Towards transdisciplinary understanding of inherited soil surveys: an exploratory case study in Zambia.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: Sch of Biosciences


Sustainable agriculture must preserve the soil so that it can be used agriculturally in the long term. Communities adapt their farming practices to face environmental, economic and social challenges. This process of adaptation can be supported by research, but only if we understand the soil, how its properties, potential and limitations vary in space and how communities have adapted their farming practices in the past. Soil survey has conventionally been a way to generate knowledge about the variation of the soil and how it is used.

At present the development of sustainable agriculture is a challenge in many countries, particularly in the global south, not least because of climate change. Tackling these problems requires collaboration between different specialists. Whether a technical solution will succeed will always depend, at least in part, on social factors. Is an innovation compatible with practices, values and traditions of a community? Does it affect how agricultural labour is divided over time, between social groups, between adults and children and between genders? Studies of farming systems also show that these have rarely been fixed, but have changed over time, in response to different social and environmental factors. This suggests that a historical perspective on sustainable agriculture could be just as important as the perspective of the natural and social sciences in developing robust, equitable and effective solutions to contemporary problems in food security. We contend that collaborative study of the processes and products of soil survey from the colonial era (1930s in southern Sub-Saharan Africa, SSA) until the late 20th century, would provide a context in which natural scientists, social scientists and historians could develop an integrated approach to understanding sustainable agriculture. It would also address a very pressing practical problem.

This problem is the scarcity of information on the soil and its variation in space over most of SSA. Collecting soil data is costly, and few people have the expertise to do it. Yet, the soil surveys produced in Africa in the past, have rarely been mobilised to address contemporary problems. We contend that these sources provide a unique window into past decisions and assumptions about the soil, whose effects are still felt today. In these soil surveys are embedded a rich set of observations and interpretations, along with hard data (soil analyses) and maps.

However, old surveys cannot just be dusted off and used as if new. First, there is the technical challenge of determining whether the analyses are still reliable. Furthermore, the survey was commissioned in a particular historical context to address particular problems. Farming was done by communities with particular structures and power relations, and some perspectives will have influenced surveyors more than others. In short, the soil scientist, historian and social scientist all have a critical role in the process of appraising an inherited survey and identifying its possible strengths and weakness when used to support contemporary decisions about farming and the land.

Through the proposed cross disciplinary UK-Zambia partnership, we will critically interrogate a number of inherited soil surveys created in Zambia, from the colonial period to the present, developing a theoretical framework for their appraisal. Our intention throughout is to show how triangulating perspectives from the history, social science and soil science can develop a shared evaluation of these surveys. An evaluation, furthermore, that can be applied to pressing current problems relating to soil quality in the region. To this end, we will engage with policy makers, agricultural advisors, NGOs and farmer groups to plan further funded work so that inherited soil surveys in Zambia, and elsewhere (SSA and beyond), can best be used to develop sustainable agriculture as a basis for food security into the future.

Planned Impact

Farmers in Zambia, particularly smallholder farmers, face substantial challenges from climate change and other environmental problems such as contamination by mine wastes. To address these with effective interventions at scale, policy makers, extension workers, NGOs and farmers groups in Zambia require contextual spatial information on the soil, which is currently very limited. This proposal has substantial potential for impact because of its objective of developing approaches to unlock the value of inherited soil surveys to support contemporary agricultural development.

We propose to develop an integrated transdisciplinary approach to survey evaluation to maximize their value for contemporary purposes. This will allow a survey to be used as a source of spatial information to interpret new experimental findings in wider context, to target interventions at scale, and to identify how farming communities have adapted to challenges from environmental, economic and political change. This information would have considerable impact on the capacity of key actors in Zambia to implement policies and on-farm advice with substantial impact on food security, rural livelihoods and resilience of agriculture to environmental change.
We have, as a project team, links with these actors in Government and extension (the Zambia Agriculture Research Institute, ZARI), NGOs (Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre, Indaba Agricultural Policy Research Institute), donors (Catholic Relief Services) and the private sector (Zambian National Farmers Union and Zambia Conservation Farming Unit). Notably, the senior surveyor at the Soil Survey Unit, ZARI, Ministry of Agriculture is an investigator in this project through University of Zambia. We also have links with cognate bodies in neighbouring Zimbabwe and Malawi. In our impact plan we detail how we propose to use these links to maximize project outputs in four key ways:

1. Maximizing use of evaluations undertaken in the project. Project team members (UoN and UNZA) are engaged in DFID-funded research in Copperbelt Province on potentially harmful elements in soil. One survey that we shall examine (from 1956) is of Copperbelt Province. On the basis of the evaluation of this survey we shall collaborate with ZARI colleagues to help them develop guidance for extension workers on how the DFID research can be interpreted at Provincial scale. We shall also collaborate with the CEPHaS project (UKRI GCRF Collective Fund) in using evaluated surveys to assess potential impacts of conservation agriculture practices in the south of Zambia.

2. Securing funding for further work in Zambia. The objective of these bids would be to extend and enhance the impact of developments in this exploratory partnership-building project.We shall work with identified stakeholders to prepare a proposal for funding (e.g. to DfID or Gates Foundation) for a national soil survey archive, incorporating evaluations of all surveys. Discussions with DFID have begun. We shall also prepare a proposal on the use of survey information as a baseline for examining social and cultural dimensions of agriculture and food, using walking survey methodology. This is likely to be targeted on future AHRC calls, but we shall also examine how it could be integrated with the archive development work.

3. Scoping and developing opportunities for regional work. We shall initiate discussions with colleagues in neighbouring countries on how the national soil archive proposed for Zambia (2 above) might form a model for a regional archive. Whether this is done in a staged process, with a Zambian archive developed first, will be discussed with partners (Zimbabwe, Malawi, Tanzania, Namibia), and a strategic decision will be taken.

4. We shall build on links through existing work funded by Gates foundation (Ethiopia) and BBSRC (Pakistan) to discuss with partners in those countries how deployment of inherited soil surveys might have impact there.
Description This project is a collaboration between historians, social scientists and pedologists in Zambia and the UK to examine the historical legacy of soil surveys in Zambia, to understand them better in the context of historical and modern agricultural practice and development, and to evaluate their usefulness as a resource to address present-day problems in sustainable agriculture.

A. The Pedology group identified two key objectives. The first was to identify, extract and evaluate the legacy soil survey reports for south-eastern Zambia, and to prepare this material for a workshop to elicit opinions on this information from agricultural stakeholders. The second was to examine the origins and subsequent influence of the map legend units used by Colin Trapnell and colleagues in a vegetation - soil map of Zambia published in 1947.

i. We have extracted the legacy soil survey reports for south-eastern Zambia (from ~1935 to the present day) and examined them from the perspective of modern soil science. In particular we have identified some of the institutional, practical and conceptual difficulties inherent in such an exercise (from the availability of material, to the consistency and accessibility of the framework in which information on soil and farming practices was recorded 90 years ago). We have used standard protocols to assess aspects of the surveys (e.g. whether the relationship between field effort to produce the survey and the cartographic scale at publication is comparable with international references). We have extracted soil information from the surveys and associated information on historical farming systems. These have been presented to an audience of current stakeholders who have been asked for their own perspectives on the value of this information (see workshop in section C below). A paper reviewing the challenges and possible benefits of identifying, collating and interpreting legacy soil surveys is in preparation.

ii. We have overlaid three national-scale soil maps of Zambia (including the first, published by Colin Trapnell and colleagues in 1947) to compare the spatial pattern of soil variation which they present, and to examine its predictive value for soil physical properties. These results have shown that, even at the small cartographic scales used for representing national variation, the soil map may account for substantial variation in properties relevant to soil management under climate change. Despite the substantial changes which have occurred in vegetation cover since the time of Trapnell's survey, it was significant that some of the soil variations observed in plateau landscapes in more recent maps (from the 1990s) correspond to differences in vegetation cover which Trapnell used as a proxy for soil information when surveying in the 1930s. A paper describing this work has been submitted for publication in a soil science journal.

iii. We have examined the soil classification used by Trapnell and colleagues to define the units shown in their map from 1947, and examined its relation to the soil classifications used in two interim reports that he produced during his survey. We have reviewed other literature on soil classification in Africa that provided a background to this process, some of which report discussions in which Trapnell was engaged. This literature has shown how Trapnell was influenced by debates at the time about the relative importance of geology and climate in soil formation and how he was influenced by discussions taking place just prior to his field work and in its early phases about how soils should be mapped in East Africa. We have also noted evidence that Trapnell's own physiographical and ecological approach to classifying soils influenced practice in Tanganyika, as it then was, although this appears not to have been acknowleged. We are currently extending this review to examine the influence of Trapnell's work in national and regional surveys such as the 1956 soil survey of the Copperbelt, the 1952 Central African Rail Link survey and the 1964 Soil Map of Africa.

B. The History and Social Sciences groups formulated two key objectives: to understand the intellectual, economic and political context that shaped the ecological surveys of Colin Trapnell (& co.) in Northern Rhodesia (1930s and 1940s), and to examine how the survey outcomes (reports, maps and publications) in turn shaped agricultural policy and science more broadly in the colony. To this end, we have undertaken archival research where possible, reviewed secondary literature, and contributed to a Zambian stakeholder workshop. Two informal reports (totalling 25,000 words) have been drafted in answer to these objectives, and the WGH group are in the process of writing an academic article. Unfortunately, progress in answering the objectives and drafting the article has been hindered by Covid-related restrictions on archive access. Nevertheless, documents from the following archives have been obtained:

Zambian National Archives: Nalumino Namwanyi (WGH team member at the University of Zambia) has visited the ZNA on several occasions, photographing the contents of 87 folders on agricultural policy and wider administrative processes and policies in the colony from the early 1900s until the late 1940s.
British National Archives (Kew): Maurice Hutton (WGH member at the University of Nottingham), visited the British National Archives in September, 2020, during a brief window of opportunity. He was restricted to retrieving a maximum of 9 folders, on agricultural research, land policy, agricultural politics and anthropological research.
Derbyshire Record Office (scanning service): 14 folders on early colonial administration were obtained from the Derbyshire Record Office via its copy service; a second order is currently being fulfilled.
Oxford Bodleian: 2 folders via the Bodleian copy service.

We have found that the Trapnell surveys provide an alternative perspective on colonial mapping, which has hitherto been studied largely as a tool of colonial conquest and settlement depicting colonised territories as terra nullius. Trapnell's soil-vegetation, agricultural system and tribal maps, and accompanying reports, in fact portrayed an environment largely hostile and unsuited to extensive white settlement and yet well-utilised by native populations.

Our findings confirm what existing historical scholarship has said about Trapnell and colleagues' recognition of 'native' ingenuity and adaptiveness, and antipathy to top-down technical intervention. However, we further find that by portraying native farmers as essentially ecological agents without political agency and concerns, the surveys had a depoliticising effect in the domain of native agricultural policy; this contrasted with the politicisation of European farming. We connect this to the specific imperatives of interwar 'trusteeship' policy and the financial constraints of the Great Depression era.

We have found some interesting contrasts between the surveys' portrayal of native agriculture versus that of the British South Africa Company administration prior, and of agricultural department officials post-WWII.

C. All project staff worked together to devise a project workshop in January 2021 for engagement with stakeholders in the agricultural sector. As well as informing stakeholders about the project, this was intended to elicit opinions from stakeholders about soil information, the potential value of legacy surveys collected in different circumstances, the possible value of historical farming practices in present-day conditions given both technical considerations and changes in the broader political and social context, and how older generations remember and advocate earlier agricultural methods. The analysis of responses from the participants will be a key activity over the rest of the project. More information about the workshop is provided in the Engagements report.
Exploitation Route The need for soil information is widely acknowledged globally, but resources to provide it are limited. In some cases this has led to increased interest in digital soil mapping, the production of predictions of soil properties based on limited direct observations supplemented by data sources such as satellite images. However, conventional soil survey always provided more than simple predictions of soil properties. We therefore think that the revisiting of legacy soil survey information is of practical importance and could provide a corrective to excessive dependence on purely mathematical predictions of soil properties which are readily quantified, but may be of limited value outside the context provided by the knowledge of landscapes, communities and farming systems in which past historical soil survey was typically embedded.

This project will show how the legacy of soil information in a country can be systematically studied and evaluated in ways which combine both natural sciences insights into processes in landscapes, with historical and social sciences perspectives on the importance of political and social context, and the implications of changes in both. The project will therefore offer practical exemplars for such evaluation elsewhere. As a short project it only begins to display the Zambian inheritance of soil information, and the engagement of various stakeholders with this through our workshop should generate momentum to continue the study in the Zambian setting.

The project has also generated a novel spatial statistical tool to assess the extent to which two maps of a region correspond to each other (either directly, or at different hierarchical levels of nesting), and so can be assumed to convey comparable information. This could be used to address other problems (e.g. in ecological studies to compare soil and vegetation maps).

Ultimately we hope that this project will pioneer the transdisciplinary evaluation of legacy soil survey information, and will give rise to the development of regional and national archives of such information, saved for future applications, and with associated evaluations and commentary to provoke ongoing engagement with the various disciplines which must be involved in research to support the sustainable development goals. As such, the project serves as a model for interdisciplinary collaboration between the humanities, social sciences and environmental sciences, highlighting the importance of contextual historical perspectives for better understanding modern soil challenges today.
Sectors Agriculture

Food and Drink

Communities and Social Services/Policy




Museums and Collections

Description Two project team members have been invited to represent Zambia at the African Soil Partnership, which is responsible for coordinating information on soils and national and regional scale, identifying challenges, under the auspices of FAO.
First Year Of Impact 2022
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink
Impact Types Societal

Description 21EJP SOIL: CropGas: The effect of conservation agriculture interventions on greenhouse gas emissions
Amount € 1,028,000 (EUR)
Funding ID BB/X002942/1 
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2022 
End 03/2024
Description Collaboration with Dr Noémi Ujhazy 
Organisation MTA Research Centre for Astronomy and Earth Sciences
Country Hungary 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Dr Ujhazy is on a fellowship in the Department of Geography at University of Nottingham. Her interests are in the history of 20th Century soil science, and particularly in the emergence of an international research community under the auspices of the International Soil Science Society (now International Union of Soil Sciences) and its meetings. In September 2023 Dr Ujhazy, Professor Mike Heffernan and Prof Lark (project team) ran a hybrid workshop at University of Nottingham entitled "Colonial Soil Science in Africa and its Legacy". This featured contributions from the UK (Universities of Nottingham, York, Greenwich, Cranfield University, Rothamsted Research), the United States, South Africa, Zambia (project team members), Malawi, the Netherlands (Utrecht), and Italy. A session "Internationalization of Soil Science" was proposed and accepted for the International Union of Soil Science Centennial meeting in Florence (May 2024). This has received more than sufficient abstracts to secure a slot in the programme. It will feature two presentations from this InStanZa project. Dr Chabala (University of Zambia) and Prof Lark (University of Nottingham) from the project team are co-organizers with Dr Ujhazy.
Collaborator Contribution Dr Ujhazy obtained funding for a second year at Nottingham, and contributed to all the activities described above.
Impact Workshop organized at University of Nottingham Session accepted for IUSS Centennial meeting
Start Year 2022
Description Collaboration with Indaba Agricultural Policy Research Institute, Zambia 
Organisation Indaba Agricultural Policy Research Institute (IAPRI)
Country Zambia 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution The University of Zambia (UNZA) started collaboration with IAPRI before this project, but the University of Nottingham (UoN) became engaged as a result of the InSTAnZa project. IAPRI was identified as a key stakeholder, with their interest in agricultural policy, farmer adoption of innovations and farmer responses to climate change. One key activity of IAPRI is a regular national-scale farm survey which incorporates soil sampling. IAPRI agreed that a PhD student at UNZA, supervised by the InSTAnZa lead co-investigator at UNZA, could work with these data in a project to assess land suitability for upland rice production. UoN contributed to this work with particular expertise on spatial statistical modelling, and the PhD student received a Commonwealth Split Site Studentship to spend a year at UoN working with the InSTAnZa PI. Despite the covid-19 pandemic this was a succesful collaboration, resulting in a paper in an international soil science journal (just accepted at the time of the 2021 Research Fish Deadline, so a doi is not net available).
Collaborator Contribution IAPRI have contributed to this project by agreeing that a senior researcher serve on the project advisory board. They have attended a meeting of the board at the start of the project, helping the investigators with their initial planning. In particular, they helped with the identification and recruitment of stakeholders for the workshop (described under engagements), and their input resulted in the broad range of sectors represented,
Impact The collaboration is interdisciplinary. The project team are soil scientists, historians and social scientists. The IAPRI staff involved are agricultural economists and policy specialists.
Start Year 2019
Description InSTAnZa project briefing document 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A briefing document was prepared to explain the background and objectives of the InSTAnZa project. The aim of the document was to draw attention to the potential value of legacy soil information, and the need for transdisciplinary research to understand better the context, origins and technical value of such information. The briefing document has been made available online, distributed to existing stakeholders (e.g. the Indaba Agricultural Policy Research Institute in Zambia) and distributed to all stakeholders in the CEPHaS GCRF collective fund project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description InSTAnZa project stakeholders workshop: information on soil and farming systems 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact We originally planned a face-to-face event to be held in Lusaka, with UK project staff participating remotely, and Zambian participants meeting in accordance with national and University regulations regarding social distancing and Covid-19 security. Due to changes in Government and University regulations in Zambia, this meeting had to be transferred to an online event with about three days' notice. The event is described below. Please note that Ethical Approval for the engagement with individuals outside the project team was granted by the University of Zambia Natural and Applied Sciences Research Ethics Committee (reference NASREC-2020-NOV-005) and the University of Nottingham School of Biosciences Research Ethics Committee (reference SBREC200111FEO).

In addition to project team members, 19 stakeholders attended the meeting. This is fewer than invited, but the change to an online format meant that some participants, (particularly farmers) were not able to attend. The stakeholder categories were as follows: Farmers (2), Fertilizer company (1), Government -- Agronomy and extension (3), Government -- policy and regulation (1), Government -- researcher (4), Academics (2 from soil science, 1 historian), National NGOs -- agricultural training and extension (3), National NGO-- agricultural economics and policy research (1), International agency -- Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (1).

Participants were presented with information about soil surveys in Zambia from the Colonial period to the present, with examples and illustrations of how they are used. They were also shown how modern digital soil mapping technology is used. Examples of legacy soil information obtained in the project were presented. The historical agricultural system descriptions from the 1930s were presented, alongside a modern typology of Zambian farming systems. These presentations were given by project team members, but also by an experienced Zambian soil surveyor from outside the project team, and a researcher from the Zambia Agriculture Research Institute.

The participants were provided with a questionnaire to complete, to address questions of issues to the pedologists, historians and social scientists in the project. These are being reviewed by the project team.

A discussion session was held after a break. This provided evidence of the need for soil information in Zambia to address questions including the regulation of imported agro-chemicals through to disposal, the development of new crop varieties, irrigation scheduling and the targeting of recommendations to farmers based on local soil type. From the farm sector there was interest in protocols for sampling fields, and in the question of how long and how frequently fields should be fallowed, a key feature of the historical farming systems which had been presented. Of particular value to the project was the interest expressed in legacy soil information, the importance of preserving it and making it available. It was suggested that survey information from other sectors (e.g. forestry and mining) may be of indirect value to the agricultural sector, and should not be neglected.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
Description Workshop: Assessing Colonial Soil Science in Africa and its Legacy 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact There were 12 presentations, four from African institutions, six from institutions in the UK, one from the Netherlands and one from the USA. The audience was primarily online, as were all non-UK based speakers. There was a good discussion, and an agreement to propose a session for the International Union of Soil Sciences Centennial meeting in 2024 (below).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2023