Why Smallholders Matter by Barbara Heinzen

Part 3 of The View from a Hudson River tributary, by Barbara Heinzen http://www.barbaraheinzen.com/   Click here to view Part 1 or here for Part 2.

Cover photo shows Hannacroix Creek where it empties into the Hudson River, July 2016

Two Families, Two Landscapes

My house on the Hudson River was first built in 1947, a small square house sold to a young working couple the following year. Eventually, they had six children, adding more space as more space was needed. The walls were thin and uninsulated. In the woods behind the house, and at various places in the flood plain, the family had thrown down middens of old glass and household rubbish, tossing out faulty appliances, used tires, broken down vehicles and a small tractor. Just before I took possession of the house, one of the sons removed a deer stand from a tree in the woods.

A “petroleum house” built in 1947. There is more land for vehicles than for house.

By 2010, the garden had been abandoned for a long time, but still had a few rose bushes and lilacs, the hardware for a washing line drilled into a tree, and the memory of a vegetable patch on a sunny slope in front of the house.

Today, when I drive on the back roads, I find similar houses built by working men and their families. These are usually small houses with a few acres of woodlands, often out of sight of their neighbors, exemplifying an ideal of independence and self-sufficiency. Nearly all of them have been built since the end of World War II; they would not be here except for the automobile which allowed people to drive to work rather than having to walk or take a bus. I think of them as petroleum houses because their self-sufficiency is dependent on private vehicles and cheap post-war petrol, a combination that still defines the American landscape today.

While this American family was growing up on the Hudson River, a friend of mine was growing up in eastern Uganda along a tributary of the Nile River, fed by water from a nearby volcanic mountain, Mt Elgon. Still ruled by British colonists, there were strict rules on land use that protected the wetlands forests. Rather than two parents and six children, my friend grew up in a large clan with strict rules of behavior.

The mosaic rights landscape of eastern Uganda, 1940s-1960s

These rules divided the land into three zones. The first zone was protected riparian land along the Kanginima stream where only the elders could go to gather medicinal plants. Herders could water their animals, but only at designated points. Between the stream and the homesteads was the shrub land where children could play, women could gather firewood and useful grasses, and men could hunt. The third zone, farthest from the stream, was for homesteads. This is where crops were grown, animals were raised and sheltered, and families had their houses. In the homestead, a chicken could feed anywhere, but only its owner could kill and eat the chicken. Children had the right to eat any fruit that was grown in anyone’s garden while everyone’s animals grazed on fallow land. It was a time when the population was one fifth the size it is today and neighbors enforced the rules.

By 2009, the forest in the Kanginima valley was gone, cleared in the previous twelve years and sold for charcoal. Much of the land was sown with rice, sesame and maize, while the stream was a fraction of its former size, stripped of its protective boundary of shrubs and trees.

The forest once here in eastern Uganda was cleared by 2009 in just 12 years.

There are no statistics to tell us how much land is owned by smallholders, broadly defined as people like the family who built my American house, or those who manage small farms, or just putter about in a suburban garden.  Nor are there reliable statistics for the land that is managed communally by a clan, or village or other responsible group. I am willing to guess, however, that the most of land settled by humans is in the hands of unrecognized individuals and communities operating at a relatively small scale, all of whom I am defining as ‘smallholders’.  What they do with the land around them — what they plant, what they pave, what they build or neglect — is collectively hugely significant.

If so, what might it take for smallholders to become stewards of environmental restoration and care?  And what might be gained by doing so?

Stewards of the Future

Four changes strike me as important if today’s smallholders are to become tomorrow’s ecological stewards.

  • Respect
  • Knowledge
  • Livelihoods
  • Institutions


Before the 2008 financial crash, there was a fashion in prosperous New York suburbs of replacing old houses and large gardens with large houses and small gardens.  Why, I wondered, should a family’s prestige be based on the size of the house rather than the wealth of the garden? In my rural area today, a large vehicle is more prestigious than a woodland of native trees, shrubs and spring ephemerals.  Thinking of friends in East Africa, their neighbors value maize, a modern crop poorly adapted to local weather and soils, more than older, resilient varieties of millet, sorghum and medicinal trees.  Why not measure our success by the variety of life we support wherever we are?

Let us create new emblems of respect and prestige.


Ecological knowledge is very different from industrial knowledge.  If we want to transform our landscapes into rich and diverse ecologies, ecological knowledge needs to become as commonplace as the ability to read, calculate and master a mobile phone. Ecological knowledge is practical and ‘three-dimensional’.  It is based on observation and activity, built up while noticing the shape of a leaf, or counting migrating glass eels in a local creek, planting a riparian boundary or looking after a wandering tortoise in a school compound.  This knowledge notices the direction of the wind, the texture of the soil and the smell of rain or snow.  It is a knowledge of relationships where diverse plants support a variety of insects that are fed to young chicks who become the birds controlling the insects attacking the plants that feed small creatures who are the food for larger ones.  It is very particular, systemic knowledge, varying from place to place. It is a sensual knowledge of hands, eyes, ears and touch that is as valuable as the knowledge found in books and websites.

Let us make ecological knowledge so common that it is taken for granted.


There are those among us who are driven by raw curiosity.  Others learn first what they need to know in order to survive. If the best jobs on offer are in automobile factories, people will learn auto building skills.  If the best jobs are found in ecological restoration and care, people will improve their own ecological knowledge to earn a better living, whether that involves removing invasive species or restoring the water table of the Kanginima stream in Uganda.  As industrial jobs diminish, ecological jobs could take their place.

Let us create the jobs that reward those with ecological knowledge and know-how.


Ecological jobs are not yet as common as factory jobs in the industrial age.  For that change to occur, we need new agreements about society’s goals and how to achieve them. These agreements need to define the rules of the game, the sanctions if rules are broken, and the rewards when things go well.  For smallholders to become environmental stewards, they need supporting institutions.  These institutions could provide the finance for restoration, the verification of ecological services, or help in collectively marketing the environmental goods and other goods smallholders provide.

Let us create institutions that support people who create ecological wealth.

Why Smallholders Matter

In my place, there is a difference of perhaps 20-25 feet or 7-8 meters between the flood plain and the garden around the house.  There are several different soil types and hydrology, from vernal pools, to chronically wet meanders to drier uplands.  Different plants, birds, insects and animals find their ways to the conditions they prefer.  As I learn to manage this small patch of ground, I adapt to the differences I find.

As a smallholder, I can tailor my attention more finely than someone with more land.  The mistakes I make are small, quickly observed and quickly reversed.  A landscape with many smallholders, will be adapted to the many variables of each different place and to each manager’s character, ability and luck.

A smallholder landscape near Arua, Uganda, October 2018

It is a truism in ecology these days that diversity creates resilience.  Smallholders are the social diversity of land management.  Some will be better than others.  Some will experiment or learn more quickly than others, but the overall diversity will remain.  That diversity, and the resilience it supports, is perhaps the principle reason why smallholders matter.

The last post, Part 4, will look at experimental spaces where change has already begun.



Unless otherwise noted, the information presented herein does not represent IUCN’s or the Commission’s position on the matters presented.

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