Soil degradation is commonly reported in the tropics where forest is converted to agriculture. Much of the native forest in the highlands of western Kenya has been converted to agricultural land in order to feed the growing population, and more land is being cleared. In tropical Africa, this land use change results in progressive soil degradation, as the period of cultivation increases. Sites that were converted to agriculture at different times can be evaluated as a chronosequence; this can aid in our understanding of the processes at work, particularly those in the soil. Both levels and variation of infiltration, soil carbon and other parameters are influenced by management within agricultural systems, but they have rarely been well documented in East Africa. We constructed a chronosequence for an area of western Kenya, using two native forest sites and six fields that had been converted to agriculture for varying lengths of time.
We assessed changes in infiltrability (the steady-state infiltration rate), soil C and N, bulk density, δ13C, and the proportion of macro- and microaggregates in soil along a 119 yr chronosequence of conversion from natural forest to agriculture. Infiltration, soil C and N, decreased rapidly after conversion, while bulk density increased. Median infiltration rates fell to about 15 % of the initial values in the forest and C and N values dropped to around 60 %, whilst the bulk density increased by 50%. Despite high spatial variability in infiltrability, these parameters correlated well with time since conversion and with each other.
Our results indicate that landscape planners should include wooded elements in the landscape in sufficient quantity to ensure water infiltration at rates that prevent runoff and erosion. This should be the case for restoring degraded landscapes, as well as for the development of new agricultural areas.
Nyberg, G.; Bargués Tobella, A.; Kinyangi, J.; Ilstedt, U. Patterns of water infiltration and soil degradation over a 120-yr chronosequence from forest to agriculture in western Kenya. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences Discussions (2011) 8 (4) 6993-7015. [DOI: 10.5194/hessd-8-6993-2011]