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December 1999
Volume 17 Number 12

The Lesson of Ukara
E. Berton Spence

Austrian economists should revel in the story of Ukara, a small, Tanzanian island in Lake Victoria. John Reader, in his astoundingly detailed and fascinating work, Africa: A Biography of the Continent (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), presents among a wealth of other information that should be of genuine interest to economic scholars a little over three pages (beginning at 255) of highly persuasive refutation of the statists' cry for central planning to protect against deadly "sprawl."

In a few short paragraphs, Reader tells of an 80 square-kilometer island, the population of which has remained stable at slightly over 16,000 persons since it was first counted during the German colonial period. Continuously since then (and probably for long before), it has been a steady exporter of people in small trickles of families who leave rather than compete with others for finite resources. It has never failed in this; it has never suffered famine or water shortage or other state-induced "shortages" of a type that would negatively impact its rate of human reproduction even though its population has "sprawled" over every available acre of land.

Reader claims this constant population density to be extremely high for a rural setting. That the setting is distinctly rural is not subject to doubt. Reader reports that for as long as records have been kept, they have shown no significant land on the island not under cultivation for the production of millet and cassava, rice, vegetables, and cattle fodder in the form of grass and tree leaves. The island is almost devoid of any natural vegetation; its human managers have replaced indigenous plants with those useful to people. This is despite the general sandiness and nutritional deficiencies in the soil covering most of the island with the exception of some richer areas alongside the island's rivers.

The human population is able to grow enough food not only to sustain itself but to produce a net gain in population (a situation few African societies have enjoyed, as Reader makes abundantly clear throughout the remainder of his wonderfully sourced book) by working non-stop, year-round, to sustain the three or four head of cattle which each family husbands primarily as manure producers. To be sure meat and milk are also consumed, but the farmers of Ukara toil mightily to carry (in baskets, on their heads) large quantities of composted cow manure to their fields in order to keep them fertile.

The Ukarans also feed their living fertilizer factories with leaves from the trees. On this subject, Reader notes that while rural Africa generally has been denuded by the quest for firewood, Ukara remains a lushly wooded area along its tracks, streams and higher elevations. Despite the intense usage of land for crops, and the need to strip the trees of their leaves, each family's home is surrounded by living trees, a feat unattainable in most zoned, suburban developments in the United States.

Readers's unassailable conclusion about this state of affairs is that it is made possible solely by private ownership of property. Each tree is owned by an identifiable person; none is subject to the theory of the commons. Individual tree-owners rent the leaf crop to other farmers. Thus, a specific individual has an important stake in making sure that the tree is not stripped so bare that it dies. Wood products are a significant portion of an essentially barter economy. All the land is privately held, with the exception of the most-used tracks between villages. No land has been condemned by a central authority and devoted to roadways. Only the water sources and some communal buildings are shared. Says Reader, "[e]ven the rocky outcrops and the bushes around them belong to known individuals." Reader contrasts this with the "use" (but not ownership) rights that prevail elsewhere in rural Africa.

At the conclusion of his treatment of Ukara (at page 258), Reader notes what is probably the most important contributor to the efficiency of the Ukarans' use of their resources: "There were no chiefs or centralized authority on Ukara that dictated how people should manage the land. The system had evolved in response to the limitations of the environment and functioned to serve the needs of individual families. Community was a secondary matter, and the resource base was neither big enough nor rich enough to encourage the emergence of a ruling elite or even a centralized authority."

The lesson of Ukara, in contrast to rural Africa generally, is simple. When resources are finite (and when are they not?), only the institution of private property, unfettered by "chiefs" and "ruling elites," can produce healthy families, tree-lined homesteads, population stability, sufficient food, and the other criteria that are sometimes lumped together as "happiness." Central planning produces treeless wastelands, farmers who are granted "use" of land they do not own (and thus cannot leave to their children), famine, water shortage, etc.

Despite the joy this short exposition of Ukara brings to free-market enthusiasts, it cannot "prove" the correctness of Austrian thought. Reader tells us nothing of how disputes regarding ownership are settled (though elsewhere he describes a system of consensus reached by family elders which prevailed prior to the rise of the state in Africa), and certainly Ukaran society, relatively devoid of scientific and technological advances when compared to Western nations, is not an attractive living alternative.

Even so, it seems clear that Ukarans have made the most of what Ukara has by not allowing a parasitical elite to coerce the destruction of the right of private ownership and to replace it with redistributive policies. How many of our government-ridden societies in the West can say the same? The story of Ukara nonetheless stands in the way of the acceptance of tired myths about the superiority of statism and planning.


E. Berton Spence is an attorney in Birmingham, Alabama.


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