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close this bookReversing the Spiral - The Population, Agriculture, and Environment Nexus in Sub-Saharan Africa (WB, 1994, 320 p.)
close this folder3. The demographic dimension
View the documentThe lagging demographic transition
View the documentFertility and agriculture: Part of the Nexus?
View the documentNotes
View the documentAppendix to chapter 3

Fertility and agriculture: Part of the Nexus?

Fertility is highest in rural areas—reflecting economic and sociocultural factors which affect fertility aspirations. Traditional lineage and kinship systems, gender roles, and intergenerational relations contain strong pronatalist forces, and women's fertility usually is a major determinant of their status. Extended families, where the costs of high fertility are only partly borne by the couple making the fertility decision, tend to encourage high fertility. In most of rural SSA, labor is not readily available for hire and must be mobilized from within the household or through social or kinship arrangements specific to the community. For men, polygamy (or polygyny) is a widely practiced way of securing the labor of women and their children—but even women may welcome co-wives as co-workers (e.g., Netting 1993:89). Polygamous men generally have more children than monogamous men, while women in polygamous marriages tend to have fewer children than those in monogamous marriages (Bongaarts and others 1990:135-136).

Women may recognize far more readily than men the costs of high fertility to their own and their children's health. This may be particularly prevalent in polygamous unions where each woman is responsible for her own children. The costs of children are lower to men than to women, yet the value of child labor may be higher to the mothers than to the fathers—except in communities where fathers have and assert priority rights to their children's labor. For women, the labor of their children is often the only means of securing adequate labor to cope with their many responsibilities. (In many communities, women try to ease their peak labor constraints by participating in various forms or kinship- or community-based work group and labor exchange arrangements.) As water and woodfuels become more scarce and the time required to obtain them increases, the need increases for children to help with the mothers' growing workload associated with these survival activities. Child labor is also increasingly needed to compensate for declining male labor in food crop production, particularly in poor families that cannot hire wage labor. This may contribute to the persistence of high fertility rates.7 In much of SSA, men and women cultivate different crops on separate plots, and women's farming systems depend heavily on female and child labor. Most women marry at an early age and often considerably older men. Coupled with the high rates of divorce/separation and the fact that in most African societies women can gain access to critical assets (such as land) and public services only through male relatives, this may increase women's willingness to bear many children so as to have sons to turn to when husbands leave or die. The desired number of children is considerably higher among rural women in Sub-Saharan Africa than among their counterparts in any other region of the world. And in no other region of the world do women play as significant a role in agriculture as in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The characteristics of most traditional land tenure systems may also bear upon fertility decisions—but more research is needed to establish this link. Where access to land for farming is granted to all members of a community, this may be a disincentive to fertility control. Where the amount of land allocated is based on the ability to cultivate it, this ability -- under the low-resource farming conditions prevailing in most of Sub-Saharan Africa — is primarily determined by the ability to mobilize labor. In most cases, this means family labor—more specifically, female and child labor. Indeed, a number of field studies report this to be an important incentive to increase family size through such means as polygamy and pressure on women to have many children.

Among groups with matrilineal descent and inheritance traditions, further complications may arise because land use rights are not passed on from fathers to their children, but to uterine relatives (in most cases males). This weakens the link between land availability and land resource management on the one hand and demand for fewer children on the other. It also weakens men's incentives to invest in maintaining the fertility of the land they farm.8 Fathers may see little point in preserving farm land in good condition beyond their own lifetime or in having few children so as to pass on a viable farm unit to each of them. Women, conversely, may face social pressure to bear many children so as to increase the number of future claimants to land resources who belong to their lineage.

The implication derived from the above is that most rural Africans attach high economic value to having large numbers of children. Larger families appear to fare better economically than small families. Children contribute labor in cropping, livestock tending, fishing, water and fuelwood fetching, and child rearing. The available evidence, although imperfect, suggests that high demand for children may be partly the result of the historic abundance of land and the shortage of labor, combined with high infant, child, and overall mortality rates and high food insecurity. Maintaining high fertility is the rational response of people who seek to ensure adequate family labor and the survival of children who would support them in old age. For men in particular, polygyny makes good sense in this situation because it increases the supply of female and child labor and improves the prospects for security in old age. The widespread practice of payment of a bride price (instead of the woman's family providing a dowry) reflects this reality where women are wanted for their labor and their ability to beer many children. Early female marriage, common in Africa, also increases the prospects for multiple childbirths.

Various other trends also tend to keep the TFRs high. As forest resources, water availability, and soil fertility decline, farmers and pastoralists obtain less product per hectare The main resource available to them to increase production is family labor, which permits increasing the extent of the land farmed. It also makes it easier to diversify the sources of family income with more seasonal or full-time off-farm employment. Hence, agricultural stagnation and environmental degradation, in resource poor situations characteristic of most of SubSaharan Africa, provide an economic incentive—and often a survival strategy —to maintain large families. These factors also provide an incentive to keep children out of school to work on the parental farm or with the family's livestock.

This situation is exacerbated by the specific and important responsibilities placed on women in most farming systems of SubSaharan Africa. Women are often responsible for food cropping, and almost always for fuelwood and water provision (Chapter 5). As soil fertility declines and distances to fuelwood and water sources increase, many rural women are faced with the situation that the only resource that can be increased to meet the increasing need for labor is child labor. More labor substitutes for reduced soil fertility and compensates for the greater difficulty in obtaining fuel and water. This then completes a vicious circle in which population growth, combined with traditional farming practices, contributes to environmental degradation, in turn contributing to further agricultural stagnation and to the persistence of high rates of population growth.

These hypotheses are consistent with statistical tests (see the Appendix to Chapter 3) which show that, other things being equal, TFRs are highest in those SSA countries that have the most cultivated land per capita. Similarly, TFRs are highest in countries with the highest infant mortality rates, lowest level of female education, lowest urbanization, and greatest degree of land degradation. This suggests that demand for children as well as TFRs will decline over time—even without an active population policy—as population density on cultivated land increases, and if female school enrollment rates rise, infant mortality declines, urbanization increases, and environmental degradation is minimized.

However, changes in these determinants of the demand for children are coming about only slowly. Analysis of available cross-country data suggests a considerable degree of inertia in fertility rates as well as the presence of many other factors that influence fertility rates but for which data are not available. Cultural elements appear to be very important; Commenting on the findings obtained from the analysis of the WFS data collected in the late 1970s and early 1980s, one of the program leaders stated that the onset of the demographic transition "appears to be determined more by ill-understood cultural factors than by any objectively ascertainable development indicators" (GilIe 1985:279). These cultural determinants are likely to change only slowly, even though many of the factors that help shape culture are changing. Fertility rates will decline, but only slowly, and only if infant mortality declines lines and environmental degradation is arrested. But progress in these two critical areas is occurring too slowly to compensate for the enormous difference between the current rates of growth of population and of agricultural production.

Nonetheless, rising population pressure on cultivated land, declining infant mortality rates and improvements in female education are stimulating demand for family planning services. Much of this demand remains, at present, unmet (Table A-6).