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close this bookAfrica's Valuable Assets - A Reader in Natural Resource Management (WRI, 1998, 464 pages)
close this folder11. Links Between Environment and Agriculture in Africa
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View the documentAgriculture's Effect on the Environment
View the documentEnvironment's Effect on Agriculture
View the documentStrategic Implications


Thomas Reardon and Asif Shaikh

In much of Africa, population pressure is growing, the arable land frontier is shrinking, and farmland, pasturelands, and forests are being degraded. A tug-of-war exists between the need to protect lands currently outside of agriculture - biodiverse forests, bushlands, and grazing areas important to the food security of agro-pastoralists - and the need to increase agricultural output rapidly to meet burgeoning demand for food and fiber and to fuel economic growth in economies driven mainly by growth in agriculture and natural resources.

Demands for food and economic growth are driven by growing populations and the need to alleviate desperate poverty. For three decades, Africa's population growth rates have been the world's highest. With the mainly traditional low-input technologies now in use, current populations are already too big to feed, and population will double in the next generation. Food output must grow at 3-4 percent a year just to feed this population, let alone generate a surplus to fuel economic growth.

The broader African context is also changing rapidly. As population density increases, urban and rural markets are developing quickly, trade in goods and labor (migration) is growing, economic liberalization and democratization are taking hold in many countries, and an acute energy shortage is developing. These changes influence market signals at all levels, and they are already altering how households think about agriculture and the environment and how to make a living.

The sum of these changes gets to the heart of Africa's strategies for economic growth and development. African economies must "reverse the spiral" (to use the World Bank's phrase) in order to succeed. Positive links between environment and agriculture can stimulate economic growth. At the same time, more broad-based growth policies are needed to lay the groundwork for productivity increases in resource use. Economic growth is also essential. To gradually reduce dependence on the natural resources base for income and employment, such growth can be spurred through alternative income generation, increased trade and market opportunities, and long-term reductions in population growth rates.

The issue then becomes how the African environment, on-farm and off-farm, can be protected and sustained even as agriculture grows rapidly enough to meet urgent needs for food and economic growth. This issue bears on the broad strategic planning of government ministries, development assistance organizations, and non-governmental organizations, and also on practical program design. How can environmental programs be designed so as not to dampen agricultural growth? How can the agricultural development program be designed to help sustain the quality of the soil base that is so essential for farm-output growth and also minimize invasion and destruction of the commons?