Leave the solutions to those on the ground

Roots in the African Dust
February 4, 2000

Images of Africa's drylands as degraded environments, threatened by desertification, caused by overgrazing, overcultivation and deforestation by rapidly growing populations who mismanage the "fragile" environment, are commonplace. Such negative representations based largely on inaccurate and unsupported assumptions have been responsible for demands that indigenous methods of land management are transformed as being inappropriate and environmentally destructive, and that escalating populations need to be limited to enable conservation of the environment.

Michael Mortimore's book provides a powerful alternative to such views, showing African farmers in the drylands as competent, adaptable people who use their environment skilfully, never wilfully committing the environmental atrocities of which they are accused. The lack of reliable empirical data supporting prevalent, negative assumptions is emphasised and the author argues that long-held views relating population growth to environmental degradation are not sustainable as "technology and social organisation always mediate between them". If people in the drylands are destroying their environment, there are many paradoxes that must be confronted. Why, for example, has the advancing Sahara failed to eliminate the Sahel and its peoples? Why, if overgrazing is such a problem, has the region's livestock economy not collapsed? Why has the alleged overuse of wood fuel not resulted in a collapse of rural energy systems, and why do human fertility rates remain high in the face of environmental problems?

On a global scale, drylands are extremely diverse in both natural and human terms. Ambiguity makes the definition of terms such as "aridity" and "desertification" extremely difficult and in consequence the formulation of responses to mitigate their effects has been far from successful. One of the major problems of dryland environments is variability of rainfall, yet little recognition has been given to the skill of indigenous systems of land use for their capacity to cope with an unpredictable environment.

In spite of people being well adapted, there is nothing simple about survival in the drylands and life from a small-holder's perspective depends largely on individual, family or community rights of access to land, water and trees. Focusing on 24 criteria of critical importance in resource management, the author demonstrates that strategic planning and astute, flexible decision-making at household level are responsible for the optimal allocation of labour, access to cultivated land, crop choices, the role of livestock, and the use of trees, water and technologies by households. At a field level, detailed studies in Dagaceri, northern Nigeria reveal how diversity in cropping systems and in technologies used are among the methods that enable farming households to cope and survive. Livestock management strategies in the rangelands reveal comparable complexity and demonstrate the impossibility of using carrying capacity as a principle of management where rainfall conditions are highly variable. The merits of traditional, opportunistic methods of rangeland management are reviewed.

Emphasising that small-holders are much more than farmers, Mortimore shows how a flexible approach to off-farm activities helps ensure families and households are sustained. Diversification of sources of income is a risk-avoidance strategy as is diversification of consumption base. Rather than fragile, crumbling environments, the drylands emerge as unstable but resilient systems to which indigenous land-use methods are well adapted. Mortimore concludes that future management of drylands must be by those who live there.

This is an excellent book and will be a stimulus to anyone with an interest in African development.

Kathleen M. Baker is lecturer in geography, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Roots in the African Dust: Sustaining the Drylands

Author - Michael Mortimore
ISBN - 0 521 45173 6 and 45785 8
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £37.50 and £13.95
Pages - 219

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