New Internationalist

Simply… African Ecology

Issue 208

new internationalist
issue 208 - June 1990

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AFRICAN ECOLOGY

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Ron Giling / Panos
Africa's environment is trapped in a cycle of
destruction. But there are ways to break it.

1. Unreliable rain
Sometimes it rains for days in Africa, sweeping away topsoil and much else besides. But often the rains don't come and droughts scorch the earth. Climates vary within miles of each other. About two-thirds of Africa is drought-prone - an area getting bigger because vast tracts of forest and vegetation are being removed by farmers, grazing cattle, fuelwood seekers and drought itself. When vegetation goes, the air dries out. The earth's surface becomes paler, making it overheat and bringing more drought.

Planting crops with low water-consumption is one way of combatting the problem. Planting the right kind of trees and protecting vegetation - thereby increasing moisture in the air - is another. And traditional water-harvesting techniques can help. In Burkina Faso, for instance, rain water is collected on lines of stones which also act as windbreaks and protect the topsoil.


2. Sensitive soil
Much of Africa's soil is infertile, largely due to the extremes of climate. Heavy rains leach out nutrients and wash the topsoil away. Winds whisk off soil particles. And heat breaks down organic matter so fast that it renders the earth moribund. When the plants and trees have gone, the land is even more exposed to wind, rain and sun.

Each region has to be understood separately. But in general planting appropriate trees and vegetation helps protect Africa's soils: their roots allow rain to filter into the earth, keeping it moist and binding it together. Traditional farming methods are sometimes very sensitive to Africa's soils and varied climate - they could be developed if more money was put into local agricultural research. And longer fallow periods and crop rotation would help the soil recover from intense farming.


3.Population pressure
Africa is underpopulated in proportion to its size, and food production is increasing. But in some regions fertile land is too scarce to support the burgeoning population. Poor people's desperate search for grazing and fuelwood puts great strain on the environment.

The poor tend to have more children because they know that some will die young - and in the absence of a welfare system they need their children to tend them in old age. But at the same time few women can get hold of - or even know about - contraception. So a two-pronged attack is needed if population growth is to be reduced. The number of babies born in Africa would be cut by 27 per cent if all the women who wanted family planning had access to it. But winning the battle against poverty and child mortality would be the surest contraceptive.


4. Inappropriate technology
Africa is littered with useless equipment imported from the West, and development projects which have been abandoned because they did not meet local needs. Bulldozers rust because foreign aid was cut off before spare parts arrived. Imported chemical fertilizers are expensive and sometimes reduce soil fertility. Large-scale projects generate management problems and are costly.

Western technology cannot respond to the diversity of Africa's environment. The ox-plough is cheaper and less likely to go wrong than a tractor; it can be more appropriate. And it destroys traditional ways of doing things which can be better. Some African farmers automatically use cow dung as a very effective fertilizer. And in south-east Nigeria forest farmers traditionally grow crops in a sustainable way to mimic the rainforest around them. Locally controlled research should be allowed to arrive at local solutions.


5. Reduced fallow
Shifting agriculture is common in Africa. Farmers burn bush to release land for growing crops. They move on once yields start to shrink after two or three years. Left to itself, nature has time to replenish the soil. But today in some places population pressure is so great that the land does not have time to recover. Few fertilizers are used. And bush-burning destroys nitrogen in the soil.

African farmers must be encouraged to farm in sustainable ways. Governments and peasants must work together to help peasants organize, gain management knowledge and build up both capital and power. Above all, farmers need incentives to use their land more efficiently. Farming subsidies, training programmes and guaranteed prices would help. So would labour-saving devices. African governments have limited control because they are so hemmed in by falling commodity prices and 'adjustment programmes' imposed by the International Monetary Fund. But their aim should be to make efficient land-use a priority.


6. Land insecurity
Insecurity of land tenure is common in parts of Africa - especially where there are many refugees. Traditional communal land ownership - common before colonial times - used to give farmers great security. But this has changed. In some places private ownership is becoming more prevalent allowing farmers to be bought out. Elsewhere land has been taken over by the state. Farmers don't know if they will be farming the same region in a few years time and so they don't invest in it - either by planting trees or conserving the soil. Women grow most of the food. But often they have no land rights of their own. If they get divorced they can be left landless. Their husbands make most of the decisions about what crops are planted and reap the benefits to spend as they will.

African peasants should be guaranteed lifetime security of land tenure. Women need equal land rights with men. And communities should have secure access to water, land and trees so that they can plant and harvest as they need.


7. Labour shortage
The shortage of oxen in Africa forces people to do much heavy work unaided. Planting, weeding and harvesting are often late for the rains as a result and crop yields are reduced. Men migrate to the cities to earn money leaving women to grow food and manage the farms alone. Women collect water, gather firewood and do all the other household chores, leaving less time for farming. They have little energy - or money - to invest in the land. Or to learn about more sustainable methods of agriculture.

Women need their workloads reduced. Farmers' groups can share out tasks. Tree-planting can help provide firewood. More wells nearer home can lighten the water-carrying burden. And a more egalitarian attitude by men would help - but so would more labour-saving tools.


8. Painful poverty
Hunger drives the scramble for land. Food is short because African governments subsidize cash crops for export without helping farmers grow food for home markets. Prices are so low and marketing so difficult that farmers have little incentive to produce more food than they need for themselves. And that leaves very little for sale in the cities.

Massive foreign debts are the biggest problem here - and reducing that burden is the most useful thing the West could do to safeguard Africa's environment. But ultimately Africa needs to become more self-reliant. African governments should diversify their economies to satisfy home markets. As far as possible they must become self-sufficient in food - by encouraging the small-scale agriculture which accounts for most food production. Small farmers need help with better agricultural techniques if they are to swell their yields in sustainable ways.

Much of the information on these pages derives from The Greening of Africa by Paul Harrison (Paladin Grafton Books, 1987).

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