History of land and agriculture in Africa: Part 11

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By Dr Michelina Andreucci

SINCE the Middle Ages (circa 1000-1300), agriculture in most of Europe, including England, was feudal; mostly in the hands of ruling classes who were normally concentrated in the cities.
They controlled most of the land and surplus produce; while exercising their will through a system of command bureaucracy.
Subsistence farmers worked hard under the auspices of the aristocracy and Catholic Church that owned much of the land held under traditional ‘open field’ systems.
Subsistence farm workers would harvest and divide some of the crops they produced on strips of land held in common within the larger fields.
Ironically, the very people who have been the biggest critics of Zimbabwe’s land reform experienced a similar land reform/uprising as early as the 12th Century, with the break-up of the manorial feudal land system where large landowners had total control of the land and its labourers as peasant serfs.
The fragmentation of feudal lands in England was accelerated in the 12th Century when fields previously under the open-field system were bought by former farm workers who enclosed many of the farms to form individually-owned secure fields; this helped to improve the use and control of the land.
The improved land control enabled the new farm owners to make innovations that resulted in improved crop yields, which ultimately fuelled the Agricultural Revolution experienced in Britain.
The process increased during the 15th-16th centuries.
The General Enclosure Act of 1801 sanctioned large-scale land reform, which was largely completed by the end of the 18th Century.
The enclosed and more productive farms needed fewer workers to farm the same land; also many ex-farm workers were left without land and grazing rights and as a result, moved to cities in search of work in the up-and-coming factories of the Industrial Revolution.
Others rented property they ‘share cropped’ with the land owners.
Many ex-farm workers also migrated to settle in the new British colonies and brought with them the enclosed farm land system that was adopted by colonial settlers in Zimbabwe.
The system adopted by colonial settlers, of enclosing farm lands which hitherto had been perceived as communal land, was unknown in Zimbabwe.
Moreover, African people have always personified the land.
Due to the increases in land productivity and labour, the British Agricultural Revolution that preceded the Industrial Revolution witnessed an unprecedented increase in agricultural production which resulted from complex interaction of social, economic and farming technology changes that took place between mid-17th and 19th centuries.
As a result of the 19th Century Agricultural Revolution, British agricultural production was the highest in Europe, yielding 80 percent higher than the continental average.
Until other European countries experienced their own agricultural revolutions, it was only challenged by Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium.
The need for markets that resulted from increased agricultural production witnessed the establishment of regulated markets around 800 locations in the UK by 1500 AD.
Between the 16th and the mid-19th centuries, the development of private marketing was the most important development for the Agricultural Revolution.
By the 19th Century, private marketing became nationwide; the vast majority of agricultural produce was directed for the market rather than use for the farmer and his family.
This was followed by the development of trading between markets and merchants; credit and forward sales were called for, necessitating knowledge of markets, pricing and of supply-and-demand in the different markets nationwide.
In 1663, market regulations were eased; farmers could hold back some farm produce for personal consumption.
It was forbidden, however, to withhold commodities from the market in an effort to increase prices.
During the late 18th Century, the idea of ‘self regulation’ gained acceptance.
With the development of regional markets and eventually a national market, farmers were no longer dependent on their local market or subjected to low prices in an oversupplied local market; they were now able to sell their surplus crops to outlying localities experiencing shortages.
Farmers also became less subjected to price fixing regulations.
The market eventually evolved into a national market driven by London and other growing cities.
By 1700, a national market for wheat was established in London to control the wheat market.
The lack of internal tariffs, customs barriers and feudal tolls made Britain, at the time, ‘the largest coherent market in Europe’.
To be successful, farmers had to remain competitive and become effective managers who incorporated the latest farming innovations in order to be competitive producers.
Farming thus became a business rather than solely a means for subsistence.
By the same token, agricultural marketing in Zimbabwe was dominated by four major agricultural parastatals: the Grain Marketing Board (GMB), the Cotton Marketing Board (CMB), the Dairy Marketing Board (DMB) and the Cold Storage Commission (CSC).
The GMB handled white maize, soya beans, wheat, sunflower seed and coffee (controlled crops); together with red sorghum, white sorghum, pearl millet, groundnuts, edible beans and rice (regulated crops).
US$400 million was mobilised to pay farmers for maize deliveries to the GMB during the 2016-2017 season.
With the exception of tobacco and horticultural commodities, the Government set producer prices for all major crops annually, using criteria such as commercial production costs, stock levels, export opportunities, consumer prices, farmer viability and rural development.
The prices, being uniform for all depots throughout the country, do not vary seasonally.
British agriculture, from the 1870s, could not withstand the challenge of cheaper imports from other regions.
Towards the end of the 19th Century, there was further competition from cheaper imports, compounded by advances in transportation, refrigeration and other technologies, including the exploitation of colonised lands resulting in Britain’s agricultural lead being eventually eroded.
As farmers moved from food crops to livestock production, even before The First World War (1914-1918), grain acreage in England fell by 45 percent; consequently by the 1930s, food and livestock feed imports into the island exceeded domestic production.
In Britain, the area under wheat had risen to 3,5 million acres; wheat yields increased to 4,4 million in the 18th Century and to over 6,5 million in the 19th Century; averaging 2 080 kg per hectare by the 1890s.
Under the Command Agriculture Programme in Zimbabwe, Government committed 400 000 hectares to produce two million tonnes of maize during the 2016-2017 season, and has since included wheat and livestock production.
By May 2017, farmers had registered close to 61 000 hectares for wheat production under the Command Agriculture Programme. With an average of four tonnes per hectare, a total of 220 000 tonnes of wheat was anticipated.
As happened in ancient Rome and MaDzimbahwe, the Agricultural Revolution in Britain was part of a long process of improvements and a major turning point in British history, when agricultural productivity started to grow significantly.
While agriculture allowed these nations to sustain their rise to (industrial) pre-eminence, populations far exceed agricultural output; a similar fate shared by MaDzimbahwe.
The establishment of agriculture, together with commercial relations, made the Shona Kingdom of MaDzimbahwe one of the wealthiest and most powerful societies in southern Africa from the 11th to the 15th Century, where a population estimated between 18 000-20 000 people flourished; until human and livestock populations outstripped available resources.
Similar to the agricultural revolution experience at the height of Munhumutapas’ centuries before, agricultural productivity in Britain grew faster than the population as a result.
The increase in food supply soon contributed to a sharp population growth, rising from 5,5 million in 1700 to over nine million by 1801.
Increasingly, domestic production gave way to food imports as the population increased – tripling to over 32 million during the 19th Century.
The rise in industrial productivity accelerated the decline in the agricultural labour force, while adding to the urban workforce on which industrialisation depended.
Just as the demand for labour in colonised Zimbabwe resulted in a huge increase in urban migration, which in turn resulted in human congestion in allocated ‘locations’ coupled with a decline in urban conditions and standards of living, this fermented the discontent that resulted in the bourgeoning indigenous workforce throughout Africa.
One of the most important innovations of the British Agricultural Revolution was the introduction and development of crop rotation to improve soil structure and fertility by alternating deep-rooted and shallow-rooted plants.
In pre-colonial Zimbabwe, land rotation was practiced as opposed to crop rotation to improve soil fertility; this also resulted in increased crop and livestock yields.
Both systems helped to restore plant nutrients in the soil and alleviate the build-up of pathogens and pests that often occurs with repeated harvesting of one plant species.
Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant lecturer and specialist hospitality interior decorator. She is a published author in her field.
For views and comments, email: linamanucci@gmail.com

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