Past, present and future perspectives


Land and terrestrial resources in Africa have unparalleled economic, social and environmental value. Traditionally, African societies are agrarian or pastoral, depending directly on subsistence farming to meet their daily needs. Commercial agriculture holds an equally important position, employing the largest share of the workforce in most countries, and contributing significantly to national economic growth, export earnings and foreign exchange. However, national and household dependency on agricultural output has been a significant factor in limited economic growth over the past three decades. Climatic instability has caused significant and frequent variability in production, and narrow crop diversity, and national and international market failures, have facilitated recurrent economic losses.

Rapid population growth, and policy pressures to increase production, have forced the cultivation of greater and greater areas of land in all sub-regions, and the extension of cultivation and grazing to marginal areas

Rapid population growth, and policy pressures to increase production, have forced the cultivation of greater and greater areas of land in all sub-regions, and the extension of cultivation and grazing to marginal areas. Combined with limited application of organic or inorganic fertilizers, reductions in fallow periods, restrictions on crop diversity, inappropriate irrigation, and an increasing use of herbicides and pesticides, this has resulted in the physical, chemical and biological degradation of vegetation and soil. Soil erosion and desertification rates are increasing as a result, and declines in productivity have been noted.

More than 20 per cent of Africa's vegetated lands are classified as degraded, and 66 per cent of this is moderately to severely degraded. The worst affected areas are along desert margins, and the problem is likely to intensify over the next 30 years, as a result of population growth and increasing climate variability. Land degradation impacts are felt most keenly by the poor, because they are forced to cultivate marginal lands, such as desert margins, which get degraded more rapidly. Hence, productivity losses are more rapid, and affected households become increasingly food insecure. Environmental consequences of erosion include: sedimentation; pollution; eutrophication of waterbodies; smothering of aquatic habitats; and changes to biodiversity.

Responses have included: ratification of international conventions; and implementation of awareness raising and action planning at national level. Sub-regional cooperation has also been initiated, through national and sub-regional organizations, such as CILSS, ECOWAS, IGAD and SADC, which have developed food security strategies, and strategies for improving the condition and management of resources. NEAPs have provided overall frameworks for enhancing planning and development of land resources, and EIAs have facilitated the implementation of the tenets held in the NEAPs. Local level responses have perhaps seen the most rapid and dramatic results, because they have not experienced the institutional and logistical constraints of actions attempted at national and subregional levels. Local level measures have included: diversification of cropping; increased fallow; crop rotation; creation of wind breaks; application of manure and other organic wastes; and responsible and conservative irrigation schemes.

Land tenure and access to land resources are complex issues in Africa, impacting on food security, environmental sustainability and social security. Colonial legislation often conflicted with traditional tenurial systems, and was aimed at increasing commercial production, often at the expense of household production. With independence, African countries attempted to redress the issue of traditional access rights, whilst maintaining control of resources, especially economically important ones. Realizing the inadequacies, overlaps and contradictions in existing land policies, governments embarked on further processes of land reform. However, these are fraught with tensions between user groups and different land uses. Women, generally, have fewer ownership rights although, in many countries, women are involved in most food production activities. Political and environmental refugees frequently place additional burdens on issues of tenure, and on the resources themselves. Refugees who are settled in marginal or sensitive areas cause extensive degradation, whilst further potential conflicts exist with neighbouring communities.

Improved security of tenure can greatly improve land management practices, and rural development programmes should focus on greater inputs to farming, freer trade and higher value addition. This will ensure that: greater income is earned from production; greater food security is awarded to the household producer; and expansion of agriculture into marginal areas is controlled. Poverty alleviation schemes are also required, in order to keep people from abandoning their farms, and to ensure that they are able to afford inputs, such as fertilizers and efficient irrigation systems (UNU 1998).

Policy reforms are another essential component of resolving conflicts over resources and of ensuring greater investment in sound resource management activities. However, these reforms have to be made carefully, with the full participation of all stakeholder groups. This is a process which will take time, but which will avoid further conflicts in rights or their administration. Legislation is also only a part of what governments can contribute towards land reforms. Other actions include: decentralization of administrative power; more comprehensive land use planning and management frameworks; more effective participation by stakeholders; and economic diversification, in order to relieve some of the dependence on commercial agriculture and forestry. The involvement of women and children is particularly important, because the spread of HIV/AIDS will mean that, in future, more households are headed by these groups. Pastoralists must be involved in management plans for grazing areas, in order to maintain livestock production at the household level and to maintain its contribution to national economies.