THE Sahel region of West Africa briefly caught the world’s attention during the prolonged and horrific drought and famine which hit the area from 1968-1974. Crops shrivelled and over three million cattle perished. Under the relentless fire of the African sun the soil baked and cracked into dust. Nearly a decade later the Sahel is still an environmental disaster and the people scattered through the former French colonies of Senegal, Mauritania. Mali, Niger, Upper Volta and Chad still cling as tenuously to survival.
But the region’s seemingly chronic poverty and ecological problems are not solely the result of geographic location or the vagaries of the weather. In fact, from the 6th to the 16th centuries the Sahel was the centre of a succession of powerful empires including Ghana, Songhay and Mali. These resulted from the region’s strategic location, sandwiched between tropical forests to the south and the Arab world north of the Sahara desert. Goods coming from the forest — like gold, kola nuts and slaves— would meet camel caravans loaded with dates, textiles and salt from North Africa Large, prosperous towns developed along the caravan routes. The most famous was Timbuktu, located in modern Mali, a city famed in the 14th and 15th centuries for its mosques and its scholars. Timbuktu then supported a population of 100,000. Today it is a dusty small town on the edge of the desert its religious sites and ancient university building attract only the hardiest tourists. The population has dwindled to 15,000 and once bulging markets are shabby and under-stocked.
The peoples of the Sahel were mainly herders and farmers and it was their well-tuned inter tuned interaction with each other which kept the region’s environment in balance. But the caravan trade and the herder-farmer relationship were gradually’ destroyed from 1650-1950. European military expeditions, the slave trade, the opening of sea routes to the coastal areas of West Africa and the introduction by colonial powers of cash cropping in the form of peanuts; all took their toll. This combination of factors was to prove a body blow- to the fragile ecology’ of the Sahel.
Before peanuts the farmers grew- millet. In the dry season, the herding peoples would bring their animals to a village where milk products w-ere exchanged for cereals. The diet of both groups was enriched and the land was fertilized by- the manure of the animals grazing on the harvested millet stalks.
Beginning in the early 1880s, the French administration, with the help of armed troops, demanded that farmers grow peanuts for the French vegetable oil industry. Peanut cultivation expanded rapidly after World Wars I and II and boomed again during the 1950s.
Peasants needed cash to pay- taxes imposed by the French and peanuts were the only source of francs. However, the new cash crop also brought unexpected catastrophe. Peanuts quickened the loss of nitrogen, phosphates, potash, magnesium and lime from the soils. The small farmer did not own animals so manure was unavailable. And there was no extra income to spare for chemical fertilizer.
A fallow period would have allowed nutrients to re-accumulate in the soil, but the peasants could not afford this either. They grow peanuts till the soil was totally exhausted, then moved to new lands. They chopped down trees which held topsoil in place and helped absorb infrequent rains. After the harvest, millet roots and stalks were left in place, holding down the topsoil. But the peanut was wrenched up from the ground, the soil loosened and clouds of earth swirled away with the dry-season winds.
Cattle could not eat the remainder of the peanut plant the way they could the millet stalks and so the basis of the traditional relationship between herder and farmer vanished. In their search for more fertile lands small farmers encroached on pasture land and nomadic herders were pushed further north towards the desert fringe.
In the 1950s the Sahel was seen as a future beef exporting zone and some Western aid agencies bank-rolled the digging of hundreds of new- wells. Cattle concentrated around the new watering sites which were quickly trampled and became overly acidic with animal urine. Pastures near the wells were overgrazed — pushing the Sahel’s ecological deterioration one step further.
Droughts are a regular, if unpredictable, feature of the region. But by’ the mid-1960s the land was near the breaking point. When the rains failed from 1968-1973, drought inevitably turned to famine — more than 100,000 people died, many- of them children who succumbed to measles when they were weakened by malnutrition. Over many areas, harvests dropped by half and from 25 percent to 40 per cent of the animal herds were wiped out. Only a massive, if belated, relief effort in the fall of 1973 kept a quarter of the Sahel’s 24 million people from death.
In 1977, the Western nations finally agreed on a $10 billion programme intended to make the area self-sufficient in food and renew the ecological balance by the year 2000.
However, despite the enormous commitment of resources and the regional co-operation among Sahel countries serious roadblocks face the farmers and herders in the region.
For example, there is an obvious tension between food for export and for local consumption. Fish from the ocean off Senegal and from major rivers like the Niger and the Senegal provides as much protein per person in the Sahel as cattle, sheep, goats and pigs combined— even though 60 percent of the fish catch is exported. If less fish was exported and instead made available for Sahelians there would be a major improvement in peoples’ health. But the new development program says fish should be used to earn foreign currency to help finance the program.
Another dilemma is the centuries-old relationship between farmers and herders. Instead of reviving this ecologically sound set of interchanges between animals, crops, soil and humans, most development projects in the Sahel seem designed to further pit the two groups against each other.
French researchers in Niger found that a World Bank irrigation project was flooding lands that herders needed for dry season pastures. Bank officials were enthusiastic about getting water onto fields to grow rice. But if herders are driven from these pastures, they will again be forced to move towards the desert fringe where the same processes would be set in motion: overgrazing would threaten to turn fragile grasslands into the advancing Sahara Desert. Without dung from the grazing cattle the farmers will have to depend on commercial fertilizers which most won’t be able to afford. The headlong rush to put more land under the plough to produce high-yielding cereals — like past agricultural schemes — appears to neglect the Sahel’s finely interwoven social and ecological fabric.
But the major problem facing the Sahel is the clash of interests between wealthier local elites and peasant farmers and small herders. Sahelian societies were traditionally divided into different classes. The French reinforced this tendency by leaving a thick layer of bureaucracy. These urban government officials now control most of the region’s wealth and power. As a result several major development projects are in danger of floundering.
In Niger, for example, a US-sponsored grain project has fallen almost entirely into the hands of large landowners, merchants and government officials. It was this same set of landowners, merchants and government officials whose expansion of peanut production in the 1950s and 1960s triggered much of the suffering in the 1968-1974 drought.
Sound development policies for the Sahel require a cool rethinking of past failures to organize an ecologically sound approach to the region’s resources. Above all this means Sahelian farmers and herders must have greater say in working out mutually acceptable solutions. Unless that happens — and soon — current development schemes may pave the way to future disaster.