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Developing national institutions


Africa is a vast continent, with more than 50 countries covering a large range of environmental conditions, cultures, political systems and economies. It is therefore impossible to produce a conservation blueprint that can be applied without modification to all parts of the continent.

Furthermore, there are no ready-made solutions and no African panaceas. If the problems of land degradation are to be overcome, each country must develop its own conservation strategy, policies and programmes, and tailor them to its own unique circumstances.

Nevertheless, the general principles for the control of degradation remain the same for all countries: if governments are to provide the back-up services that land users urgently need to plan and implement their own solutions, they need to attend to a number of key areas. These include strengthening and rationalizing relevant government institutions, establishing an advisory system, as well as attending to the legislation, training and research needs of the conservation effort.

Developing national institutions: the options

The advisory commission

A committee or commission is nearly always needed to advise on the detailed formulation of conservation strategy, the development of policy, the coordination of activities and the monitoring of progress. Such a committee normally consists of senior government officials and representatives from different areas of the country and from special interest groups such as farmer associations and grower cooperatives. It should also include representatives from the government departments responsible for macro-economic policy and budget allocations. This helps to ensure both the amount and the continuity of financing needed in the battle to halt land degradation.

The committee should be formed initially to develop strategy and policy, but it should remain in existence to monitor progress, help revise and reformulate policy where necessary, and ensure coordination between the different government departments, non-government organizations and farmer organizations involved.

Committees of this type already exist in some African countries. The Permanent Presidential Commission on Soil Conservation and Afforestation in Kenya, for example, was established in 1981 and is made up of members representing different regions of the country. The Commission's functions include promoting conservation and afforestation, monitoring progress and coordinating the activities of the different organizations involved. This Commission is supported by a small secretariat that includes specialists who can advise the members on technical issues. The Commission reports directly to the head of state and so exercises considerable authority. The Commission has proved particularly effective in creating public awareness of conservation issues.

Strengthening government services

There are many differences in the way nations organize their conservation services. Most French-speaking African countries have in the past given responsibility for conservation to their forestry departments. Others, such as Lesotho and Kenya, have separate conservation units as major parts of their ministries of agriculture. Others combine conservation with forestry, land-use planning or watershed management. In Ethiopia, for example, the Department of Community Forestry and Soil Conservation in the Ministry of Agriculture deals with conservation. In Tanzania, conservation is the responsibility of the Land Use Planning Section of the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development.

There are advantages and disadvantages to all these arrangements. It is for each government to decide which arrangement best suits its needs. However, it is important that each country has one clearly defined government ministry, department or unit with overall responsibility for conservation and with the authority to coordinate.

Few African countries currently have the necessary finances or trained personnel to provide all the services needed. Compromise is therefore unavoidable if a realistic programme is to be developed within the limitations of available resources. Continuity is important. It may be preferable to start with small numbers of staff, limited facilities and modest budgets than to embark on an ambitious programme which cannot be maintained and which may have to be cut back or abandoned in the future.

Technical training, for local people and extension workers, is one of the many requirements that necessitates improved government services. Technicians will require training not only in conservation techniques but also in methods of encouraging participation among local populations

Encouraging the work of non-governmental organizations

In the past few years, NGOs have produced results in small-scale rural projects out of all proportion to their normally modest funding levels. Working at grassroots levels, NGOs can often involve farmer and village organizations in their activities in ways that are impossible even for local government departments. NGOs should be given important roles in government strategies to tackle land degradation and improve land use.

Preparing a sound legal base

Many of the large-scale programmes undertaken during Africa's colonial period were imposed by the administrators on the farming communities, often with the help of new laws introduced to force farmers to comply with conservation programmes. Harsh penalties could be applied and farmers who did not carry out the required work were fined or jailed.

Not surprisingly, conservation became extremely unpopular in many parts of Africa. In East Africa the conservation laws were used as an issue in the lead-up to independence; local politicians encouraged farmers to break these laws as a means of expressing opposition to the colonial administration.

Unfortunately, this led to the idea that soil conservation laws are counterproductive and best avoided. In fact, legislation can offer governments an important tool in promoting conservation. Most countries need legislation to make conservation work - to establish the necessary government institutions, to legalize their mandate and to ensure that they receive a regular budget.

A thorough review of all relevant legislation is an essential element of a national conservation strategy. Particular attention must be paid to the harmonization of existing legislation which may thread its way through manifold government departments and ministries.

Personnel and training

Personnel requirements, training needs and facilities will need reviewing. Three key points need constant emphasis:

• technicians need training not only in conservation techniques but also in how to involve rural communities in developing their own plans and timetables for conservation;

• farmer training courses should incorporate conservation, which should not be taught in isolation or as a separate subject;

• short seminars for administrators should be held to sensitize them to conservation and to stress the important role that they have in national programmes.

A national soil conservation strategy for Tunisia

Tunisia is particularly susceptible to soil erosion. Recent estimates show that three million hectares - some 18 percent of the country - is subject to serious or moderate erosion.

The problem is not a new one to Tunisia. Erosion was recognized as a problem by the Romans who, some 2000 years ago, constructed extensive systems of terraces and drains in their efforts to transform the region into the granary of the Roman Empire.

Since independence in 1956 the Tunisian government has given high priority to the control of land degradation. A number of different approaches have been tried; at first conservation was handled in the Ministry of Agriculture by the Division of Water Resources and Rural Equipment. Then the service was transferred to the Forestry Directorate. To meet growing national needs, a separate, autonomous Directorate of Water and Soil Conservation was established in the Ministry of Agriculture in 1983.

A long-term national programme has subsequently been developed under which water and soil conservation are recognized as essential components of all rural development projects. Provision is made to protect and extend the useful life of dams while conservation activities are being used to create rural employment.

The programme envisages the expenditure of approximately US$230 million between 1987 and 2000, and aims to cover 600 000 ha of watersheds and 400 000 ha of cereal-growing areas.

The objectives of the Tunisian Water and Soil Conservation Directorate have been defined as:

• reducing the current rate of loss of arable land, some 10 000 ha annually;

• maintaining soil fertility in order to avoid a decrease in productivity;

• retaining the 500 million m3 of run-off which are currently being lost;

• recovering arable land by establishing infiltration structures in the south of Tunisia;

• improving the life span of dams, which are currently silting up at a rate of 25.8 million m3 per year;

• reducing flood damage to valleys and plains;

• implementing a new farming policy which aims to use anti-erosion techniques to increase productivity; and

• creating job opportunities and improving the incomes of rural people in the marginal areas.

The Tunisian government has thus recognized the need for sound, long-term planning in conservation and the necessity for establishing a strong conservation service with a clearly defined programme and objectives.

A national soil conservation strategy for Tunisia

Identifying research needs

More research, particularly adaptive research, should be conducted in African countries so that conservation services can produce packages of conservation measures that are appropriate to local conditions and which can be easily integrated into the local farming systems.

Research is badly needed into some of the traditional African conservation systems, such as the terracing and agroforestry system developed by the Konso in southern Ethiopia, and the pit and mulching system of the Matengo of southeast Tanzania. It may be possible to adapt or modify some of these systems to meet present-day requirements.

Once research priorities have been identified, it is necessary to consider whether they are best conducted nationally or regionally. A few African countries have scientific centres of excellence where such research can be profitably carried out. Most, however, find it more efficient to get regional networks to investigate conservation issues that are common throughout a region.

Developing conservation programmes

Typical national conservation programmes need to be developed at three levels.

1. At the national level government policy is combined with physical, social and economic data to produce a national conservation programme for the next 10 to 20 years. This programme is published as an official government document and incorporated in the national development plan, where it forms a framework for subsequent legislation, administrative action and budgeting for conservation.

2. At the district or province level more specific and detailed programmes need to be developed, based on the national programme, often in the form of rolling five-year plans, which can be reviewed and updated annually. An important feature of these programmes is the identification of the specific inputs of different government and donor agencies.

3. At the local level programmes must be tailored to the individual requirements of the community (the village or some other lower administrative level) and developed in collaboration with the communities themselves.

In some countries, mechanisms already exist - such as the Village Development Councils of Lesotho and the Peasant Associations of Ethiopia - to ensure the participation of local people in soil conservation programmes. Where such mechanisms do not exist, they have to be developed.

Government agencies can assist local communities in preparing their own programmes, which are then referred back to the district level for approval before implementation.

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