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close this bookSustaining the Future: Economic, Social, and Environmental Change in Sub-Saharan Africa (UNU, 1996, 365 pages)
close this folderPart 1: Economy and society: development issues
close this folderEnvironmental management and social equity
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentThe key notions
View the documentThe political-economic context of contemporary environmental management
View the documentSocial equity and environmental management: Some examples
View the documentThe way forward
View the documentReferences

The political-economic context of contemporary environmental management

To understand effectively why questions of social equity become central to contemporary forms of environmental management it is necessary to look at the overall political-economic context. In the case of Sub-Saharan Africa, given its specific history and the nature of its environmental problems, this is an important point of departure.

The political-economic context of most countries, particularly those of Sub-Saharan Africa, can be identified as possessing four broad levels with implications for the management of the environment. These are the global, the regional, the national, and the local or grassroots level. As has been pointed out in an earlier work (Aina 1990: 196), these levels are sites and sources not only from which actions are expressed but also within which effects are felt. At these different levels, a wide array of vested interests and social forces interplay and interact. In a lot of cases these interactions cut across the levels, while in some cases actions and effects are localized.

Also expressed at these levels are three cross-cutting issues that affect the nature of the political-economic context of most SubSaharan African countries. These are (a) inequality and poverty, (b) domination and conflicts, and (c) unsustainable economic and social development processes. The three are closely interrelated, often feeding on each other, and to a great extent co-determining the vicious cycles of poverty, misery, and environmental degradation characteristic of many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.

The global/regional contexts

The global/regional levels include what goes on within the global political-economic system, particularly within its influential multilateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the United Nations System, and similar institutions. At this level, the problems related to inequality and poverty, domination and conflicts, and unsustainable economic and social development processes continuously play themselves out but on a more macro and systematic scale. The history of most Sub-Saharan African countries as ax-colonies, their dependent and weak economies, their narrow technological base, and their recent high indebtedness make them extremely vulnerable. This vulnerability is not only in economic terms but also in ecological, social, and cultural terms.

Such countries, particularly in the context of the debt crisis and the application of the economic recovery programmes initiated from the centres of the global system, are often forced through deregulation mechanisms to open all aspects of their economy and society. In this context, social and economic priorities tied to either debt repayment or rescheduling are imposed on them and these often reinforce or expand unsustainable social and economic development processes, particularly with regard to the exploitation of natural resources that are exported for hard currency. In a lot of cases, the imperatives of debt servicing and adjustment management have pushed equity and sustainable development questions into the background. In fact economic reforms have by their nature favoured the well-off and reinforced unsustainable strategies.

These have implications for the environment in terms of an accelerated process of natural resources degradation and in a lot of cases often repressive and inequitable environmental management responses.

National/local contexts

At national or local levels all three issues - inequity and poverty, domination and conflicts, and unsustainable economic and social development processes - find expression. There is scarcely any country in Sub-Saharan Africa that is free from one or all of these problems.

Quite often the problems have their origins in the colonial history of the specific countries. It is at this point that the transformation and internationalization of the national/local environments begin through specific forms of insertion into the global economy based on some form or combination of forms of exploitation of natural resources through cash-crop production, mining, timber, forestry, etc. This process often involves a redefinition of the relationships of the people to nature and natural resources through production, consumption, laws, the growth of bureaucracies and institutions of enforcement, and, in several cases, through direct physical and spatial segregation of the colonized and the colonizer.

Because colonial interests were often about the exploitation of natural resources, the central concern of environmental management was often with environmental sanitation in the urban areas and with agricultural productivity and the securing of the reserves of other natural resources in the rural areas. Commitment to these objectives led to the growth of management techniques that confronted erosion, land degradation, and pest control only in relation to the obstacles they created to producing economic goods or to the leisure of the colonial and the indigenous elites.

Of course there was the creation of forest reserves to conserve the sources of forest products and the institution of national parks projects to promote tourism and conserve wildlife.2 But in essence the dominant techniques utilized were reactive, Western in origin and style, and concerned more with the definition and protection of interests either identified or possessed by the colonial elites. Environmental management in this context was specialized, alienated, and elitist in form, and in some cases motivated by romantic and adventurist conceptions of the "native" and his natural habitat. All of this was inherited and applied in the post-colonial era and, with the deteriorating conditions imposed by the economic and political crises that plagued the continent from the mid-1970s, some of the institutions decayed while others were seriously perverted. It is in this context that the current situation of multifaceted crises of the economy, polity, society, and ecology have come together to plague the African continent.