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Reminiscences of a career in Geography

Ch 1. Downing College

Ch 1. Downing prelude and coda



I came up to Downing College, Cambridge, from Hemsworth Grammar School in South Yorkshire on an RAF six-months’ short course in September 1943 to read Geography. I have poor memories of this period. I spent three spells in a sick-bay in Emmanuel College with a septic throat, leading to a three-and-a-half weeks’ spell in the RAF hospital at Waterbeach having my tonsils removed (and providing a guinea pig for sodium pentathol then under trial as an anaesthetic) before I joined the RAF as an aircrew cadet in April 1944 (Figure 1.1).


Figure 1.1. AC2 3040938, May 1944


After six weeks’ square-bashing at Scarborough and 12 hours initial flying training at Brough near Hull, I remained a cadet awaiting training for over a year. In the meantime, I was periodically posted to load bombs onto aircraft at RAF stations (including the dam-busters’ squadron at Coningsby in Lincolnshire) and twice wangled spells into the meteorological sections of flying control towers at Oakington and Waterbeach (where I was once confronted with knowing what to do – which I didn’t − with a freak May-Day radio call from an aircraft seeking to make an emergency landing at Mersah Matruh in North Africa!). I was in New York en route to flying training in Florida when the Japanese war ended in August 1945, so was quickly returned to the UK (on the Queen Mary, then a troop-ship). Thereafter, with other grounded cadets, I was sent farming: harvesting potatoes in Lancashire and Lincolnshire, and frozen sugarbeet in the Fens. In mid-1946, I was promoted to the dizzy height of sergeant (on 10s/6d a day) and transferred to the Education and Training Corps (where, so far as I recall, I was the only one benefitting from my education activities). I was demobilised in July 1947.


Having been ill for much of my first innings, I decided to start first-year Geography again when I returned to Downing in the Michaelmas term of 1947 on the then-ample £240 a year RAF grant. I recall with pleasure the friendship and company of fellow geographers Terry Sayles and Dai Williams whose rooms on the ground floor of I staircase in 1947-48 also provided an informal common room for other mutual friends including Don Hitchcock, Bob Nixon, and brothers Tony and Chris Williams (who, if I recall correctly – which, at 88, I don't always! – took over the same rooms in the two following years). In the summer of 1949, with Tony, Chris, Terry and Dai, I made a one-month trip through France, Andorra and northern Spain in a war-surplus 30-cwt Bedford truck, acting as photographer and taking the opportunity to learn how to develop, manipulate and print photos on our return.


I don’t know that I contributed much to Downing during my second innings. I was not a sportsman, nor did I join any college society. But I have much to thank the College for. It was my tutor, Clive Parry – a renowned international lawyer, not a geographer – who got me onto the first rung of the remarkable career in soils and agricultural development that I subsequently enjoyed; (he had also tried, unsuccessfully, to get my regional essay on the Pontefract liquorice industry published). Several months after I had gone down, while I was on a teacher training course, he put me in touch with someone seeking recruits for a soil survey in the Gold Coast. I promptly applied, was duly interviewed, selected and appointed, gladly abandoned the teacher training course (the airy-fairy theoretical part of which I would surely have failed) and, as will be described in Chapter 2, left for the Gold Coast in April 1951.

While a student, both at school and at university, I had been fascinated with weather and the coming ice age – I vividly remember the ebullient climatology lecturer Gordon Manley's growing excitement as, twice, the North Sea stated to freeze over – and my ambition was to become a meteorologist. However, that field was patently full after the war, with so many meteorologists having been trained in the armed services. Even now, however, my eyes still lift up to the clouds before they look down to the landscape or soils. But I don’t regret finding that celestial door closed and a more down-to-Earth one opening. Meteorology became a numbers game, for which I would have been ill fitted. I started my professional career at the very beginning of geomorphology-related soil surveying for which I was much better suited. I could not have been more fortunate. I have much to thank Clive Parry for in opening that door to me!


I then lost touch with Downing for some years, though I always spent parts of my home-leaves in Cambridge where an uncle and his family provided what was, in effect, a second home for me. I did, however, keep in touch with Benny Farmer, a former supervisor in John’s; and it was he who, in 1979, suggested to me the name of a PhD student, Bill Adams – now Professor W.A. and Downing Fellow – for a short-term consultancy in cartography on a project I was then running in Bangladesh. It is through the latter that I subsequently maintained a loose relationship with Downing, supplemented later, as I will describe in Chapter 6, by my funding research studies in the Geography Department via donations to the college. The latter has provided me with a means to thank the college for the benefits that I clearly received from my education in sensu lato and the manifestly in loco parentis tutorial system. Seventy years after I came up to Downing, I was greatly honoured in October 2013 to be invited to become the Honorary President of the college geographical society and to have the society named the Brammer Geographical Society. Thankyou again Clive Parry!

Cambridge remains a second home. I acquired a residence there in 1994 – off Chaucer Road, up and down which I had frequently marched while in the University Air Squadron in 1943-44 – intending to move there at a time when I was involved in consultancies with colleagues who lived near Cambridge and where we sometimes met. However, I never got around to moving substantively, so I still enjoy having both a splendid sea-view in Hove and, in effect, a country residence in Cambridge (where I can see the stars on clear nights). I visit Cambridge about once a month while participating in research studies that I have promoted, but I now mainly visit Cambridge on pit-stops en route to and from family in Yorkshire. In the next chapter, I will explain how I came to be called Hugh, the name by which I am now generally known.

Figure 1.2  With founding members of the Brammer Geographial Society, November 2013

Ch 2. Soil surveying in the Gold Coast/Ghana 1951−1961


Getting ready

Like many long-in-the-tooth old colonials I suppose, I often reflect on how fortunate those of us were who started our careers in the tropics in the 1940s and 1950s, and how sorry I am that young people seeking a career today do not have the seemingly boundless opportunities that we had for secure, fulfilling and sometimes adventurous employment on the frontiers of scientific knowledge and international development.


I came into the colonial agricultural arena in a different way from most old colonials. My first boss, Cecil Charter, deliberately recruited geographers in setting up what became the Gold Coast Soil and Land use Survey Department (SLUS) in the early 1950s. At that time, soil science was dominated by chemists. However, Charter recognised that soils were more than an assemblage of their physical and chemical constituents. He saw soils as part of the environment, recognising the important role that geomorphology and climate played in their formation, use and management.


However, I wasn’t totally unfamiliar with soils and agriculture. From the age of 14, I had had my own section of the family garden. In the summer of 1943 after I left school, I spent a month at a farming camp at Sedbergh, then in North Yorkshire, (where, on my first day, the first task I was given by a farmer was to dig a hole in a field to bury a cow that had died: unsuccessful, because the soil was too shallow). Later, as an RAF aircrew cadet awaiting training that never came, I was several times sent picking potatoes or sugarbeet in cold parts of Britain; and then, while at university 1947-50, I voluntarily went farming in different places during the long vacations, more, I must admit, as a geographer, to see different parts of the country than to acquire agricultural skills; (I remember one summer hoe-weeding a field on the Lower Lias clay in Worcestershire where war-time ploughing had turned up large numbers of ammonite fossils, some so large that – naughtily, with my superior academic knowledge!  − I told local co-workers that they were Ancient British tractor wheels). Also – presciently? − following a university lecture on soils, I had once dug a profile pit to examine the soil in my parents’ garden. I had an early exposure to geology, too. My father, a colliery manager, had frequently taken me underground on Sunday mornings from the age of 12, hoping that I would follow him into the mining profession; but my interest was solely in the faults and fossils that I saw, not in coal production.


In at the deep end

I was recruited on contract terms by the U.K. Crown Agents for the Colonies for service with the Gold Coast Government on the then princely salary of £532 a year; (teachers in the U.K., if I recall correctly, were then starting on £180). I went out to the then colony in April 1951 to participate in the soil survey of the Accra Plains which it was intended would be irrigated from the Akosombo dam on the Volta river, then at the planning stage. My first headquarters was in the Aburi botanic gardens on top of the Akwapim hill range, about 30 miles north of the capital Accra.


I was immediately thrown in at the deep end: a succession of deep ends, in fact. A government advance equal to my annual salary quickly enabled me to buy a Standard Vanguard estate car which I needed for fieldwork.¹ I didn’t drive then, so I went down to Accra with a driver to pick up the car, let him drive it out of town, then took over myself – including double declutching in those days! − intending to let him resume driving when we reached the foot of the hills with a succession of hairpin bends up the 1,300-foot escarpment. However, I seemed to be managing satisfactorily, so continued driving, dropped off the driver at Aburi, picked up my servant and chop box, and set out back down the escarpment and then north along the foot of the hills for my first field camp 75 miles away at Akuse on the Volta river. My first day’s driving (without L-plates to warn other drivers!) was enlivened by my having to ease my way – after nightfall – through exuberantly drunken crowds in two villages where the paramount chief had died, then experiencing my first corrugated dirt road, looking like a newly-ploughed field at night, and having to cross a deep gulley on two seemingly loose planks guided by my servant. I was an experienced driver by the time that I confidently took my driving licence test in Accra six weeks later!


Deep end No 2 opened when I arrived at the Akuse rest-house and found the colleague who was supposed to introduce me to soil surveying sick in bed. I evacuated him to headquarters two days later, where he was transferred to the laboratory on his recovery. Fortunately, Charter had trained a cadre of local staff in cutting and marking traverse lines, collecting soil samples and recording vegetation and land use at regular intervals along the lines. My job was mainly to examine the soil samples brought in each day, classify them and make a map. That first survey was a detailed survey of the Kpong Pilot Irrigation Area – which threw me into Deep end No 3. The soils were so-called black cotton soils (now Vertisols) developed over basic gneisses, about which little was then known, and especially about their suitability for irrigation on the gently undulating landscape of the Accra Plains. Charter was 75 miles away, and we didn’t have field telephones then. My geographical education was fully stretched!  However, using my existing geographical knowledge, I made a detailed contour map of the site which helped to explain the distribution of deep and shallow soils.


Charter (Trinity Hall, mid-1920s) was a botanist. After a few years teaching in China and Antigua, he had spent a year studying soil science at Aberystwyth and then returned to the West Indies in 1931 where he worked mainly as an agronomist on sugarcane estates in Antigua and Trinidad, but also undertook soil surveys in Antigua and Barbuda, Trinidad and Honduras. In 1944, he moved to the West African Cacao Research Institute in the Gold Coast to initiate soil surveys of the cocoa-growing areas of that colony and Nigeria. By the time that I joined him in 1951, therefore, he had a vast practical knowledge and experience of tropical soils and crops; and it was from him while walking around the Aburi botanic gardens in an evening when I was at headquarters that I learned the names of many tropical plants. I picked up my soil science as I went along: from Charter, the literature, attending international conferences and study while on long home leaves (effectively six months in a two-year cycle).


In deeper still

The Kpong survey completed, I moved on to the reconnaissance soil survey of the Accra Plains where Deep end No 4 quickly opened up. A newly-recruited colleague who joined me for the survey did not adapt well to fieldwork and withdrew to headquarters, and simultaneously another survey closed down. So, six weeks into my career, I found myself in charge of a party of 300 men living under canvas in an area near the present port city of Tema − then a fishing village of 300 inhabitants − where all food and water had to be brought in for 25 miles by lorry every day, while simultaneously trying to keep track of soils and recorded field observations coming in from ten field traverses every day but Sunday. In retrospect, I don’t remember feeling overwhelmed by this. I think other members of that generation will recall their similar reaction to such challenges. We just got on with it.

 In 1953, the SLUS headquarters moved up country to Kwadaso near Kumasi in Ashanti, but I stayed at Aburi for another two years in order to maintain liaison with relevant government offices in Accra and the newly-opened Soil Science Department at Achimota College (later University of Ghana at Legon) where Peter Nye and Dennis Greenland later did their classical study of soils under shifting cultivation. At that time, while writing up the report on the Accra Plains survey, I was put in charge of soil surveys of the country’s two savannah zones in the south-east and the north where I introduced other newly-recruited staff members to soil surveying.


Figure 2.1. Treading the straight and narrow in the Gold Coast forest zone

Ch 2. Gold Coast/Ghana

The high life

At Aburi, our houses were built over large metal tanks that collected rainwater run-off from the roofs and which we had to use sparingly. Aburi’s mean annual rainfall was 48 inches spread over two short and unreliable rainy seasons, though it was supplemented by run-off from cloud water for about 300 nights a year. One weekend sometime after my arrival, my neighbours found what they thought were mouse droppings coming through cracks in the wooden plank ceiling of their bedroom and invited a zoologist from Achimota College to come and inspect the roof cavity. In fact, he found hundreds of bats sleeping there and six inches of their droppings on the floor below them, the weight of which was beginning to bend the plank floor/ceiling. So the droppings had to be cleared. Unfortunately, some were left of a side roof and it rained, washing the droppings into the 5,000-gallon tank on which we depended for our water supply. So that had to be cleaned out, too, and for several weeks we had to have water brought to us daily in 4-gallon kerosene tins from the neighbouring Governor’s rest-house until the next rainy season began.


We had electricity from a noisy generator from 6 until 10 in an evening, (when not interrupted by a storm); otherwise, we used Tilley lamps; the fridge was kerosene-operated; and servants brought up buckets of hot water for bathing from the kitchen. In the field, I recall my cook-bearer producing traditional English meals from local produce – including the universal colonial egg-custard – using a charcoal-heated, 4-gallon kerosene tin as an oven. Conditions were more comfortable in Kumasi: rarely-interrupted electricity supply − although the rest-house at Kwadaso in which I once stayed before moving substantively to Kumasi in 1955 was struck by lightning three times in one storm, the first of which blew the fuse-box off the wall – we had fans in rooms and offices, and, eventually, I had an air-conditioned bedroom.


Light relief

Hard work was enlivened by hard play. At weekends during Aburi days, we would go down to the coast at Accra to swim and surf, then drink and dance the evening hours away at the Accra Club before driving back − on mercifully near-empty roads by then − to our cooler hill station (or me to a field camp). I recall with nostalgia, too, evenings spent sitting outside a tent on the Accra Plains marvelling at the myriad stars filling night skies unpolluted by artificial lights; the sound, too, of frenzied drum rhythms and multiharmonic singing from distant villages. From such camps on the Accra Plains, in the late afternoon or at weekends, I would sometimes drive up to 35 miles to mission stations along the foot of the Akwapim hills for a game of tennis or badminton and different company.


I also remember, while visiting a colleague (the late Alan Stobbs) in the Nasia Basin in the north of the country, taking our field staff in our pick-up trucks on a short cut through northern Togo en route to and from an agricultural fair at Bawku in north-eastern Gold Coast, risking embarrassing explanations that might have needed to be made in case of interception, breakdown or accident in what was then French territory. In the Nasia Basin, too, local women traditionally used bunches of the strap-like leaves of the shea butter tree fore and aft to protect their modesty, and I recall my young colleague’s growing interest and excitement as an infestation of caterpillars rapidly stripped the leaves off these trees. Of course, we found  there could be ‘New Looks’ in women’s dress fashions in the Gold Coast just as there were in Europe.


In at the deep end again

Deep end No 5 came in January 1956 when Charter died (aged only 51) and I was asked to take over as head of SLUS, which was eventually reabsorbed into the Agriculture Department in 1957. That involved my promotion to Principal Agricultural Officer rank ten years ahead of when, following Government rules, I would normally have become eligible for such elevation.² By then, the Gold Coast was moving towards independence, which came in 1957. Nine of the ten UK soil surveyors who had been recruited in the early 1950s had reached or were coming to the end of their 5-year contracts and were not being replaced from overseas; (my contract had been extended for another five years). Our individual experiences are described anecdotally in Tony Young’s book on UK colonial and post-colonial land resource surveys (Young, 2007). Charter had specifically recruited bachelors: “one soil surveyor single = one soil surveyor; one soil surveyor married = half a soil surveyor; and one soil surveyor married with children is no damn use to me at all.” (He himself married twice, and had two children!) And that’s how it turned out with the ten of us recruited in the early-1950s: those who married returned to the UK at the end of their contracts and took up other careers; the only two who stayed in the profession remained old colonial bachelors.³


The first graduate Ghanaian field officer was appointed late in 1956 and a soil analyst in 1957, but no more until 1961. I struggled on with decreasing senior staff, my main objective being to ensure the writing up of the vast amount of new information on soils, vegetation and land use that had been acquired. Inter alia, that included making the first soil map of Ghana, and helping to organise and contribute to the book Agriculture and Land Use in Ghana (Wills, 1962).


Figure 2.2. Visit by Prince Philip to SLUS headquarters, Kwadaso

Amongst the pioneering findings of the soil surveys was Charter’s differentiation of two major soil groups in the country’s forest zone: Oxysols, strongly leached acid soils in high rainfall areas, considered unsuitable for cocoa production; and Ochrosols, less strongly leached soils in moderate rainfall areas and better suited for cocoa. Charter had also recognised what he termed ‘drift soils’ that were extensively developed throughout the country (and eventually seen widely in other tropical countries): soils with a superficial layer of fine earth (the ‘drift’) overlying an ironstone concretionary ± quartz gravel layer that overlay the weathered rock substratum. The term ‘drift’ arose from an analogy with glacial sedimentary drift in the U.K unrelated to the underlying ‘solid’ geology. In fact, during the course of our surveys, we recognised that the ‘drift’ was material brought up to the surface from lower soil layers and the substratum by the ubiquitous termites − in the same way that Darwin had recognised that earthworms brought fine material to the surface in English soils − leaving the coarse material behind as what we called the ‘stone line’ overlying the weathered rock.


There could have been a Deep end No 6. It was while attending the Independence Day celebrations in Kumasi in 1957 that I noticed a wriggly red line on one of my hands. The doctor identified it as caused by larva migrans, a small worm that he said was associated with dog faeces in the soil: “do you need to have your hands in soil?” he asked. He said the worm would die naturally, but advised that I have a check-up at the Tropical Diseases Hospital in London on my next home leave, which I did. There they turned up onchocerciasis (river blindness) – transmitted by Simulium damnosum, the aptly-named flies that had sometimes driven us off the tennis courts near the Kpong rapids on the Volta river where they bred − and filaria transmitted by a mangrove fly which would eventually have caused elephantiasis. I had spectacular rash reactions to the treatments such that the doctors asked did I mind if they brought their students to see them. Fortunately, the treatments worked, and those turned out to be the only serious health misadventures that I had while working in the tropics (though I did have delayed, career-related reactions after I retired, described in Chapter 6).


Going wider and deeper

Charter gave me lots of international experience. In April 1954, I attended the Second Congress of the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage in Algiers, followed by field trips through Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco; and on the way back, I spent a week visiting the Niger inland delta irrigation area around Bamako in what is now Mali. Later in 1954, I attended the Vth International Soil Science Congress at Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) in the Congo, where I nervously gave my first technical paper (on the black clay soils of the Gold Coast), followed by a field trip up the Congo river to places then named Stanleyville, Yangambi and Elizabethville.


Early in 1955, Charter sent me on a one-month field trip in a 15-cwt Bedford truck through Haute Volta (now Burkina Faso), essentially on a spying mission to see what the French were doing in the upper Volta river catchment that might interfere with downstream flow to the Volta dam at Akosombo which was then under construction. I recall arriving in Ouagadougou, the capital, as the town was celebrating the arrival of the first train from Abidjan in the Ivory Coast.


Figure 2.3. With Herbert Greene, Tropical Soils Adviser, visiting Uganda

There were other trips, too, to visit soil survey colleagues in Western Nigeria, driving each way through Togo and Dahomey observing − as I had in Haute Volta − the very different administration by the French, perhaps most noticeable in the French businesses and restaurants in quite small towns. Later, post-Charter, I visited former SLUS colleagues in Uganda and Sierra Leone; and also attended regional meetings at the Rice Research Station at Rokkupr in Sierra Leone and at a hill station in Guinea.


Ah, those were the days! For me, they came to an end with Ghanaianisation of my post in April 1961. However, while attending the VIIth International Soil Science Congress at Madison, Wisconsin, in August 1960, Louis Bramao, then head of the FAO soils service, invited me to join FAO with a view to my carrying out a soil survey in the Amazon Basin, to which I had readily agreed, of course. But that is another story!



Wills, J.B. (Ed) 1962 Agriculture and land use in Ghana. OUP, London


Young, A. 2007 Thin on the ground: Land resource surveys in British overseas territories. The Memoir Club, Weardale, Co Durham




¹ I also soon spent £25 (over half-a-month’s salary) on an Omega Sea-master wrist-watch, my original watch having quickly succumbed to the tropical heat and humidity. I am still wearing the Omega watch, more than 60 years after I bought it: surely one of the best investments that I ever made!

² It was at this time that I became Hugh. There was already a more senior Herbert when I was suddenly promoted to Principal rank. A move was made to call me Hubert (mercifully not Bertie!) which quickly became Hugh. To my colleagues in SLUS, I was – and still am – called Bram.

³ The single woman soil surveyor married and stayed teaching in West Africa for a time before returning to the U.K..

Ch 3. Soil surveying in East Pakistan 1961−1971


In at the deep end again

At the end of Chapter 2, I stated that FAO had recruited me for a soil survey in the Amazon Basin. Having hooked me, FAO changed my destination to East Pakistan. I recall being very disappointed at this switch – a sentiment strongly reinforced as I flew into the Province in September 1961 when all I could see below was water and wondered what I had let myself in for (Figure 3.1): mud, mud, inglorious mud? I could not have been more mistaken. The Amazon survey never took off as originally planned; and in East Pakistan, we eventually found a great diversity and complexity of soils, and identified wholly new soil-forming processes. It was an exciting place to be in the 1960s. Again, I could not have been more fortunate.


Figure 3.1. “Where am I going to carry out my soil survey?”


Ch 3. East Pakistan

It didn’t start well, however. I was at the East Pakistan end of an all-Pakistan project whose objective was to set up reconnaissance soil survey organisations in each wing of the country. Negotiations with central government took more than a year to complete before we could start to recruit and then train national staff. Several times, FAO HQ threatened to pull us out. It was almost two years before we could start field operations.


Preliminary observations

Given my ignorance of the new environment in which I had come to work, it was fortunate that project operations did not begin immediately. That allowed me to travel around the province to get ahead of my intended trainees. An FAO agricultural team was still working on the Ganges-Kobadak Irrigation Project in the west of the Province, so I took the opportunity of paying several visits to learn more about the soils and agriculture. I well recall my first visit in October 1961. Farmers had cut the newly-built flood embankment alongside the Ganges river in over 40 places, believing that the embankment would prevent fertile floodwater from benefitting their fields; (the embankment had, of course, been built without local consultation, as was the practice in those days). So I had to take what seemed to be an aluminium bathtub for my journey from the end of the road at Kushtia to the project HQ at Bheramara several miles upstream, a nerve-wracking experience on the fast-flowing, swirling Ganges, still in flood-flow in October.


The Province’s road network was poorly developed at that time. Travel to the south was by the ancient ‘Rocket’ paddle-steamer, a most enjoyable and relaxing way to travel. Travel to the North-west was by train, using a large ferry boat to cross the mighty Brahmaputra river between trains on each side; passengers had to walk across extensive areas of newly-deposited sand between the boat and trains on each side in the dry season, with baggage being head-loaded by porters. On my first trip up North, having crossed the Brahmaputra, I was highly embarrassed by my servant Andrew asking an older Bengali man to leave the spacious first class train compartment for the sahib (me), which the judge (for so he was) did – 15 years after British rule in India had ended!


On my arrival in Dhaka (then Dacca), I had found that my former next-door-neighbour in Kumasi was in East Pakistan, leading a Canadian team carrying out a soil and land use survey of the Chittagong Hill Tracts in the south-east of the Province. I paid them several visits over the next year, making sufficient traverses across the region with them – they had a helicopter for making quick access to traverses across the steep hill ranges and a speedboat for fast-planing up and down Kaptai Lake – so that I could later distil their multi-volume report and maps into our District report format without our having to survey the region ourselves.


The Water Board also had soil and agriculture survey parties, trained by earlier members of the FAO Ganges-Kobadak project team, now working in proposed irrigation project areas in other parts of the Province. Visiting them gave me the opportunity to gain a growing knowledge of important differences in the Province’s geomorphology, soils and agriculture. On one of these first visits, to an area near the foot of the Shillong Plateau (in India) and just before the main (aman) rice crop harvest in November 1961, I recall arriving in a small town in the late afternoon and my Water Board companion being unable to buy more than a single egg in the market for our intended evening meal; (I forget now how we survived). I witnessed poverty and malnutrition that I had never seen in the Gold Coast/Ghana.


In fact, I recall feeling, for the first few months in East Pakistan, as though I was falling without a parachute. The social environment was so different from that in Ghana where, especially in the south, the people were very outgoing and friendly, and women played an important role in society: indeed, ‘mammies’ ran market operations, and banks and trading companies willingly advanced them many thousands of pounds to operate their businesses. Conditions were quite different in East Pakistan. Poverty was manifestly more prevalent, and women were concealed. It took me time to adjust my sensors and gradually to appreciate the customs and tickle-points of my new colleagues and society.


Brain stretching

Eventually, the project got under way. In East Pakistan, I recruited 20 novice soil surveyors. All but one had MSc degrees in soil science (the other an M.A. in Agriculture), but none had ever seen a soil, and only one had previously seen a topographical map: (not their fault, the Defence Dept had classified all maps ‘restricted’ after Partition in 1947). The project therefore started with an extensive training programme. There were initial practical difficulties with this: the recruits had joined for the status of becoming central government officers (superior to Provincial status, thereby enhancing their future marriage prospects); and their prime concern was about the size of their desks, the equipment on them and the number of peons to service them. There was some reluctance to undertake practical training in the field. I still recall the magical moment – perhaps a common experience with teachers? – when, two months into the training programme, I realised that I had them with me and not against me: I could still go back to the spot on the road where one morning I saw the new look in their eyes. But I still dug or augered every inspection hole during that first year.

In the winter of 1963-64, the training programme gradually merged into the reconnaissance soil survey of Dacca District. Even near the capital, road communications at that time were still poor. Much of the District had to be surveyed from boats: a hired launch to live on; fibreglass dinghies with outboard motors for access to field traverse start and end points (sometimes a daunting experience on rivers as big as the Ganges, and later on rivers in the Meghna estuary and the tidal delta). I well remember my first view of the confluence of the mighty Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers: a high career point for a geographer!


Figure 3.2. Floating field base, Meghna river, 1963


During 1964-65, three other FAO staff members joined me, so that henceforth we were able to operate three District surveys each year. My role then changed to visiting each of the field parties several times each field season (December-May), maintaining soil correlation, and later assisting with report preparation and writing. I should add that we were able to use excellent airphotos on 1: 30,000 scale, quite different from the virtually unusable RAF post-war airphotos in the Gold Coast taken in the hazy harmattan season (and apparently sometimes developed in diesel oil). Our project headquarters was at Lahore in West Pakistan which I visited for project meetings at two-month intervals throughout the project, sometimes enjoying magnificent views of the Himalayas as the Constellation aircraft flapped its long wings across northern India. From 1968, I became Project Commissioner responsible for the surveys in both wings, but I continued to live in Dacca. I confess that I never developed an interest in arid soils.


My experience in Pakistan was broadened by field trips while attending international soil congress meetings: in Australia and New Zealand in 1964 (supplemented by private visits to Hawaii and California on my way to Britain on home leave); in southern Spain and Portugal in 1966; and in Russia from Moscow to the Crimea preceding the meeting in Bucharest, Roumania, in 1968.


This was an exciting time to be soil surveying, especially in the tropics. One was constantly moving into terra incognita, setting up and testing hypotheses attempting to explain one’s findings, and recording one’s information on maps and eventually in reports. Much of what we found was new to soil science. We found that East Pakistan’s floodplains were mainly flooded by ponded rainwater, not by silty river water. That had important implications both for soil formation and for soil fertility. The alluvium was above water for sufficiently long in the dry season for rapid soil development to take place, and seasonal flooding with rainwater rapidly leached topsoils. Therefore, instead of the boring raw alluvium that I had expected to find on my arrival, we found a great diversity and complexity of developed soils. Inter alia, we found subsoil soil coatings in seasonally-flooded soils that had not previously been reported; and we identified a wholly new soil-forming process (ferrolysis) which my colleague Robert Brinkman worked out later on a PhD thesis study at Wageningen. It was both challenging and rewarding, too, to be on the front line of an international network that was then developing successive iterations of what eventually became the FAO/Unesco Soil Map of the World and the USDA Seventh Approximation (later Soil Taxonomy).


Interesting and important as were our scientific findings, our surveys always had a practical objective: to provide the basis for increased agricultural production, farmers’ incomes and food security. I spent much time thinking of and developing ways to provide our new information in ways that could be understood and used by government planners, extension workers and students. That, too, was a challenging task, and one that I was fortunately able to carry forward in a following re-incarnation in Bangladesh (described in Chapter 5). I pulled together our findings in East Pakistan in my final reports to FAO and in the first soil map of the Bangladesh-to-be, later summarised in Brammer (1996).


Traumas in 1970-71

East Pakistan was struck by a megacyclone in November 1970. Cyclones had seemed a normal part of the climate: nine cyclones affected coastal areas in the 1960s, one of which had reached Dacca in May 1965 (when I happened to be out of town). The November 1970 cyclone was much bigger: eventually it was estimated that 300,000 (perhaps 500,000) people lost their lives. The UNDP office put me in charge of organising UN agricultural relief and rehabilitation efforts. We had carried out soil surveys of almost all the affected areas by then, so I was familiar with the different environments and what might be appropriate measures in different areas. I did what I could …


… but I never found out the extent to which it was used or usable. Political conditions were deteriorating in late-1970 and early-1971, culminating in political strikes and eventually the West Pakistan military crack-down in April 1971. To cut a harrowing story short, I was evacuated to Rome. For most of the next six months, I was seconded to the World Bank in Washington to assist with the East Pakistan Land and Water Sector Study then in preparation, for which I produced the first 1:500,000-scale hydrological and land use maps of the province. The Bank then sought to attract me to a project in Mexico. Fortunately, at the critical point when I had to make a yes/no decision over the telephone, I was out of my room back in FAO headquarters, and before the second call came from Washington, FAO had offered me a post in Indonesia and I was able to decline the Bank offer. What actually came next will be described in Chapter 4.





Brammer H. 1996 The geography of the soils of Bangladesh. University Press Ltd, Dhaka

Ch 4. Zambian interlude 1972−1974


As I indicated at the end of Chapter 3, FAO saved me in the nick of time from accepting a World Bank job in Mexico by offering me a posting to Indonesia. But then, as had happened once before, that posting was delayed and I was invited instead to take a 12 months’ posting to Zambia, where I went in January 1972. That was an OPAS assignment in which I occupied the government post of Senior Soil Scientist and FAO topped up my salary. It was a way in which I preferred to work: in a responsible role, not merely as an adviser. My supposed task was to defrost a team of Norwegians on offer from their government to strengthen a rudimentary national soils team in the Ministry of Rural Development. In the event, the Norwegian team did not come for over a year, and my assignment was extended for another 12 months.

My soils work in Zambia was very different from that in the Gold Coast/Ghana and in East Pakistan: a new challenge, in fact. Whereas in those territories I had been part of a large organisation working on reconnaissance soil surveys and increasingly in a managerial capacity, in Zambia I was very much on my own and the priorities were surveys for soil conservation in settled areas and for assessment of possible areas for new settlement in ‘bush’ areas. My formal counterpart was a young Zambian soil scientist working on the central agricultural research station at Mt Makulu outside the capital Lusaka. However, his other duties often prevented him from joining me, so I frequently went out accompanied only by a driver/assistant in a Land Rover equipped with a power auger mounted on the back and with a strengthened front bumper which enabled us to force our way through bush with trees up to 4 inches in diameter (and making enough noise to frighten off lions or elephants that occupied the bush: one of my predecessors, Dick Webster, working alone, had spent a day in a soil profile pit surrounded by a herd of elephants giving a rumbling commentary on his occupation). It was hands-on work for me as a soil surveyor! Later, a young British Planning Officer − Barry Clayton (not the bottom-scratcher in Figure 4.1) − was transferred to assist me; and, eventually, the Norwegian soils team arrived and were introduced to tropical soils and their management.


Figure 4.1. Inspecting power-auger sample with driver/assistant and Land Planning Officer in Zambia


Ch 4. Zambia

Again, this was an interesting and exciting experience, often in remote savannah environments (MMBA to some!)⁴, following in the footsteps of an illustrious ecologist predecessor, Colin Trapnell. I recall two incidents in particular. One was the moment when − deep in the bush, probably many miles away from the nearest other person except for my driver − I came to a novel conclusion about the genesis and classification of soils extensively developed on the Barotse sands in western Zambia and wondered where this side of the moon one could, in 1973, turn up 20- (perhaps 30-) thousand square miles of terra previously incognita.


The other incident was my encounter with a young British ecologist who was visually upset by my answer to her question about the effect on the environment of cutting down savannah trees for agricultural expansion: desertification was her firm conviction; a rising water-table with reduced evapotranspiration was mine. As it happened, later on that field trip, I was approached by an older British ecologist who had been sent out to examine why riverine forest in that area of eastern Zambia was reported to be dying and had found it dying in the wrong places: from waterlogging at the lower end of the valleys, not from drought at their upper end.


In my 24 months in Zambia, I visited all but one of its 52 Districts (together with – in the course of duty! − the Victoria Falls and several of the country’s game parks). Before my departure in January 1974, I produced a new soil map of the country with both a technical and a popular report on the country’s soils (Brammer, 1973a, b). Although I did not know it then, that was the end of my soil survey career, after 22 years working constantly on the frontiers of scientific knowledge. The unexpected change that came next will be described in Chapter 5.



Brammer, H 1973a  Soils of Zambia, 1971-1973. Soil Survey Report No 11, with 1:2.5 million soil map of Zambia. Ministry of Rural Development, Zambia


Brammer, H 1973b  Soils of Zambia. (A popular account of soil survey and the soils of Zambia), Rural Information Services, Ministry of Rural Development, Zambia





Miles and Miles of Bloody Africa.

Ch 5. Agricultural Development Adviser in Bangladesh 1974−1987



When I left Zambia in January 1974, FAO had planned to keep me in Africa and, after my home-leave, send me to Sierra Leone. I welcomed that opportunity, to work on some of that continent’s poorest soils in the hope that I could find ways to increase agricultural production on them: (in those days, our sole objective was to ‘develop’ soils for agricultural production; preservation of the natural environment was not then a planning objective).


But that was not to be. At the request of the World Bank, FAO immediately sent me from Zambia to the new Bangladesh to help resolve a controversy that had arisen between an official view that the new, IRRI (International Rice Research Institute), high-yielding rice varieties (HYVs) could be grown only under irrigated conditions, and a lay view that the new varieties could be grown under rainfed conditions wherever traditional varieties were already grown. I was tasked with reviewing our soils information to resolve the controversy. I was given two months for the task; in the event, it took four.


With a Bangladeshi soil survey counterpart, I went through all our crop suitability assessments, interviewed rice research specialists and experienced Agricultural Extension staff, and made relevant field visits. I came up with much the same conclusions as the lay advocates: 6.1 million acres suitable under rainfed conditions in the pre-monsoon aus season and 6.6 million acres in the monsoon aman season, with almost 3 million acres suitable for double cropping of HYV aus-HYV aman. This, I should add, was before the potential to expand HYV boro rice cultivation in the dry season with groundwater irrigation was realised. In 2015-16, Bangladesh had nearly 12 million acres under boro paddy (99% HYV), 13.8 million acres under aman (73% HYV) and 2.5 million acres under aus (80% HYV). Annual rice production (34.7 million tons in 2015-16) has almost kept pace with the tripling of the human population since I first went to Dhaka in 1961 (though how much I had to do with that is quite uncertain!).

Getting involved

After the HYV rice assessment, I went on my delayed home-leave. Inevitably perhaps, I was then invited back to Bangladesh to help implement the recommendations that I had made. That opened up a wholly new career for me. On my return to Dhaka in September 1974, I began working as an adviser to the Secretary for Agriculture, Mr Anisuzzaman, who coincidentally had taken over as Secretary on the day I first went into the Secretariat building to meet him. We worked closely together for most of my remaining 13 years in Bangladesh as he moved from Agriculture Secretary to Rural Development Secretary and then to Chairman of the Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation (responsible inter alia for distributing small irrigation pumps, fertilisers and new HYV seed). This was both a novel and a frustrating experience. The Secretary liked to hold large gatherings around his desk, and seemingly needed 50 opinions before he would take a decision. On the other hand, he was an enthusiastic field visitor, and during his five years as Agriculture Secretary we spent much time, weekdays and weekends alike, visiting low-lift pump irrigation sites, agricultural research stations and seed multiplication farms. He was an ardent fan of ‘Yes Minister!’, requesting me to tune into radio repeats as we travelled.

Almost my first task on my return from home-leave, however, was to help organise an agricultural rehabilitation programme following the severe flood in 1974 (that was later followed by a famine). That involved working with other agricultural agencies in assessing crop damage and arranging relevant programmes to help affected farmers to grow crops in the following dry season. Over the years, I gained considerable experience in helping to organise such programmes, and one of the achievements of which I am most proud was, in 1980, drafting a Drought Code, then a Flood and Cyclone Code, on the pattern of the earlier Indian Famine and Relief Codes, setting out procedures for agricultural officials, local government councils and NGOs to help farmers to avoid or minimise disaster impacts and to recover from crop losses after disasters: (the two codes are summarised in Brammer, 1999).

An early activity, too, was organising and participating in task forces to assess progress with, first, the HYV aman rice programme, then subsequently an HYV wheat expansion programme. By 1974, the area under HYV aman (the main monsoon season rice crop) was reported to be 2.2 million acres. I organised multidisciplinary teams to visit each of the country’s four regions to assess actual achievements and joined one of the teams. In the first Union (lowest administrative unit) that we visited, the Agricultural Assistant could not show us more than 2 or 3 acres of the 2,000 acres that he had reported to be under HYV rice. In one Thana (the next higher administrative unit), we found that the 1,000 acres the Thana officer had reported had been increased to 10,000 acres at District level. And so it went on. We had to be discreet in our report; but, privately, I told the Secretary that I did not think there was as much as 1 million acres of HYV aman. It took some years for reality to catch up with the reported achievement

I was closely involved in operating the World Bank-promoted Training & Visit (T&V) System in the 1970s. This system did, I think, provide a better sense of purpose to Extension activities than existed earlier. But I found that, as operated, it was not well adapted to the complex farming systems of Bangladesh. I recall on one field visit observing farmers harvesting wheat, then finding the Thana Agricultural Officer at the next place where I stopped telling farmers about pest control in wheat because that was the subject planned for teaching that fortnight in instructions received from on high. Operated bureaucratically, the system did not allow for local flexibility. Cooperation between Extension, Research and input supply agencies was also difficult to achieve: like trying to coordinate negatively-charged particles I once reported.

Throughout, I continued to assist and review the field programmes of the agricultural research and extension agencies. That entailed frequent travel, alone or with Government ministers or officials; (on one trip, I recall persuading a junior minister to state “no representation without taxation” in his speech to assembled local council members!). In all, I visited virtually all of Bangladesh’s near-500 Thanas (now Upazilas) during my two innings in East Pakistan/Bangladesh, an invaluable information resource in my advisory role, both then and after my retirement.

Other activities

In 1979, Mr Anisuzzaman, by then Secretary for Rural Development, sought to revive the Comilla model of local development planning that had been set up by Akhter Hamid Khan in the 1960s but which had virtually collapsed after Independence in 1971. For two years, with help from two officers from the soil survey organisation (SRDI), I organised two-week courses at the Comilla Rural Development Academy (and later at the Agricultural University at Mymensingh) for successive groups of Thana (subdistrict) councillors and officials to show them how to use the information in soil survey reports for local land use planning (described in Brammer, 2002). In all, about 400 councillors and officials from 94 Thanas were trained, but full national implementation was stopped by a military coup in 1981, (one of several coups I experienced in East Pakistan/Bangladesh).

Involvement in the rehabilitation programme after the 1974 flood disaster had brought me into close contact with NGOs. That was a time of intensive development activity in Bangladesh. A charismatic former high-ranking government official, Mahbubul Alam Chasi, was then vigorously promoting a village self-help programme (Swanirvar Bangladesh) outside official procedures, which I helped by preparing a village land-use planning manual. Also, hundreds of NGOs were doing their own thing, operating independently of government policies and plans. I regularly attended meetings of ADAB (Agricultural Development Agencies in Bangladesh) and, throughout my second innings in Dhaka, wrote articles for their monthly newsletter ADAB News. That was a way not only to inform NGOs of my technical information; it was also a way for me to think through my field observations and ideas. In all, I wrote over 60 articles for ADAB News; I also wrote 100 technical guides for planning, research and extension staff and 28 conference papers. This ‘grey literature’ provided invaluable material when I came to write up my experience in the first six books that I produced on soils, disaster preparedness and agricultural development in Bangladesh after I retired.


It wasn’t all fieldwork, of course. I recall making trips to attend meetings in New Delhi and Bangkok; visiting Hong Kong en route to or from three meetings that I attended at IRRI in the Philippines; making an extensive tour in China with a group of UN friends from Dhaka just before the end of the Cultural Revolution (a visit which the Chinese refused to recognise was unofficial, so we were given the full official treatment, speeches, toasts and all); visiting Bhutan, Assam and Meghalaya (including Cherrapunji: Figure 5.1) on holiday with continuing Hove friends Edward and Mavis Clay; and having a long holiday touring in Oregon and Wyoming, and visiting ex-Kumasi and Chittagong Hill Tracts friends in Vancouver (three times, in fact, over the years).


Figure 5.1. Visiting the world’s wettest meteorological station at Cherrapunji − on a dry day

Ch 5. Bangladesh

Agroecological Zones Project

From 1979 until I left the country in 1987, I also managed the FAO/UNDP Agroecological Zones Study in addition to my role as Agricultural Development Adviser. We filled a room with the huge computers of that time, trained staff – including the first young professional women in the department – and input the huge amount of soils data collected in the 1960s and early 1970s together with available climate and hydrological data in order to make a comprehensive assessment of the country’s agricultural development potential. That provided the data base for national and regional agricultural development planning for many years to come.


It is rare for a soil surveyor to see his data used and recommendations implemented. Usually, one moved on to new surveys, often in a different country, leaving behind a report that probably merely gathered dust because no-one knew how to use the information. I was fortunate to return to Bangladesh, therefore, and fortunate, too, that FAO did not move me on after the usual maximum assignment of five years in a country (though they tried). But government requested that I stay, and it suited me to stay where I felt I could be most useful. I was honoured by receiving the Bangladesh President’s Gold Medal for Agriculture in 1979, FAO’s B.R. Sen Award in 1981 ‘for the field officer who has made the most outstanding contribution to the advancement of the country to which he/she has been assigned’, and the O.B.E. on my retirement in 1987.


Figure 5.2 Receiving the B.R. Sen award from Eduard Saouma, FAO Director-General, 1981

I did not feel ready for retirement at 62, FAO’s mandatory retirement age. But, instead of the garden with a cottage attached that I thought lay ahead, another 30-year career unexpectedly opened up, to be described in the next chapter.




Brammer H. 1999 Agricultural disaster management in Bangladesh. University Press Ltd, Dhaka


Brammer H 2002 Land use and land use planning in Bangladesh. University Press Ltd, Dhaka

Ch 6. Enjoying an active retirement 1987−present


Back to Bangladesh

At 62 (retirement age in FAO), I did not feel ready to retire; (I still don’t at 92!). I settled in Hove, about as near to the Equator in Britain as I could get (having remembered how cold Cambridge was in winter in the 1940s) and spent a year as a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Sussex. The objective was to write up my material on Bangladesh in a development context. In the event, I didn’t get much written. Serious floods in Bangladesh in 1987 and 1988 stimulated international donors to seek what could be done to prevent such recurrent disasters. So, in 1988, I found myself invited back to Bangladesh: first on a UNDP-funded Agriculture Sector Study, and then the UNDP-funded Flood Policy Study which led to the World Bank-led Flood Action Plan (FAP) on which I was a visiting consultant from 1989 until 1995. Between times, I spent a month in Hanoi on a UNDP-funded preparatory disaster management study, two weeks on a FAO project identification mission on the Irrawaddy floodplain in Burma (now Myanmar) and a month in St Lucia in the Caribbean on a World Bank-funded rehabilitation study after hurricane Debby in 1994.


On a field trip in Bangladesh during the FAP period, I recall encountering persons living alongside the west bank of the Brahmaputra-Jamuna river where the embankment was threatened by riverbank erosion. They pleaded with me for groynes to be built to prevent the river devouring their land, which their families had probably owned for generations and on which they depended for a living (and their social status). I recall feeling humbled, as a professional, by the experience of not being able to offer them hope of a technical solution to this awful problem. In Bangladesh’s quasi-feudal society, people expect their patrons – in this case the government – to protect them, regardless (even oblivious) of the practicality and cost (in the same way as, during negotiation of the Flood Policy Study, government representatives had asserted that flood protection for Bangladesh was not a matter of economics: it was a human right, which donors must support).


… and to Zambia

I also spent a month back in Zambia. The Director-General of FAO had raised an interesting question. He had observed that the FAO agroecological zones map of Africa showed large areas of land in Zambia well-suited for agriculture, and had asked why much of it was unused. Someone had noticed that there was a lime quarry north of the capital Lusaka and had suggested that lime might be a remedy for the acid soils.


Soil acidity, I found, was not the limitation. It was socio-economic conditions that were impeding agricultural development in large, sparely-populated parts of the country; (this was in the days before environmental considerations entered into land evaluations). In traditional farming, women were the cultivators; the role of men was mainly to cut and burn the trees that had grown in the 10−20 fallow years between cultivation periods. But most of the able men who could cut trees had gone off to find employment on the Zambian Copper Belt or in South African mines, so the traditional system of soil fertility renewal had broken down, and crop yields and farm incomes were low. Moreover, fertilisers – which might have to travel 1,000 miles by rail and road from ports in South Africa or Mozambique − were much too expensive to use on subsistence or locally-marketed crops in interior parts of the country. With low population densities, too, and poor rural roads, it was uneconomic for farmers to produce crops for urban markets beyond a radius of a few miles; poor water supplies for drinking, livestock or irrigation use were also limitations in some areas. Physical soil capability was not the only criterion that influenced development potential, therefore; the limitation in this case was economics. I don’t think that my puncturing of a panacea technical solution was welcomed in HQ!

Book writing

At the end of the Bangladesh Flood Action Plan in 1995, I at last got down to writing up my experience in that country. The first book, published in 1996, put on the record our soil findings and was addressed particularly to students and visiting consultants. I went on to write five more books on various aspects of agricultural development and disaster management in Bangladesh, then in 2004 what I thought would be the seventh and final one which pulled together the information on floods and flood management that I had gained while working on the Flood Action Plan. I had the books published in Bangladesh because that is where I wanted the information to be used.

Throughout my retirement, I continued to write journal articles on soils and agricultural development (listed in a separate section). Inter alia, I wrote articles for the Tropical Agriculture Association of which I was a member, and for several years contributed cartoons drawn by a former FAO colleague, the late Tony Smyth: see Figure 6.1.

Figure 6.1 Cartoon in Tropical Agriculture Association Newsletter, December 2001

Ch 6. Retirement

Research studies

A new interest then appeared. In 2004, I had learned of the problem of arsenic contamination of groundwater in Bangladesh and West Bengal, then successively of its occurrence in Nepal and Myanmar (Burma). The arsenic was not only affecting drinking water; it was also being taken up by rice grown with contaminated irrigation water. That prompted me to initiate a study seeking to find out more about the causative environmental conditions as a possible means to predict where else in the world the problem might arise. Initially, I thought to arrange this through the Royal Geographical Society, but Professor Keith Richards of the University of Cambridge suggested that we undertake the study though the Geography Department there. That had the additional advantages that, by funding this through Downing College, the college benefitted from Gift Aid to help fund student field studies and the university did not make an administrative charge of 20 percent (as also would have done the RGS).


We were highly fortunate in being able to recruit Peter Ravenscroft to undertake this study between 2005 and 2008. A hydrogeologist with several years’ experience of groundwater development in Bangladesh, he identified four different natural causes of arsenic pollution of groundwater and its actual or potential occurrence in more than 70 countries on all five inhabited continents. I contributed a chapter on agricultural implications to the book we published (Ravenscroft et al., 2009), and later authored or joint-authored three technical papers on the subject (Brammer, 2008; Brammer & Ravenscroft, 2009; Brammer, 2009).

Then, on a visit to Bangladesh in 2009, I organised studies at the Bangladesh Agricultural University, Mymensingh, to follow up earlier reported findings of high arsenic contents in some rice samples from areas where groundwater used for irrigation was known to be low in arsenic. These studies confirmed that − under the conditions under which rice is generally grown, in flooded paddy fields − the crop (or some varieties) could accumulate arsenic in low-arsenic areas (i.e., the plant was an arsenic scavenger). Late in 2012, I was informed that further analyses of the several hundred soil and rice samples from Bangladesh analysed for arsenic showed that some also contained high levels of cadmium, which is toxic to humans at even lower concentrations than is arsenic; later analyses also showed high lead levels in some samples. I therefore organised further field studies in 2013 to try to find causes and remedies (unfortunately disrupted by pre-election political disturbances in Bangladesh). Poor Bangladesh: it has enough problems to contend with without having toxic elements in it staple food crop!


One other activity that has occupied part of my time and interest since 2008 is supporting and contributing to a study of old maps of Bengal, again organised through the Cambridge Geography Department and mainly being carried out by consultant researcher Mrs Pat Saunders (who, by one of those remarkable coincidences that life occasionally throws up, we discovered had lived in Chilanga, only two miles from the Mt Makulu research station in Zambia where I had been based in 1972-74, though we had never met). The objectives are to prepare a guideline for use in Bangladesh and West Bengal to maps held in British libraries dating back to Ptolemy’s first map covering the area in ca 150 AD and to try to determine the history of river changes in the region shown on successive maps up to modern times.


Writing more books

In 2008, I re-analysed all the data in the 34 reconnaissance soil survey reports on East Pakistan/Bangladesh in order to prepare a new physiographic map of the country and produce a new book (Brammer, 2012) in which I put on the record all my knowledge and experience of the geomorphology and soils of that country as a platform for others to build on.


Also in 2008, I attended a meeting in London on climate change in Bangladesh between representatives of the UK and Bangladesh governments. At that meeting, I was disturbed by the anecdotal evidence quoted for on-going climate change. I took up the latter point with Bangladeshi delegates after the meeting, advising that they could obtain factual evidence for any change in climate by analysing the 24 years of data recorded since 1984, the end of the period for which data had been analysed on the FAO AEZ study referred to in Chapter 5, but I found no interest.


Figure 6.2 Plaque received from Bangladesh Agricultural University 2009

Therefore, with the help of the FAO Representative in Bangladesh and CEGIS (the Centre for GIS studies), I obtained 50 years of daily temperature and monthly rainfall data from Dhaka, and spent many months in 2010-11 analysing them myself to measure actual climate trends (at first with a hand calculator, until I learned how to use spreadsheets!). Important findings were that maximum temperatures in the hot dry season had decreased (which I considered might be due to the great expansion of dry-season irrigation of boro paddy since 1960) and that – contrary to popular assumptions and assertions − neither temperature nor rainfall variability had increased, nor had flood, drought or cyclone frequencies increased. However, virtually all the country’s meteorological stations are in urban areas (which have expanded rapidly in recent decades) and are thus subject to a ‘heat island’ effect, so it is uncertain what has actually happened to temperatures in rural areas where crops are grown. I wrote up my findings in my ninth book on Bangladesh (Brammer, 2014). I acknowledge the great help that I had from Dr Jie Ding, then a graduate research student in Cambridge, in preparing the many figures that went into that book.

I also had a post-graduate research student in the Geography Department, (later Dr) Park Jong-Soon, analyse satellite images to measure changes on the coast of Bangladesh between 1984 and 2008 (to follow up an earlier academic study that had measured changes between 1792 and 1984). He found a net annual gain of almost 20 sq km of sediment accretion over erosion in the Meghna estuary, which – if it continued − I considered would be more than sufficient to counter predicted rates of sea-level rise in the estuary in the 21st century. I also drew attention to the possibility of raising land levels on tidal floodplains by natural tidal sedimentation ('warping'). I included these findings in my ninth book (Brammer, 2014), drawing attention also to the diverse physiographic regions in Bangladesh’s coastal area and the different, area-specific, mitigation measures that might be appropriate in each of them to counter predicted levels of sea-level rise.

Then, to make the number up to ten, I wrote an illustrated 100-page summary volume on Bangladesh’s landscapes, soil fertility and climate change (Brammer, 2016), a Bengali translation of which will be published in 2018.

Still batting

A new interest and occupation arose in 2011 when I was invited onto the editorial committee of the journal Agriculture for Development published by the Tropical Agriculture Association of which I had been a member since my retirement from active service (well, from paid service!). In addition to editing, I’ve written a number of articles for the journal and was given the Association’s Award of Merit in 2012.

In 2006, I was honoured to receive the Royal Geographical Society’s Busk medal for scientific discovery and research (Figure 6.3); and I was further honoured in October 2013 to be invited to become the Honorary President of the Downing College geographical society and to have the society named the Brammer Geographical Society.

Figure 6.3. After receipt of the Royal Geographical Society’s Busk medal 2006

I have continued to write papers for academic journals; (I am easily provoked by areas of ignorance that I identify!). I also regularly referee articles on Bangladesh for a number of academic journals. A list of my main career publications is given in a separate section.


What more remains to be done, I wonder, before I feel ready to retire? I have so far enjoyed a physically and mentally active retirement, probably a reflection of the stimulating career challenges that I experienced. I’ve undoubtedly become a workaholic in the past few years. I have a stack of books and several years of unread journals waiting to be read when I can overcome the sense of guilt when I try to do so. However, I have helped to look after my youngest brother’s garden on my monthly visits to Yorkshire. Until recently, I also helped friends in Hove with an allotment, and I walk as much as I can to try to keep fit. I also keep in touch with old friends: in 2005, friends from my Gold Coast, East Pakistan, Bangladesh and FAP days gave me an 80th birthday party in Downing, attended by the High Commissioner for Bangladesh and Mr Mohiuddin Ahmed, the publisher of my books in Bangladesh; and another such gathering was organised for my 90th birthday in 2015.


Despite the sometimes tortuous working and living conditions in testing tropical environments that I experienced, I am probably as fit and well now at 92 as if I had suffered a less-challenging, home-based career. However, I did not get away completely scot-free. Several times after I retired, I had solar keratoses (pieces of hard skin) removed from my face and hands with liquid Nitrogen, and I later had two minor operations to remove skin cancers from an eyebrow and an ear lobe, no doubt a consequence of ‘getting my knees brown’ in the tropics (as we were advised to do in those early days). In 2004, I had an ulcer on my neck removed, the biopsy for which indicated Bowen’s disease which only later, on the global arsenic study, I discovered could have been related to my drinking arsenic-contaminated water long ago on fieldwork in East Pakistan/Bangladesh; (the Dhaka water supply is not affected).

I slipped a disc at Rome airport in 1985 which has subsequently occasionally immobilised me for a few days. Not retributive, but more likely genetic, I have had several attacks of gout since 1979 which I know how to control by dieting (but with painful consequences when I have occasionally lapsed). Genetic, too, I have had an increasing hearing problem for the past several years, such that I have mainly given up attending meetings. The problem is not volume; it is selectivity. My doctor didn’t think that a hearing aid − no matter how hi-tech and expensive – would solve the problem, implying that he thinks the problem is not with my ears but what lies between them. He could be right!


Brammer H 2008 Threat of arsenic to agriculture in India, Bangladesh and Nepal. Economic & Political Weekly XLIII.47: 79−84

Brammer H 2009 Mitigation of arsenic contamination in irrigated paddy soils in South and South-east Asia. Env. Int. 35: 856−863

Brammer H and P Ravenscroft 2009 Arsenic in groundwater: a threat to sustainable agriculture in South and South-east Asia. Env. Int. 35: 647−654

Ravenscroft P, H Brammer & K Richards 2009 Arsenic pollution: a global synthesis. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, U.K.

Brammer H 2012  The physical geography of Bangladesh. University Press Ltd, Dhaka

Brammer, H 2014 Climate change, sea-level rise and development in Bangladesh. University Press Ltd, Dhaka

Brammer H. 2016  Bangladesh: Landscapes, soil fertility and climate change. University Press Ltd, Dhaka 

Ch 7. Afterthoughts


Myths 1: Science 0

Despite all that I have written to the contrary over the past almost 50 years, it is still generally believed in Bangladesh and by foreigners that the reputed fertility of Bangladesh’s soils derives from annual increments of river alluvium deposited during the seasonal floods. I made another attempt to puncture this myth in my Book 10 (see the publications list); but past history gives me no confidence that I will succeed: as Galileo discovered, people much prefer the manifestly obvious to scientific proof.

To summarise the proof, our soil surveys in East Pakistan in the mid-1960s already showed that the greater part of the country’s floodplains had soils 25−>100 cm deep, not the raw alluvium that would have prevailed if annual sedimentation was occurring (and as, in fact, does occur on the strip of ‘active floodplains’ immediately alongside and on islands within the rivers). Our surveys also showed that most of the soils had strongly acid topsoils, even on the Ganges River Floodplain where new alluvium contains lime.


Travelling in the monsoon season also showed that the greater part of the floodplains – the so-called meander floodplains lying between the rivers − were flooded by rainwater and the raised groundwater-table ponded on the land when the major rivers were running at high levels in the monsoon season with water entering the country from their upper catchment areas, over 90 percent of which lay outside East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Several times when travelling by road during the monsoon season I saw land flooded by clear water, sometimes within short distances of major river channels: see Figure 7.1. The silty water sometimes seen in floodplain basins came from surface wash from higher floodplain ridge soils exposed to heavy pre-monsoon and monsoon rainfall before the latter sites were flooded; and soils in the clay washed into basin sites were very strongly acid, sometimes to depths of more than 50 cm, which could not have been the case if the clay had been derived solely from neutral to alkaline new river alluvium.


Figure 7.1  Ganges river and floodplain in the monsoon season

Ch 7. Afterthoughts

Two other factors were found to contribute to soil fertility in seasonally-flooded soils. One was the important finding – made by a scientist working with deepwater rice in Bangladesh in the 1970s − that blue-green algae living on the soils and on submerged plant stems could provide significant amounts of nitrogen to soils. The other factor was ferrolysis, the process of clay destruction by reduced iron in flooded soils worked out by my colleague Robert Brinkman, a process which also released minerals such as potash and calcium into topsoils. Such natural fertility sources were sufficient to produce the modest crop yields obtained with traditional crop varieties and cultivation practices up to the 1950s, but considerable amounts of fertilisers together with modern crop varieties (and supplemented by irrigation in the dry season) are now required to provide the yields and production needed to support a population three times bigger than it was at the end of the 1950s.


Best experience

On reflection, I think the happiest memory of my field days is of my first visit to the Haluaghat area in East Pakistan in November 1961 on which, in Chapter 3, I recalled my Bengali colleague not being able to find more than a single egg in the market for our intended evening meal. But it was on that visit, in the clear ‘autumn’ weather following the retreat of the monsoon circulation, that I recall experiencing the overwhelming feeling of elation associated with seeing the maturing aman rice crop, a feeling engendered solely by viewing the golden fields, before I met any of the farmers in the area (Figure 7.2). It was a deeply satisfying experience that was to follow many times, for our field season each year in East Pakistan started at the beginning of the dry season as the aman rice crop was being harvested. I can feel that joyful sensation now as I reflect on the experience. Come to think of it, I experience similar elation when I witness ripening wheat fields in the U.K. in August (and of sadness when I see storm-damaged crops): clearly, I have deep-rooted Neolithic instincts!


Figure 7.2  Aman paddy harvest near Haluaghat November 1961

There were many other pleasant experiences, of course. Fieldwork provided opportunities to see landscapes, vegetation and cultural structures off the beaten track that ordinary visitors would not see (such as seeing Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas from the NW tip of East Pakistan on my first visit North in 1961); and field work in Zambia and attendance at international meetings provided wonderful opportunities to visit game parks and countries that would have cost a fortune to visit as a tourist (and might not even have been thought of for that purpose: Russia and the Ukraine in 1968, for instance). I grew very fond of viewing the paddy fields of East Pakistan/Bangladesh, and came to appreciate the centimetric differences in floodplain elevations recognised by the farmers that are significant for rice cultivation (but which a Chilean colleague, used to mega-metric differences in elevation in his home country, confessed to me on his departure that he had never been able to recognise).


Worst experience

I don’t remember a particular worst experience. That isn’t to say that there weren’t bad experiences. There were unpleasant experiences: exposure to extreme heat and rain (and even a sleepless night spent in a tent in the west of Dhaka District in 1963 when the night temperature went down to 430F); stomach upsets; my single experience of malaria (on a field trip in Northern Gold Coast); concern about the well-being of field parties not returning to camp on time and sending out search parties to find them; brushes with mindless bureaucracy in East Pakistan and Bangladesh; the helpless feeling engendered by the sense of lack of government during coups; and the fear and revulsion generated by the 1971 political trauma in Dhaka. Exhaustion from extreme heat and desiccation on a mission to Saudi Arabia must rank close to my worst field experiences; and, as described below, mangrove swamps were not my favourite work environment.


Least favourite environment

I do not hold the romantic views of mangrove forest that some environmentalists patently do. Without a doubt, mangrove swamps provided amongst the most unpleasant environments that I recall working in during my soil survey career. They were of three kinds.


My first experience of mangroves was in the Volta delta on the soil survey of the Accra Plains. With its pin-cushion roots sticking out of the soil, Avicennia swamp makes a highly unpleasant environment to walk through; and the stilt roots of Rhizophora mangrove are not only difficult to cut through, but the underlying soils exposed at low tide are slippery to walk on and foul smelling to sample. In all such environments, one had also to be careful to retreat before rapidly advancing tides on ground that was difficult to hasten over.


Mangrove swamps in East Pakistan/Bangladesh occurred in two areas, unpleasant in different ways in which to survey soils. I made two visits to examine soils in the Khulna Sunderbans in the south-west, the last refuge of the Bengal tiger, and on both occasions saw recent tiger pug marks in the mud in every place that we sampled, an observation somewhat distracting from calm scientific observation (Figures 7.3 A and B).


Figure 7.3 (A) Aerial breathing roots (pseumataphores) of sundri and (B) tiger pug marks in the Khulna Sunderbans

In the Chakaria Sunderbans in the south-east, the mangrove trees had been cleared and partly replaced by a thicket of a shrub with 4-inch spines (Acanthus ilicifolia, if my memory is correct). On an exploratory visit that a Bengali colleague and I made to this area, a tiger and its old cub had passed in front of our Land Rover as we drove down the main road to the area; and as we walked down a track into the survey area the following day, a man asked if was I a doctor: a person had been mauled by a tiger further down the track that morning. Fortunately, the man’s body had been recovered and taken to a nearby hospital by the time that we reached the spot; but I recall my Bengali colleague saying, as we began our soil sampling, that he wouldn’t so much mind being caught by a tiger as it dragging him through the spiny thicket that we were working in.


The longest day

The longest walk I ever did in a day was 18 miles. It occurred on the soil survey of Dhaka District in April 1963. We were camped on a boat on the Dhaleswari river south of Dhaka and I decided to make one traverse of nine miles myself, considering (with the ex-colonial paternalism of the day) that my young East Pakistani colleagues might not be equal to the task. I set out with a young labourer at dawn so as to get as much of the walk and work done before the great heat of the pre-monsoon-season day. We walked the nine miles out to the end of the traverse first, then dug, sampled and described the soils on the return journey. I recall being refreshed and relieved on my by-then-exhausted way back by being offered sliced tomatoes sprinkled with salt in a small settlement we passed.


Foolish steps

I remember similar unsolicited and welcome relief being offered to me once in the extreme south-west of the Gold Coast when – foolishly − I had walked alone one or two miles through the forest from visiting a field party back to my car on the nearest road (and had to out-run a swarm of bees that I disturbed). I sat down on a fallen log to rest in a forest clearing, and the farmer cultivating the site came to me with a sliced pineapple from his plot to refresh me. We didn’t have a word in common, but surely communicated effectively.


Even more foolishly, I recall once walking by myself the 1-1/4 miles between soil survey parties on two neighbouring field traverses in long grass savannah in the north of the Gold Coast in an area where lions could have been present. Maybe if we had still worn solar topees in those days − I wore an English trilby hat, as illustrated in Figure 2.1 − my brain might have been less addled by the tropical sun!



My Gold Coast boss, Cecil Charter, had a servant lined up for me on the day that I arrived at Aburi who served me faithfully as cook-bearer until the day that I left Ghana ten years later. Kofi had been in the army during the war: I think he must have picked up his English cooking, his English and his military Saah! while working as a batman to a British officer. He had also learnt Hausa, the language used by the British West African forces. While we were at Aburi, he would be speaking five languages almost every day: Dagarti with other servants from his home area in the far NW of the Gold Coast; Twi with his wife who came from the forest zone in the south of the country; Hausa with the night watchmen; Akwapim, the language at Aburi, when he went to the village market; and English with me. He only once got his languages mixed up with me. I don’t remember that he ever had a day off in the ten years that he was with me; even when I was away, including on six-month home leaves, he stayed at my residence guarding my things. Relations with such servants were beyond normal employer-employee: they were symbiotic (like Jeeves-Wooster).


I had closely similar experiences in East Pakistan and Bangladesh. However, it was customary there to have several servants, (presumably a relic of earlier days when menial tasks were divided between different Hindu castes). Andrew, my cook and major domo, who served me, at home and in the field, throughout the ten years that I was in East Pakistan, was a Christian. He, too, had been in the army during WW-II. I had a Hindu mali (gardener) and a Muslim chowkidar (night-watchman). Later, Andrew brought in his son, Arun, as a bearer (mainly to train him, I think).


I did not need personal servants during my Zambian interlude: I stayed in a rest-house at Mt Makulu headquarters, and in either rest-houses or small hotels when on field trips. When I returned to Dhaka in 1974, Andrew had retired, and his son Arun took over as cook. I also had a Hindu mali, plus Muslim day and night chowkidars; later, they were joined by a young Christian bearer, Francis. When Arun left to go to the Middle-East (to follow a nurse that his father objected to him marrying), I took on an older Buddhist cook: with all four major religions represented, I was fully insured! Figure 7.4 shows us all, plus the faithful FAO driver, Rashid, who served me like a member of my domestic staff throughout my Bangladesh innings.


Figure 7.4  With domestic servants in Dhaka in the 1980s

Medical practice

On my initial appointment in the Gold Coast, the Crown Agents for the Colonies issued me with a small, 47-page handbook ‘Hints on the preservation of health in tropical Africa’ (which I later found included neither onchocerciasis nor elephantiasis infections which, as I described in Chapter 2, I later picked up). In charge of field parties sometimes working in remote areas, I had to be prepared to provide emergency medical attention if necessary, so I later bought a copy of the much more voluminous Black’s Medical Dictionary.


The latter proved especially helpful one day in East Pakistan during the soil survey of Dacca District when a driver fell sick and everyone – officers and labourers alike − fled the camp thinking that he had smallpox (which was still prevalent in the Province in the 1960s). Examining the driver’s suppurating spots with Black in hand, I found that it was chickenpox that he had; and I was able to make a similar relieved and relieving diagnosis a few years later when two of my servants fell sick with alarming rashes. In retrospect, I realise that I was fortunate not to pick up chickenpox myself, for I had not had it as a child: the symptoms can be much more severe in adults, as I found in treating the driver and my domestic ‘patients; and I have escaped susceptibility to shingles as an adult that earlier infection with chickenpox can create.

Postscript 2018

Further provocations in the four years since I drafted the sections above have led to my writing several more articles aiming to correct continuing misconceptions about Bangladesh's physical geography and climate.  Clearly, my books are not being read by teachers and students in Bangladesh.  I discussed this problem with Dr Saleemul Huq, Bangladesh's leading climate change scientist, in June 2017.  Dr Saleem, whom I have known for over twenty years, suggested that I write a number of short monographs on relevant subjects addressed to college-level students which could be translated into Bengali and published in pdf format, recognising that students today read computer screens, not books.  So I did that, drafting six 'lessons' on Bangladesh's physical geography and climate, listed below.  I added a seventh article that I had drafted ten years earlier giving an autobiographical description of my geographical experiences in Bangladesh. The articles are currently (February 2018)  being processed for publication in English.  They will then be translated into Bengali.


2016: Floods, cyclones, drought and climate change in Bangladesh: a reality check.  Int. J. of Environment Studies 73.6: 865-886

2017: Bangladesh's diverse and complex physical geography: implications for agricultural development. Int. J. of Environment Studies 74.1: 1-27

(In press)

Lessons on the physical geography, soils, climate and agricultural disaster management in Bangladesh

I.    The physical geography of Bangladesh

II.   The soils of Bangladesh

III.  The physiographic regions of Bangladesh

IV.  The climate of Bangladesh

V.   How to analyse meteorological data to measure climate change

VI.  Agricultural disaster management in Bangladesh

VII. A career in Geography.  Looking back.  Looking forward. 

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