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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 5: Environment and development in Ghana
close this folderThe environmental impact and sustainability of plantations in Sub-Saharan Africa: Ghana's experiences with oil-palm plantations
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentOverview of the plantation system in the Sub-Sahara
View the documentThe evolution of plantations in Ghana
View the documentThe positive impacts of the plantations
View the documentAdverse environmental impacts and sustainability
View the documentConclusion
View the documentReferences

Overview of the plantation system in the Sub-Sahara

Plantations were introduced into the tropics during the sixteenth century by European colonists as a system of cheaply exploiting the hot humid environment and the native labour as well as slave and indentured or contract labour, for the purpose of producing tropical crops such as sugar cane for export to temperate countries, especially Europe. Initially the plantations were concentrated in South America and the West and East Indies. Subsequently, they spread to SubSaharan Africa and other areas of the tropics, with their mode of ownership evolving from paternalist resident planters, through absentee landlords and limited liability companies, to transnational or multinational corporations and national or state enterprises.

The plantation system grew in importance in Sub-Saharan Africa following the partitioning of Africa among the European colonial powers in 1885. This was particularly so in the Belgian Congo (now Zaire) where, in 1911, Lever Brothers, the giant transnational conglomerate, acquired vast freeholds and concessions of land, portions of which were developed into oil-palm plantations. The spread of plantations slowed during the depression years between 1920 and 1940. However, following the return of peace and favourable conditions for international trade and investments after the end of World War II in 1945, the plantation system started expanding once again, especially in Zaire, Nigeria, Cameroon, Cote d'lvoire, Liberia, and Angola, with Lever Brothers playing a leading role. The expansion continued through the following two decades. It accelerated during the immediate post-independence era, about 1960-1965, which saw direct involvement of the national governments of the newly independent states in the establishment and running of plantations. Thereafter, the expansion slackened, mainly because of a decline in external investments following the growing political instability and state control of the national economies and the attendant erosion of foreign investors' confidence in them (Courtenay 1965; Gourou 1966; Udo 1982; Dickenson et al. 1983; Dinham and Hines, 1983; Halfani and Barker 1984; Thomas 1984).

Of late, most especially since about 1975, the plantation system has witnessed rejuvenation as a strategy for stimulating agricultural production, which has, since the mid-1960s, fallen below the average population growth of 3 per cent per annum (Dinham and Hines 1983; Halfani and Barker 1984; World Bank 1989; Gyasi 1987, 1992a; Goliber 1989; Population Reference Bureau 1990).

The rejuvenation of the plantation system, notably in Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Nigeria, Kenya, and Ghana, poses several important issues, including its impact on production, employment, and incomes. Others include its environmental impact and sustainability, which this paper examines mainly on the basis of the experience with oil-palm (Elaeis guineensis) plantations in Ghana. More specifically, the paper addresses the following questions:

(a) what have been the impacts of the plantation system, especially on the environment;

(b) what do the impacts imply for the sustainability of the system; and,

(c) assuming that the impacts are generally negative, how might the system be rendered sustainable, or what other farming system might be recommended as a better alternative?

As used here, the term "impact" means effect, which implies change; "environment" describes the biotic and abiotic world within which human society lives and derives sustenance; while the term "sustainability" refers to the capacity to ensure survival or continuity of an activity, event, phenomenon, or situation such as the environment and the resources therein.

The paper is justified, firstly, by the need to gain better understanding, for planning purposes, of the significant impact that the growth of the extensive and monocultural plantation system is likely to have on the environment and its living conditions, particularly in the wake of increasing population pressure and the attendant diminishing supplies of land, the basic source of livelihood in Sub-Saharan Africa. Secondly, growing reliance on the plantation system as a strategy of agricultural development calls for critical analysis of its sustainability as part and parcel of the general search for an optimum way of increasing agricultural production at minimal environmental cost.