils. With increasing populations, land became even scarcer and it was no longer possible to practise traditional shifting cultivation with fallow periods that allowed the soil to regain fertility. Fire remained an important tool for land clearing and the consumption of firewood and building materials increased. This pressure on the land eventually resulted in deforestation and a shortage of tree products.

The pastoral communities lost their most important dry-season grazing areas to the settlers. This resulted in increased pressure on the more marginal semi-arid areas and hardship for the pastoralists.

With the gradual introduction of more intense tree growing, both before and after independence, indigenous trees were to a large extent replaced by exotics. Many exotic species originally brought to Kenya by the settlers at the turn of the century found their way into the small-scale farming systems. Cypress was originally brought from Mexico in 1908 as a promising timber tree, wattle was introduced for tannin in 1903, eucalypts were planted to provide train fuel for the railway and to drain swamps around the growing town of Nairobi, and Grevillea was brought in as a shade tree for coffee. Later these and other exotics were found to be suitable for a wide range of other uses.

In most areas the spread of exotic trees has taken place at the expense of indigenous trees. With the increase in the area of cultivated land, the shortage of tree products has become increasingly severe in many areas.