New Internationalist

Nature Pleads Not Guilty

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issue 139

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AFRICA [image, unknown] Acts of God

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Nature pleads not guilty
It’s doom and gloom time again in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation 150 million people stand in danger of starving - victims of ‘severe drought’. Tony Jackson and Paula Park investigate this indictment of nature as the cause of African hunger.

Searching for water in the Sahel. But what is to blame: government policy or Acts of God?
Photo: Claude Sauvageot

Every year the Sahara swallows up acres of farmland as it marches indomitably towards the south and west. As human settlements get drier and drier, pastoralists dependent on tiny patches of grasslands give up their herds and migrate to the cities. Agriculturalists abandon their villages to hunt for water or food. In Mauritania’s capital, Nouakchott, migrants have swelled the population to 500,000, about a third of the country’s total.

Two thousand miles to the south, the Kalahari desert gobbles up the semi-arid lands of Lesotho, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, forcing farmers as far away as Tanzania to crowd together on the remaining good land, putting more and more pressure on exhausted soil. To make matters worse, fertile forests are being cut and cleared at a rate as high as one million acres per year in Zambia and other southern African countries. All that remains is poor soil to bake and harden in the sun -making it nearly impossible to till.

African rains are often either inadequate or torrential - intensifying problems of poor soil and desertification. In Mozambique the two years of drought which had crippled production in 1982 83 were swept away by rains when cyclone Domoina lashed the southern provinces in January this year. After drought robs the soil of vital nutrients, it becomes looser, more vulnerable to landslides and wind. If, in turn, the rain comes too fast, the soil cannot contain it. Silt - thick African rivers yearly sweep tons of topsoil into the sea.

Poor soil, erratic rainfall, accelerating population growth, blatant overuse of land; the environmental cards appear to be stacked against Africa. And the results seem obvious. Africa’s total cereal production has declined by one per cent annually since 1970. In the 1930s Africa was a food exporter; in the 1950s it was self-sufficient. But by 1980 sub-Saharan Africa was importing eight million tons of cereals annually.

To what extent are the climate and ‘poor’ African soils responsible for food shortages in Africa’? In the mid-seventies a group of meteorologists and other academies organised a project to study the effect of climate on the great Sahel famine. After a few months an entirely different picture began to emerge. They found that the role of drought was much smaller than assumed and there was no simple cause-and-effect link between drought and famine. ‘In 1976’, their report argues, ‘there was also a drought in Britain. We believe that nobody would have thought it natural’ for thousands of British children to die because of the drought. The loss of even a few dozen children would have been nothing less than a scandal.’

Significantly, their report is titled ‘Nature Pleads Not Guilty.* People are to blame. The spreading of the Sahara and Kalahari deserts can be linked directly to overgrazing and overuse of land. Even shortages of rain, foresters speculate, are caused not by natural fluctuations in climate but by the rapid clearing of rain forests. Blaming the weather, moaning over acts of God and accusing poor farmers are superficial responses to a complex problem. It is more revealing to examine the policies which starve the poor, pressure the land and make entire countries vulnerable to drought.

Growing food for local consumption, for example, receives low priority from many governments. In Upper Volta last year drought devastated millet production in the northern provinces vet farmers in the south - with bumper surpluses of millet to sell - were discussing planting cotton instead. The reason is simple. The farmers know that cotton for export will be quickly collected and paid for by the government. Thus cotton production has shot up by over 20 times since independence while yields of sorghum and millet - the major food crops for the region - have stagnated.

This trend is typical for many African countries. In Mali, during the great drought between 1976 and 1982, while food production plummetted, cotton production increased by 400 per cent. During the drought of 1973/74 in Tanzania, sales of maize fell by a third while the output of tobacco continued to grow. Both crops need about the same amount of rain. The difference comes in inputs available and the incentives to the growers. Sixty-two per cent of money loaned by the Tanzanian Rural Development Bank between 1978 and 1979 went for tobacco and only 19 per cent for maize.

Donors such as the World Bank and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) have been pouring in millions of dollars for development over the last decade. The rhetoric is of improving food production for local consumption but the reality has proven different. By 1975 the World Bank had invested over $21111 million in Tanzania without supporting a single project designed to produce basic foodstuffs. Things haven’t changed too much since then either. A recent survey by USAID of 570 projects in Africa found that only 22 were directly related to food crop production.

The entire food distribution and storage system in many countries also causes a gap; not in food production but in the number of people who have access to food. In Zimbabwe the fruits of the 1981 82 bumper harvest were nearly lost because the government didn’t have the facilities to store maize.

Often the government simply can’t purchase or transport grain and private traders find a way to profit through illegal grain sales. In Mali an estimated 211 per cent of the government millet stocks disappear into the hands of black marketeers who sell it across the border where prices are higher. Development workers in Niger - one of the few countries self-sufficient in food production - tell of a regular system of withholding grain until the price for food in Nigeria rises and then selling the surplus there.

For the government the priority is to keep prices low for urban consumers with little thought to the effect on rural producers. An extreme case comes from Mali, where in 1980/81 it cost farmers about ten cents to produce a kilo of rice while the official price paid by the government was only 6 cents.

Such policies are a recipe for low’-production and a boost to cross-border smuggling, not an encouragement for local self-sufficiency. And it is man-made policies just as much as god-given forces that are keeping Africa hungry.

Tony Jackson Is Oxfam UK’s Food Aid Consultant. Paula Park recently returned from working in Kenya.

* Nature pleads not guilty, by Rolando V Garcia is published by Pergamon Press, Oxford, UK.


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