Farming at the margins

Drought follows the Plow
March 10, 1995

The title of this book is ingenious and intriguing. The publisher's blurb is also remarkably enticing: "We are now in the 'Age of Environmental Enlightenment.' Global warming is seen as a major threat to the well-being of the world's communities. Fear abounds, but what does it all mean? Do the scientists know what is going on? If so what can be done? Michael Glantz draws attention to the relationship between society and climate change. He examines the notion that "drought follows the plow". The latest predictions are that dry areas will get drier and wet regions wetter, so why are many communities being moved to these dry regions? This is a book for all those who want to know more about the threats of global climate change."

This blurb is also rather misleading as to what one finds when one delves into the book itself. There is first of all nothing very much about global warming and secondly there is very little about climatic change in general and this makes the publisher's blurb all the more bizarre and irritating.

The content and purpose of the book would be much better explained using the editor's own words from his introduction: ". . . As agriculturally marginal lands such as those in arid and semiarid areas are increasingly put under the plow, the probability that these new agricultural activities will be adversely affected by agricultural drought will be likely to increase even under meteorological conditions considered to be normal for the area. . . Under conditions generated by a mismatch of social and environmental conditions, land degradation, even desertification, often occurs. Furthermore, the encroachment of agricultural activities into marginal areas is a process that may now be accelerating as a result of sharply increasing population pressures, the increases in the demand and need for nutrition, and the dwindling availability to farmers of regional and local natural resources. The increases in the frequency or intensity of agricultural droughts in these marginal areas will not necessarily have been the result of changing precipitation patterns in the region but will have resulted from these inappropriate (with respect to the regional environmental conditions) agricultural practices."

To produce a book on the ways in which farmers move into marginal lands and then suffer from problems caused by inherent variability in moisture availability seems to be an inherently valid and worthwhile endeavour.

Basically the book consists of a series of tolerably useful but not desperately original case studies from the West African Sahel, Somalia, the Brazilian Nordeste, Kenya, Australia, Ethiopia, Northwest Africa, the former Soviet Union, and South Africa. These case studies all have a broadly similar form and a broadly similar message. They tell you about the area and why it is marginal, explain what pressures there are that promote increasingly extensive and intensive land use, and indicate how this increases the area's vulnerability to drought.

The book concludes with a chapter by the editor entitled "Is the stork outrunning the plow?" In this he brings together some of the issues covered in the book and suggests that societies must confront the underlying causes of population movements into their remaining marginal areas, must realise that many of these environments are fragile and can be irreparably degraded, and should recognise that there are adverse consequences of developing new agricultural lands and rangelands.

It is perhaps symptomatic of current concerns that three very different but very thought-provoking books have appeared in the past year that look at similar issues. The other two are More People, Less Erosion by Mary Tiffin, Michael Mortimore and Francis Gichuki (Wiley) and Desertification, Exploding the Myth by David Thomas and Nick Middleton (Wiley). A most useful exercise would be to get undergraduates to read all three books and to analyse why they come to the conclusions they do. They would emerge confused but much wiser.

A.S. Goudie is professor of geography, University of Oxford.

Drought follows the Plow: Cultivating Marginal Areas

Editor - Michael H. Glantz
ISBN - 0 521 44252 4 and 47721 2
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £25.00 and £12.95
Pages - 197

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