Tuesday, 11 July 2006 - 10:45 AM

The Importance of Colonial Research in the Development of French Pedology.

Christian Feller, IRD Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, BP 434, Antananarivo, 101, Madagascar

At the end of the 19th century, French soil science was dominated by agricultural chemistry. The notion of soil profile was poorly developed and soils were often described as a succession of topsoil and subsoil or active and inert soil (Gasparin, 1843 to 1860). An astounding description of soils, profiles, and the symbolization of pedogenetic processes were given by the Danish forester P.E. Muller in his “Natural forms of Humus”, which is an analysis of podzolization (1879, 1884). With this book, Müller can be considered as one of the most important forerunners of Pedology and can be seen as a cofounder together with Dokuchaev (Feller et al., 2005). Though this book was translated in French in 1889, its new conception of soil remained quite unnoticed in France at this period. In the years 1870-80, there were two approaches of soil science: “agricultural chemistry” for the study of soil properties and “agricultural geology” for soil survey. On this basis, the most important and systematic soil survey developed by French institutions was that of Madagascar in 1900. The French government decided to collect 500 soil samples in the “red island” to be analyzed in Paris by the famous chemist Müntz and his colleague Rousseaux (Müntz & Rousseaux, 1900). The history of this work was described in detail by Sourdat (1996). Authors applied to tropical soils an evaluation of fertility based on their own temperate references and thus predicted that some Malagasy soils, which are now considered as the most fertile ones, were very poor and quite sterile and could never be cultivated! In another French colony, the Martinique island, a farmer named Octave Hayot wrote a book in 1881 on Martinique agriculture, which has remained completely unknown until recently (Blanchart & Feller, in preparation). In this book: (i) he compared the weathering processes and products (soils) of a basalt in France and in tropical conditions (Martinique), (ii) he noted that it was impossible to apply the French reference scale (that of Gasparin) in terms of soil fertility to tropical soils. It can be considered that these two works in Madagascar and in Martinique are not only precursors of French tropical Pedology but also contributed to the emergence of French Pedology in general. The first French treatise on Pedology is based on tropical examples. In 1926, a young geologist, Henri Erhart, defended his thesis on “The influence of the geological origin and external factors on the formation and the agricultural value of lateritic soils in the East of Madagascar”. This thesis was followed by the first French treatise on Pedology (Erhart, 1935) based on tropical examples. One year later, (Agafonoff 1936b) published a book on Tunisian soils (another French colony) with a pedological map. At the end of the 2nd World War, the French government decided to create a scientific institute for the developing of the colonial empire. That was the birth (1943) of the ORSC “Office de la Recherche Scientifique Coloniale” renamed ORSTOM “Office de la Recherche Scientifique et Technique d'Outre-Mer” some years later (1960) and named IRD “Institut de Recherche pour le Développement” since 1998. During the 2nd World War, Georges Aubert (1941) had already published a book on the “ Sols d'Outre-Mer” (Overseas Soils) and was contracted to propose a very large project for the development of Pedology research in the French colonies. He built up a vast program based on an astounding 3 page paper published four years before (quoted by Boulaine, 1980-81). In that paper, he described carefully the research project (soil formation, soil distribution and soil surveys), the training project (of metropolitan and colonial scientists) and the “building” project (the necessity to develop overseas centres specialized in Pedology). ORSTOM's Pedology developed very rapidly from the years 1950 to 1970. Specific training activities for overseas locations stopped in 1981 and were integrated into French Universities, but over 30 years ORSTOM had trained more than 100 French pedologists and more than 150 foreign pedologists (35 countries), mainly from the developing countries. During half a century, ORSTOM was probably the most important institution in the world for the emergence and development of Pedology in developing countries.

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