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close this bookEco-restructuring: Implications for sustainable development (UNU, 1998, 417 pages)
close this folderPart I: Restructuring resource use
close this folder2. The biophysical basis of eco-restructuring: An overview of current relations between human economic activities and the global system
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentThe earth system
View the documentThe climate system and climatic change
View the documentClimatic change and vulnerability
View the documentBiological diversity
View the documentFresh water
View the documentSoils
View the documentThe solid earth (lithosphere)
View the documentLand-cover and land-use changes
View the documentHuman impacts and industrial metabolism
View the documentThe case of West Africa
View the documentOutlook

The case of West Africa

In order to get a clearer picture of the biophysical base and the human impacts on it, including brief comments on associated economic activities, it is helpful to "go down" in scale from a global to a continental or even to a sub-continental or regional scale. For a first overview one could adopt the zonal classification of "landscape belts" (Landschaftsgurtel), which can be used as an expression of the existing combined attributes of climate, vegetation, soil, and land use.

In West Africa, this sequence of "landscape zones" extends from the rain forest to the desert in a fairly regular fashion. An analysis linking this major biophysical pattern with corresponding patterns of land use and economic development poses some interesting questions. Political boundaries have cut right across this ecological zonation, usually encompassing several landscape belts within each state. Development of land use, including industry, has been strongly influenced by history, i.e. mainly by events in the pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial periods. Within this biophysical donation, agricultural activities and mining industries play a more dominant role than manufacturing. Similarly, rapid urbanization has influenced the patterns of development.

West Africa belongs, broadly speaking, to the group of less and least developed countries, although some states such as oil-rich Nigeria or the resources-rich Gabon and Côte d'Ivoire have been (erratically) nearing the level of the newly industrialized economies (NIEs). In many African countries, economic development has been assisted by foreign aid programmes. Much of the rest has been driven by natural resource development projects controlled by large foreign based oil and/or mining companies. There is no history or deep-rooted tradition of political democracy. Ethnic and tribal identities are stronger than national loyalties. "Checks and balances" are weak. Government, when based on parliamentary forms, is likely to be single party in practice. The alternative is military dictatorship. Owing to the political situation (in Liberia, the Sudan, Angola, Mozambique, Rwanda, Somalia, etc.), so far only very limited chances for any eco-restructuring exist.

In a few of the better-functioning African economies, industrial activities cover the whole chain of production from the extraction of raw materials to materials processing and manufacturing and final waste disposal. Industrial enterprises are the main consumers of renewable and non-renewable natural resources, including mineral ores, energy, and agricultural products in all forms. Industrial processes often produce toxic wastes, gases, and other effluents. Furthermore, many goods imported from the North cannot be recycled and become difficult or even hazardous wastes.

Land resources and land use in West Africa

For many West African nations, access to land resources is important for sustainable development. Land resources provide the basis of most human activities, including the management of soil, water, and energy. In urban areas, in particular, access to land is becoming difficult because of growing conflicts between industry, housing, transportation, and recreational needs. But in rural areas too the increasing use of fragile, marginal land calls for improved planning and management of land resources. As a first step to combat unsustainable practices, a sound land-use policy, with improved land tenure structures, possibly even introducing a more efficient land registry system, will be important.

Population growth in Africa is generally correlated strongly with the expansion and intensification of agricultural land use. Often this results in deforestation, if not desertification. On the other hand, studies (e.g. Zaba 1991) have shown that population density and growth may rank well below economic factors causing environmental degradation. However, these relationships are by no means clear. They often depend on rather complex local circumstances and require further situational assessments of considerable subtlety.

Whereas there are a number of very well-documented studies on the Amazonian forests (e.g. Dickinson 1987; Fearn side 1990), we know very little about the corresponding African situation. One of the marked differences is the much more limited impact (or even absence) of livestock farming or ranching in the cleared forests. This is mainly because of the adverse effects of the tsetse fly, carrier of "sleeping sickness" (trypanosomiasis) in tropical Africa.

So far, only very few comparative aggregate studies have researched the role of environmental driving forces in Africa on a statistical/empirical basis. Most micro-type studies have been of a more descriptive nature, often in relation to population carrying capacity and landscape transformation. Perhaps the UNU project on Population Growth, Land Transformation and Environmental Change (PLEC) and also UNU's Research and Training Centre on Natural Resources in Africa (INRA) will provide some further insights into regional and local dynamics of environmental land-use/ land cover changes leading in many cases to land degradation.

Some environmental aspects

Only a small number of African problems can be mentioned explicitly here.

Air pollution

In many urban areas, air pollution resulting from electric power generation, transportation, local industries, and domestic cooking is already a major problem. In addition to the normal sources, atmospheric pollution is also the result of widespread forest-clearing operations, especially forest burning by small holding farmers and bigger agricultural enterprises.

Another source is the large-scale transportation and deposition of dust by desert winds. Estimates of the quantities of dust moved are quite large: 13 million tonnes per season, mainly from the Saharan and Sahelian zones, are deposited on land all the way across the Atlantic. This material not only "fertilizes" the Latin American and Caribbean forest belt; it also provides trace nutrients (including phosphorus) that permit the growth of oceanic plankton (Morales 1979).

Water pollution

Through clearing of vegetation and the transformation and intensification of land use, both for ploughing and for the accumulation of "bricks and mortar" (urbanization), surface runoff has increased and a number of river beds have become significantly silted. In the bigger urban centres the industrial impact on the hydrological cycle is quite marked. The dumping of liquid and solid wastes of all kinds has polluted the urban water supply almost everywhere. Waterborne wastes include industrial waste water from timber and paper-pulp mills, mercury pollution from gold mining, pollution from leather tanning, and pollution from cellulose-based industries. There are presumably significant saline water wastes from oil drilling and pumping operations in Angola and Nigeria.

Solid waste

Data on solid waste are very scanty. Pollution by solid waste is generally high in countries with major mining operations (e.g. iron ore in Liberia and Mauritania, tin/columbite mining in Nigeria, gold mining in Ghana, or bauxite mining in Guinea and Cameroon). These operations cause major potential environmental hazards but they also often constitute the only source of hard currency - along with cocoa or coffee - for the national economies.

Manufacturing waste is far less voluminous than mining or agricultural waste. Municipal waste is an increasing problem, however. In many urban agglomerations, "waste economies" are an important part of the informal sector. Special situations arise when social groups live on (and from) waste dumps, as for instance in Cairo.

Industrialization and urbanization

In West Africa, industrialization is still in a very early stage. So far, West Africa is suffering many of the disadvantages and enjoying only a few of the benefits of industrialization. Local small-scale industries often concentrate on repairing and renovating industrial products.

Urbanization has fuelled industrialization. Energy supply, transportation facilities, public infrastructure, and proximity to political power (because of security and influence considerations) are important location factors for the siting of industries in the big cities. Metallurgical and chemical industries exist on a very limited scale, if at all. The same applies to electronics industries. There is, however, a certain growth of small-scale industries in rural areas and in smaller regional centres.

The main resource-based industries such as mining, quarrying, and agricultural enterprises are generally not closely linked to urban centres. The socio-political influence of the transnational corporations has declined in Africa in recent years. These enterprises often operate in isolated "enclaves," such as mining or plantation areas, with minimum interaction with the larger society.

Pollution control and other regulatory measures, including recycling and cleaner forms of production, are in a very initial phase. In most African countries environmental control mechanisms exist only "on paper." For instance, Nigeria has its Environmental Protection Law of 1986, but, as in most developing countries, actual enforcement remains difficult.

Social impacts

Besides demographic growth (generally around 3 per cent per annun or more), African development is strongly influenced by the situation of the political economy and the access of countries to resources. Critics of a one-sided climatic explanation of hazards and disasters often quote the Sahel crisis of the 1970s as an example to prove the dominant role of socio-political parameters in coping with a famine initiated by drought. However, it seems clear that only consideration of both biophysical and socio-economic and cultural factors can explain the vulnerability of the "political ecology" within this zone. If one looks at it spatially, one finds that the most vulnerable groups do not necessarily live in the most vulnerable locations. It is the combination and overlap of the two that leads to the most problematic cases of marginality and sensitivity.

In this respect the impact of technology may vary. Irrigation, for instance, may reduce biophysical vulnerability. On the other hand, irrigation practices may lead to salinization and waterlogging. The heated controversy over the consequences of the "Green Revolution," with its technology packages (improved water supply, seed selection, chemical fertilizers, etc.), for resulting development is typical of this debate.

Structural adjustment programmes

Structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) have been adopted by more than 30 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, more especially in the 1980s, although African states were already affected by World Bank and IMP policies in the 1960s. Because world recession problems had to be overcome, African governments cooperated with the Bank and the IMP in various ways. Sometimes "shock treatments" were implemented in less than two years to resolve a crisis. In other cases more gradual reforms were spread over longer periods, also affecting the industrial sector. It was claimed that the beneficiaries of SAPs were the rural poor, because they were protected in relation to the urban poor by the stimulation of exports and an increase in farm incomes, offsetting in part the decline in wages. However, it seems unsafe to argue on the basis of the rural-urban dichotomy alone. What, for instance, is happening to rural incomes that are often dependent on remittances from urban and industrial workers (Morgan 1994, 1996)?

On the whole, and in most parts of the world, one of the most generally recognized impacts of SAPs has been increased social differentiation, including the rural poor. Although this process seems to have been stronger in Latin America and Asia than in Africa, even the World Bank initiated special policies directed at the poor to complement the existing SAPs.

It is interesting to note that environmental problems, such as, for instance, the dependence of economic productivity on the conservation of the endowment of natural resources, have so far hardly been considered in the design of SAPs.

Although it can be reasonably argued that in some cases SAPs have been a success (e.g. the Economic Recovery Programme in Ghana), on the whole sub-Saharan Africa has had a long history of poverty, war, and famine extending over millennia: "vulnerability, inequality and threats to the social fabric in Africa are not a product of the 1970's and 1980's, much less of Fund and Bank prescriptions for stabilization and adjustment. Nor are they purely imported colonial phenomena" (Green 1989).

Africa's economic and financial problems were made worse by a combination of:

1. an investment in growth and development that failed to earn the expected rewards;

2. the international debt crisis, oil price hikes, and rising interest rates, plus the inadequacy of the aid programmes that were meant to provide relief;

3. repeated drought, crop failure, and widespread famine;

4. the failure of agricultural production to contribute significantly to growth and the increased dependence on imported food. (Morgan 1996: 48)

Poverty, which contributes so much to the environmental degradation of Africa, can in the long run be overcome only by improving economic sustainability, which will be achieved not only through economic reforms but by more appropriate investments, including industrial activities and expanding trade.