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Challenging Nature

Local Knowledge, Agroscience, and Food Security in Tanga Region, Tanzania

Tanga Region, Tanzania, is an area of persistent rural poverty with a long history of drought, floods, food shortages, famine, and social and economic disruption. Though farmers have been cultivating the land there for hundreds of years, they have consistently been unable to supply adequate food for the region’s inhabitants. In Challenging Nature, Philip Porter examines eighteen farming communities to understand what the farmers there know about their environment and which historical and economic factors play into the lack of food security. 

Porter first began work on this project in 1972, asking 250 farmers in the region about life history, environmental and agricultural changes, types of crops grown and methods of planting, environmental assessments, agricultural practices, food and water supplies, training and education, and attitudes toward nature. Twenty years later, he returned and reinterviewed as many farmers as could be found from the first survey. The result contextualizes the environmental history of the region while informing current and future agricultural development.

288 pages | 28 halftones, 51 line drawings, 58 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2006

University of Chicago Geography Research Papers

African Studies

Earth Sciences: Environment

Geography: Environmental Geography


"This book reports research that is both rare and interesting with respect to ’lessons learnt for development.’ It assesses the effects of culture, governance, politico-economy, ecology, climate, and infrastructure development on reduction (or lack of it) of poverty and hunger. . . . I strongly recommend the book to those working in various ways for the eradication of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa."

N. Hatibu | Experimental Agriculture

"This book’s major contribution to the literature on the African farming systems is that it shows how to quantify familiar qualitative evaluations of agricultural practices and agrarian change.

Michael J. Sheridan | African Studies Review

"A senior North American academic reflecting on thirty years of research in a particular place in Africa. At times he is introspective, expressing concern over social problems that have deteriorated over the past three decades. He successfully incorporates unconventional methodologies to enhance his description. . . . Porter set himself the task of describing the agricultural possibilities confronting farmers in the Tanga Region, and by this criterion he succeeds."

Matthew Schnurr | Environment and Planning

"An important contribution to African scholarship. In particular, it has succeeded to merging the ’political’ and’ecological’ in political ecology, in ways that few studies have done. . . . It will certainly be a valuable addition to the reading list of any graduate seminar on sustainable development in Africa."

B.I. Logan | Human Ecology

"This book should be read by anyone interested in indigenous knowledge, food security, and farming in Africa."

Mara J. Goldman | Annals of the Association of American Geographers

Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Research Questions and Conceptual Contexts
Introduction to the Area and the Research Questions
Conceptual Contexts

Chapter 2. Livelihood and Poverty in Tanga Region
Peasant Farming in Lowland Tanga
Illness and Lost Workdays
Material Culture
Summary and Analysis

Chapter 3. Biophysical Environment and Local Knowledge
Topography and Geology
Some Examples of Local Knowledge

Chapter 4. Tanga’s Regional History
Historical Events
Cultural and Demographic Character
Summary and Analysis

Chapter 5. Introducing the Eighteen Villages
Research Procedure
Student Researcher Assessments of the 18 Villages
Maranzara (Pongwe)
Summary and Analysis

Chapter 6. Assessing Different Farm Management Practices
Introducing the Energy-Water Balance Model
Choice of Site and Soil
Choice of Crop
Growing Enough Food
Delay in Planting
Spacing of Crop
Provision of Supplemental Water
Summary and Analysis
Chapter 7. Drought, Food Shortages, and Ways of Coping
When Things Go Wrong
The 1953 Handeni Famine
Institutionalized Coping with Food Shortages
Strategies Adopted by Farmers to Cope with Drought and Food Shortages
Farmer Attitudes toward Nature
Changes in Crops Grown
Summary and Analysis
Chapter 8. Local Knowledge, Sustainability Science
Institutional Agricultural Research
Sustainable Transitions Elsewhere
A Sustainable Transition for Tanga Region?
The Task Ahead

Appendix A. Agrometeorological Modeling
Appendix B. Agroclimatological Survey of Tanga Region
Appendix C. Analysis of the Crop Calendars: Timing of Planting and Season Length for Maize
Appendix D. Chronology for Tanga Region

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