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close this bookAfrica's Valuable Assets - A Reader in Natural Resource Management (WRI, 1998, 464 pages)
close this folder1. Africa's Wealth, Woes, Worth
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentThe Myth of Bankruptcy
View the documentLearning from Local Success
View the documentSeeds of Change
View the documentInvesting in People
View the documentReformulating Investment and Assistance
View the documentTrade Relationships
View the documentAid Relationships
View the documentConclusion
View the documentNotes

Learning from Local Success

Today, most Africans still live in rural areas, earning a livelihood in small-scale farming, herding, and fishing. Their ability to manage the resource base that permits this should not be underestimated. Demba Mansaré, a Senegalese farmer and director of COLUFIFA (Committee for the End of Hunger), notes that he and his colleagues did not wait for the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm to include protection of the physical and cultural environments in their grassroots development work. They had witnessed the continuous degradation of the ecosystems on which farmers depended, and decided to do something "despite our limited size as compared to the whole planet earth." With the encouragement and support of COLUFIFA, many farmers changed their practices to better conserve the soil and manage scarce water for improved agricultural production and domestic use.20

Case studies on successful grassroots development approaches compiled by the World Resources Institute testify to the storehouse of knowledge and talent that has for too long gone unnoticed and untapped. (See Chapter 8.) This knowledge base can be used not only to protect the natural resource base and livelihoods, but also to reverse declines in per capita agricultural production. Smallholder farmers across the continent have taken various measures to safeguard soil and water resources, such as multiple cropping, crop rotations, terracing, agroforestry, check dams, and irrigation canals. Livestock herders have long managed pastures through rotations, restricting land use to safeguard against overgrazing, and protecting resources for dry-season use.

In the Katheka area of Kenya, for example, 75 kilometers from Nairobi, residents have salvaged their poor soils. Sparse rainfall, hilly terrain, and water runoff make soil erosion a fact of life. But in the early 1970s, when the erosion reached crisis proportions, people turned to the traditional self-help mwethya groups for leadership, organization, and local resources. These women's groups cooperatively built bench terraces and cut-off drains on hillside farms, constructed subsurface and check dams in gullies, installed hand water pumps, and took turns helping in each other's fields. Their work has paid off in more agricultural production, higher incomes, and improved living standards and human welfare.

Another example comes from Ghana, West Africa. In 1983, six villagers in Goviefe-Agodome organized a self-help "mobilization squad" (mobisquad) to invest in their own and the community's future. With the village leaders' support, the mobisquad obtained abandoned communal land and in 1986 established its first group farm. To rehabilitate the land, the group intercropped several cash crops with various economically important tree species. Most of the profit from the operation was divided equally among the members; the remainder was reinvested in two community projects. By 1990, the group had 71 members, with at least one individual from each household.

A third example comes from Zimbabwe, in southern Africa. In the dry Mazvihwa and Vungowa communal lands in Zvishavane District, many farmers use traditional management approaches to cultivate small wetlands, locally referred to as dambos, sustainably. Despite the fragility of these ecosystems, three to four harvests of maize, rice, groundnuts, and vegetables have been continuously cropped each year, in some cases, for over a century, with no loss in productivity. Local practices include multiple cropping and crop rotations with legumes, the use of manure to maintain soil fertility and ensure appropriate soil texture, minimal tillage, and limits on trampling by cattle. Dambo farming offers insurance against years when rainfed crops fail. It also provides an important source of water for people and cattle.

Although local success stories like these abound, until recently they had been neither well documented nor publicized. A few NGOs and international donors, such as the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the U.S. African Development Foundation, have taken the lead in supporting the work of rural Africans and providing them with much-needed financial and other resources when their self-help initiatives are endangered. Such capacity-building may be one of the least recognized but most far-reaching impacts of foreign support. People's initiatives point the way to public policies and other actions that support community-based natural resource management and development. For example, experience with sound local resource management and community-based sustainable development reveals the importance of secure land tenure and long-term access to other resources, the capacity to organize and manage such resources, as well as economic opportunities and market incentives. (See Chapter 8.)

In a growing number of countries, central government departments have begun to reform policies and repeal laws that contradict local sustainable development and to facilitate community-based development and resource management. In Ghana, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere, the government has decentralized resource management responsibilities and devolved rights to use and benefit from natural resources to local governments, the private sector, communities, and civil society in general. Donor agencies, local and international NGOs, communities and citizens, and in some cases the private sector have been working with these national and local governments to design policies that help rural people shoulder new responsibilities, capitalize on new rights and opportunities, and take charge of their own development.

Africa's needs are also being increasingly expressed and addressed at the international level. African-led concerns about desertification and dryland management helped push forward the Convention on Desertification. And for the first time in the 50-year history of the United Nations, a sub-Saharan African, Kofi Annan from Ghana, is the Secretary-General. He is one of a growing number of Africans gaining power on the international scene, just as their countries are rising above poverty and strife.