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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

Environment's Effect on Agriculture

Protecting the natural resource base is crucial to economic growth in most of Africa, where most of the population depends on the land, water, and forests for a living. Degradation of farmlands and forests undermines the national economies in every agro-ecological zone, while desertification undermines the fragile lands of the Sahel. Protecting farmlands is crucial to farm productivity, and protecting the commons is crucial to maintaining biodiversity and to the survival of poor households.

Soil conservation measures have a large positive effect on agricultural productivity. Hence, soil degradation undermines the food security of households and regions by undermining farm productivity and food and fiber output growth. In areas with fragile environments, this holds for the short- as well as the long-run. IRG's work in the Sahel shows that improved natural resource management (NRM) practices can double yields for up to two decades. MSU research with the Ministry of Agriculture in Rwanda shows that poor smallholders who take this approach in moderately to heavily degraded areas get yields 30-40 percent lower than those in nondegraded areas, a big difference at the margin of hunger and poverty. Redressing erosion through soil conservation investments increased yields 25-30 percent in these same areas.

Biodiversity in the commons, not just in species-rich forests, but in the savannahs and wetlands as well, is an important resource for medicines and tourism. Just as important, it serves as a species pool for improving cropping and animal husbandry. Protecting these areas will be quite difficult if farmers in the surrounding areas do not benefit from such schemes. Often, the benefits to them appear to be well below the costs, which exacerbates poverty in those areas. In such cases, management schemes are slowly undermined by this clash with the local population's food security goals. A critical program issue, then, is how to link such programs with agricultural development, tourism promotion, and the sharing of benefits in a broad area near the protected zones.

The battles to protect the forests of Madagascar, the Cameroons, and Zaire will be won or lost well away from the forests themselves - in the agricultural lands. As farmlands expand to meet the desperate needs of rural people, they squeeze the areas near forests and eventually put pressure on the forests themselves. "Integrated conservation development programs" have been useful in that they address the "buffer zones" next to protected areas, but they do not go far enough because they do not bring agricultural lands squarely into the center of the environmental debate.

The degradation of commons and open-access areas can also undermine off-farm income strategies that rely on gathering local flora and fauna and fuelwood and on livestock husbandry. Often, the poorest people depend most on the commons since the economic activities undertaken there have low entry barriers and can be started with meager means.

Improved pastures and commons are needed for animals that are a critical source of cash for farm capital and of manure needed for intensification. Degraded environments can also undermine health: increased time spent by mothers searching for cooking fuel means less time for household maintenance, and erosion and silting can ruin clean water sources.