Journal Issue

Population, Agriculture, and the Environment in Africa

International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.
Published Date:
January 1992
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These elements interact in vital ways for sustainable development

Over the past 30 years, most of Sub- Saharan Africa has seen very rapid population growth, poor agricultural performance, and increasing environmental degradation. Why do these problems seem so intractable? Are they connected? Do they reinforce each other? If so, what are the critical links? These are the questions a recently completed study in the World Bank sought to answer. The approach was to review the literature and available country data to test the hypothesis that there are strong interrelationships between population, agriculture, and the environment The findings suggest that this nexus is very much at work in Sub-Saharan Africa and that development efforts would be far more effective if their design reflected this.

The nexus

Key links are found in traditional crop and livestock production methods, land tenure systems, women’s responsibilities, and methods of forest resource utilization. The traditional systems and practices were well suited to people’s survival needs when population densities were low. As populations grew slowly, they evolved in response. But with the acceleration of population growth in the 1950s, these traditional ways came under increasing strain—eventually to the point of being overwhelmed. The result has been the triad of problems noted at the outset.

Shifting cultivation and pastoralism. Shifting or long-fallow cultivation and pastoralism were appropriate responses to abundant land and limited capital. The key was mobility: people moved when crop yields declined or forage was depleted, allowing soil fertility to be restored through natural vegetative growth and decay. Where population density increased slowly, land use systems gradually became more intensive—as in the East African highlands. Where land was abundant, more could be gradually brought into the farming cycle. But with rapid population growth, people are increasingly compelled to remain in place—yet their farming techniques have not evolved sufficiently to permit sustainable permanent farming. As a result, soil fertility and structure deteriorate, crop yields decline, and soils erode. Extreme cases can be observed in Rwanda, the Central Plateau in Burkina Faso, and parts of Nigeria.

This article is based on a forthcoming World Bank Monograph by the authors.

Although one of the conditions that led Asian farmers to adopt “green revolution” technology—abundant labor relative to cultivable land—is emerging in parts of Africa, technological innovation has been very slow. Ineffective agricultural research and extension is only part of the reason. Poor transport infrastructure severely blunts farmers’ incentives to switch from subsistence to market production, and from extensive to intensive farming. Inappropriate price, exchange rate, and fiscal policies have reduced the profitability of market-oriented agriculture, prevented significant productivity gains, and contributed to the persistence of rural poverty and increasingly destructive traditional land use practices.

Women’s responsibilities and time. The multiple roles of women in rural production and household maintenance systems and the heavy demands on their time are key aspects of the nexus. In addition to bearing and rearing children, most African women have heavy responsibilities for foodcrop production, working on men’s fields, post-harvest processing, fuelwood and water provision, commodity porterage, and household maintenance. In Zambia, farm women contribute more hours daily than men to farm work (8.5 hours versus 7.4 hours) and to nonagricultural tasks (5 hours versus 1.1 hours). Moreover, the burdens on rural women are increasing. Growing numbers of men leave the farms for urban and industrial jobs—in the Congo, for example, 70 percent of farm household heads are now women. With increasing environmental degradation, women must walk further to fetch fuelwood and water. They also face severe constraints on access to extension advice, institutional credit, and improved production, processing, and transport technology.

Demand for children. Underlying the persistence of very high fertility rates is low demand for fewer children. Environmental degradation, food insecurity, land tenure systems, and cultural traditions all help stimulate demand for children. So do the heavy work loads and severe time pressure faced by women, as they increase the need for child labor. In the short term, children can produce more than they consume. But the cycle is a vicious one. Women’s time constraints and water and fuelwood scarcity negatively affect infant health and mortality and, hence, attitudes toward family planning. Girls kept out of school to help with domestic tasks tend to marry young and have many children during their adult life. Where survey data are available, the percentage of married women who demand contraception to limit family size ranged from a low of 6.4 percent in Mali to a high of 33.9 percent in Kenya, compared with 30–50 percent in North Africa, 36–55 percent in Asia, and 40–60 percent in South America.

Land tenure systems. Traditional tenure systems, with communal land ownership, provide considerable tenurial security on land farmed by community members. With slow population growth, these systems were able to accommodate the emerging need to move toward de facto permanence of land rights assignments. Problems have arisen, however. Rights to trees are often separate from other land use rights; the development of valley bottoms for farming constrains the mobility of herders who have traditionally depended on this land; and increasing rural- rural migration is causing conflicts over land ownership and use.

Many governments have responded by nationalizing land, and then allowing customary rules to guide the use of some land, while allocating other land to private investors and public projects. Some, such as Kenya, have issued individual land titles, generally ignoring the prior existence of customary tenure arrangements. In most cases, the results have differed considerably from the stated intent. Often, the well-connected have succeeded in wresting land from its customary owner-occupants. Governmental interference has almost always reduced tenurial security, accelerated the breakdown of customary land management systems, and, especially in forest and range areas, spurred the emergence of de facto open-access conditions that are inimical to private investment in land improvement or resource conservation. In Cote d’lvoire, for example, nationalization of most land, combined with some land titling, de facto recognition of traditional tenure arrangements except when it suits government interests not to do so, and massive immigration from the Sahel, has created an open-access situation in forest areas where anyone can exploit the land but no one can claim ownership. This has contributed to the destruction of the forests.

Forest and woodland exploitation. The heavy dependency on woodfuels has combined with rapid population growth to contribute to accelerating forest and woodland destruction, especially around major urban centers. Since fuelwood is generally considered a free good, taken largely from land to which everyone has access, efficient markets for fuelwood have not developed, despite its increasing scarcity. Commercial logging has been directly responsible for only 10 to 20 percent of forest destruction in Sub-Saharan Africa, but it usually leads to a second phase of destruction: logging roads provide access for settlers who continue the deforestation the loggers have begun. The degradation and destruction of forests and woodlands accelerates soil degradation and erosion and harms local and regional climates and hydrological regimes, which in turn negatively affects agriculture. The worsening fuelwood and water supply situation also forces women and children to spend more time collecting these necessities.

What is to be done?

Clearly, new approaches are needed. But what form should they take? The study strongly suggests that future efforts must build on the crucial cross-sectoral links and synergies of the population-agriculture-environment nexus. They should also place far more emphasis on promoting effective demand for environmentally benign intensive farming, family planning, and resource conservation. Simply put, successful agricultural development necessitates adequate attention to demographic and environmental concerns—just as preventing further environmental degradation requires intensifying agriculture and lowering fertility rates and population growth.

If the nexus synergies are harnessed, it should be possible to meet a number of key demographic, agricultural, food security, and environmental objectives within the next 30 years. Indicative targets for Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole illustrate the magnitude of the effort required. Agricultural production needs to grow at about 4 percent per annum. By the year 2010, daily per capita calorie intake should be raised from the present average of 2,095 to about 2,400. Deforestation needs to be slowed and the area of forests, woodlands, and wilderness gradually stabilized. This will require that the further expansion of cropped land be limited—necessitating rapid agricultural intensification. And the average total fertility rate needs to be lowered by 50 percent over the next 30 years, so as to reduce population growth to 2.2 percent per annum.

Fertility rates. It is essential to increase demand for family planning. Boosting girls’ school enrollment rates is critical. Easing women’s work loads will reduce the need for child labor. Better health care and access to safe water will improve child survival rates. So will dynamic agricultural development and improved food security. Where demand for reducing fertility rises, it must be met with effective family planning services.

Women’s time. Work is needed in many fields to ease women’s time constraints and improve their productivity. Much can be learned from nongovernmental organizations—in establishing water supply systems, developing locally appropriate fuel- and time- saving stoves, providing better tools and techniques, facilitating access to land and credit, improving local transport infrastructure, and providing suitable transport aids.

Environmentally sustainable agriculture. Research and extension services need to focus on environmentally benign and economically viable agricultural techniques (e.g., contour farming, intercropping and crop rotation systems, and water harvesting), along with the promotion of increased fertilizer use and farm mechanization. Creating demand for intensive and resource-conserving agriculture requires appropriate marketing, price, tax, and exchange rate policies, as well as investments in rural infrastructure, health, and education facilities. Creating conservation areas and protecting these against encroachment will be important. If know-how and inputs are available, land scarcity induces agricultural intensification. Tenurial security stimulates land conservation and tree planting.

Resource ownership. Eliminating open- access systems is of utmost urgency. Where traditional tenure systems are evolving toward explicit recognition of individual ownership and transfer rights, they should be protected by law and supported by appropriate administrative arrangements. State ownership of farm land should be eliminated. Where possible, forest and range lands should be assigned to traditional users or local communities, with use rights linked to the responsibility for conservation. Where traditional systems have collapsed, individual titling is likely to be needed, but it should be provided only on demand and to the customary owners. Women need the same rights to land and tenurial security as men.

The fuelwood problem. Effective agro- forestry activities can have a major impact on the environment, farming, the rural energy economy, and women’s time. Woodfuel markets will develop more rapidly if open access to fuelwood is eliminated, people can freely market wood from their own land, and communities and farmers have uncontested ownership of local forests and woodlands.

Environmental resource conservation. Protecting forests and other conservation areas stabilizes local and regional climate and hydrology, stimulates agricultural intensification, and ensures the provision of forest products and environmental services. Appropriate targeting of urban and infrastructure development can be a powerful tool to guide settlers into environmentally resilient areas with agricultural potential and keep them out of fragile areas. Regional and local land use plans can go far in reconciling objectives of natural resource management, population and settlement policy, and agricultural and infrastructure development. The local people need to be directly involved in formulating and implementing such plans.

Kevin Cleaver

Götz Schreiber

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