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close this bookDiversity, Globalization, and the Ways of Nature (IDRC, 1995, 234 p.)
close this folder10. Africa in the 21st Century: Sunrise or sunset?
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentThe causes of poverty
View the documentHistorical causes of the current situation
View the documentWars are environmentally unfriendly
View the documentEvolution of environmental management in Africa
View the documentOld and new development models


With the end of the 20th century, sub-Saharan Africa is entering a new phase that is often viewed negatively. The 40-odd nations that are formally independent and recognized internationally display symptoms of disarticulation and impoverishment. The annual per-capita income in almost all countries of the continent is below $1000 (Table 6). The $450 average annual income in the countries of the intertropical region puts this population in the lowest quarter in the world (WRI 1992). Some people have called this group of countries the “Fourth World.”

During the last few decades, the participation of sub-Saharan Africa in international trade has fallen from 4% of world trade in the 1960s to 1.5% in the early 1990s, affecting its economic and geopolitical position. Today, many African nation-states are having trouble merely existing. There is little money to pay public employees, and national debts, which consume a large proportion of export revenues, are nearly impossible to service. In 1993, African debt stood at $140 billion. Some countries are paying more than a third of their export revenues in interest charges: Cote d’Ivoire, 41%; Ghana, 49%; Guinea-Bissau, 45%; Kenya, 33%; and Uganda, 81%. In most countries, income from legal exports does not cover the cost of the minimum

Table 6. Per-capita income in sub-Saharan Africa.


Per-capita income (US$ per year)







Burkina Faso






Cape Verde


Central African Republic








Cote d’Ivoire




Equatorial Guinea








































Sierra Leone




















Source: WRI (1992). amount of imported goods, and military expenses still absorb a large part of the states’ budgets.

Many African governments have obtained assistance from richer countries in the form of “soft” loans, subsidies, technical support, and, to a much lesser degree, preferential commercial treatment. This has encouraged them to become dependent on international aid to the extent that, if this assistance decreased, their political equilibrium would be disrupted and their institutional structures would be threatened. In some cases, official development assistance (ODA) accounts for a large part of the countries’ gross national product (GNP). ODA amounts to 74.2% of Mozambique’s GNP; in Guinea-Bissau, 64.4%; in the Gambia, 50.7%; in Somalia, 47.6%; in Cape Verde, 32.2%; in Tanzania, 31.8%; and in Equatorial Guinea, 30.4%.

The causes of poverty

There is widespread belief that some of the more critical problems experienced by African countries are related to the frequent natural catastrophies (mainly droughts) and wars. In some cases, there is an element of truth to this interpretation, but in many others the issues are much more complex, and the causes must be found elsewhere.

The notions of drought and aridity are only partially related to meteorological data. In the “arid” countries, such as those of the Sahara and Kalahari regions, drought is an elusive concept. Arid climates are dry by definition, and in most cases irregularity of rainfall is normal. Therefore, years of little rain cannot be called “drought” years; dry years are part of predictable climatic patterns to which pastoral and oasis societies have adapted for a long time. If no external factors are introduced, traditional production and social systems tend to survive these “drier” periods without major problems.

In semi-arid countries where pastoral activities are combined with planting of rain-fed crops, the occurrence of arid spells has been traditionally mitigated by trade with more humid neighbouring regions. When dry periods extended beyond a certain period, conflicts arose, but this was more the exception than the rule. In brief, drought is not the root cause of African poverty and other problems, it only exacerbates them.

Wars present a different problem. They have become all too frequent in Africa. In most cases, they are a main cause of some of the more desperate situations. They can bring economic activities to a halt production systems are reduced, distribution of goods is disrupted, and social systems can be seriously damaged or even destroyed. Nevertheless, wars are a consequence of the African situation, not its basic cause.

From an economic point of view, the main apparent reason for African “underdevelopment” is its low levels of production, measured in terms of both gross domestic product (GDP) and exports. In fact, with few exceptions, exports and GDPs of African countries have been decreasing consistently over the last few decades. This has been coupled with sustained and widespread demographic growth. When GDP decreases and population increases, per-capita income shrinks, reducing the availability of financial resources for both the state and the population.

A second element in this “image of poverty” relates to the gradual fall of international trade figures for the continent. The decrease in exports appears to be a result of a complex array of factors. One such factor is the decline in the terms of exchange for traditional African products, such as cocoa, copra, cotton, and palm kernels. Between 1977 and 1989, cocoa prices fell from $5.41 to $0.94 per kilogram; copra from $574.7 to $264.7 per tonne; cotton from $2.22 to $1.27 per kilogram; and palm kernels from $466 to $190.9 per tonne. Another factor is the disappearance of markets for these products, frequently because of changes in consumption trends. On the other hand, it is also a by-product of a widespread loss of competitiveness, mainly because of the dislocation of national production or commercialization systems, and of inadequate use of natural resources.

Population growth

Persistent increases in the population exacerbate the other factors. In most African countries, population growth is over 2% annually; in some, it reaches 3.5% or more; for example, Cote d’Ivoire, 3.78%; Kenya, 3.58%; Uganda, 3.67%; and Zambia, 3.75%. The overall average for Africa is 2.98%, higher than any other continent. This is due to continuing high birthrates and decreasing death rates.

Population pressure has been one of the main forces promoting the various environmental degradation processes. Overgrazing, overcultivation, excessive or inappropriate use of water resources, deforestation, and elimination of natural ecosystems are, among other reasons, a direct result of overpopulation for existing forms of production and land-occupation systems.

Political upheaval

Sub-Saharan Africa seems to be engaged in a continuing series of conflicts between national and tribal groups. This political instability weakens the economies of the countries, affects the production-planning process and is an important factor in preventing populations from overcoming their difficult situation.

In the mid-1990s, open conflicts are continuing, having just started or recently ended in Angola, Chad, Ethiopia, Liberia, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Sudan. The recent conflict in Rwanda is a tragic part of this trend. This continuous state of war has made the economic crisis more acute, disrupting production, marketing, and distribution systems and leading to famine, high mortality rates, and other social hardships. To better understand the root causes of the African situation, however, we must go back in history to the early beginnings of humankind.

Historical causes of the current situation

The origin of humankind

Africa is the place of origin and centre of dispersion of the human race. For this reason, its ethnic diversity is the richest on the planet. From the peoples of Hamitic roots of the Sahara and Sahel to the Bantu groups of the more humid regions of the forest periphery, and from the Pygmies of the tropical rain forests to the Bushmen of the southern deserts and steppes, the continent possesses the largest variety of clearly differentiated human groups.

African agricultural societies developed with the domestication of cereal crops, such as sorghum and millet, and grazing animals (bovines, sheep, goats, and, finally, camels), which allowed the establishment of more sedentary communities in the savannas and associated forests. This process probably began in the Nile, Sudanese, and Sahelian savannas, and spread south and east. At least part of the African savanna is of secondary origin, developing after the anthropogenic destruction of intertropical forests (mainly through burning) as they were cleared for crop and animal production a few thousand years ago.

The oldest focus of agricultural development was in the valleys of the Nile and its tributaries. The main areas settled were the Nile delta, the lower part of the Egyptian fluvial plains, the middle and upper Nile, the northern zone of present-day Sudan (Nubia), the southern plains of the White Nile (which flows northward from the Ugandan highlands), and the sedimentary plains of the Blue Nile and Atbara rivers, both of which descend from the Ethiopian plateau. This culture was based on the domestication of cereals, such as wheat; controlling periodic flooding of the Nile alluvial plain; and domestication of ruminants, such as Bovis primigenius. The agrarian culture extended south along the main rivers to present-day Sudan and finally to Ethiopia, where it remained isolated and relatively unchanged for a long time.

Agricultural development and the need for water management promoted the evolution of state-type political structures in Egypt, based on a theocratic and absolutist regime and ideology: the time of the pharaohs. The political and ideological influence of this culture extended southward, as did its agrarian aspects. The example of these agricultural states was replicated first toward Ethiopia and Sudan and later westward along the Sudanese belt to the Atlantic coast. The political empires of Ghana and Mali, the Hausa and Songhai kingdoms, were based in large measure on this agrarian economy as well as the political elements that went with it.

The Sudanese people were probably the first to domesticate cattle in sub-Saharan Africa (a practice apparently adopted from the Mediterranean region via Egypt and the Nile valley), and the Nilotic or Bantu people were perhaps the first to grow some varieties of sorghum and millet. With time, some groups (mainly Bantu) moved southeast, settling in the east African savannas (in what is now Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe), where agrarian states developed, such as the “Zimbabwe” civilization near Harare. When European settlers arrived in South Africa, a process of gradual encroachment of migrating agropastoral Bantu-speaking groups (the Tswana, Sotho, Basuto, Zulu, and Swazi) was taking place, simultaneously displacing or assimilating the Khoisan autochthonous groups (Hottentots and Bushmen).

Another important aspect of sub-Saharan evolution was the development of trans-Saharan trade, both along the Atlantic coastal routes and through the desert. In large measure, the prosperity of Carthage in Roman times was due to its control of the trans-Saharan trade routes, through which it received ivory, gold, and slaves. Later, after the Mohammedan expansion of the 8th century to the Maghreb, the Moorish and Moroccan empires also based their power on controlling these trade routes into the heart of Africa. The development of the Sudanese and Sahelian kingdoms was greatly facilitated by the concentration of resources that resulted from this trade. Some of the Sahelian cities (such as Timbuktu) developed and thrived as a result of this commercial activity; important episodes of southward political expansion (particularly Moroccan) brought lasting effects of Islam to the Sudan and the Sahel.

A parallel spread of Islam was taking place on the eastern coast, particularly because of the Arab-Omani and the Malay influence and the growth of sea trade in the Indian Ocean. As a result, several Afro-Arabian cities developed Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam, Pemba, Mombasa, etc.

The rain forests remained unsettled for some time to come, until forest-adapted domestic plant species appeared on the African scene. The white yam (Dioscorea rotundata) and the yellow yam (Dioscorea cayenensis) were domesticated in West Africa. Other crops were introduced from Asia - old cocoyam (Colocasia sp.) and the water yam (Dioscorea alata) - and later from America - new cocoyam (Xanthosoma sp.) and cassavas (Hahn and Ker 1980, p. 5).

Raising domesticated animals in a forest environment was limited because of the effect of the tsetse fly and other lethal diseases on cattle and other large mammals (including humans). Later, first through deforestation and later through efforts directed at insect pests, more extensive occupation of the forest was possible.

Some of the more ancient groups, like the Pygmies, were the first to move into the forest. They developed an extractive and itinerant farming culture adapted to the complex jungle environment. These groups developed well-adjusted, sustainable production systems that permitted their survival in the hostile jungle environment with only minor changes for many thousands of years.

For the Bantu-speaking (and other) farming people, the process of occupation took place in a different manner. These groups were essentially savanna dwellers. Unlike the Pygmies, who settled the forest from the inside, this group approached from the periphery. Areas were cleared for farming and used for only a few years because of the limited fertility of forest soils. Subsequently, the farmers would move to a different site and continue the cycle.

With time, these peoples, with their two types of production systems, spread throughout the rain-forest region: the itinerant farmers at the periphery and in clearings and the “forest people” more symbiotically adapted to the natural ecosystem. For many centuries, this dual and combined approach to occupation and exploitation of the forest environment developed and stabilized.

In forested regions, communication by land was difficult because of the dense vegetation. Therefore, agricultural expansion occurred mainly along fluvial paths, with small islands of human occupation. The agroforestry societies formed by this process were isolated; their political units were very small and their cultural diversity was great.

Africa in the 15th century

In the mid-15th century, when Portuguese explorers arrived in Africa, they found a savanna region containing small and medium-sized kingdoms based on combined agropastoral production systems and a commercial framework structured along the trans-Saharan routes in the west, through the Nile valley in the northeast, and along the Indian Ocean routes in the east.

These kingdoms were usually quite small, with populations of no more than 30 or 40 thousand. They often remained within ethnically defined borders, separating people of different cultures, ways of life, languages, dialects, and religions. Their political organization was stable, but their political configuration was not. In forest regions, local groups developed in relative isolation and the resulting kingdoms were very small, normally with several hundred or thousand people and covering a few hundred square kilometres or less.

In any case, African political units were based on geographic locale, a common agropastoral economic base, a particular situation in relation to commercial fluxes, and, overall, common traditions, language, religion, and culture. Occasionally, some groups dominated others or groups might merge or divide. In general, however, they tended to stabilize according to national or ethnic identities. In these political units, government structures were relatively small: a ruling group or family with a small number of officials. The ruling group or “class” was often determined by production surpluses in the particular society.

Cities developed at the points of convergence of the trade routes - Dongola in the Upper Nile, Timbuktu on the Niger, Mombasa and Dar es Salaam on the Indian Ocean - giving rise to more powerful political entities, with a larger concentration of population and resources, and well-defined bureaucracies. In most cases, these cities controlled small territories and acted as commercial-exchange centres.

The arrival of Europeans

European explorers, traders, and military forces arrived mainly by sea, although, later, they penetrated the interior on foot, on horseback, or by boat along the few navigable rivers. In the first phase, their arrival promoted the development of several coastal ports. New commercial centres, particularly slave-trading harbours, arose on the coast of Guinea (displacing the Sahelian trade oases) and in the ports of eastern Africa. In the latter phase, European forces gradually overpowered the Swahili and Arab elites, taking control of the whole coastal zone.

The expansion of trade, together with colonization and deforestation of coastal areas and the secondary savannas of the hinterland, strengthened several African states - the Ashanti and Yoruba kingdoms in the current territories of Ghana and Nigeria respectively.

Later, in the 19th century, when European powers consolidated their control, they expanded toward the interior until a new political distribution took place. This process of European colonization, which in principle was based on slave trade, became reoriented toward the exploitation of natural resources for export to Europe using slave or semi-slave labour. Copper mines were opened in British Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), gold mines and placers were established in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and banana, cocoa, copra, and many other indigenous and introduced crops were grown throughout other suitable areas. Gradually, the slave ports became exporting centres for local production.

Colonial territorial boundaries were decided by political agreements in Europe with no consideration of existing ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and religious boundaries. Almost all European colonies in Africa included people from various African nations, and many nations were divided by artificial borders.

Often, the new administrative systems ignored traditional organizations, imposing “unnatural” units on the local peoples in an authoritarian and arbitrary manner. In other cases, mainly in British areas, traditional structures were adapted for colonial administration.

Inheriting irrational borders and colonial structure

When African independence movements succeeded, the newly formed states had to deal with the artificial boundaries established by the Europeans. In some cases, such as the Belgian Congo (now Zaire) and Tanganyika (now continental Tanzania), the new states were very large; in others, like the Gambia and Equatorial Guinea, they were small or had odd configurations.

These nations are paying a price for these artificial arrangements, which ignored traditional organizations and knowledge. In many countries, the commercial crop-exporting systems have deteriorated, and financial resources are insufficient to maintain state bureaucracies, paralyzing administrative functions. In addition, the commercially oriented rural productive system is increasingly unable to keep up production levels and provide enough jobs; the result is massive rural migration to the cities.

The problem is not helped by the gradual decrease in farming surpluses, necessary to feed the cities. In some countries, even the farmers are having difficulties feeding themselves. Another important cause of the overconcentration of people in cities is the migration and resettlement of “refugees of war” (such as in Angola, Mozambique, and Somalia). Unfortunately, there are neither jobs nor services for the millions moving to urban areas, and conflicts between the various nations or tribes are becoming more frequent, pushing many African societies into a chronic crisis situation.

Wars are environmentally unfriendly

The case of Angola

Angola is a large country with important mineral resources (such as petroleum and diamonds), great biodiversity in forests and savanna ecosystems, extensive areas suitable for agriculture and rangelands, and important fisheries. Because it is not densely populated - about 10 million people in 1 million square kilometres - the resource base would be more than enough to provide a high quality of life to the population.

However, a large portion of Angola’s productive base has been degraded or eliminated. Forests have been burned or logged; many wildlife species have disappeared; roads, railroads, airports, and buildings have been rendered useless; and people have emigrated, making Angola a country of refugees. All of this is the result of war.

The Movimento pare a Liberacao do Angola (MPLA), a leftist nationalist movement, was founded by an Angolan intellectual and poet (Agostinho Neto) in 1956 to fight for Angola’s independence from Portugal. Some years later, the Frente Nacional pare a Liberacao do Angola (FNLA) was founded by Holden Roberto, an Angolan militant, and an offshoot, UNITAS, was established in 1966 by Jonas Savimbi.

In 1975, when the country finally won its independence, there were disagreements between the Soviet-supported MPLA and the other two movements (FNLA and UNITAS), which were supported by the United States and South Africa. War broke out. Within the framework of the Cold War, several countries from both blocs were involved directly or indirectly (Cuba, the former Soviet Union, South Africa, and the United States). Many years later, although the Cold War has ended, the conflict in Angola persists.

The reason for the persistence of the war probably relates to deeply ingrained ethnic feelings that were poorly managed during Portuguese colonial times. There is a dichotomy within Angolan society, as in other African countries: a “Europeanized” elite, which is politically left of centre, and a traditionally based movement, UNITAS, which is rightist. One reason for the apparent success of UNITAS is probably related to its support from the numerous Ovimbundu; support for the Luanda government is mainly based on the mixed-culture urban population.

The European models and ideologies fail to address local problems and, as a result, a populist movement can grow using whatever support is available (even a racist regime, as in South Africa in the late 1970s and early 1980s). After 30 years of fighting, the Angolan war is still going on, producing widespread social and material degradation.

One of the victims of the conflict is the environment: forests have been burned, animals have been hunted in an indiscriminate way, and mines and other explosive devices have been buried in many areas. The productive base is rapidly shrinking. The formal Angolan state is gradually falling apart. This is probably more than an ethnic war, however. In our interpretation, we are witnessing the end of a model alien to the true Africa. Soon, gradually and painfully, a new society, more informal and based on tradition, will probably arise from the ruins of colonial and neocolonial Angola.

The case of Nigeria

Nigeria is another country in which an inherited political system and boundaries have caused problems, and where both society and the environment are suffering the consequences. The British colony in Nigeria included in the same political unit several ethnic groups with a history of conflicts and rivalries: the Yorubas, the Ibos, and the Hausas.

As soon as independence was declared in 1960, a bloody war (the Biafra war) erupted between the Yoruba and Hausa dominated government and the Ibo population of the southeast. The war ended in 1962 with the defeat of the Ibos, and for some time it seemed that Nigeria would become a viable political entity. It was the most populated African nation, with 75 million people, one of the world’s largest producers of petroleum, and one of the richest countries on the continent.

During its three and a half decades of independence, however, several military governments with no accountability held power, while misappropriation of funds and bribery were the rule. Today, Nigeria has a population over 100 million, unemployment is widespread, crime is rampant, public utilities seldom work, and consumer goods, and even fuel, are hard to find. In brief, the whole administrative structure is barely functioning and the formal economy is disintegrating.

The political system is not working well either. After 8 years of authoritarian regimes, elections were held in June 1993. However, President Babamgida refused to relinquish power when Moshood Abiola, a nonmilitary Yoruba candidate chosen by him, was elected. By mid-1994, Mr Abiola had been arrested and the country was in extreme turmoil, with the southern Yoruba region threatening to separate and the government trying to enlist the southeastern Ibos as allies (until now, unsuccessfully; see Economist 1994c). The traditional Nigerian nations - Hausas, Yorubas, and Ibos - and several other national groups are now locked inside artificially drawn borders and there is constant political and ethnic tension. Even if this crisis is solved, it is likely that another will soon emerge. The problem does not seem to lie with the political leaders, but rather with the whole political system, including inappropriate territorial boundaries.

Nigeria’s environment has also suffered the consequences of the economic crisis. The rapid population growth, particularly in and around the largest cities (Lagos and Ibadan), has affected natural ecosystems. Formerly a forested country, Nigeria has lost most of its forest ecosystems. Wildlife has disarppeared, rivers and coastal waters are increasingly contaminated, soil erosion (which was practically unknown before) has become one of the main problems affecting agriculture, and industrial development has been paralyzed because of problems with the supply of basic inputs, such as fuel, water, and electricity.

As in Angola, however, Nigeria’s future may lie in the gradual growth of a new, more African approach to social and environmental management (Time 1993). Former foreign minister, Joseph Garba, said, “Nigeria will go back to the Stone Age.” It will not be a stone age, but rather a more traditional age, still modern, but based on African roots.

Evolution of environmental management in Africa

Africa’s history has produced effects on the environment that cannot be found in other areas of the world. As the cradle of humanity, ecosystems adapted to human presence and human technologies as they evolved. This is probably one of the reasons why such a wide array of large mammats is found in Africa, compared with other continents, which were occupied by humans at a later stage.

Preagricultural human occupation had effects on the environment. Hunter-gatherers and fishing cultures overhunted some species, overcollected or artificially dispersed seeds, and burned forests, bush, and herbaceous ecosystems for hunting or other purposes, deliberately or accidentally modifing the environment.

Farming and the domestication of animals introduced additional changes. Some species (cattle, goats, sheep, camels, etc.) were tamed for their meat, milk, leather, and other by-products; some were tamed as helpers or companions (cats and dogs).

Agriculture required the clearing of land for cultivation. After growing several crops and depleting the son’s, the fields were abandoned and new ones opened. In many cases, after many “slash-and-burn” cycles, the original forest ecosystem was converted to secondary savanna, made up of a herbaceous cover and few bushes and trees (Figure 3).

Gradually, savanna ecosystems and associated cultures reached a sort of equilibrium; grassy areas with low soil fertility were used for grazing and the best soils were used for farming. In these savanna environments, two different cultures developed in close association, almost of a symbiotic nature: nomadic shepherds, such as the present-day Fulani and Peul in the Sudan and Sahel and the Masai in eastern Africa, and sedentary farmers, such as the Bambara in Mali.

Figure 3. The ecozones of Africa.

There are more humid forest areas that remained untouched, mainly because of the lack of crop species adapted to this type of environment and the presence of deadly diseases, such as sleeping sickness. The first forest dwellers, such as the Pygmies of the Congo region, based their survival on hunting, fishing, and gathering; farming was only a secondary activity. They were (and still are) nomadic and became very well adapted to the forest environment. With the development of appropriate crop species, more sedentary cultures began to encroach on forest areas. The approach of both of these cultural groups tended to preserve most of the original components of the forest ecosystem. Although there was some impact, mainly through selective gathering or overgathering, or artificial spreading of some species and varieties, the forest structure remained unchanged, with several tree strata, dense undergrowth, rich genetic diversity, and its strong effect on hydrodynamics, preventing runoff and soil erosion.

European settlers promoted or imposed the development of plantations, which gradually encroached on many forested areas. As a result, forests receded to a fraction of their former area. This progress was increased when pest control, antibiotics, and vaccines were developed to overcome the disease hazard. Now, forested areas in Africa cover less than 20% of their former area and soil erosion is widespread.

A different problem occurred in semi-arid and arid lands where rain-fed agriculture was impossible without some form of irrigation. By and large, steppe and desert cultures were based on the herding of sheep, goats, and camels. The potential for environmental degradation by these peri-desertic groups was limited to the proximity of water holes, which were few and often far apart. Sheep and goats require water almost daily, and camels once a week; therefore, herds could not be driven much beyond 2 to 4 days’ travel to the next water holes or places where water containers could be stored. As a result, most of the steppe and the savanna ecosystems remained relatively untouched. Natural springs are rare in semi-arid and arid areas; therefore, most water holes were hand-excavated in wadi (arid “river” valleys) or plains in alluvial or related eolian sediments. Wells were dug wherever the depth to good-quality water was less than 30 to 40 metres.

Several technological developments changed this situation. First, new hydrogeologic techniques, such as drilling and geophysical logging allowed identification and exploitation of much deeper and sometimes better-quality, higher yielding aquifers. Second, the development of new types of mechanical pumps permitted larger volumes of groundwater to be extracted over shorter periods. Finally, the spread of motor vehicles made possible the transportation of water from wells to drier areas. As a result of these developments and the influence of a culture that based prestige on possession of the largest number of animals, herds and herders rapidly increased.

These were the main causes of increased desertification in the Sahelian and peri-Saharan regions. Widespread overgrazing took place and, in a few decades, the southern boundary of the Sahara advanced southward by tens or even hundreds of kilometres. As a result of the new water resources, the density of people and livestock increased considerably (from 5 to 15 people per square kilometre). In 1985, overstocking had been estimated at 22% in the Sudan (Pearce et al. 1990) and similar figures seem to be common in all the cattle-raising areas of the Sudanese and Sahelian regions. Even during rainy years, the vegetation near the wells was heavily damaged. When the drought of 1973-1975 struck, the cattle ate everything. Even trees were stripped of their branches, and thousands of animals died. Because of the drought, the plants did not regenerate and an acute famine followed. A well-meant “development assistance” program, which had not considered all aspects of the problem, introduced a technical element that inappropriately changed traditional cultural and production patterns that were well adapted to the local environment.

The development of large cities throughout the steppe, savanna, and forested legions and the rising price of fuel have caused an increase in the amount of wood cut for use as fuel for cooking, industrial ovens, and other purposes. The final result of this has been the retreat of forests farther and farther away from urbanized areas. This process can be observed throughout the continent; even in oil-producing countries, wood is widely used for domestic and other purposes. In 1983, it was estimated that, at 43 million cubic metres, the annual consumption of fuelwood and charcoal in the Sudan represented more than 90% of the total production of wood country-wide (Pearce et al. 1990). Similar figures are reported from Mali, Niger, and other countries in the Sudanese and Sahelian regions.

Another cause of environmental degradation in Africa relates to the construction of poorly designed hydro projects, especially irrigation and storage systems and hydroelectric dams. One of the prime examples of failure was the Lake Chad irrigation system built in the 1970s (see Chapter 7). This project was planned without considering the climatological regime, which is characterized by regular cycles of drought and flood. The many millions of dollars spent on the project have resulted in the construction of kilometres of useless channels that, for most of the time, remain dry. Often the negative impact of such projects could have been predicted if an independent, in-depth study had been conducted beforehand.

There are several projects in the planning stage that may entail similar or even larger risks: the Jonglei canal in the Sudd wetlands of southern Sudan; and the trans-basin transfer of water from the Congo River to the Chad basin through the Chari and several other rivers. A lack of funds, continued political instability, and a growing sense of the risks of these megaprojects have slowed the actual execution of these projects. New endeavours will probably require in-depth impact assessments, hopefully reducing the risks of repeated failures in the future.

Old and new development models

The complex situation in present-day Africa is the result of a long history of outside interference and ongoing internal processes. The main problem, with negative implications for the future, is deterioration of the resource base, which may be irreversible: deforestation, destruction of ecosystems, depletion and contamination of water resources, loss of fertility and erosion of soils, and widespread habitat destruction may be permanent. A major consequence of these processes is a decrease in production in many rural areas. The volume of exports is lower; therefore, less foreign currency is entering the countries. Coupled with the need to service the continent’s $140 billion debt, these factors are increasing the difficulty of acquiring many basic imports.

As a consequence of changing many farming areas from subsistence to commercial production and decreased production, rural migration rates are high, producing continuous, unsustainable demographic growth of cities throughout the continent.

In some countries, there is a trend toward consolidation of the strongest national groups, providing the minimum political stability necessary for defining new, sustainable developmental alternatives. In other countries, with two or more national groups competing for power, political instability may increase. In some cases, the trend toward political fragmentation may succeed. It is possible that there will also be realignments beyond the inherited “colonial” borders. Generally, the trend seems to be one of progressive substitution of the “colonial-type” state, with its formal institutions and economy poorly adapted to African conditions, by a system that is based more on traditional institutions and the informal sector.

In the more densely populated areas, acceleration of urbanization processes appears to be taking place, with development of a new “Afrourban” culture that may gradually allow the sowing of the seeds of a new institutionalization. The tendency also seems to be toward a renationalization of states with redefined borders and institutions. This process is taking place mainly as a result of a succession of conflicts, which may persist for several decades with continuous effects of disarticulating production systems, affecting the quality of life of the populations of many countries for some time to come. If this trend continues, famines may develop and mortality rates may increase again (although perhaps in a localized manner in relation to armed conflicts or epidemics such as AIDS). This is likely to occur simultaneously with a continued decrease in birthrates, which, coupled with migration, may tend to stabilize the population levels in the medium or longer term. It can also be expected that, as in Latin America and some Asian countries, the growth of African cities may slow as they become less and less attractive places to live because of social and environmental degradation.

The failure of the “colonial,” “socialist,” and “capitalist productivist” models will promote the search for new models based on African indigenous resources and cultures. Gradually, we expect that a revaluation of the role of the agricultural village and the communal grazing system will take place, together with a trend toward political decentralization as a result of a predictable shrinking of the central power. The new indigenous-based models may allow management approaches combining traditional systems with scientific know-how.

Generally, the renationalization process may begin with greater dependence on foreign aid, which may later decrease because of a “drying up” of funds or “aid fatigue” in developed countries. At a still later stage, the deterioration of state economies resulting from the decreasing resource base and disarticulation of the formal production systems may promote forces of self-management and self-development in a framework of growing decentralization. They may even include reruralization processes.

Outside interference has proved to be the cause of much unhappiness for African society. A successful, sustainable, and equitable model, respectful of Africa’s diversities and resources, will only be developed through the indigenous growth of authentic, locally inspired solutions. This process will be difficult and painful, but it is essential if Africa is finally to define its future in its own terms.