Chapter 5: Deterioration

Trees are the earth’s endless effort to speak to the listening heavens.

Rabindranath Tagore, 1928

To those who do not know Africa, the two images of its terrain which spring to mind are steaming tropical forests and deserts. It is not that simple. Africa has less than 15 per cent of the world’s tropical forest cover, and much of that is in just one African country, Zaire. The Sahara desert, the principle desert of the continent, is a thick belt stretching out across Africa from the North-West. And in South-Western Africa, there is the Kalahari. There are fertile farming lands in many parts of Africa, however. The desert is not all embracing. Between the two deserts is the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), the band of wet weather which circles the world at the point where the trade winds blowing from the northern and southern hemispheres meet. During the year, this band moves first north and then south, with the passage of the earth around the sun, bringing rain as it moves.

The countries at the limits of its trajectory get a single rainy season, while those it passes over twice have two. Its two boundaries are the Sahara in the north and the Kalahari in the south. Those countries on the fringe of the deserts are very dry indeed, and it is these which have taken the full brunt of the drought. Even in years of average rainfall, the shortage of water limits their agricultural possibilities.

Broadly speaking, for Africa as a whole, almost half is considered by FAQ to be too dry for crop cultivation. But of the land that is suitable, only a small part is being used.

For the equatorial countries in between the two dry belts at either end of the zone, water supply is more plentiful but still unreliable. The rain is spread unevenly throughout the year. At times there are storms of furious intensity. Huge, fast raindrops can smash the soil surface, blocking the ‘pores’ through which water could be absorbed. Much of the precious water simply runs off farmers ‘ lands, often taking topsoil with it. In the tropical heat, the water which remains quickly evaporates, so even countries with a higher average annual rainfall than Britain can look drought stricken for part of the year. So it is not always just a matter of too little water.

However, in much of Africa towards the two edges of the zone, there is not only too little rainfall, it is also irregular. Since a high proportion of Africa’s rain comes from local evaporation (that means it is recycled from previous rain­fall), a pattern of poor rainfall can become persistent.

The warmer the climate the quicker the degradation of organic matter. This is because it cannot accumulate in the soil in a thick layer as it can in colder climates. Taken together with the rainfall problems, Africa’s soil needs all the protection of careful human management it can get. An environmental strategy for Africa has to have two main parts, protecting soils and protecting trees. They are interrelated.

The most luxuriant forests of the world in fact grow on the poorest soils. If the forest cover is torn away, soils are depleted of their humus and the combination of heavy rainfall and sunshine transform the upper layer into a thick and hard crust of ‘laterite’ which is impossible to plough for cultivation. Management of nature is therefore much more difficult than in temperate zones where deforestation does not sterilize the land in this way.

In seeking to stop deforestation a basic psychological barrier has to be crossed. For many local people, forests are still synonymous with backwardness and clearing them for cultivation appears to be an elementary first step to improving one’s lot. Forests are a source of isolation, inconvenience and often disease. The modern peasant cultivator is often ill at ease in a forest, with little idea of how to live in harmony Too often the value of the forest is not recognized by those to whom it affords protection and fuel until it is too late. For instance, in Europe and North America, the destruction of the forests had reached the penultimate stage before any real environmental consciousness developed.

The daily demands of wood for the farm, or of a space for a new field, might seem to be of more importance to the family living next to woodland than long-term environ­mental concerns. Conservation has to be married to realistic exploitation of forests, hence the need for sensible forest management. Trees must quite simply be cut at a rate which does not run way ahead of the speed at which new forest cover can replace them. Trees can be cut but the crisis of deforestation in Africa comes about because exploitation has been reckless, and unplanned.

With the exception of the massive moist tropical forests in Zaire, and a handful of smaller ones elsewhere, forest conservation in Africa is principally to do with protecting open woodland as a barrier against the deterioration of the soil.

The overwhelming thrust of aid and private finance in forestry has been towards the exploitation rather than the preservation of forests. It has not been a happy role. Wood has been considered a resource that could earn some African countries, particularly those in West Africa, vital foreign exchange. The rate at which tree cover has been lost in this region is astonishing. Large areas which were covered by trees 200 years ago are now practically bare.

However, commercial exploitation has not been the main source of deforestation in Africa. Even in the Ivory Coast, the continent’s main timber exporter, for every cubic metre of wood cut down by industry, 4.5 cubic metres has been destroyed by those clearing land for farming. Of the twelve million hectares of dense forest cover that existed, only two million remain.

The small cultivators have been their own worst enemy in terms of the abuse of forest. More than 90 per cent of the wood used in Africa is for cooking and other energy needs. In many African countries the style of rural life is being profoundly changed by the firewood crisis. An increasing number of a family’s working hours are taken up going ever further afield in search of firewood. For centuries people lived in balance with their energy source, cutting wood at a rate at which it could be renewed. Reforestation must take account of the trees local people want for their combined needs of fuel, agroforestry’ diet, soil protection, and so on. Also trees must be chosen which will grow quickly enough to meet the needs of an expanding population. But local people should be listened to. Already there are tree plantations, fostered by external assistance, where the wrong trees have been planted and the plantations left untended because nobody wants them.

There is obviously also a big role for more fuel-efficient stoves. Many are now available. The ones that have ‘taken best’ are those that were designed in full consultation with the end-user, the rural African. Cultural concerns, like an open flame for the family to gather round in the evening, and a stove which can provide the right intensity of heat for cooking the dishes of the particular local diet must be taken account of.

However, even if there are individual tree projects, innovative stoves and such like, protecting the forests is not a serious national policy in many of the countries at risk. In some this is because they have other preoccupations, in others, like Sudan, it is because despite a real determination to do something, the government does not have the funds.

The other aspect, intimately linked to success in protecting trees, is saving soils. At the margin of the deserts, economic and social changes have disrupted the fragile balance between livestock and the vegetation cover, leading to the spread of deserts. The top soil of Africa is being rapidly lost. The Sahara, particularly, is spreading with alarming rapidity. The United Nations estimates that the Sahara’s front line is advancing at 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) a year.

For those on the front, for example in Western Sudan, this means a desert advance of some six kilometres a year. El Fasher, a regional capital, used to be surrounded by cultivated fields, now the visitor flying crosses desert on all sides. The image is of a city under siege by the sand.

But, as we have pointed out, Africa is not all desert or lush jungle. As typical are the scrub, woodlands and barely green savannah lands of so much of the continent. This is not the rich, well-irrigated farmland that covers great expanses of Latin America and Asia. African soils are for the most part fragile and lower in nutrients, something which has been overlooked by those who have transplanted European methods of agriculture. Patches of desertification break out across the fragile lands of sub-Saharan

Africa, wherever land is over used, and is not limited to the ever-broadening rim of the desert itself. The great forward march of the Sahara itself has a mesmerising effect, but focusing on that, as many donors have, risks overlooking the outbreaks of desertification across the continent. Even the rich farming lands of Kenya are not immune. Too intensive European farming methods and overpopulated areas of traditional African cultivation have taken a toll there too.

There are meteorologists who argue that the level of rainfall in the Sahel states has been diminishing over the last fifteen years or so, and it seems that the traditionally wettest month, August, has become dryer in recent years. The impression of those in Sudan is that the crop-growing season in the dryer areas is being constricted by an increasingly short rainy season. The difficulty with such claims is that there seem to be disagreements about the quality of evidence. In fact, there have been some rather good sets of rainfall data collected but whether or not they are comprehensive and comparable enough to reach general conclusions is in doubt. Obviously, there has been a lot less rain than usual in the last few years but whether that marks the low point of a normal cycle, or is indeed a break with all past weather patterns is still open to doubt.

What is certain is that environmental deterioration, once set in motion, can become self-reinforcing although the reasons for this are only partly under stood. The loss of vegetation cover adversely affects the amount of rainfall, and as the former depends on rain its own decline is also then speeded up. The natural environment is never a neutral and passive force in the life people make for themselves. People and nature interact. That interaction has become dangerously unhinged in contemporary Africa.

Today, methods of agriculture often reinforce the consequences of weather failure rather than providing the means of coping with it. This is dealt with at greater length in the next chapter.

There has been little effective action to counter the spread of the desert. The only attempt to do something coherent was the plan that came out of the United Nations Conference on Desertification in 1977. It represented the combined efforts of the representatives of 95 countries, 50 UN bodies and 65 non-governmental organizations.

Very much a child of its time, it reflected the hope that donors could invest large quantities of capital aid. It presumed that African governments could mobilize resources to reverse the environmental deterioration. The plan reflected the shopping list mentality of aid at that time. There was a long list of expensive projects of variable quality. Nevertheless, the plan of action was a comprehensive package, which, had it been implemented, would by now be allowing some initiative to be regained over the rapidly deteriorating environment. Where there are governments with the means and the will such as China, the Soviet Union and the United States, impressive gains have been made in containing desertification.

Nobody can quarrel with either the spirit of the plan or the immediate priorities that were set: sound land use; improved livestock raising; better farming methods; rehabilitation of irrigation schemes and environmental conservation measures. In addition, there was a series of proposed investigations to improve understanding of the causes of desertification and to find remedies. But the irony is that a lot can be done to hold the desert at bay by applying existing knowledge. It is not the know-how that is lagging behind so much as the practical application.

In Asia, Latin America and Africa, voluntary agencies and community groups are embarking on small-scale tree­ planting schemes, water conservation projects and much else – the fundamentals of protecting the land. Certainly recent successes in land reclamation in China, the Soviet Union and the United States have involved major government action. But the whole experience of combating desertification shows that, even if there is still debate over its causes, a mobilization of local farmers to meet the desert head-on with trees, water-management and traditional cropping techniques is effective. A preoccupation with large government schemes has left this ‘grassroots’ approach ignored for too long.

In May 1984, the governing council of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) assessed what had been achieved since the plan of action was adopted in 1977. UNEP had to report that virtually none of the recommendations had been carried out. A hundred countries around the world have a desert problem. In Africa, only Sudan, and elsewhere only Afghanistan, have prepared national desertification plans along the lines agreed in 1977. UNEP reported: ‘This inadequate organizational response is reflected in generally poor progress in national assessments of desertification, despite inter­ national and regional, assistance, and in a general failure to formulate effective national plans to combat desertification.’

Of the six major transnational projects which were recommended, no action has ever been taken on four. Only two, both in fact in Africa, are said by UNEP to have been started in any form at all.

Of those planned, only two of the regional research and development centres have been set up. These are the Sahel Institute in Mali and a regional agro-meteorology and hydrology centre in Niger. Knowledge of the extent of desertification, and of the area at greatest risk, has hardly improved at all since 1977.

Globally, the problem has actually less been a matter of absolute resources devoted to fighting desertification and more how the money has been spent. One researcher believes that $10 billion was spent through the major agencies between 1978 and 1983. Certainly this was less than what was apparently required but the trouble was that a good deal of this considerable investment did not go into projects with the highest priority: those that would have stopped the desert at the local level. Instead the money was used to improve national and regional infrastructure and various back-up services and only a small part of the funds went into improving the frontline day-to-day interaction of small farmer and desert.

Even if the money for desertification control and its impact have been disappointing, the eight countries of the Sahel have enjoyed an aid boom. Their combined population of thirty million is not huge but until Ethiopia burst on the international conscience, their precarious life on dry land was some sort of symbol to outsiders of Africa’s problems. The Sahel provides an interesting, although extreme, case study of why aid has not stopped the desert in Africa. More has been spent, probably less efficiently, than anywhere else in sub-Saharan Africa. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and multilateral donors set up the Club du Sahel in Paris for directing aid to the Sahel countries. The desert is a good fund-raiser. It is just that the money often follows wrong priorities.

Some $14 billion will have been committed to eight Sahel states in the decade ending 1984. That is $44 per head per year, compared to $18 for sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. Aid now amounts to 17 per cent of the Sahelian group’s gross domestic product (GDP), and accounts for over 80 per cent of its external resources. Up-to-date figures are not available, but by 1980 at least $2 billion of aid was in the form of long-term loans, increasing Sahelian indebtedness (although on concessional terms) by some 60 per cent.

Niger was the only Sahel country to have avoided a food crisis during 1984. It has a good record of seeking to pursue food self-sufficiency strategies. But its luck, and good management, did not hold out into 1985 when its food shortages and the subsequent human migration made it one of the worst crisis points on the continent.

In the Sahel states, as much as amongst their neighbours, the desert presses on despite the foreign aid. It is now estimated that more than 90 per cent of pasture and 85 per cent of croplands in the nineteen sub-Saharan countries closest to the Sahara are affected by desertification.

So what have aid-givers sought to do about it? In the sub-Saharan savannah where rainfall is always scarce, irrigation might seem the obvious way of increasing agricultural production. Irrigation schemes have absorbed 15 per cent of all aid spent. By 1980, more than 2.5 million hectares in the Sahel were under irrigation. The Senegal river basin scheme, which is intended to provide some 350,000 hectares of irrigated land, is expected to cost more than $1 billion. Sceptics point to a failure rate in such projects of at least 25 per cent, because the irrigated soil becomes saline, drainage is not properly maintained and there are equipment problems. There are also doubts about whether there will be enough water for such ambitious schemes. Further evidence of a real climatic shift is that water levels in rivers such as the Senegal, Niger, and Chari appear, according to some experts, to have been steadily dropping in recent years. Irrigated agriculture can encourage patterns of settlement that are not realistic. The nomads of the Sahel may thus be encouraged to move into fixed settlements and over-intensive use of land may then follow.

Where irrigated schemes do work, crop production is too often turned over to rice for the towns and cash crops for export before local food production is secure. Rain-fed, as against irrigated, agriculture has received only 4.5 per cent of Sahelian aid although it accounts for 95 per cent of cereal production.

Simplistic, quick solutions, favoured by donors and governments anxious to throw money at the desert, do not have a happy record. It took several years before the popular well drilling programmes of the mid-1970s were found, in many cases, to contribute to desertification by encouraging high concentrations of people and animals at the water points.

In the Sahel, only 24 per cent of aid has gone towards agriculture and forestry – but less than half of that was spent on actual rural agricultural and forestry projects. In these countries the vast majority of the populations live in the countryside, 91 per cent in Burkina Faso, 87 per cent in Niger, 83 per cent in Mali and 82 per cent in Chad. One of the more exciting areas of current research is agroforestry­ where crops and trees are inter planted so that the crops get the protection of better soil, with its nitrogen retained.

But that is not where the money went. Instead it went to urban-based ‘support’ projects. Some 28 per cent of the agricultural aid that was given was spent on cash crops, mainly peanuts and cotton. The irony is that a number of Sahel states have had increasing success with cash crops as their food production as a whole falls to the drought. The best irrigated land has been taken by these important foreign exchange earners.

Also, less than 5 per cent of aid has been spent on the livestock sector. This is particularly surprising given the fact that it is the main source of earnings for most of the Sahel countries. Successful livestock management is one of the key ways of coping with the desert. So while desertification is no slouch as a fund-raiser, too much money has gone on what a report for UNEP described as ‘road construction, buildings, water supplies, research, training courses and meetings’. UNEP’s own assessment is: ‘Four-fifths of investment in projects related to desertification falls into the category of preparatory or supportive actions, with only one-fifth in the category of corrective field action. Even within that category, emphasis has been placed on measures to increase production rather than on arresting desertification processes.’

UNEP’s executive director is prepared to go as far as many of the critics: ‘Far too much technical and financial assistance has gone to showpiece projects and into measures aimed at appeasing the more politically advantaged urban population.’ By comparison, rural populations which tend to lack political clout – especially in the more remote semi-arid regions – are all but ignored. When it comes to allotting funds for rural development, agro­ forestry and other ecologically sound activities are nearly always at the end of the queue.

What emerges from our analysis of both deforestation and desertification in Africa is that the efforts to avert these processes have mostly fallen at the first fence. UNEP, the agency which although it was never intended to be operational, might have been the mobilizer and coordinator of international efforts, has fallen short of what its own leadership would have wanted.

We do not advocate vast new projects to arrest the desert through huge irrigation schemes, or any ostentatious construction schemes in the desert. Instead we plead for a partnership which is modest in its financial dimensions, but far-reaching in its implications. National and international efforts harnessed to the human energies of those who have to live daily with the threat of the encroaching desert, those in the front line, be they herdsman or cultivator. Tools, trees, better seeds, small-scale water conservation, and so on are the weapons for fighting the African desert, not mega-dams. In the next chapter, we discuss a viable agriculture for Africa.