Past, present and future perspectives


Since time immemorial, the environment has been woven into the lives of African people. Traditional and cultural values among varied and disparate communities across the region have governed the way in which people interact with the environment, and the way in which natural resources are used and managed. In many sub-regions, the people's relationship with natural resources is strong, and there have been traditional regulatory mechanisms covering natural resource management. Box 1.1 highlights how such traditional rules have facilitated resource use and conservation in parts of Africa.

Box 1.1 Guardians of tradition

Traditional rules, once established, controlled the access of African people to natural resources. Rules prohibited, for example: cutting particular trees; some methods of gathering certain fruits and other tree by-products; and access to sacred groves and mountains.

Cutting fruit trees, in particular, was prohibited. In Zimbabwe, it was almost inconceivable for anyone under traditional tenure to cut Uacapa kirkiana without the express permission of the guardians of the land. Other trees, such as Sclerocarya birrea and Parinari curatellifolia, were directly linked to ancestral spirits and rituals, and were protected by a standing penalty system, which was enforced by a chief and his lineage.

Traditional rules regarding gathering fruit facilitated the conservation of fruit trees. Most fruits were supposed to be harvested for use in the home, and not for sale. Rules governing fruit gathering included the following:

  • Never pick up a [Uacapa kirkiana] fruit with two hands.
  • Shake the tree, using a stone or another instrument, as a way to dislodge the fruit.
  • Do not curse or express delight about the quality or quantity of fruit.

Other rules limited the quantity of unripe fruits leaving the forest, so that fruit picking did not damage the trees. It was generally understood that if any of the offences were committed, the person who committed them would disappear in the forest.

In terms of woodland management, the traditional rules went even further: tree cutting was banned in designated places. The declaration of such places, and their subsequent protection, lay in the land-guardian relationship.

Source: SADC/IUCN/SARDC 2000

Africa is also rich in indigenous knowledge systems, some of which have survived two of the major events that have contributed to defining modern Africa: slavery and colonization.

The slave trade facilitated the shipping of millions of Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to work in plantations in North and South America and the Caribbean, and as domestic servants in Europe. Arabs and Europeans, on both the east and the west coast of Africa, bartered simple commodities-such as cloth, gunpowder, salt, beads and others-for slaves.

The abolition of the slave trade beckoned in a new form of commerce. The discovery of large tracts of 'empty lands', and the discovery of rich reserves of gold and other minerals further inland, enticed Europeans to explore Africa. Africa's vast natural resources promised cheap raw material for European industries. Charters were established with local chiefs, and Europeans were offered great tracts of land. In return, the chiefs and their people were promised protection from invading armies as well as European commodities. A new era of subjugation-colonialism-took root in Africa. The plunder of Africa's natural resources and the environment had begun, leading to the scramble for colonies by European countries.

Colonial policies led to heightened conflicts between users, and to assaults on the environment, through the destruction of natural forests for timber, cropland, fuelwood, pasture and urbanization. For example, colonial forestry policies tended to focus on plantations, in order to meet the growing and specialized demands of industry and commerce in Europe. This practice led to loss of species diversity as large areas were cleared of indigenous trees and substituted with exotic ones. Under colonialism, African people had little say regarding how their resources were exploited, and they benefited little from the region's natural assets.

The situation has changed, particularly over the past 30 years, with African countries attaining national independence, and adopting their own social, political, economic and environmental policies and programmes. Progress has been achieved on many fronts, but many challenges remain. Some of the developments that have shaped Africa's socioeconomic and environment agendas are explored in the following sections.