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To fence or not to fence February 25th, 2018 by

Fences reveal a lot about rural communities. They show  how farmers make good use of available materials, but they can also uncover social tensions. Reading fences and understanding what they do and represent tells you a lot about how people work and live.

In the country-side of Kenya, farmers have a long tradition of fencing their farm with wooden poles. While this practice stems from a time where trees were abundant, competition with fuel wood is gradually changing this practice towards more inclusion of living plants.

In some parts of East Africa, fences contain the so-called pencil plant (Euphorbia tirucalli), grown in Europe as an ornamental. The aim is to discourage potential intruders, particularly those trying to steal livestock.  The fragile branches of pencil plants break easily, releasing a white sap that can blind people when the juice gets into their eyes.

In Egypt, farmers protect their maize from grazing animals by surrounding the field with a row of nightshade (from the same plant genus as potato and tomato). As with Euphorbia, the nightshade’s leaves contain a toxic juice. Farmers can restrain their own animals from grazing afar, but can’t be sure their neighbours do the same. And once cattle get into your maize field, the damage can be huge. A small investment in fences prevents disputes with your neighbours about who pays for the losses.

But fences often do more than keep animals out. Stone walls in Guatemala often contain sisal plants. Without reducing the land available for grazing animals, the space taken up by the fence is used to grow this valuable plant that provides farmers with fibre to make ropes. By diversifying crop, livestock and plant species on farm, farmers ensure a steady supply of what they need to live from their land.

At the highlands of southwest Uganda, a local farmer, James Kabareebe, showed us how he plants Calliandra around his fields, an agroforestry practice widely promoted by projects in the 1990s. Prunings of this leguminous tree are used as mulch to enrich his soil with nitrogen. And above all, it provides the necessary organic matter to soils on sloping land that are highly vulnerable to erosion caused by tropical downpours.

At times, living fences also point to a level of social injustice. Customary land rights benefit male community members, while women are often left to struggle to grow food on smaller plots or on less fertile soils.

In parts of Mali, women have negotiated with their men to grow a high value crop along the border of the field. The juicy, red flower heads of the roselle or bissap plant (Hibiscus sabdariffa), which is native to West Africa, provide a good source of additional revenue for rural women.

Fences across the world give us insights into how people manage their land. They are like a signature, revealing a little about how people relate to the land, and to each other.


Further reading

Tripp, A.M. 2004. Women’s Movements, Customary Law, and Land Rights in Africa: the case of Uganda. African Studies Quarterly. http://www.africa.ufl.edu/asq/v7/v7i4a1.htm

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