Cover Image
close this bookSustaining the Future. Economic, Social, and Environmental Change in Sub-Saharan Africa (UNU, 1996, 365 p.)
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(introduction...)
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


This paper discusses the environmental impact and sustainability of plantations in Sub-Saharan Africa, mainly on the basis of Ghana's experiences with oil-palm plantations. Sub-Saharan Africa refers to the approximately 22 million km2 region of some 451 million inhabitants in 1987, located generally south of the Sahara desert, excluding South Africa and Namibia (Goliber 1989; World Bank 1989; Population Reference Bureau 1990).

Agriculture has, traditionally, formed the principal economic activity in Sub-Saharan Africa. It generates the bulk of employment and incomes, and is the major land-use factor. In Ghana, for example, agriculture contributes 50 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) and 60 per cent of export earnings, and occupies 57 per cent of the total land area (Ministry of Agriculture 1991). As the major land-use factor, agriculture exerts a powerful modifying influence on the natural environment, especially through vegetation removal, with profound implications for the living conditions of the Sub-Saharan inhabitants.

Agricultural practices may be categorized as three major systems: the more or less pure livestock and cropping systems, and the mixed system, which integrates both livestock and crops in significant proportions (Benneh 1972; La-Anyane 1985; FAO 1991). The cropping system includes small-scale indigenous methods such as the classical shifting cultivation and its offshoot, land rotation or bush fallow, and exotic methods, notably the large-scale plantation system, whose environmental impact and sustainability in Sub-Saharan Africa form the central subject of discussion in this paper.

Plantations are distinguished not only by their large size but also by their monocultural character, systematic layout, and advanced infrastructure. Their other typical characteristics include: corporate and factory-like organization; high capital outlay; mechanization; extensive use of hired labour; and high reliance on artificial external inputs, notably agro-chemicals, for biological regeneration. These characteristics stand in sharp contrast to the small peasant farms that usually surround the plantations; these employ intercropping and a mosaic layout, are less capitalized, have low artificial external inputs, and are more nature based, labour intensive, and family operated.

Economies of scale are the major advantage of the plantation system. The sheer level of farming enhances efficiency by permitting greater specialization or division of labour, systematic research, utilization of by-products, access to capital and markets, and mechanization, especially of processing. As a result, plantations often yield a higher return per hectare and per worker, generate steadier and more regular high-quality produce, and provide greater and more readily taxable income than do smallholdings. Other major advantages include: carbon and oxygen cycling and minimization of soil erosion by the densely distributed plants; and rural development in the plantation areas through provision of modern infrastructure, introduction of advanced agricultural and other technical skills, and reduction of rural out-migration by the employment generated by the plantation. These advantages underlie the perception of plantations as a better alternative for agricultural development in the tropics, their long-standing central economic role in several countries, and growing popularity in others (Courtenay 1965; Hasselman 1981; LaAnyane 1961; Ruthenberg 1971; Symons 1966; Udo 1982).

However, the advantages must be balanced against various social, economic, and environmental problems associated with the plantation system. The problems include exploitation of the indigenes in the plantation areas and of the massive numbers of African slaves and indentured Asiatic labour imported to work under cruel conditions on the plantations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in tropical areas of the Americas, the Far East, and eastern and southern Africa. Other problems include the racial, political, and land rights conflicts associated with the abrupt juxtaposition of large numbers of culturally different foreign and native plantation workers. Additionally, the plantation system tends to involve higher labour costs, is often plagued by labour disputes between workers and management, and appears less adaptable to short-term changes than the small-scale diversified systems. Plantations may also dislocate local people; create land shortage and land tenure problems among them; weaken local food security by export crop specialization; reduce biodiversity; and cause pollution and general destabilization or disturbance of the socio-economic system, including the land or natural environment that supports the plantations and the other economic activities (Jones and Darkenwald 1954; La-Anyane 1961; Courtenay 1965; Gourou 1966; Symons 1966; Ruthenberg 1971; Hasselman 1981; Udo 1982; Dickenson et al. 1983; Thomas 1984).